Sandel identifies a gap in the diminished place of moral argument on the political left since the 1960s. The problem now, he says, is that there's too little moral argument in politics, not too much.
Indeed, when challenged to validate the role of religious views in American politics, Sandel suggests that the response is not to try to silence these theological moral perspectives but instead to elicit and present alternative moral arguments, and to do so across the full spectrum of political issues, looking beyond abortion and stem-cell research to identify and challenge moral positions on the economy and welfare.
"We shouldn't adjudicate in advance what sources are relevant or appropriate to public argument," Sandel says. Public debate should not be abandoned out of fear of opposition or an assumption of inevitable failure: when it comes to finding consensus, he says, "we can't know unless we try".
Turning to Britain's progressive politics, Sandel identifies a need to relate abstract political goals, such as equality and social justice, with the real lives of citizens. He argues that these concerns must be "anchored" in the Labour tradition, of "solidarity and civic virtue and community". This, Sandel says, produces a "more concrete, textured, story-rich politics".
Where did these abstract goals come from? Sandel contends that, following the market victories of the Thatcher/Reagan years, the Blair/Clinton governments which followed failed to investigate or challenge the fundamental idea of a market-based political economy. This, he says, was supported by an academic community that increasingly saw economics as the social science of human behaviour, and thus as a more abstract and ambitious field of study, and a hubristic misinterpretation of the end of the Cold War as crowning one specific model of free market capitalism as the winner.
The success of market capitalism, Sandel contends, has allowed us the comfort of seeming to be able to avoid moral debates and the need to exercise judgment about what "the good life" is and how to achieve it. These debates are not easy, he concedes: there are "powerful interests arrayed against public discussion of markets". Sandel finds hope for change, if not outright optimism, in the public desire for better politics, in people's "impatience with the existing terms of public discourse".
Lastly, on the question of state versus private provision of services, Sandel argues that "we should ask hard questions about outsourcing public services to private companies" but that we must look at the matter on a case-by-case basis, on empirical grounds, not as "a matter of faith", in order to "be alive to the nuances of public purpose". We need, he says, to break the habit of seeing "the state and the markets as the only possible instruments for achieving the common good" and ask "what should be the role of civil society in trying to work out a politics of the common good?"
Michael Sandel and Nick Pearce were participating in a debate for Juncture, IPPR's journal of politics and ideas.