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Michael J. Sandel

Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences 2018

Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen:

I am deeply honored to receive this award. It has special meaning for me, because of a family connection to Spain. The connection goes back more than 500 years, to 1492, when the Jews of Spain were expelled by the Inquisition. My wife Kiku Adatto is a Sephardic Jew whose family traces its origins to Sevilla. After the expulsion, her family found its way to Istanbul, where they lived for generations in the Ottoman Empire. Early in the 20th century, her father, Alberto Adatto, immigrated as a young boy to the United States. His native language was Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language written with Hebrew characters. Kiku grew up singing Ladino songs—all very romantic—and saying the Shabbat blessings in Ladino.

So strong was the family’s Sephardic heritage that, in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the expulsion, Alberto brought his entire family, including children and grandchildren, to Sevilla, to renew their bonds with Spain.

In 2015, nine years after Alberto died, Spain enacted a law offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews who could demonstrate their link to those who were expelled in 1492. My wife Kiku, her brother Richard, and our two sons Adam and Aaron are in the process of applying. It is not an easy process; in addition to assembling a multitude of documents, they have just taken a four-hour test of Spanish language skills and an exam testing their knowledge of Spanish culture and civic life. If all goes well, they will become Spanish citizens. In doing so, they are participants in Spain’s project of memory and reconciliation.

The Princess of Asturias Foundation has been an important contributor to this project. In 1990, it conferred the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord on the Sephardic Communities (Comunidades Sefardíes) around the world. In an eloquent statement, the Jury described the Sephardim as “a well-loved part of the great Hispanic family, who left the Iberian Peninsula five hundred years ago the with keys to their houses in their hands. Far from their homeland, the Sephardim became a wandering Spain, which has preserved their ancestors’ cultural and linguistic legacy with unmatched care.”

This history and personal connection make this award all the more meaningful to me. It also brings to mind another connection to Spain. For it was in Spain that I began my journey as a political philosopher. In 1975, I began my graduate studies at Oxford, in the U.K. During the first winter break, in December, a friend and I travelled to the south of Spain for a vacation of reading and writing. It was shortly after the death of Franco, as King Juan Carlos was preparing Spain’s transition to democracy. We rented a small house in a village on the Costa del Sol.

At the time, I was trying to decide whether to pursue economics or philosophy. I had begun a paper on welfare economics, about whether a concern for equality could somehow be included in the social welfare function, or whether equality was an independent moral ideal that could not be captured by economic models. My friend, a mathematical economist, was going to collaborate with me on the more technical aspects of the paper.

But my friend kept rather strange hours—staying up until 5:00 in the morning and sleeping into the afternoon. He would sleep so late that we often had to run to reach the one restaurant in the village before it closed for lunch.

Because of this schedule, we worked on the economics paper in the evenings. This left me free, in the mornings, to read philosophy. During my weeks on the Costa del Sol, I read four books: John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice; Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.

As I struggled to make sense of these books, I realized that, in different ways, all raised doubts about the utilitarian philosophy that gives welfare economics its apparent clarity and rigor. I found that the questions they raised--about justice, morality, and the good life--were deeper and more challenging than even the most sophisticated economic models could address.

I became seduced by philosophy and haven’t yet recovered. Today, that paper on equality and the social welfare function is still unfinished, in my attic.

But even as I began to teach and write about philosophy, I wanted to connect philosophy to the world. What attracted me to philosophy was not its abstraction, but its inescapability, and the light it sheds on our everyday lives. Understood in this way, philosophy belongs not only in the classroom, but in the public square, where citizens deliberate about the common good.

Everywhere I travel, I find a great hunger for public debate about questions that matter—questions about justice, about equality and inequality, about history and memory, about what it means to be a citizen. Recently, on a trip to Brazil, I visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro. This massive slum is so filled with violence and crime that it has been subject to so-called “pacification,” a kind of military occupation. There I had a conversation with a group of community leaders and young activists about finding a voice and building community, even amidst poverty and violence.

Chairing the meeting was a man named Reginaldo. He had grown up in the favela. Reginaldo told me how he too had fallen in love with philosophy. Illiterate until the age of 25, he worked as a waste picker—going from door to door in affluent neighborhoods, picking things of value from people’s trash barrels. Once, he found a torn book. As he struggled to understand it, the owner of the house saw him and asked what he was doing. It turns out the torn book contained part of Plato’s dialogue about the trial of Socrates. The owner, a retired professor of philosophy, taught Reginaldo how to read, and together they discussed Plato.

Reginaldo still lives in the favela and leads discussions there. I believe that he and I are both engaged in the project Socrates began: Inviting citizens, whatever their backgrounds or social circumstances, to ask hard questions about how we should live together. At a time when democracy is facing dark times, asking these questions is our best hope for repairing the world in which we live.

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