22:15
TED2010

Michael Sandel: The lost art of democratic debate

Filmed:

Democracy thrives on civil debate, Michael Sandel says -- but we're shamefully out of practice. He leads a fun refresher, with TEDsters sparring over a recent Supreme Court case (PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin) whose outcome reveals the critical ingredient in justice.

- Political philosopher
Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard, exploring some of the most hotly contested moral and political issues of our time. Full bio

One thing the world needs,
00:17
one thing this country desperately needs
00:19
is a better way
00:21
of conducting our political debates.
00:23
We need to rediscover
00:25
the lost art of democratic argument.
00:27
(Applause)
00:30
If you think about the arguments we have,
00:36
most of the time it's shouting matches
00:39
on cable television,
00:41
ideological food fights on the floor of Congress.
00:43
I have a suggestion.
00:48
Look at all the arguments we have these days
00:50
over health care,
00:53
over bonuses and bailouts on Wall Street,
00:55
over the gap between rich and poor,
00:58
over affirmative action and same-sex marriage.
01:01
Lying just beneath the surface
01:04
of those arguments,
01:06
with passions raging on all sides,
01:09
are big questions
01:12
of moral philosophy,
01:15
big questions of justice.
01:17
But we too rarely
01:19
articulate and defend
01:21
and argue about
01:24
those big moral questions in our politics.
01:26
So what I would like to do today
01:29
is have something of a discussion.
01:32
First, let me take
01:34
a famous philosopher
01:36
who wrote about those questions
01:38
of justice and morality,
01:40
give you a very short lecture
01:42
on Aristotle of ancient Athens,
01:44
Aristotle's theory of justice,
01:47
and then have a discussion here
01:49
to see whether Aristotle's ideas
01:52
actually inform
01:54
the way we think and argue
01:56
about questions today.
01:58
So, are you ready for the lecture?
02:01
According to Aristotle,
02:05
justice means giving people what they deserve.
02:07
That's it; that's the lecture.
02:13
(Laughter)
02:15
Now, you may say, well, that's obvious enough.
02:18
The real questions begin
02:20
when it comes to arguing about
02:22
who deserves what and why.
02:24
Take the example of flutes.
02:28
Suppose we're distributing flutes.
02:30
Who should get the best ones?
02:33
Let's see what people --
02:35
What would you say?
02:37
Who should get the best flute?
02:39
You can just call it out.
02:41
(Audience: Random.)
02:43
Michael Sandel: At random. You would do it by lottery.
02:45
Or by the first person to rush into the hall to get them.
02:47
Who else?
02:51
(Audience: The best flute players.)
02:53
MS: The best flute players. (Audience: The worst flute players.)
02:55
MS: The worst flute players.
02:57
How many say the best flute players?
03:00
Why?
03:04
Actually, that was Aristotle's answer too.
03:07
(Laughter)
03:10
But here's a harder question.
03:12
Why do you think,
03:14
those of you who voted this way,
03:16
that the best flutes should go to the best flute players?
03:18
Peter: The greatest benefit to all.
03:21
MS: The greatest benefit to all.
03:23
We'll hear better music
03:25
if the best flutes should go to the best flute players.
03:27
That's Peter? (Audience: Peter.)
03:30
MS: All right.
03:32
Well, it's a good reason.
03:35
We'll all be better off if good music is played
03:37
rather than terrible music.
03:39
But Peter,
03:43
Aristotle doesn't agree with you that that's the reason.
03:45
That's all right.
03:48
Aristotle had a different reason
03:50
for saying the best flutes should go to the best flute players.
03:52
He said,
03:55
that's what flutes are for --
03:57
to be played well.
03:59
He says that to reason about
04:02
just distribution of a thing,
04:04
we have to reason about,
04:07
and sometimes argue about,
04:10
the purpose of the thing,
04:12
or the social activity --
04:14
in this case, musical performance.
04:16
And the point, the essential nature,
04:18
of musical performance
04:20
is to produce excellent music.
04:22
It'll be a happy byproduct
04:24
that we'll all benefit.
04:26
But when we think about justice,
04:30
Aristotle says,
04:33
what we really need to think about
04:35
is the essential nature of the activity in question
04:37
and the qualities that are worth
04:41
honoring and admiring and recognizing.
04:44
One of the reasons
04:47
that the best flute players should get the best flutes
04:49
is that musical performance
04:51
is not only to make the rest of us happy,
04:53
but to honor
04:55
and recognize
04:57
the excellence
04:59
of the best musicians.
05:01
Now, flutes may seem ... the distribution of flutes
05:03
may seem a trivial case.
05:06
