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Michael Sandel - and finding the transcendent moment in debate


We had a great, packed-out, event here last night with Michael Sandel, Harvard professor, political philosopher and Reith lecturer. As I understand it Sandel’s core argument is that our idea of justice cannot be reduced to utilitarian calculus or the maximisation of freedom (whether freedom from or freedom to) but must instead engage with the different moral categories we bring to the world. It is a more challenging idea than might at first appear and one which  repays deeper reflection.

Before the lecture I spoke to Michael about a thought I had in the Cambridge seminar on democracy that I attended yesterday. In a critique of current mainstream political discourse, I had argued for the importance of ordinary citizens understanding the trade-offs involved in all policy choices. One reason to try to get people to see a problem in the round is that this enables us to approach what I rather pretentiously called the transcendent moment in debate. This is when the different parties stop attacking and caricaturing each other’s positions and finally agree about what it is they disagree about.

Michael gave an example of this last night. During the proceeding of the US Federal Panel on the use of human tissue in research he had asked an opponent of stem cell research whether he saw any fundamental distinction between using stem cells from a five day old embryo and taking the organs from a five year old child. The opponent had pondered and to his credit had said ‘no’. At this point, many undecided people on the panel had felt they had got to the heart of the difference between the two sides. It didn’t tell them what to believe, but it got them to see the basis for each side’s argument.  

In my experience the point at which people agree about what they disagree about is not, as one might think, the point of greatest polarisation but instead a moment of mutual recognition and often the starting point for exploring what might be a conceivable basis for compromise or resolution.

But it is so very rare for our mainstream politicians to agree about what they disagree about. Instead they say the other guy believes what he believes because he is bad, or stupid, or dishonest or ideologically blinkered.

I have some ideas about the kind of processes that might help find out what is really at the heart of contemporary political disagreements (apart that is from wanting to win power) but I’m interested to hear other ideas too.

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