The Common Good
December 2009

Doing Justice

by Jim Wallis | December 2009

Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel on civility in public discourse.

Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel is used to playing to large crowds—his undergraduate course on justice enrolls more than 1,000 students each year. He has since turned the course into a book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? as well as a new PBS series. He spoke with Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis about the importance of moral discourse in today’s public square.

Jim Wallis: Why is there so little civility in public discourse today?

Michael Sandel: The reason for the breakdown in civil discourse is not that we have too much moral argument in politics, but that we have too little. What we really have are ideological food fights—assertions hurled back and forth on cable news television programs, radio talk shows, and on the floor of Congress. What we don’t have is a serious engagement with the competing moral and spiritual convictions that citizens bring to public life. We tend to shy away from that, for fear that engaging with these fiercely held convictions about moral and spiritual questions would just be a recipe for hopeless disagreement. But by failing to engage with the deepest sources of people’s convictions in the public arena, we empty it out.

What have you learned through teaching about how to bring back moral discourse?

The students can argue with each other, me, and the philosophers because there is a structure of respectful, reasoned argument. It’s very powerful, and it’s exciting, in part because students realize that this is a journey—political philosophy done this way is a journey in self-understanding. There’s a great hunger among students, and also among citizens, to figure out what we believe and why.

In your book Justice, you engage contemporary controversies in the context of classic philosophical discussions. How is classical philosophy relevant to today’s issues?

Broadly speaking, there are three classical approaches to justice: utilitarianism, freedom, and an Aristotelian view of justice. Utilitarianism means justice is seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The freedom approach says that justice is a matter of respecting each individual’s freedom to choose. The Aristotelian alternative is the idea that justice is a matter of giving people what they deserve and trying to encourage and cultivate virtue in the common good.

I am partial to the third of these traditions. The utilitarian and freedom-based theories of justice, powerful though they are, are not the whole story and can’t give us an adequate account either of morality or of justice. I want to try and bring out the convictions about virtue and the common good that are present in the positions that people take.

What can people of faith bring to this moral and civil discourse?

I was asked to serve during the Bush administration on the President’s Council on Bioethics. We were debating over an extended period of time the question of embryonic stem cell research. I’m in favor of it, and I was in the minority. But we were actually able to have sustained arguments and discussion about how to think about the moral status of the early embryo, which is at the heart of the matter. I had sustained debates with colleagues who believe that from the moment that egg and sperm come together, there is a full human being, such that embryonic stem cell research is killing a human being. Now, I think we have to have that kind of exchange, because if they are right, embryonic stem cell research should be banned.

We have to deal explicitly and directly, as best we can, to sort out these kinds of questions, and I don’t think we can decide some of our hardest questions without faith. Faith can inform our conceptions of social justice, our responsibility for the poor and for the fate of the planet that we share. I think our public life would be richer and our public debate more civil if we had a more expansive and generous faith-friendly conception of public life.

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