Harvard professor and political philosopher, Michael J. Sandel is well known for his thought-provoking lectures on justice, ethics, democracy and markets. In fact, his course, “Justice,” which tackles some of the most complex ethical questions of our times, was the first Harvard course made freely available online and on television. Yet, despite his own commitment to public engagement, he argued at the 2015 Frederic R. and Molly S. Kellogg Biennial Lecture on Jurisprudence that public discourse has become empty.
Professor Sandel shared that when he observes the state of democracy today, he sees a rise in civic frustration. “People are frustrated with politicians, political parties, and the alternatives being offered,” he said. This frustration, he expounded, is evident in the rise of protest candidates and stems from the fact that political discourse is often neither elevated nor morally engaging, but rather channeled through what he described as “narrow managerial talks or ideological food fights that inspire no one.”
According to Professor Sandel, the reason we do not have more elevated and morally engaging public discourse stems from two sources. One source he described as our “market triumphalist faith,” which he described as an “embrace that markets and market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving public good.” We have this faith in markets according to Sandel because we view markets as neutral instruments, in other words, “we view buying or selling goods as a voluntary exchange between consenting adults, where no one needs to pass judgement about the right or wrong value of the goods being exchanged.” This view that markets are neutral instruments has caused us to avoid having public debate about the moral limitations of markets.
The second source that has “hallowed” public discourse is our belief that law and politics should not be entangled with moral and religious arguments that often arise during our most contentious public debates. As a democratic society, Sandel shared we have the tendency to believe that constitutional law should not affirm or endorse particular virtues because government should be neutral, i.e.,non-judgmental. This viewpoint or what he called “liberal public reason” has created a shift toward avoiding religiously and morally inspired arguments in public life in an attempt to avoid contention or intolerance.
Interestingly, Professor Sandel illustrated his point by examining debates around freedom of speech, stem-cell research, abortion and same-sex marriage. Sandel argued that when you analyze these debates, you discover that neutrality is often not possible or desirable because it dulls our civic capacity. In fact, he highlighted how in all these public debates, both proponents and opponents made moral judgments to justify their stance on these issues of justice and rights.
Professor Sandel made the case that we need more robust public discourse that embraces moral and religious convictions and fosters mutual respect. We may not agree with each other, but he concluded public engagement is “the best opportunity for a more just and inspiring society.”
Update: Event video added below.