Philosophy: Hard Questions for Hard Times

By Jim Selman | Bio

One of the things I appreciate most about the Internet is
being ‘surprised’ when I stumble onto something or someone that I didn’t know
existed. This weekend a friend mentioned a new PBS series called “Justice
presented by a Harvard professor Michael J Sandel.
A few minutes on Google and I was drawn into a number of online lectures with
students and other audiences on the topic of ‘what is right’ and the importance
of critical thinking in a civilized and democratic society. One blog concluded
that, while his topic is justice, the real point to his teaching is

I have been on a soapbox for most of the last 10 years
saying that one of the biggest threats to our nation’s future and our way of
life is the political and religious fragmentation and polarization that has become
so rampant in America. Professor Sandel’s message and teaching is aimed
directly at how to have a civil discourse about difficult, perhaps
unanswerable, moral and ethical questions. His response to the cynic or those
who think that intellectual reasoning is too ‘theoretical’ is that whether we
like it or not, each of us is living the answers to the tough questions every


He is very clear that questioning and mutual respect doesn’t
mean some form of cultural or moral ‘relativism’ where “everything goes”. In a
civil society and in our individual lives, we must make choices. And conscious
choice is always based on some set of assumptions and interpretations—usually
passed down to us through our culture, our education and our family. The
challenge, he would suggest, is to distinguish what we’ve been taught and even
what we believe from what we really think if we take the
time to listen to the arguments for and against a given proposition and choose
an answer for ourselves. At the end of the day, a choice is a commitment, an action. If we don’t think through the underlying reasoning behind our choices, then more often than not we’re not acting—we’re reacting. And that is the beginning of irresolvable conflict and mindless defense or evangelizing of ideas and beliefs with little or no regard for the consequences on the community as a whole.


Eldering as a way of thinking about mid-life leadership is based on the notion ‘wisdom in action’. Our vision is for the Boomer generation to take responsibility for our society and our world and “clean up the mess” before we die. This vision includes acknowledging and appreciating the social, artistic and technical
miracles and progress of our era, as well as confronting the social and environmental challenges created by all this progress. Moreover, it is about thinking critically about how each of us observes the world and participates in creating possibilities and breakthroughs in every arena of life.


As a college professor, Michael Sandel enjoys a platform
from which to speak. He is using that platform to make a difference—to say to
each of us that we too make a difference every time we engage in conversation. We can appreciate that the power of our arguments is not in our emotional
attachment to our points of view or the strength of our belief, but in careful
and deliberate reason. We may still disagree with others, but we can recognize
that our disagreement is a choice and not proof that our argument is right and
another is wrong.  And, most importantly,
if we ‘lose an argument’ in the course of a specific debate or moment of
political resolve, we can continue the inquiry without needing to shout down
the opposition or destroy the society that permitted and facilitated the debate
in the first place.


© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.