Why We Need to Fiercely Disagree in Public

Michael Sandel: I think the reason we have such an impoverished public debate is that we are too reluctant to take on hard controversial, but important moral questions that really go to the heart of the question of what kind of society do we want to live in. 

I think that we shy away from debating hard controversial, moral questions in public discourse for an understandable reason. 


When it comes to values, when it comes to competing notions of how to value this or that good, people disagree, sometimes fiercely.  And so there’s a temptation to have a kind of public life that leaves hard moral questions, hard ethical questions to one side.  For the sake of agreement, for the sake of toleration, that’s the impulse, to be non-judgmental.  But I think it’s a mistake because if you look at the terms of political discourse today in the United States, it’s not a pretty picture.  Our public debates are not going very well.  They mainly consist of shoving matches on cable television and talk radio and ideological food fights in Congress.  

I think the reason we have such an impoverished public debate is that we are too reluctant to take on hard controversial, but important moral questions that really go to the heart of the question of what kind of society do we want to live in.  So I think that’s why we’ve shied away from a serious moral debate about where markets belong and where they don’t.  And the result is we have a kind of managerial, technocratic politics that many people find uninspiring.  

So I think we should face up to the challenge of raising serious questions about where markets belong, where they serve the public good, recognizing that that will involve moral controversy.  People have different views about reproduction or about organ sales or about education and motivating children or about how to allocate military services.  But those are the debates I think that we need to have.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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