Say what you want about Boston, but how many cities can pull an overflow mob on a blustery October day to hear a philosophy professor and his friends?
True, the philosophy professor, Harvard’s Michael Sandel, has a best-selling book (2010’s “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”), the fan base of a rock star, and a lecture series so difficult to get into that WGBH has put it all online. And, yes, his friends on Sunday afternoon included publisher Arianna Huffington, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, authors and MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Sherry Turkle, and Alexis Wilkinson, late of the Harvard Lampoon and currently writing scripts for “Veep.”
But the event at Faneuil Hall — part of the HUBweek civic symposium founded by The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Massachusetts General Hospital — drew crowds more for its ideas than for its celebs, and for the chance to chew over the place of ethics on a planet undergoing profound technological, societal, and physical changes. If you’ve watched videos of Sandel’s Harvard course or TED talks, you know he’s a master at connecting 21st-century moral dilemmas to the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, of Kant and Locke, and all those dead white males. He gets students to take sides, take stands, and defend their beliefs — and then probe more deeply into those beliefs. The HUBweek event merely offered the rest of us a chance to play along.
So the line that snaked around the entirety of Faneuil Hall included graying couples and fired-up youth, Brandeis students taking a breather from studying for midterms and families from Lexington seeking to broaden their nightly dinner table debates. I met a young man, a future doctor, looking for the place where medicine and mindfulness meet, and I met his dad, who came along to learn more about his son. There was a Back Bay psychiatrist whose college-age patients are obsessed with trying to figure out how to have a real life in this app-centered world. They’re not the only ones.
The panel was originally supposed to take place at Fenway Park, but weather worries prompted a venue change to Faneuil Hall, which seats only 1,000. (Those who didn’t get in were directed to an overflow room with video screens in a nearby hotel.) It was a beneficial change-up. As the busts and portraits of ancient patriots looked down, Sandel called upon the crowd to confront what he described as “the question of how we can find our way as citizens and as human beings in a world where technology has given us unprecedented powers to change not only nature but also ourselves.”
Energetic and unflappable, the professor led his panelists through an entertaining, provocative 90-plus minutes of modern dilemmas that opened up onto larger conundrums. Is an app that lets you sell your parking spot on the street moral? Is it OK if Uber knows everything about you? Do you want your FitBit directly feeding information to your health insurer? Just because we may soon be able to genetically design our children, does that mean we should — or should be allowed to?
As the discussion moved into deeper and deeper waters, the panelists found themselves wedged into rhetorical corners, from which they tried to wriggle with winsome charm (Ma), imperious charisma (Huffington), Millennial wit (Wilkinson), or sheer smarts (McAfee and Turkle). The audience got to vote, too, holding blue and red placards depending on where they stood on the issues. Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble opened and closed the afternoon with sinuous multi-culti music.
But the meat wasn’t in the celebrities or in the aesthetic trimmings. This was an old-fashioned town hall meeting devoted to problems so new we haven’t fully wrapped our heads around them. Actually, that’s what Sandel is trying to do: facilitate and further our grappling with issues we’re already talking about. He wants to provide a framework to guide the talking, an urgency to spark debate on all levels, and a context that goes back to Aristotle, if you want to take it there. The Greek philosopher wasn’t referenced at Faneuil Hall, but Conan O’Brien and Pedro Martinez turned up in previously recorded interviews, the former expectedly hilarious, the latter unexpectedly insightful.
Can we just go ahead and give Sandel his own talk show — maybe his own cable station? (Then there’ll be 500 channels and at least one thing on.) With a capable personality that takes a back seat to the ideas with which he wants us to wrestle, the professor comes across as a faith healer, preaching engagement with the world as it is and soon will be. Which is at least partly ours to mold, remember?
Or maybe the great debate is best experienced live, as the latest version of a forum that goes back to ancient Rome. The energy of this event felt fractal, with the talk onstage leading to talk in the audience leading to talk in the aisles as the event came to a close. The crowd weaved into the Sunday dusk with bulging souls and brains, separated into knots of chatter on the cobblestones, and then spread out into the night. They were taking the matter further, as we must.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.