12/06/2011 10:33 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2012

Getting Real About the Presidential Reality Show

More people than ever have been tuning in to the Republican presidential debates. Critics claim it's all show biz, that the debates are playing as little more than a new form of Reality Show -- a contest, a drama -- who's up this week? -- who's banished the next? That verdict looks sure to be upheld with news that none other than Donald Trump will be moderating a debate at the end of the month.

But considering the main way voters get their info -- from propagandistic 30-second TV spots -- this increase in debate viewership is a very good thing. Or at least it could be if questions would go deeper -- beneath the surface of mere talking point positions -- to the moral or philosophical reasoning process candidates use to arrive at their views.

Consider the controversial issue of torture. Following the first debate on foreign policy a couple weeks ago, critics push backed hard against candidates who said that waterboarding is an acceptable interrogation tactic -- or who casually used the phrase "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" as a euphemistically-handy way to dodge the real issue.

So one might have expected a little further probing in the next national security debate. But the recent CNN/Think Tanker contained no mention of torture at all.

Considering the legal, moral, and strategic questions surrounding torture, more illumination would have been welcome. But even more revealing would have been questions that sought to determine just how and why candidates came to their views. To see if their reasoning is based on any time-tested principle of moral or political philosophy, and if they could articulate that principle in a concise but substantive way. Perhaps even a thought-provoking way. That would give voters much deeper insights into the candidates, and also help ordinary citizens think through tough issues like torture at the level of depth they require.

For example, rather than simply asking: "do you approve of waterboarding?" -- why not ratchet up the stakes, so we can really get to the heart of the matter.

Borrowing liberally from the amazing course on "Justice" at Harvard (by eminent philosophy professor Michael Sandel -- consider questions like these:

Suppose a man is suspected of planting a radioactive bomb in New York City, which will explode in twenty-four hours unless the police are able to find it. Should it be legal for the police to use torture to extract information from that suspect?

If so, you must be more Mill than Kant. Explain.

Moving on -- what if it were another person, not a suspect themselves, just someone believed to have info about the suspect? Could we torture them?

And by torture, I mean Jack Bauer-style torture, you know, bullet in the kneecap, pull out a couple teeth or fingernails. Not euphemisms. But torture. Would that be okay if you really believed you'd get the information you wanted?

Then take it to the next level -- suppose the police believe the man who has planted the bomb will never reveal the location unless an innocent member of his family is threatened. Should it be legal to torture innocent family members if we think that's the only way to get the suspect to talk, and therefore save hundreds or thousands of lives?

Or is that going a step too far? If so, what's the moral distinction?

These are difficult questions, and demand substantive answers. Hopefully candidates for president have them. Shouldn't we know? Wouldn't this help us predict how they'll actually act in office?

As such, this line of inquiry should be pursued well beyond the topic of torture, and applied to all major issues. For instance, at the root of our political polarization is a profound disagreement about the proper role of government. Everything with a price tag or value judgment flows from there. This argument is as old as America itself. Older even. So why not ask candidates to elaborate on the fundamental political philosophies that guide their positions on income redistribution and taxation and market regulation, etc.

Their answers would be of immense value. Not only for voters in the next election, but for the intelligence of our political discourse in general.

Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, says voters are "tired of traditional political vocabulary, and crave the genuine and the authentic." Well, authentic is another word for real.

So -- is America ready to get a bit more real about selecting candidates for the highest office in the land? Are debate organizers? If so, let's hope upcoming debates feed America's desperate hunger for grown-up thinking and problem-solving by its would-be leaders. Let's hope they shed some serious light not only on the big issues, but also the hard choices involved in policy formation, and the real reasons that candidates take the positions they do.

That's a reality show we could all cheer for.