The Public Philosopher: cultivating the art of listening

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel talks moral dilemmas with Justin Webb

Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University does not approve of dwarf tossing. This is, in the course of a half-hour conversation, virtually the only moral stance that he takes. And therein lies the greatness of the Sandel approach to life, the universe, and everything: don’t shout; listen. Listen. To other views, to other cultures, to everyone. But not in a soggy, vapid, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand way. Listen and deconstruct and follow chains of thought.
 And, in so doing, discover which attitudes and opinions seem the most grounded in careful thinking and which seem the weakest – including, crucially, your own.


You can still believe that some things are right and some things are wrong. Sandel’s new series of programmes – coming back to Radio 4 this week – are not, he says, efforts to get everyone to agree. “We deal in competing principles of justice,” he says, “conflicting ways of thinking. Disagreement is understandable; the aim is to elevate the terms of debate, to encourage a reflectiveness about ethical questions that is often absent from public discourse.”

“Cultivate the art of listening,” he implores us. “It’s a skill and an attitude – a civic habit that can be built up by this kind of exercise.

Hence the dwarf tossing. The first programme of the new series of The Public Philosopher was recorded in the Netherlands and deals with the question (think gay rights, drug laws, assisted suicide, etc): is there anything that governments should stop consenting adults doing in private?

The Dutch, you would think, tend towards permissiveness when it comes to what people get up to at home. True, says, the professor. “And yet as the discussion unfolded, I prodded them a bit to test that principle.”

Dwarf tossing is the practice of throwing small people wearing Velcro costumes at padded walls in the hope that they stick. It’s quite popular in several European countries, though it’s banned in France. Those involved – tossed and tossers – are doing so of their own free will. Does this make it OK?

Professor Sandel suggests that there is no dwarf tossing at Harvard – “repugnant” is the word he uses. But useful in this respect: “For those within the audience who voiced support for consenting adults to do whatever they want, I asked if they would endorse dwarf tossing.”

Suddenly, people who thought they adhered to a clear principle, easy to defend and explain, were less sure of themselves. Sandel’s view: “It is interesting to see how people who embrace a principle in some familiar settings have some moral hesitation in applying that principle to its logical conclusion.”

Interesting to us and interesting to them. The deepest and most telling moments in these discussions, Sandel says, “are when people find themselves wrestling with the dissonances within their own judgements. This is the moment of critical self-reflection that is the ultimate aim of philosophy.”

Where does religious belief fit into the Sandel approach? We have been wondering recently whether we should call Britain a Christian country and debating as well the influence of religious principles – mainly Islamic – on some schools and universities.

Is religion, I ask Sandel, incompatible with his approach to moral thinking, because religious people tend to start from the position that they know the truth and others do not? Do you have to set religion aside to get anything out of these debates?

The professor is enthused: “A great question!” In fact, he says, “such a good question that we should tackle it next time because there are many who think that we can make no progress in moral questions of civic dialogue if some participants draw upon their religious convictions. That this question is coming back into public discussion reflects the revival of a long-standing debate within political philosophy.”

Another such debate – highly relevant in the month of the European elections – should we vote? What is voting? Is it a way of allowing people to pursue their own interests, or is it a civic duty? Should it be compulsory, as it is in some countries?

Sandel’s approach to this basic question is again to take it into more challenging territory: if you don’t feel strongly about an election but someone else does, should you be allowed to sell your vote to them? Should Ukip supporters, for example, be allowed to buy votes in the elections this month?

Michael Sandel wants us to talk about these matters, and he believes that we want to talk about them. In fact, part of the reason we dislike our politicians is that they do not talk about these issues enough. “There is an emptiness or hollowness in the terms of public discourse. Politicians are not debating big questions for the most part – they are not debating questions that touch on values, justice, the common good, what it means to be a citizen.”

Lest this all sound a big happy-clappy – or whatever the philosophical equivalent of that is – Sandel is also aware of the limits of our ability to be genuinely tolerant of and interested in other people’s points of view. He is not an enthusiast for social media. “It is a mistake to think, as many enthusiasts of technology suggest, that it will make us more tolerant. If anything, what we have seen in the digital age is that people find it easier to follow media outlets that reinforce their own opinions.

“That puts a greater burden on civil society, including the media, to create opportunities for people to reason and argue on questions where they disagree. It matters more, not less, in the digital age.”

And it all happens on Radio 4. Sandel endorses the channel with vigour and affection: “I am an unabashed enthusiast and admirer. It is a national treasure. We do not have its equivalent in America. Radio 4 has a place in the public culture – it is rare and precious and you have to keep it.”

The professor has spoken. He would welcome your disagreement, but no woolly thinking, please – and no dwarf tossing.

The Public Philosopher repeated tonight at 9:30pm, Radio 4