Published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Saint John's Magazine
Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel captivated a packed audience of 850 students, teachers, parents, and guests in the Coaches Pavilion at Saint John’s High School on April 3. Sandel was as the speaker at the 8th Annual Abdella Center for Ethics lecture series. As the Harvard University Ann Barry Professor of Political Philosophy, Sandel delivered poignant insight about the loss of open public discussion of values in contemporary American politics, and his hope for a return to active, passionate public discussion about the moral values that shape our society. Professor Sandel brought to Saint John’s his interactive style of engaging the audience in discussion and debate about their views throughout the course of the evening. Like his famous interactive “Justice” seminar at Harvard, the Saint John’s students and the assembled audience became an integral part of the lecture, where their moral, political, and societal positions were questioned and challenged by Professor Sandel.
At the heart of Professor Sandel’s philosophy is the idea that real discussion about values, though missing from contemporary political debates, is possible – and he sets out to prove this possibility through his lectures. Dubbing the students from the Justice Seminar the “Justice 50,” Professor Sandel began to engage these Saint John’s students in a series of moral dilemmas designed to draw out their moral positions on issues like sacrificing one person for the sake of many, the nature and importance of human rights, and the role of moral virtues in moral decision-making. Students who responded to Professor Sandel’s questions had to be ready for his counters to their initial positions, which forced them to defend and sometimes reevaluate their beliefs. Eventually, the “Justice 50,” transformed into the “Justice 850” as Sandel began to engage the entire audience in his Socratic method lecture style that drew on audience position, classical philosophy, and Sandel’s insight.
Professor Sandel’s closing thoughts acknowledged the important role that a faith community, like Saint John’s, plays in shaping the beliefs, values, and attitudes of its members. Instead of shying away from bringing faith informed values to the public, Sandel encouraged the Saint John’s community to allow their faith to play a role in this important discussion. Sandel reminded the audience that it is not the collective goal of public discussion to eliminate values. Rather, we should seek to share our values openly, with the hope that our willingness to dialogue will help people find common ground and will challenge everyone to think more critically about the beliefs they cherish.