Let's take a contemporary example
05:09
of the dispute about justice.
05:11
It had to do with golf.
05:14
Casey Martin -- a few years ago,
05:16
Casey Martin --
05:18
did any of you hear about him?
05:20
He was a very good golfer,
05:22
but he had a disability.
05:24
He had a bad leg, a circulatory problem,
05:26
that made it very painful
05:29
for him to walk the course.
05:31
In fact, it carried risk of injury.
05:34
He asked the PGA,
05:38
the Professional Golfers' Association,
05:40
for permission to use a golf cart
05:42
in the PGA tournaments.
05:45
They said, "No.
05:47
Now that would give you an unfair advantage."
05:49
He sued,
05:51
and his case went all the way
05:53
to the Supreme Court, believe it or not,
05:55
the case over the golf cart,
05:57
because the law says
06:00
that the disabled
06:02
must be accommodated,
06:04
provided the accommodation does not
06:07
change the essential nature
06:10
of the activity.
06:13
He says, "I'm a great golfer.
06:15
I want to compete.
06:17
But I need a golf cart
06:19
to get from one hole to the next."
06:21
Suppose you were
06:23
on the Supreme Court.
06:25
Suppose you were deciding
06:27
the justice of this case.
06:29
How many here would say
06:32
that Casey Martin does have a right to use a golf cart?
06:34
And how many say, no, he doesn't?
06:37
All right, let's take a poll, show of hands.
06:41
How many would rule in favor of Casey Martin?
06:43
And how many would not? How many would say he doesn't?
06:47
All right, we have a good division of opinion here.
06:50
Someone who would not
06:54
grant Casey Martin the right to a golf cart,
06:56
what would be your reason?
06:58
Raise your hand, and we'll try to get you a microphone.
07:00
What would be your reason?
07:02
(Audience: It'd be an unfair advantage.)
07:05
MS: It would be an unfair advantage
07:07
if he gets to ride in a golf cart.
07:10
All right, those of you,
07:12
I imagine most of you who would not give him the golf cart
07:14
worry about an unfair advantage.
07:17
What about those of you who say
07:19
he should be given a golf cart?
07:21
How would you answer the objection?
07:23
Yes, all right.
07:25
Audience: The cart's not part of the game.
07:27
MS: What's your name? (Audience: Charlie.)
07:30
MS: Charlie says --
07:33
We'll get Charlie a microphone in case someone wants to reply.
07:36
Tell us, Charlie,
07:38
why would you say he should be able to use a golf cart?
07:40
Charlie: The cart's not part of the game.
07:43
MS: But what about walking from hole to hole?
07:47
Charlie: It doesn't matter; it's not part of the game.
07:50
MS: Walking the course is not part of the game of golf?
07:53
Charlie: Not in my book, it isn't.
07:57
MS: All right. Stay there, Charlie.
07:59
(Laughter)
08:01
Who has an answer for Charlie?
08:03
All right, who has an answer for Charlie?
08:06
What would you say?
08:08
Audience: The endurance element is a very important part of the game,
08:10
walking all those holes.
08:13
MS: Walking all those holes?
08:15
That's part of the game of golf? (Audience: Absolutely.)
08:17
MS: What's your name? (Audience: Warren.)
08:20
MS: Warren.
08:22
Charlie, what do you say to Warren?
08:25
Charley: I'll stick to my original thesis.
08:29
(Laughter)
08:31
MS: Warren, are you a golfer?
08:37
Warren: I am not a golfer.
08:39
Charley: And I am. (MS: Okay.)
08:41
(Laughter)
08:43
(Applause)
08:45
You know,
08:49
it's interesting.
08:51
In the case, in the lower court,
08:55
they brought in golfing greats
08:57
to testify on this very issue.
09:00
Is walking the course essential to the game?
09:04
And they brought in Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
09:07
And what do you suppose they all said?
09:10
Yes. They agreed with Warren.
09:12
They said, yes, walking the course
09:15
is strenuous physical exercise.
09:17
The fatigue factor is an important part of golf.
09:19
And so it would change
09:22
the fundamental nature of the game
09:24
to give him the golf cart.
09:27
Now, notice,
09:29
something interesting --
09:31
Well, I should tell you about the Supreme Court first.
09:33
The Supreme Court
09:35
decided.
09:37
What do you suppose they said?
09:39
They said yes,
09:42
that Casey Martin must be provided a golf cart.
09:44
Seven to two, they ruled.
09:47
What was interesting about their ruling
09:50
and about the discussion we've just had
09:54
is that the discussion about
09:58
the right, the justice, of the matter
10:00
depended on
10:02
figuring out what is
10:04
the essential nature of golf.
10:07
And the Supreme Court justices
10:10
wrestled with that question.
10:12
And Justice Stevens, writing for the majority,
10:14
said he had read all about the history of golf,
10:16
and the essential point of the game
10:21
is to get very small ball from one place
