Skip to content

Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizenship - Morality in politics

Updated Monday 8th June 2009

In the second of the 2009 Reith Lectures, Michael Sandel considers whether there is a role for moral argument in politics and maintains that it is not always possible, or desirable, to decide public questions while being neutral on moral questions in Morality in Politics

civil partnership ceremony Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images

Listen to the lecture in full

What is the role, if any, for moral argument in politics? Some say none. In pluralist societies, people disagree on morality and religion, so politics and law should, ideally at least, be neutral with respect to those controversies.

According to this view, citizens should set aside their particular moral and religious identities when they engage in public discourse, and offer reasons that everyone can accept.

In Lecture 2, Sandel makes the case for a more expansive public discourse, hospitable to moral and even religious argument. The attempt to keep morality and religions out of politics arises from a legitimate fear – the worry that religious fundamentalists, for example, will impose intolerant and coercive laws and practices. But Sandel argues that it’s not always possible to decide public questions while being neutral on moral questions; and even where it’s possible, it may not be desirable.

Consider, for example, some of the hotly contested social and cultural issues of contemporary politics: the debates over abortion rights, stem cell research, and same-sex marriage. Some argue that we should resolve these debates, not by delving into the moral and religious disagreements that underlie them, but rather on the basis of neutral principles of freedom of choice and non-discrimination. But Sandel tries to show why these issues can’t be resolved on neutral grounds. We can’t avoid delving into the underlying controversies.

What, then, would a more morally engaged public discourse look like? It would not only address familiar disputes about sexual practices and reproductive choices. It would also take up a broader range of social and economic questions. A public debate about the moral limits of markets (as discussed in Lecture 1) would be one example. A renewed debate about the moral and civic implications of inequality, and about the mutual obligations of citizens, would be another.

In short, a more robust, morally engaged public discourse – reaching economic as well as social and cultural issues – is an important element of a new citizenship.

First broadcast: Tuesday 23 Jun 2009 on BBC Radio 4

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?