Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday TED Talk: Michael Sandel on Concepts of Justice

This is an outstanding TED talk, and I recommend you find some quiet time to listen to it all, and follow the links below. You will be well rewarded.

Michael Sandel teaches political science and philosophy at Harvard, and has done so for years. He has perfected the "Socratic method," by which students are prodded into defending different positions, in response to his probing questions. Then the interplay of views is examined critically, and what results is a civilized, public debate -- an art which the Greeks handed down to us, but which the modern pace of media, and our own tendencies to rush to judgment, have largely made us forget.

In the video below, watch how Prof. Sandel restores the art of debate with the TED audience in Long Beach earlier this year, as they examine and test the contrary views expressed in a well-known case that reached the Supreme Court: PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 601 (2001). The Court was presented with the question of whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required that a golfer afflicted with a degenerative circular disorder should be allowed to ride a golf cart in PGA tournaments:

You may read more about Michael Sandel at this page, where there are other links. His most recent book is Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? You can access even more of his materials online: here is a page where you can read about the course in justice which he teaches at Harvard (and packs Sanders Theater for his lectures), and here is his online Justice Project, where there are weekly videos and lots, lots more.

You may watch his TED talk in high-resolution video at this link, and download it in that and other formats from this page.


  1. I still have in mind the story of the tiger and the lamb in the Friedman's fable you recommended to us yesterday. When you have two opposing parties, where the purpose of one of them is to completely devour the other (TEC and departing churches? Israel and the Arab world?), it is meaningless to talk about compromise, or a "conversation," or about each party making concessions to reach an agreement. The voracious party will never honor it. You simply have to cage the tiger. Suspicion is wise, and containment warranted.

    For this reason, whenever I hear experts, no matter how eminent, talking about making improvements in the theory of argumentation, or bargaining, in order to "civilize the terms of public debate," or "to continue the conversation," my guard quickly goes up. It’s all liberal eyewash!

    I side with the professional players on the Supreme Court decision, by the way. As an attorney, perhaps you could tell me whether the problem for the PGA might not be easily resolved by simply redefining what golf is, for the purposes of the professional game. Something like: "The purpose of golf is to hit a ball from a predefined set of locations into a set of little holes in the ground, AND to physically walk the distances between these locations." Since, I presume, anyone who wants to play in a PGA tournament has to sign a document beforehand agreeing to the specified rules, might this not serve?

    I recall, several years ago, hearing about a professional lady golfer who tried to play in the men's PGA tour in the US. After a few tournaments, she had to give up. Apparently, she couldn't take the physical stress involved in playing on the men's golf courses. This strongly suggests to me that the physical demands of professional golf, including the strenuous amounts of walking required, are a normative part of golf, at least as far as the professional game is concerned.

  2. Topper, thank you for those thoughts -- they illuminate both of those posts very well.

    As far as "compromise" with TEC's secular humanism is concerned, you are entirely correct; for them, the only compromise is capitulation. They are entirely bent upon outlasting us -- when the last religious conservative (orthodox) draws his final breath, then they believe that no one will be left to hinder, or to object to, their agenda. And they could well be right, unless the conservatives manage to teach some of the younger generation in their tradition. For the factor which we have going on our side is that the church of secular humanism eventually runs aground somewhere between the Scylla that is humanism ("man is the measure of all things") and the Charybdis that is secular apostasy ("all religions are on a par with each other, and with atheism; there is no way of establishing a preference that is neutral, unless it be atheism").

    As far as the PGA is concerned, you pose an interesting question. The difficulty they would run is in establishing that their definition was an attempt to create an entirely new sport, in which walking was essential, as compared with the older version, which the Supreme Court had ruled did not have walking as an "essential element." They would probably have to do more than pass a rule change to make that happen. To me, the easiest way for them to adapt to the problem would be to create two tournaments, and two prizes: one with carts, and one without. The former would quickly depreciate, and could eventually probably be eliminated.

    You and I agree with Justice Scalia -- the Supreme Court has no business deciding, as a matter of constitutional law, just what are the Platonic elements of a sport, for the purpose of applying a Congressional statute that did not need to reach that far. Besides, as Justice Scalia noted, greater minds had already passed on the question. Mark Twain put his finger on the essence of golf when he defined it as "a good walk spoiled."