ICE blogs

July 6, 2009

Focus on common good in BBC Reith Lectures

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 8:34 pm

Robert Beckett assesses the recent, important series of BBC Reith lectures given by Professor Michael Sandel


Professor Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, has completed a series of four Reith Lectures in the UK and USA. The four prestigious events can be viewed, or listened to, through the BBC website (link below), which offers both podcasts and printed transcriptions. In his lecture series, Michael Sandel proposes a set of themes which have much in common with those held important in communication ethics. These themes include ‘genetics and morality’, ‘morality and politics’, ‘markets and morals’, concluding with a presentation on ‘a new politics of the common good’.


Michael Sandel, in his final lecture, argues that the repatriation of ethics is a task of civic engagement, a Habermasian insight, while he argues cogently that market mechanisms are not able to fulfil or displace this task of civic engagement in politics. Unfortunately, he does not call on an entire catalogue of postmodern ethical discourse that suggests how market rationalism based on individualism is put into question by new understandings across many domains of knowledge.


In the physical sciences, the science of inter-connections, of chaos and nano-technology suggests a far more dynamic picture of a physical universe than simplistic models of perfect information and rational demand. In the face of social or economic complexity, it might be asked, how do you select options if you don’t have feedback that is sensitive to all the aggregates? Likewise, constructionist and poststructuralist ethical insights suggest a quality of human perception founded in interdependence, shared cultural traditions and perceptions that express far more than economic competition and rationalism.


Language which appears as the essential means to engage with our shared reality also contains many social, ethical and moral traditions that economics, as it is presently constituted, does not address. The value of human life is Michael Sandel’s example. One reading of Michael Sandel’s plea is that to comprehend the massive complexity of postmodern lives, people require a communication of ethics that can deal with economics as one domain of human experience, and certainly not the critical or primary domain, unless that is agreed after the type of engagement that Sandel demands. Sandel, it appears, could use communication ethics to support his vision for a renewed public engagement.


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