Adonis Diaries

Was there an art for democratic debate? To claim that it was lost?

Posted on: August 25, 2016

Was there an art for democratic debate? To claim that it was lost?

Democracy thrives on civil debate, 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.

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

Filmed Feb. 2010

One thing the world needs, one thing this country desperately needs is a better way of conducting our political debates. We need to rediscover the lost art of democratic argument.

If you think about the arguments we have, most of the time it’s shouting matches on cable television, ideological food fights on the floor of Congress. I have a suggestion.

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.

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.

1:25 So what I would like to do today is have something of a discussion.

First, let me take a famous philosopher who wrote about those questions of justice and morality, give you a very short lecture on Aristotle of ancient Athens, Aristotle’s theory of justice, and then have a discussion here to see whether Aristotle’s ideas actually inform the way we think and argue about questions today.

So, are you ready for the lecture? According to Aristotle, justice means giving people what they deserve. That’s it; that’s the lecture.

you may say, well, that’s obvious enough. The real questions begin when it comes to arguing about who deserves what and why.

Take the example of flutes. Suppose we’re distributing flutes. Who should get the best ones? Let’s see what people — What would you say? Who should get the best flute? You can just call it out.

Michael Sandel: At random. You would do it by lottery. Or by the first person to rush into the hall to get them. Who else?

2:49 (Audience: The best flute players.)

 MS: The best flute players. (Audience: The worst flute players.)

 MS: The worst flute players. How many say the best flute players? Why? Actually, that was Aristotle’s answer too.

But here’s a harder question. Why do you think, those of you who voted this way, that the best flutes should go to the best flute players?

3:17 Peter: The greatest benefit to all.

MS: The greatest benefit to all. We’ll hear better music if the best flutes should go to the best flute players. That’s Peter? 

MS: All right. Well, it’s a good reason. We’ll all be better off if good music is played rather than terrible music. But Peter, Aristotle doesn’t agree with you that that’s the reason.

That’s all right. Aristotle had a different reason for saying the best flutes should go to the best flute players. He said, that’s what flutes are for — to be played well. He says that to reason about just distribution of a thing, we have to reason about, and sometimes argue about, the purpose of the thing, or the social activity in this case, musical performance.

And the point, the essential nature, of musical performance is to produce excellent music. It’ll be a happy byproduct that we’ll all benefit. But when we think about justice, Aristotle says, what we really need to think about is the essential nature of the activity in question and the qualities that are worth honoring and admiring and recognizing.

One of the reasons that the best flute players should get the best flutes is that musical performance is not only to make the rest of us happy, but to honor and recognize the excellence of the best musicians.

the distribution of flutes may seem a trivial case. Let’s take a contemporary example of the dispute about justice. It had to do with golf.

Casey Martin — a few years ago, Casey Martin — did any of you hear about him? He was a very good golfer, but he had a disability. He had a bad leg, a circulatory problem, that made it very painful for him to walk the course.

In fact, it carried risk of injury. He asked the PGA, the Professional Golfers’ Association, for permission to use a golf cart in the PGA tournaments. They said, “No. Now that would give you an unfair advantage.”

He sued, and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court, believe it or not, the case over the golf cart, because the law says that the disabled must be accommodated, provided the accommodation does not change the essential nature of the activity.

He says, “I’m a great golfer. I want to compete. But I need a golf cart to get from one hole to the next.”

Suppose you were on the Supreme Court. Suppose you were deciding the justice of this case. How many here would say that Casey Martin does have a right to use a golf cart? And how many say, no, he doesn’t? All right, let’s take a poll, show of hands.

How many would rule in favor of Casey Martin? And how many would not? How many would say he doesn’t? All right, we have a good division of opinion here. Someone who would not grant Casey Martin the right to a golf cart, what would be your reason? Raise your hand, and we’ll try to get you a microphone.

What would be your reason?

7:01 (Audience: It’d be an unfair advantage.)

MS: It would be an unfair advantage if he gets to ride in a golf cart. All right, those of you, I imagine most of you who would not give him the golf cart worry about an unfair advantage. What about those of you who say he should be given a golf cart? How would you answer the objection? Yes, all right.

7:23 Audience: The cart’s not part of the game.

MS: What’s your name? (Audience: Charlie.)

MS: Charlie says — We’ll get Charlie a microphone in case someone wants to reply. Tell us, Charlie, why would you say he should be able to use a golf cart?

7:39 Charlie: The cart’s not part of the game.

MS: But what about walking from hole to hole?

Charlie: It doesn’t matter; it’s not part of the game.

MS: Walking the course is not part of the game of golf?

Charlie: Not in my book, it isn’t.

7:55 MS: All right. Stay there, Charlie.

Who has an answer for Charlie? All right, who has an answer for Charlie? What would you say?

8:06 Audience: The endurance element is a very important part of the game, walking all those holes.

MS: Walking all those holes? That’s part of the game of golf? (Audience: Absolutely.)

MS: What’s your name? (Audience: Warren.)

 MS: Warren. Charlie, what do you say to Warren?

8:25 Charley: I’ll stick to my original thesis.  

MS: Warren, are you a golfer?

Warren: I am not a golfer.

