Democracy – Have We Lost the Art of Debate?

I enjoy watching many of the talks given by people at TED (Technology, Entertaining, Design), a small non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas that are worth listening to. This one by Michael Sandel, a pioneer of open education, who teaches political philosophy at Harvard is called ‘The lost art of democratic debate’, which highlights how important debates are often avoided by politics.

He has a book out currently that looks at a number of the most important moral and political arguments that have recently been contested. The book is called ‘Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do’.

Michael points out that many sensitive political, moral and religious are generally avoided by politicians. That it is easier for them to ignore these issues because of the possibility of backlash. However, this hiding away of issues does nothing to come to terms or understand the issues. We basically need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate.

In the subject of who deserves what he asks the question of the audience, “Who should get the best flutes?”  Interestingly the Aristotle preferred answer was given, ‘the ones that were the best flute player’, but was quickly answered by another, ‘the worst flute players’.  The answer rested on the decision that gave the best benefit to everyone, so the best flute players would give society the greatest benefit by being able to play them. Even though it wasn’t delved into further the last answer had a reasonable principle too. The worst players need more practise to make them good flute players, so isn’t that restricting the possible number of people that can play the flute? Which decision actually allows the most people to benefit? Obviously the best flute players will give society nice flute music, but these are the ones who have actually benefitted already by their personal experience. If the flutes were given to the worst flute players then globally more individuals would have benefitted from the experience of flute playing. OK, that was just one interesting point that shows the difficulty of thinking about even simple points.

Michael then goes on to compare the jus tice debate surrounding the golfer Casey Martin recently who had a disability that made it difficult to walk the golf course. Casey asked the PGA, the Professional Golfers Association to be allowed to use a golf cart in the tournaments. He was refused and an interesting legal debate ensued.

Finally, he made the connections to today’s political debates that display how hard it is to decide the answers, without really getting deep into the subject and thinking about the ‘essential’ natures of the debates. From there to draw out the qualities or highest ideals connected to the subject that would be recognised to be worthy of using within the debate.

These issues should be engaged directly, not ignored for fear of disagreements by all people of the political world.

In my own opinion of this I think Michael Sandel really shines a light on this whole area and his work, including open education is very important considering the issues that face us today.

He has an online course that is available at, the first course that Harvard has ever made available to everyone, called ‘Justice’ that challenges you with difficult and moral dilemmas.

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