03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hard Questions In Hard Times

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 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 'citizenship.'

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 day.

He is very clear that questioning and mutual respect don'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, 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 beliefs, 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. 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.