Charley: And I am. (MS: Okay.) (Laughter)  

You know, it’s interesting. In the case, in the lower court, they brought in golfing greats to testify on this very issue. Is walking the course essential to the game? And they brought in Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. And what do you suppose they all said? Yes. They agreed with Warren. They said, yes, walking the course is strenuous physical exercise.

The fatigue factor is an important part of golf. And so it would change the fundamental nature of the game to give him the golf cart. Now, notice, something interesting — Well, I should tell you about the Supreme Court first.

The Supreme Court decided. What do you suppose they said? They said yes, that Casey Martin must be provided a golf cart. Seven to two, they ruled.

What was interesting about their ruling and about the discussion we’ve just had is that the discussion about the right, the justice, of the matter depended on figuring out what is the essential nature of golf.

And the Supreme Court justices wrestled with that question. And Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, said he had read all about the history of golf, and the essential point of the game is to get very small ball from one place into a hole in as few strokes as possible, and that walking was not essential, but incidental.

there were two dissenters, one of whom was Justice Scalia. He wouldn’t have granted the cart, and he had a very interesting dissent. It’s interesting because he rejected the Aristotelian premise underlying the majority’s opinion. He said it’s not possible to determine the essential nature of a game like golf.

Here’s how he put it. “To say that something is essential is ordinarily to say that it is necessary to the achievement of a certain object. But since it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement, (Laughter) that is, what distinguishes games from productive activity,  it is quite impossible to say that any of a game’s arbitrary rules is essential.”

there you have Justice Scalia taking on the Aristotelian premise of the majority’s opinion. Justice Scalia’s opinion is questionable for two reasons.

First, no real sports fan would talk that way.

If we had thought that the rules of the sports we care about are merely arbitrary, rather than designed to call forth the virtues and the excellences that we think are worthy of admiring, we wouldn’t care about the outcome of the game.

It’s also objectionable on a second ground. On the face of it, it seemed to be — this debate about the golf cart — an argument about fairness, what’s an unfair advantage.

But if fairness were the only thing at stake, there would have been an easy and obvious solution. What would it be? (Audience: Let everyone use the cart.) Let everyone ride in a golf cart if they want to. Then the fairness objection goes away.

letting everyone ride in a cart would have been, I suspect, more anathema to the golfing greats and to the PGA, even than making an exception for Casey Martin. Why?

Because what was at stake in the dispute over the golf cart was not only the essential nature of golf, but, relatedly, the question: What abilities are worthy of honor and recognition as athletic talents?

Let me put the point as delicately as possible: Golfers are a little sensitive about the athletic status of their game. (Laughter) After all, there’s no running or jumping, and the ball stands still.

So if golfing is the kind of game that can be played while riding around in a golf cart, it would be hard to confer on the golfing greats the status that we confer, the honor and recognition that goes to truly great athletes.

That illustrates that with golf, as with flutes, it’s hard to decide the question of what justice requires, without grappling with the question, What is the essential nature of the activity in question, and what qualities, what excellences connected with that activity, are worthy of honor and recognition?”

 Let’s take a final example that’s prominent in contemporary political debate: same-sex marriage.

There are those who favor state recognition only of traditional marriage between one man and one woman, and there are those who favor state recognition of same-sex marriage. How many here favor the first policy: the state should recognize traditional marriage only?

And how many favor the second, same-sex marriage?

Now, put it this way: What ways of thinking about justice and morality underlie the arguments we have over marriage?

The opponents of same-sex marriage say that the purpose of marriage, fundamentally, is procreation, and that’s what’s worthy of honoring and recognizing and encouraging.

And the defenders of same-sex marriage say no, procreation is not the only purpose of marriage; what about a lifelong, mutual, loving commitment? That’s really what marriage is about.

So with flutes, with golf carts, and even with a fiercely contested question like same-sex marriage, Aristotle has a point. Very hard to argue about justice without first arguing about the purpose of social institutions and about what qualities are worthy of honor and recognition.

let’s step back from these cases and see how they shed light on the way we might improve, elevate, the terms of political discourse in the United States, and for that matter, around the world.

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.

It seems to me that our discussion reflects the opposite, 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.

That, it seems to me, is a way to begin to restore the art of democratic argument.  

Chris Anderson: From flutes to golf courses to same-sex marriage — that was a genius link. Now look, you’re a pioneer of open education. Your lecture series was one of the first to do it big. What’s your vision for the next phase of this?

MS: Well, I think that it is possible. In the classroom, we have arguments on some of the most fiercely held moral convictions that students have about big public questions. And I think we can do that in public life more generally.

And so my real dream would be to take the public television series that we’ve created of the course — it’s available now, online, free for everyone anywhere in the world — and to see whether we can partner with institutions, at universities in China, in India, in Africa, around the world, to try to promote civic education and also a richer kind of democratic debate.

18:37 CA: So you picture, at some point, live, in real time, you could have this kind of conversation, inviting questions, but with people from China and India joining in?

MS: Right. We did a little bit of it here with 1,500 people in Long Beach, and we do it in a classroom at Harvard with about 1,000 students.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to take this way of thinking and arguing, engaging seriously with big moral questions, exploring cultural differences and connect through a live video hookup, students in Beijing and Mumbai and in Cambridge, Massachusetts and create a global classroom. That’s what I would love to do.

CA: So, I would imagine that there are a lot of people who would love to join you in that endeavor. Michael Sandel. Thank you so much. (MS: Thanks so much.)

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