What Money Can’t Buy

Michael Sandel, one of the top authors in the world on political philosophy, professor of the most popular course “Justice” in Harvard University, and author of numerous books like the bestsellers “Justice” and “What Money Can’t Buy,” visited CESA School of Business on September 12th.

The philosopher discussed genuine ethical dilemmas with the audience, which consisted of the CESA community and national business and political leaders. President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos sent a personal message to CESA’s President José Manuel Restrepo, and all of the attendees of the event, congratulating the institution for its 40th anniversary, time in which he has seen CESA train top leaders and entrepreneurs and create a better country through events like the forum “What Money Can’t Buy.”

After his conference, Dr. Sandel discussed ethics and justice with Alejandro Santos Rubiano, Director of Semana Magazine as the moderator and Gustavo Adolfo Bell Lemus Former Vice President of  Colombia and colombian Ambassador in Cuba, Juan Luis Mejía Arango President of EAFIT University and Carlos Raúl Yepes Jiménez, President of Bancolombia, as panelists. The group of business, political and opinion leaders discussed Colombia’s current situation and how, starting from civil society, the country can overcome the damage it has suffered.

Read more in depth about Mr. Sandel’s point of view in an interview with CESA School of Business below:


Under your ideology of justice what are the fundamental values society needs in order to operate in a generally accepted ethical manner?

A just society, first of all, has to pay serious attention to equality and inequality because too great a gap between rich and poor, in addition to being unfair to the poor, can damage social cohesion and can make it difficult for citizens to think of themselves as engaged in a shared common life and that is very important for society. Another very important aspect of a just society is that there be trust between citizens and the government and where corruption is widespread this trust can be eroded, so in addition to the question of equality and inequalities, the question of corruption is a very important question that any society has to address in order to become a more and more just society.


In a country like Colombia that has already been damaged, where people cut in line, drivers don't follow transit rules, public spaces are littered, people forget to say I'm sorry and sadly even children tend to cheat in exams and sometimes feel proud about it, how does society itself overcome an ethical crisis? What is the change that needs to come from within civil society?

You mention civil society and I think that’s very important because I don’t think fundamental moral and civic changes in a culture can come from the top down. I think we have to start with the basic form of moral and civic education, which begins in the family. We first learn our values within a family setting and then within communities, neighborhoods, schools, and religious communities. So what it involves is really strengthening the institutions of civil society, beginning with the family, so that they can be instruments of moral education and civic education.

That is the only way really to change values, to begin to build trust, mutual respect, respect for law, for public places. We can’t expect politicians and political parties to do this. They’re struggling for power with one another. So I think it has to begin from within civil society starting with the family and with schools, with the educational system, the media has a role to play, religious communities can contribute, social movements including citizen movements can contribute, but it’s a big project so it really has to begin very early.


What is the role of the private sector in a country that suffers of corruption on a daily basis, like I said before, starting from the way people drive all the way up to businesses manipulating markets and politicians misusing power and authority for extra profit?

I think the private sector has a very important role to play and that is to set an example, to stand against corruption, to resist the temptations of corruption, to build company by company a kind of corporate culture and ethic that can begin to provide a counterweight to the corruption.

Business leaders need to think of themselves not only as leaders of their businesses but also as citizens, as parents, as members of the wider community. I think that is actually a way to lead a more satisfying life; to bring the different aspects of ones identity together and not say “well I have these values when I’m in business and different values when I’m at home dealing with my family and my children, and yet different values when I’m in the public realm as a citizen.” Ideally we should find a way to bring these identities together. I think business schools that take ethics seriously can help because the business schools are really producing the business leaders of tomorrow, that’s a very important place for these ethical discussions to take place and to take route.


What is the role of higher education or under what mind frame do higher education institutions need to operate, in order to train ethical, just, young leaders and entrepreneurs?

Educational institutions have an important role to play, especially business schools because these schools are training the business leaders of tomorrow and I think they need to conceive business education as more than just a kind of technical training, more than a training in management skills and in economics. It really should also include an education in the social and civic purpose of business, of the corporation, and that purpose should be interpreted broadly to include the role that business can play and should play within the community it serves and within the society.

The best business school should take ethics seriously, build it into their curriculum, enable students to debate ethical dilemmas, not to feel they’re being preached at because we learn ethics by contending with dilemmas, with hard questions, not by being preached at and being given rules to memorize. Ethics education within business schools can be an exciting and important part of the contribution that business schools make to their students and to the wider society.


If you had to choose one thing you wanted students at CESA School of Business to remember, what would it be?

That ethics matters and that the way we learn about ethics is not to read about it in a book, or to memorize a bunch of rules, or to be preached at by a teacher or a professor, the way we learn about ethics is to confront and to debate, to think through together the genuine dilemmas and competing values that confront business leaders and that confront all of us as citizens and as human beings.