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
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.