That’s right, apparently he is. A few weeks ago, Tom Friedman wrote about how the Chinese can’t get enough of him. He was even named “most influential foreign figure of the year.” His legendary ‘Justice’ course at Harvard was first filmed and made into a series on the local Boston PBS station, then went online for free at JusticeHarvard.org, and now has apparently gone viral in in the far east:
Last year, Japan’s NHK TV broadcast a translated version of the PBS series, which sparked a philosophy craze in Japan and prompted the University of Tokyo to create a course based on Sandel’s. In China, volunteer translators subtitled the lectures and uploaded them to Chinese Web sites, where they have attracted millions of viewers. Sandel’s recent book — “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” — has sold more than a million copies in East Asia alone. This is a book about moral philosophy, folks!
Here’s The Japan Times describing Sandel’s 2010 visit: “Few philosophers are compared to rock stars or TV celebrities, but that’s the kind of popularity Michael Sandel enjoys in Japan.” At a recent lecture in Tokyo, “long lines had formed outside almost an hour before the start of the evening event. Tickets, which were free and assigned by lottery in advance, were in such demand that one was reportedly offered for sale on the Web for $500.” Sandel began the lecture by asking: “Is ticket scalping fair or unfair?”
But what is most intriguing is the reception that Sandel (a close friend) received in China. He just completed a book tour and lectures at Tsinghua and Fudan universities, where students began staking out seats hours in advance. This semester, Tsinghua started a course called “Critical Thinking and Moral Reasoning,” modeled on Sandel’s. His class visit was covered on the national evening news.
What are we to make of this? One thing to note is the internet has (at least in theory) now made all the best thinkers, and their lectures, available to many, many millions across the world. Another thing to note is that their ideas can be received and take off in unexpected ways. Who would have thought that China, China, would be a place that embraces western academic discussion of the concept of justice and would treat a Harvard professor of political philosophy like we treat Ke$ha? (Speaking of which, could we ever imagine a similar kind of hero-worship in this country? In certain circles, maybe…but nothing like the what has happened more broadly in Japan and China, I suspect)
But all this makes me think about specifically Christian understandings of justice and, more broadly, ethics. Where is our RCJustice.org project? People like Eric Gregory or Lisa Cahill or Nick Wolterstorff can captivate in ways even more captivating and profound than does Sandel, but where are the theologicaljustice.org lectures online? Where is our outreach into audiences beyond the students that are forced to take our classes and few people who read our articles and books?