Sandel was born in Minneapolis to a Jewish family, which moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen. He was president of his senior class at Palisades High School (1971) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University with a bachelor's degree in politics (1975). He received his doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, where he studied under philosopher Charles Taylor.
Sandel subscribes to a certain version of communitarianism (although he is uncomfortable with the label), and in this vein he is perhaps best known for his critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. Rawls' argument depends on the assumption of the veil of ignorance, which he claims allows us to become "unencumbered selves".
Sandel's view is that we are by nature encumbered to an extent that makes it impossible even in the hypothetical to have such a veil. Some examples of such ties are those with our families, which we do not make by conscious choice but are born with, already attached. Because they are not consciously acquired, it is impossible to separate oneself from such ties. Sandel believes that only a less-restrictive, looser version of the veil of ignorance should be postulated. Criticism such as Sandel's inspired Rawls to subsequently argue that his theory of justice was not a "metaphysical" theory but a "political" one, a basis on which an overriding consensus could be formed among individuals and groups with many different moral and political views.
Sandel has taught the famous "Justice" course at Harvard for two decades. More than 15,000 students have taken the course, making it one of the most highly attended in Harvard's history. The fall 2007 class was the largest ever at Harvard, with a total of 1,115 students. The fall 2005 course was recorded, and is offered online for students through the Harvard Extension School.
An abridged form of this recording is now a 12-episode TV series, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, in a co-production of WGBH and Harvard University. Episodes are available on the Justice with Michael Sandel website. There is also an accompanying book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and the sourcebook of readings Justice: A Reader.
The popularity of the show is attributed to the discussion-oriented format (the Socratic method)—rather than recitation and memorization of facts—and to Sandel's engaging style, incorporating context into discussion; for example, he starts one lecture with a discussion of the ethics of ticket scalping.
The BBC broadcast eight 30-minute segments from the series on BBC Four starting on 25 January 2011.
In April 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a three-part series presented by Professor Sandel titled The Public Philosopher. These followed a format similar to the Justice lectures, this time recorded in front of an audience at the London School of Economics. Across three programs, Sandel debates with the audience whether universities should give preference to students from poorer backgrounds, whether a nurse should be paid more than a banker, and whether it is right to bribe people to be healthy. The programmes were made available for download via the BBC podcast Michael Sandel: The Public Philosopher.
Sandel is currently teaching his Justice course on edX. On April 29, 2013, the Philosophy Department faculty of San Jose State University addressed an open letter to Professor Sandel protesting the use of MOOC's (Massively Open Online Courses) such as his Justice course. Professor Sandel publicly responded: "[t]he worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."
Sandel also co-teaches, with Douglas Melton, the seminar "Ethics and Biotechnology", which considers the ethical implications of a variety of biotechnological procedures and possibilities.
Sandel is the author of several publications, including Democracy's Discontent and Public Philosophy. Public Philosophy is a collection of his own previously published essays examining the role of morality and justice in American political life. He offers a commentary on the roles of moral values and civic community in the American electoral process—a much-debated aspect of the 2004 U.S. election cycle and of current political discussion.
Michael Sandel gave the 2009 Reith Lectures on "A New Citizenship" on BBC Radio, addressing the 'prospect for a new politics of the common good'. The lectures were delivered in London on May 18, Oxford on May 21, Newcastle on May 26, and Washington, D.C., in early June, 2009.
He is also the author of the book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012), which argues some desirable things - such as body organs and the right to kill endangered species - should not be traded for cash.
Sandel served on the George W. Bush administration's President's Council on Bioethics.
In 2009, Sandel criticized Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker's market immigration proposal. This proposed solution entailed imposing refugee quotas on nations according to their wealth and then allowing countries to pay other, poorer countries to take refugees allotted under their quota. Sandel concludes that "a market in refugees changes our view of who refugees are and how they should be treated. It encourages the participants — the buyers, the sellers and also those whose asylum is being haggled over — to think of refugees as burdens to be unloaded or as revenue sources rather than as human beings in peril."2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award, shortlist, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets
2012 Foreign Policy magazine Top Global Thinker.
2014 Honorary doctorate, Utrecht University.
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. ISBN 9780374203030. German translation: Was man für Geld nicht kaufen kann: die moralischen Grenzen des Marktes. Berlin: Ullstein. 2012. ISBN 9783550080265.
French translation: Ce que l'argent ne saurait acheter: les limites morales du marché. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 2014. ISBN 9782021173239. Also translated into Spanish and other languages.
Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2010. ISBN 9780374532505.
Translated into Chinese, Spanish, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Vietnamese editions; see the article on the book for the full citations.
Justice: A Reader. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. 2007. ISBN 9780195335125.
The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2007. ISBN 9780674019270.
German translation: Plädoyer gegen die Perfektion : Ethik im Zeitalter der genetischen Technik. Berlin: Berlin Univ. Press. 2008. ISBN 9783940432148.
Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 2005. ISBN 9780674023659.
Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press. 1998. ISBN 9780521567411.
Spanish translation: El liberalismo y los límites de la justicia. Barcelona: Gedisa. 2000. ISBN 9788474327069.
French translation: Le libéralisme et les limites de la justice. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 1999. ISBN 9782020326308.
Democracy's Discontent : America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1998. ISBN 9780674197459.