10:24
into a hole
10:26
in as few strokes as possible,
10:28
and that walking was not essential, but incidental.
10:31
Now, there were two dissenters,
10:33
one of whom was Justice Scalia.
10:35
He wouldn't have granted the cart,
10:40
and he had a very interesting dissent.
10:43
It's interesting because
10:45
he rejected the Aristotelian premise
10:47
underlying the majority's opinion.
10:50
He said it's not possible
10:52
to determine the essential nature
10:55
of a game like golf.
10:58
Here's how he put it.
11:00
"To say that something is essential
11:02
is ordinarily to say that it is necessary
11:04
to the achievement of a certain object.
11:06
But since it is the very nature of a game
11:09
to have no object except amusement,
11:11
(Laughter)
11:15
that is, what distinguishes games
11:19
from productive activity,
11:21
(Laughter)
11:23
it is quite impossible to say
11:26
that any of a game's arbitrary rules
11:28
is essential."
11:31
So there you have Justice Scalia
11:33
taking on the Aristotelian premise
11:35
of the majority's opinion.
11:38
Justice Scalia's opinion
11:41
is questionable
11:44
for two reasons.
11:46
First, no real sports fan would talk that way.
11:48
(Laughter)
11:51
If we had thought that the rules
11:53
of the sports we care about
11:55
are merely arbitrary,
11:57
rather than designed to call forth
11:59
the virtues and the excellences
12:02
that we think are worthy of admiring,
12:05
we wouldn't care about the outcome of the game.
12:07
It's also objectionable
12:10
on a second ground.
12:13
On the face of it,
12:15
it seemed to be -- this debate about the golf cart --
12:17
an argument about fairness,
12:20
what's an unfair advantage.
12:23
But if fairness were the only thing at stake,
12:27
there would have been an easy and obvious solution.
12:30
What would it be? (Audience: Let everyone use the cart.)
12:33
Let everyone ride in a golf cart
12:35
if they want to.
12:38
Then the fairness objection goes away.
12:40
But letting everyone ride in a cart
12:43
would have been, I suspect,
12:46
more anathema
12:48
to the golfing greats
12:50
and to the PGA,
12:52
even than making an exception for Casey Martin.
12:54
Why?
12:56
Because what was at stake
12:58
in the dispute over the golf cart
13:00
was not only the essential nature of golf,
13:03
but, relatedly, the question:
13:06
What abilities
13:09
are worthy
13:12
of honor and recognition
13:14
as athletic talents?
13:16
Let me put the point
13:19
as delicately as possible:
13:21
Golfers are a little sensitive
13:24
about the athletic status of their game.
13:26
(Laughter)
13:29
After all, there's no running or jumping,
13:35
and the ball stands still.
13:38
(Laughter)
13:41
So if golfing is the kind of game
13:44
that can be played while riding around in a golf cart,
13:47
it would be hard to confer
13:50
on the golfing greats
13:53
the status that we confer,
13:55
the honor and recognition
13:57
that goes to truly great athletes.
13:59
That illustrates
14:03
that with golf,
14:06
as with flutes,
14:09
it's hard to decide the question
14:11
of what justice requires,
14:14
without grappling with the question,
14:17
"What is the essential nature
14:19
of the activity in question,
14:21
and what qualities,
14:23
what excellences
14:26
connected with that activity,
14:28
are worthy of honor and recognition?"
14:30
Let's take a final example
14:34
that's prominent in contemporary political debate:
14:36
same-sex marriage.
14:39
There are those who favor state recognition
14:43
only of traditional marriage
14:46
between one man and one woman,
14:48
and there are those who favor state recognition
14:51
of same-sex marriage.
14:53
How many here
14:55
favor the first policy:
14:57
the state should recognize traditional marriage only?
14:59
And how many favor the second, same-sex marriage?
15:04
Now, put it this way:
15:08
What ways of thinking
15:11
about justice and morality
15:13
underlie the arguments we have
15:15
over marriage?
15:17
The opponents of same-sex marriage say
15:19
that the purpose of marriage,
15:22
fundamentally, is procreation,
15:24
and that's what's worthy of honoring
15:26
and recognizing and encouraging.
15:28
And the defenders of same-sex marriage say no,
15:31
procreation is not the only purpose of marriage;
15:34
what about a lifelong, mutual, loving commitment?
15:38
That's really what marriage is about.
15:41
So with flutes, with golf carts,
15:45
and even with a fiercely contested question
15:48
like same-sex marriage,
15:51
Aristotle has a point.
15:54
Very hard to argue about justice
15:57
without first arguing
15:59
about the purpose of social institutions
16:02
and about what qualities are worthy
16:05
of honor and recognition.
16:07
So let's step back from these cases
16:10
