Moral convictions are integral to democratic discourse – which is exactly why our current discourse is so terribly splintered, renowned Harvard political philosophy professor Michael Sandel told an audience of 1,500 at a conference sponsored by TED .
“Look at all the arguments we have these days over health care, over bonuses and bailouts on Wall Street, over the gap between rich and poor, over affirmative action and same-sex marriage,” he said at the conference in February, posted on TED’s website this week. “Lying just beneath the surface of those arguments, with passions raging on all sides, are big questions of moral philosophy, big questions of justice. But we too rarely articulate and defend and argue about those big moral questions in our politics.”
Sandel, whose Harvard course, “Justice,” has been taken by 14,000 students, invoked Aristotle’s conception of morality in politics to examine this missing element in existing democratic debate. He asked the audience the same question Aristotle asked some 2,300 years ago. “Suppose we are giving out flutes,” he said. “Who should get the best ones?”
Audience members answered with three options: the best players, the worst players, and random citizens.
Aristotle sided with the best players, because flutes are meant to be played well: That is their purpose. Thus, Sandel said, when we are making such decisions, we have to consider the purpose of a thing, as well as the qualities in it that are worth honoring.
“There is a tendency to think that if we engage too directly
with moral questions in politics, that's a recipe for disagreement,
and for that matter, a recipe for intolerance and coercion.”
Sandel applied Aristotle’s reasoning to the contentious issue of same-sex marriage. Opinions on the topic, he said, stem from perceptions of the purpose of marriage. Supporters believe the purpose of marriage is lifelong loving commitment, while opponents believe its purpose is procreation. In order to really debate same-sex marriage, he said, we need to talk about the purpose of marriage, and which of its qualities are worth recognition. Where one stands on same-sex marriage will stem from one’s moral convictions about the purpose of marriage, and therefore we can’t leave moral convictions out of the political discourse on it.
“There is a tendency to think that if we engage too directly with moral questions in politics, that's a recipe for disagreement, and for that matter, a recipe for intolerance and coercion. So better to shy away from, to ignore, the moral and the religious convictions that people bring to civic life,” Sandel concluded. “It seems to me that … a better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral convictions citizens bring to public life, rather than to require that people leave their deepest moral convictions outside politics before they enter.”