Tuesday November 28, 2017

Why democracy depends on how we talk to each other

Audience members interacting at the 2017 LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture by Michael  Sandel.

Audience members interacting at the 2017 LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture by Michael Sandel. (Institute for Canadian Citizenship/Alyssa K. Faoro)

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

Does democracy have a future? It's a question is being asked in democracies everywhere. People are frustrated with politics and politicians.  And politicians appear weary of democracy. Now populist uprisings to protect the status quo are threatening the foundations of democracy itself. Michael Sandel is a world-renowned political philosopher at Harvard University — and the 2017 LaFontaine-Baldwin lecturer. But he doesn't "lecture" in the usual sense of the term: he interacts with his audience, not only answering their questions but asking them questions to make them think and reflect. 


Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel delivered the 15th LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture at Koerner Hall in Toronto on September 25, 2017. And he began with a troubling but pertinent question: how do we decide which immigrants to let into the country? But Sandel didn't answer his own question. Instead, he probed audience members for their opinions, and over the next hour pressed them on their fundamental moral stances, encouraging the participants to listen to, and work through, differences of opinion.

The outcome was not consensus, but a profound insight; the debate about immigration is actually a debate about what it means to be a citizen. What are our obligations to our fellow citizens, and those who aspire to be?

2017 LaFontaine- Baldwin Lecture - Michael Sandel

(Institute for Canadian Citizenship/Alyssa K. Faoro)


Michael Sandel and audience members discuss what Canadian citizenship should be based on

Faisal: I don't know what moral principle there is that says that I have more of a right than anybody else to be here right now, [more] than anybody else in the world.  I wish I did. Honestly, I wish I did — it would make living easier because we could justify our existence better. But it seems to me completely arbitrary, who ends up where in the world — anywhere on the planet. Citizenship seems to be completely arbitrary. And I think we have to start there in answering the question.

Michael Sandel: And if it's morally arbitrary, a matter of luck, where we land on the planet, then Faisal says on what grounds can we — having been lucky to land in an affluent, agreeable place — claim the right to keep other people out who weren't so lucky in where they landed? Do I have it right, Faisal?

Faisal: Correct.

Michael Sandel: All right. Stay there. Stay there. I'll keep the microphone. And I want to hear someone who disagrees with Faisal on the issue of principle. He says he can find a principle that can say why since landing here is a matter of luck. The lucky people have the right to keep the less likely people out who has a reply to that question.

Tim: My name is Tim and I don't have a disagreement about the basic moral stance about more openness. But I think countries, particularly democracies, do have a right to determine who enters and [who] can't enter. As a matter of democratic principle, if we are to be a self-governing people, regardless of whether we're fortunate or not to be here, citizenship is allocated on different bases. But typically, birth in the places [is] one of them. And this is the LaFontain-Baldwin series — if we weren't allowed to overthrow the colonial yoke, the imperial yoke, [of] the external oppressor, then we would have had no moral claim to become Canada. So I think that the criteria we use should be broader and different. But I think … we have a right to determine who can enter, just as I think we should have a right to determine that foreign corporations should not be able to sue an investor, right?

Michael Sandel: OK… Faizal is still at the microphone. What do you say to Tim who says the principle that you're missing is the right — the sovereign democratic right — of a political community to govern its own fate, to decide who comes. What do you say to that argument?


Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. His writings — on justice, ethics, democracy, and markets — have been translated into 27 languages. His course "Justice" is the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on television.  It has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world, including China, where Sandel was named the "most influential foreign figure of the year."


Web Extra | Watch the 2017 LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture by Michael Sandel


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**This episode was produced by Greg Kelly and Mitchell Thompson.