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Harvard philosopher’s roadmap to developing ‘a better kind of public discourse’

Harvard's Michael Sandel, pictured here during a 2013 TED Conference in Scotland, joined Tuesday's talk show.
James Duncan Davidson | Flickr

Many have asserted that the unique polarization of our current political climate has resulted in an inability – or unwillingness – to sustain civil public discourse between oppositional parties.

Michael Sandel, a best-selling author and eminent political philosopher at Harvard University, believes not only that the quality of public discourse is declining, but that this decline could be eroding American democracy.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sandel spoke with host Don Marsh about the absence of civil public discourse and how we can begin the process of restoring it.

Sandel’s work emphasizes making philosophy publicly accessible and contemporarily relevant. In addition to his numerous writings on ethics and democracy, including “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” and “What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” Sandel is well known for teaching “Justice,” the first Harvard course made available for free online and on television.

He attributes the increase in political polarization – and the resulting decrease in effective civil debate – to a few primary factors, such as gerrymandering, the presence of money in politics and the influence of partial and sensationalized media broadcasting.

Though he conceded that individuals should bear some of the blame for imbalanced media diets, he charged media outlets with the brunt of the responsibility.

“I think the media needs to do a much better job of giving us … more forums for reasoned public discourse among people who disagree,” Sandel said.

He also spoke to the fraught role of truth in politics. “People who are attached to one or another partisan position … are perfectly happy to forgive or ignore the lack of truthfulness in politics if it serves their political cause,” he explained.

According to Sandel, the notion that truth can itself be a partisan phenomenon “really does go to the heart of trust in public life.”

Sandel did express some hope for the future of civil discourse, but cautioned that a brighter future can only exist if we greatly improve civics education for American children and adolescents.

“I put a lot of my hope in the younger generation if we provide them the tools,” he added.

Sandel is headed to St. Louis next week as part of the Lee Institute Speaker Series.

That presentation, “The Lost Art of Democratic Argument: What’s Become of Civility?” will address a range of topics, from the restoration of civility in democratic discourse to the moral questions individuals face in their daily lives. The event is free and open to the public.

Related Event

What: Michael Sandel gives lecture, “The Lost Art of Democratic Argument: What’s Become of Civility?”
When: 7:00 p.m. Monday, October 8, 2018
Where: Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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