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Beyond that I try to think about money as little as possible.

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I grew up in a Jewish family, and we have raised our children in a Jewish tradition. Religion gives a framework for moral enquiry in young minds and points us to questions beyond the material. If you pay a child a dollar to read a book, as some schools have tried, you not only create an expectation that reading makes you money, you also run the risk of depriving the child for ever of the value of it. Markets are not innocent. I almost became a political journalist, having worked as a reporter at the time of Watergate.

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The proximity to those events motivated me, when I wound up doing philosophy, to try to use it to move the public debate. Philosophy can be debilitating.

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It demands a critical sensibility, and to try to apply that to everything can be a very disquieting thing — the disquiet is necessary, even if you are unmoored by it. Change has to take root in people's minds before it can be legislated. My faith in the reversibility of the idea that everything is up for sale is challenged every day.

But against that is real hunger for some other way of organising things.

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As the gap between rich and poor has grown, the ability for an individual to rise in society is at a lower level than at any time in living memory. There are far fewer public spaces that draw us together. In an earlier series of lectures broadcast on BBC4, he asked if it was fair that Wayne Rooney earns more than a care worker. Sandel believes that philosophy is not "distant and abstract" but, instead, a function of the "hard ethical" choices that life throws up.

What's more, he argues that it's vital for the democratic health of society to be able to identify the big questions that lie behind everyday conflicts and presumptions.

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His method is not to lecture from on high but to lead a kind of Socratic debate in which members of the audience tackle moral conundrums from opposing positions. With his ready smile and self-deprecating wit, he has a knack of encouraging those less learned than he is to voice their opinion.

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His hold over audiences is perhaps all the more impressive given that he neither looks nor sounds like a crowd-pleaser. A high forehead stretching back into a long patch of baldness, a slightly stiff gait and a careful voice have drawn comparisons with Montgomery Burns, the evil businessman in The Simpsons. As several writers for the show attended Harvard, an urban myth has grown that Burns was an elaborate joke on Sandel, the joke being that Sandel is all about the communal good, while Burns, to put it mildly, is not.

Whatever the truth — and the writers have denied any link — Sandel has no need of The Simpsons to create on-stage drama, although he has referred to the show in a debate about the relative virtues of Shakespeare and popular television.

Michael Sandel: master of life's big questions

In keeping with Sandel's open-ended approach, the outcome in that instance, as usual, was not conclusive. Yet if there are no definitive answers, the audience invariably comes away with a deeper understanding of what role we expect higher education to perform or what it means to be "fair" or why it feels wrong to kill one person to save five others.

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  7. Sandel's overriding aim as a philosopher is to bring morality back into political debate. He maintains that classic liberal discourse is locked into the morally neutral perspective of utilitarianism. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill made the case that people should be allowed to do whatever they wished, as long as it did no harm to others. Ever since, says Sandel, political philosophy in relation to the state has concentrated on quantifiable concepts such as benefit and ignored moral judgments such as virtue.

    This, he contends, has been a mistake, especially for liberals, who have ceded the moral terrain to conservatives and the right. He wants to return the discussion to the Aristotelian notion of the common good.

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    The problem, as his critics have stated, is who decides what the common good is and what kind of coercion is required to implement it? In his book The Anatomy of Antiliberalism , the NYU law professor Stephen Holmes placed Sandel in the category of "soft antiliberals" who "demilitarise the ideals of 'virtue' and community, using these watered-down terms where their predecessors would have invoked 'manliness' and 'das Volk'.

    As the historian Niall Ferguson put it in a debate with Sandel: Sandel has two propositions concerning the common good. He wants to push back the pervasiveness of markets, to which end he is about to publish his new book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. While this will endear him to progressives, his other proposal may not — he wants there to be a greater commitment to public service and, specifically, military service. More than putting forward any particular initiative, Sandel seems most interested in stimulating a debate about the underlying moral impulses that determine how we view the world.

    We can't be neutral on those questions even if we pretend to be. Born into a Jewish family in the American Midwest, Sandel cites two major experiences that shaped his intellectual outlook and choice of profession. While still a student, he was an intern at the Houston Chronicle in Washington DC and, due to a shortage of staff, he got to cover the Watergate hearings. At the tender age of 21, he realised that political journalism would never again be so exciting.

    Shortly afterwards, he took up a Rhodes scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford. His intention was to study welfare economics but the philosopher Alan Montefiore suggested he needed a more theoretical grounding and Sandel duly went off on holiday with works by Kant, Arendt, Nozick and John Rawls's A Theory of Justice , one of the most influential texts in modern political philosophy.