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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.)

US drifting from a market economy to a market society?

Here’s a question we need to rethink together: What should be the role of money and markets in our societies?

Today, there are very few things that money can’t buy.

If you’re sentenced to a jail term in Santa Barbara, California, you should know that if you don’t like the standard accommodations, you can buy a prison cell upgrade. It’s true.

For how much, do you think? What would you guess? Five hundred dollars? It’s not the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a jail! $82 dollars a night. Eighty-two dollars a night.

If you go to an amusement park and don’t want to stand in the long lines for the popular rides, there is now a solution. In many theme parks, you can pay extra to jump to the head of the line. They call them Fast Track or VIP tickets.

1:14 And this isn’t only happening in amusement parks.

In Washington, D.C., long lines, queues sometimes form for important Congressional hearings. Now some people don’t like to wait in long queues, maybe overnight, even in the rain.

So now, for lobbyists and others who are very keen to attend these hearings but don’t like to wait, there are companies, line-standing companies, and you can go to them. You can pay them a certain amount of money, they hire homeless people and others who need a job to stand waiting in the line for as long as it takes, and the lobbyist, just before the hearing begins, can take his or her place at the head of the line and a seat in the front of the room. Paid line standing.

2:03 It’s happening, the recourse to market mechanisms and market thinking and market solutions, in bigger arenas.

Take the way we fight our wars. Did you know that, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were more private military contractors on the ground than there were U.S. military troops? Now this isn’t because we had a public debate about whether we wanted to outsource war to private companies, but this is what has happened.

2:36 Over the past 3 decades, we have lived through a quiet revolution.

We’ve drifted almost without realizing it from having a market economy to becoming market societies.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool, a valuable and effective tool, for organizing productive activity, but a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale.

It’s a way of life, in which market thinking and market values begin to dominate every aspect of life: personal relations, family life, health, education, politics, law, civic life.

3:27 Now, why worry? Why worry about our becoming market societies?

For two reasons, I think.

One of them has to do with inequality. The more things money can buy, the more affluence, or the lack of it, matters. If the only thing that money determined was access to yachts or fancy vacations or BMWs, then inequality wouldn’t matter very much.

But when money comes increasingly to govern access to the essentials of the good life decent health care, access to the best education, political voice and influence in campaigns — when money comes to govern all of those things, inequality matters a great deal. And so the marketization of everything sharpens the sting of inequality and its social and civic consequence. That’s one reason to worry.

The second reason apart from the worry about inequality, and it’s this: with some social goods and practices, when market thinking and market values enter, they may change the meaning of those practices and crowd out attitudes and norms worth caring about.

5:03 I’d like to take an example of a controversial use of a market mechanism, a cash incentive, and see what you think about it.

Many schools struggle with the challenge of motivating kids, especially kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, to study hard, to do well in school, to apply themselves.

Some economists have proposed a market solution: Offer cash incentives to kids for getting good grades or high test scores or for reading books. They’ve tried this, actually.

They’ve done some experiments in some major American cities. In New York, in Chicago, in Washington, D.C., they’ve tried this, offering 50 dollars for an A, 35 dollars for a B. In Dallas, Texas, they have a program that offers 8-year-olds two dollars for each book they read.

6:03 Some people are in favor, some people are opposed to this cash incentive to motivate achievement.

Let’s see what people here think about it. Imagine that you are the head of a major school system, and someone comes to you with this proposal. And let’s say it’s a foundation. They will provide the funds. You don’t have to take it out of your budget. How many would be in favor and how many would be opposed to giving it a try? Let’s see by a show of hands.

6:32 First, how many think it might at least be worth a try to see if it would work? Raise your hand.

6:39 And how many would be opposed?

6:42 So the majority here are opposed, but a sizable minority are in favor. Let’s have a discussion.

Let’s start with those of you who object, who would rule it out even before trying. What would be your reason? Who will get our discussion started? Yes?

