Michael Sandel - and finding the transcendent moment in debate - RSA

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.

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles

  • Nine famous female Fellows inspiring inclusion

    Dean Samways

    International Women’s Day 2024 invites us to imagine a world where all genders enjoy equality. Where prejudice and discrimination no longer exist. This is the world our work is helping deliver to this and future generations.

  • Fellows Festival 2024: changemaking for the future

    Mike Thatcher

    The 2024 Fellows Festival was the biggest and boldest so far, with a diverse range of high-profile speakers offering remarkable stories of courageous acts to make the world a better place.

  • Inspired by nature

    Rebecca Ford Alessandra Tombazzi Penny Hay

    Our Playful green planet team summarises a ‘lunch and learn’ at RSA House that focused on how the influence of nature can benefit a child’s development.