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Harvard professor speaks at the Federal Supreme Court on public ethics and democracy

 Monday, December 05, 2016

"Unless citizens can have confidence that elected politicians seek to do the best for their lives, albeit imperfectly, democracy can not work." The statement is from Professor Michael J. Sandel from Harvard University in the United States, who delivered the "Public Ethics and Democracy" conference on Monday at the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF).

The speaker came to the Supreme Court at the invitation of Justice Luís Roberto Barroso who, at the beginning of the event, observed that one of its characteristics is to explain with simplicity the most difficult questions of the current philosophy. Barroso pointed out that Sandel, as well as author and consecrated professor, is a militant of his own ideas. "He travels the world to foster quality public debate, raise people's general awareness of ethical issues," Barroso said. "He is a militant of the cause of humanity, one of those people who strive to make the world better."

The professor argued that without public confidence in the ethical behavior of public office holders, democracy does not work properly. He understands that public ethics has two dimensions, one related to the behavior of the occupants of public offices and the supervision of their activities, and another to the norms, values and habits that citizens accept and demonstrate in their daily lives. In both cases, the professor explains, law has a role to play.

According to Sandel, one of the ways that the judiciary contributes to democracy is to interpret, render ineffective, or determine compliance with laws. The professor notes that, historically, many legal philosophers have been concerned that the judiciary could be in conflict with democracy because when courts interpret or repeal a law passed by people's representatives, they are acting against the majority, since they were not elected to the post. "By interpreting the constitution, judges are not frustrating or opposing democracy, but by exercising it, making it possible," Sandel said.

Another way, explains the teacher, is to apply the law in a similar way to all citizens. According to him, the idea that all citizens are equal before the law is essential for democracy. But he highlights a third, less obvious, way for the judiciary to contribute to the improvement of democracy by providing an example to citizens about publicly discussing some of the most difficult ethical and political issues facing society. "If they do their job well and promote in a successfully way public debate about the major ethical issues a society faces, the courts will be helping to foster the cultivation of civic virtue," he said.

Sandel recalled that we are living in a period in which there is a lot of anger and frustration among citizens in many countries with the functioning of democracy and a disappointment with politics in general, covering both politicians and parties. He believes that this is at least partly because people do not believe that politicians care about them, that they are interested in responding to the wishes and needs of the population.

For the teacher, there is a lack of confidence that politicians and parties aim at the common good of society. "More than that, there is frustration with the void of political discourse. The inability, in democratic societies, to address the major issues on which citizens are concerned. The inability to address ethical issues, values, justice, equality and inequalities, the sense of the common good, about what it means to be a citizen, "said Sandel.

The professor cited as examples the vote that decided the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Community and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. For Sandel, the sensation of surprise of the elites, the media, politicians and businesspeople about the two facts reflects the distancing of these sectors and ordinary citizens, whose frustrations and anger, he believes, have been growing for a long time.


In addressing the fight against corruption in Brazil, the Harvard professor said that the form of corruption faced in the US is more subtle, but not less important. According to him, the modality that occurs in his country is not exactly that which breaks laws or accepts kickbacks, but rather a type of "legal" corruption that admits that large amounts of money, coming from large and powerful corporations can flow to Political campaigns. He points out that this is because the Supreme Court has repealed a law that imposed limits on donations because it understood that this constituted a violation of freedom of expression. "Which of the forms of corruption is more pernicious to democracy, the explicit one, which involves the receiving of bribes, or the one in which the money that corrupts politics is legal?"Sandel asks.

According to him, the legislation has a contribution to democracy and public ethics by accountable to elected political agents who have engaged in corruption, and that this is an important step in building trust in democracy. But it also considers it important that members of the Judiciary consider their work to be even more ambitious, by giving examples through their opinions and conduct, "and to be an inspiration for citizens to think about their own role in democracy and their responsability to engage in discussions on major issues of justice, the common good and what it means to be a citizen," he concluded.



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