7:01 Heike Moses: Hello everyone, I’m Heike, and I think it just kills the intrinsic motivation, so in the respect that children, if they would like to read, you just take this incentive away in just paying them, so it just changes behavior.

Michael Sandel: Takes the intrinsic incentive away.

7:20 What is, or should be, the intrinsic motivation?

7:24 HM: Well, the intrinsic motivation should be to learn.  To get to know the world. And then, if you stop paying them, what happens then? Then they stop reading?

7:35 MS: Now, let’s see if there’s someone who favors, who thinks it’s worth trying this.

7:40 Elizabeth Loftus: I’m Elizabeth Loftus, and you said worth a try, so why not try it and do the experiment and measure things?

MS: And measure. And what would you measure? You’d measure how many —

EL: How many books they read and how many books they continued to read after you stopped paying them.

8:01 MS: Oh, after you stopped paying. All right, what about that?

8:04 HM: To be frank, I just think this is, not to offend anyone, a very American way.

8:17 MS: All right. What’s emerged from this discussion is the following question:

Will the cash incentive drive out or corrupt or crowd out the higher motivation, the intrinsic lesson that we hope to convey, which is to learn to love to learn and to read for their own sakes?

And people disagree about what the effect will be, but that seems to be the question, that somehow a market mechanism or a cash incentive teaches the wrong lesson, and if it does, what will become of these children later?

8:57 I should tell you what’s happened with these experiments. The cash for good grades has had very mixed results, for the most part has not resulted in higher grades. The two dollars for each book did lead those kids to read more books. It also led them to read shorter books.  (Street Smart lesson) 

9:17 (Laughter)

9:21 But the real question is, what will become of these kids later? Will they have learned that reading is a chore, a form of piecework to be done for pay, that’s the worry, or may it lead them to read maybe for the wrong reason initially but then lead them to fall in love with reading for its own sake?

9:40 Now, what this, even this brief debate, brings out is something that many economists overlook.

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they exchange.

Market exchange, they assume, doesn’t change the meaning or value of the goods being exchanged.

This may be true enough if we’re talking about material goods. If you sell me a flat screen television or give me one as a gift, it will be the same good. It will work the same either way.

But the same may not be true if we’re talking about nonmaterial goods and social practices such as teaching and learning or engaging together in civic life.

In those domains, bringing market mechanisms and cash incentives may undermine or crowd out nonmarket values and attitudes worth caring about.

Once we see that markets and commerce, when extended beyond the material domain, can change the character of the goods themselves, can change the meaning of the social practices, as in the example of teaching and learning, we have to ask where markets belong and where they don’t, where they may actually undermine values and attitudes worth caring about.

But to have this debate, we have to do something we’re not very good at, and that is to reason together in public about the value and the meaning of the social practices we prize, from our bodies to family life to personal relations to health to teaching and learning to civic life.

11:42 Now these are controversial questions, and so we tend to shrink from them. In fact, during the past three decades, when market reasoning and market thinking have gathered force and gained prestige, our public discourse during this time has become hollowed out, empty of larger moral meaning.

For fear of disagreement, we shrink from these questions. But once we see that markets change the character of goods, we have to debate among ourselves these bigger questions about how to value goods.

12:24 One of the most corrosive effects of putting a price on everything is on commonality, the sense that we are all in it together.

Against the background of rising inequality, marketizing every aspect of life leads to a condition where those who are affluent and those who are of modest means increasingly live separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools.

13:04 This isn’t good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live, even for those of us who can afford to buy our way to the head of the line. Here’s why.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but what it does require is that citizens share in a common life.

What matters is that people of different social backgrounds and different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life, because this is what teaches us to negotiate and to abide our differences. And this is how we come to care for the common good.

13:52 And so, in the end, the question of markets is not mainly an economic question. It’s really a question of how we want to live together.

Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
In the past three decades, says Michael Sandel, the US has drifted from a market economy to a market society.
it’s fair to say that an American’s experience of shared civic life depends on how much money they have.
(Three key examples:…|By Michael Sandel




January 2021

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