Michael Sandel Leads Celebrity Philosophy Class At Faneuil Hall

Hundreds of Bostonians were up on their feet, singing and dancing to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” on Sunday evening. But instead of standing within iconic Fenway Park, people were gathered in the 273-year-old Faneuil Hall auditorium to watch a star-studded lineup of celebrities, academics, and a Grammy-winning musician engage in a philosophical think-off about the effects of technology on everyday life.

“Fenway Forum: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” was the kick-off event of HUBweek, a weeklong festival showcasing the integration of art, science, technology, and health care in Boston. Ominous weather conditions prompted the relocation of the event from Fenway Park to the historic Faneuil Hall, with an overflow crowd in a nearby hotel.

“What a glorious place for a Philosophy class,” said Michael Sandel, the moderator of the event. Sandel is a professor at Harvard University, authored the best-selling book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, and frequently gives lectures around the world to stadium-sized crowds on the topics of justice, ethics, and democracy. In his Harvard class, Justice, Sandel is best known for connecting 21st-century moral dilemmas to the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers like Kant, Aristotle, and Locke.

The Fenway Forum followed a similar format, with an entertaining and provocative, hour-and-a-half-long philosophical discussion on the moral dilemmas of technology in our daily lives. Sandel’s students for the evening included editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, authors and MIT professors Sherry Turkle and Andrew McAfee, and Alexis Wilkinson, a recent graduate of Harvard and current writer of HBO’s Emmy Award-winning show, Veep. Comedian and Harvard alum Conan O’Brien and Red Sox Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez also weighed in, mixing humor and eloquence during several previously-recorded video segments.

The audience also was able participate, holding red and blue placards depending on where they stood on the issues. Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble opened and closed the afternoon with a two-song performance.

Is it morally permissible, Sandel began, for people to use an app that allows users to put a parking spot up for sale and bid on its price?

“I would permit anything that reduces stress,” Huffington said. “One of the most stressful things is looking around for a parking spot.”

Turkle disagreed, indicating that this app would make individuals think about public space as their own. She said an underground economy would rise with people spending full days scouting parking spots. “I can think of some parking spots right now I would just hover around,” she said.

As the discussion continued, tensions began to rise as Sandel pushed the panelists on deeper, more controversial questions. He asked: Is it okay that Uber can use surge pricing and know everything about you? Would you want your FitBit directly feeding information to insurance companies? We may soon be able to use genetic engineering to design our own children—but does that mean we should, or be allowed to?

But perhaps the most entertaining moment of the evening was a heated exchange between Ma and McAfee. Sandel asked the question: Would it be a good idea to create a machine that would fairly grade a student’s paper on Dostoyevsky or Plato?

McAfee argued for the benefits of the machine, including a reliable evaluation that would not be affected by inconsistency of professors. He said from his own experience, professors don’t grade the 100th essay with the same focus as the first.

This prompted Ma to give a powerful defense of humanity. He used music as an example that only humans can understand the individuality of other humans.

“The path from one note to the next is going to be different for every single human being on this planet,” Ma said. “The reason we have conversations with people is because we don’t know where the conversations are going. We want to look for that in every student.”

McAfee pushed back. “It’s lovely language,” he said. “But the world doesn’t work that way.”

“It’s more than language—this is content,” Ma declared.

Ultimately, how humans best use machines is an essential moral question that we haven’t fully wrapped our heads around yet, Sandel said. Bringing the forum to a close, Sandel left that audience with the notion that there are no right answers to these questions—instead they are designed to spark debate on current topics.

“All of these questions pose a giant argument for ethical and philosophical thinking,” Ma said. “It just makes us pay attention to how we react to things that give us more control and things that actually cause change.”

Featured Images by Daniella Fasciano / Heights Editor

October 8, 2015

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