and see how they shed light
16:13
on the way we might improve, elevate,
16:16
the terms of political discourse
16:19
in the United States,
16:22
and for that matter, around the world.
16:24
There is a tendency to think
16:27
that if we engage too directly
16:29
with moral questions in politics,
16:32
that's a recipe for disagreement,
16:34
and for that matter, a recipe for
16:36
intolerance and coercion.
16:38
So better to shy away from,
16:40
to ignore,
16:42
the moral and the religious convictions
16:44
that people bring to civic life.
16:46
It seems to me that our discussion
16:48
reflects the opposite,
16:51
that a better way
16:53
to mutual respect
16:56
is to engage directly
16:58
with the moral convictions
17:00
citizens bring to public life,
17:02
rather than to require
17:05
that people leave their deepest moral convictions
17:07
outside politics
17:10
before they enter.
17:12
That, it seems to me, is a way
17:14
to begin to restore
17:16
the art of democratic argument.
17:18
Thank you very much.
17:20
(Applause)
17:22
Thank you.
17:25
(Applause)
17:27
Thank you.
17:30
(Applause)
17:32
Thank you very much.
17:34
Thanks. Thank you.
17:36
Chris.
17:39
Thanks, Chris.
17:41
Chris Anderson: From flutes to golf courses
17:44
to same-sex marriage --
17:46
that was a genius link.
17:48
Now look, you're a pioneer of open education.
17:50
Your lecture series was one of the first to do it big.
17:53
What's your vision for the next phase of this?
17:55
MS: Well, I think that it is possible.
17:58
In the classroom, we have arguments
18:01
on some of the most fiercely held
18:04
moral convictions that students have
18:07
about big public questions.
18:09
And I think we can do that in public life more generally.
18:11
And so my real dream would be
18:14
to take the public television series
18:16
that we've created of the course --
18:18
it's available now, online,
18:20
free for everyone anywhere in the world --
18:22
and to see whether we can partner with institutions,
18:24
at universities in China, in India,
18:27
in Africa, around the world,
18:29
to try to promote
18:31
civic education
18:34
and also a richer kind
18:36
of democratic debate.
18:38
CA: So you picture, at some point,
18:41
live, in real time,
18:43
you could have this kind of conversation, inviting questions,
18:45
but with people from China and India joining in?
18:48
MS: Right. We did a little bit of it here
18:51
with 1,500 people in Long Beach,
18:53
and we do it in a classroom at Harvard
18:55
with about 1,000 students.
18:58
Wouldn't it be interesting
19:00
to take this way
19:02
of thinking and arguing,
19:05
engaging seriously with big moral questions,
19:07
exploring cultural differences
19:10
and connect through a live video hookup,
19:12
students in Beijing and Mumbai
19:16
and in Cambridge, Massachusetts
19:18
and create a global classroom.
19:20
That's what I would love to do.
19:22
(Applause)
19:24
CA: So, I would imagine
19:28
that there are a lot of people who would love to join you in that endeavor.
19:30
Michael Sandel. Thank you so much. (MS: Thanks so much.)
19:33

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About the Speaker:

Michael Sandel - Political philosopher
Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard, exploring some of the most hotly contested moral and political issues of our time.

Why you should listen

Michael Sandel is one of the best known American public intellectuals. The London Observer calls him "one of the most popular teachers in the world" and indeed his lectures at Harvard draw thousands of students eager to discuss big questions of modern political life: bioethics, torture, rights versus responsibilities, the value we put on things. Sandel's class is a primer on thinking through the hard choices we face as citizens. The course has been turned into a public TV series with companion website and book: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? In his newest book, What Money Can't Buy, he challenges the idea that markets are morally neutral.
 
"To understand the importance of his purpose," a Guardian reviewer wrote of the book, "you first have to grasp the full extent of the triumph achieved by market thinking in economics, and the extent to which that thinking has spread to other domains. This school sees economics as a discipline that has nothing to do with morality, and is instead the study of incentives, considered in an ethical vacuum. Sandel's book is, in its calm way, an all-out assault on that idea, and on the influential doctrine that the economic approach to "utility maximisation" explains all human behaviour."

Read more about his thinking on markets and morality: "Lunch with Michael Sandel" on FT.com >>  

More profile about the speaker
Michael Sandel | Speaker | TED.com