Rehabilitating Public Moral Discussion

A lot of public discussion over hot button issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, euthanasia there involve a definite moral dimension such that proponents and opponents hold that each is either right or wrong and that general society’s position on the matter is a good one or a bad one. However, often these public discussions occur free from any appeal to what is right or wrong in the case at hand since appeals to moral judgements are taken to be judgemental and reflective of a private morality that not everyone accepts. Hence, unless everyone or at least the majority of people affected by the particular issue agree with the moral position in question, it is not one that can inform the public debate. Accordingly, these hot button moral issues are decided not by appeal to what is right or wrong about the particular situation, but by an appeal to the democratic majority in question, whether that majority is expressed by a political party that promotes the issue as party policy or by a referendum.

What is clear is that the notion of morality is one that has been largely dismissed to the private realm and not as having any force to justify doing something that is right (or avoiding something that is wrong) if its being right (or wrong) does not accord with the general will of the people. The state of the public debate reflects something that Alasdair McIntyre and Elizabeth Anscombe focused on when discussing modern moral philosophy, and this is that it is as if we are in a post-apocalyptic era wherein we use the same terms as a previous era such as true, good, right, just etc, but they do not have the same meaning or force that they once had. Accordingly, there is no common conceptual backdrop (or philosophical psychology) against which moral claims can be defended or indeed disputed. With that situation in place, all moral positions are perceived to be motivated by emotions associated with agreement and disagreement, i.e. love and hate. Thus if you agree with something you are taken to approve of it or to like it, and if you disagree you hate it (and this very easily is taken to be love or hate for the one who holds the viewpoint). Moral judgements then are often dismissed as follows: if you don’t like x, don’t have one, but don’t stop others who do from having one.

Yet the latter approach is quite problematic when it comes to certain uncontroversial moral judgements; take murder for instance. A principled moral stance against murder is not simply a dislike for murder, but the judgement that there is something about the action which is wrong; and it is not wrong simply because the victim of murder does not want to be murdered, since even if the victim did want to be murdered the judgement could still be made that the action itself was wrong. Moral philosophers will typically analyse such an action against the backdrop of a moral theory independent of the tastes of the philosopher himself and which expresses the objective nature of moral judgements (by that philosopher’s own reasoning). What is often missing from contemporary public discourse is appeal to a rigidly worked out moral framework that informs the moral judgements which occur in such discourse. Hence the dismissal of opposed views as motivated by hatred or some other negative emotion.

Just as McIntyre, Anscombe et al sought to reorient modern moral philosophy by (re)introducing the conceptual framework that informed a lot of moral talk, and having done that proceeded to justify various moral judgements, so too in our contemporary (non-specialist) public discourse we need to (re)introduce a conceptual backdrop by which disagreements about moral issues can be evaluated.

In his book Man and the State, Jacques Maritain reflects on his experiences of drafting the universal declaration of human rights, and he notes that despite disagreements of theoretical justification, it was possible for all of the parties involved in the drafting to come up with a number of rights that they took to apply to all humans. So it is possible to come to agreement on practical outcomes of disputed moral positions without those involved compromising the moral framework to which they are committed. In the case of the declaration of human rights, all parties involved realised that they had to reach some sort of conclusion, and they sat down and talked it out. They didn’t denounce each other publicly, or take to social media (there was none) to laud their own positions. They discussed, no doubt heatedly, the vexed issues and managed to produce the universal declaration of human rights.

The above experience indicates that in whatever way agreement is to occur, it has to occur within the context of discussion of the moral viewpoints involved, not by focusing on the conclusions generated from those viewpoints. If we focus on conclusions, we label others as pro-this or anti-that, and thus we do not give them a chance to articulate why they are pro or anti whatever they are. By focusing on conclusions we do indeed react emotionally to what we either like or do not like regardless of how reasonable its foundations are. On the other hand, when we focus on the reasons for the conclusion, it is possible to find common ground, and to map out clearly where the divergence occurs. When we know that, we are not as quick to denounce our interlocutor, but rather we can see how he or she has been led to adopt that position.

The individuals involved in drafting the declaration of human rights were not involved in political lobbying, running for office, orchestrating a rhetorical tennis match; they had work to do in finding a practical solution to vexed moral questions, and they sat down and hammered out the issues. We need to do the same in our public discussion. Radio interviews, social media debates, parliamentary debates etc are good as far as they go, but very often they descend into one-line burns that only serve to focus on conclusions and not the reasons which justify those conclusions. What we need is a public space where reasons justifying moral judgements are discussed without acrimony. This can take all sorts of forms such as reading groups, school philosophy programmes, public discussion groups etc, but what it cannot be is faceless. A public space within which moral discussion takes place must allow for one rational individual to talk to another rational individual; it cannot have either give their own two cents to a third party who in turn relays these messages back and forward and the discussion goes nowhere. The lack of any such public space, or even an acknowledgement for such, wherein justifying reasons for moral judgements are discussed is leading to a lack of knowledge of why one’s opponent concludes as he or she does; and this leads us to focus only on the conclusions whereby we define our positions as anti-this and pro-that, it does not illuminate us as to why we disagree or where we could possibly agree.

So in order to rehabilitate public discussions of morality, we have to move beyond the rhetorical tennis match and engage with those reasons which justify our views, disagree with those reasons when we do, and get into a discussion of why we disagree (and where) and to pursue the discussion wherever it goes. If the impasse over some of these hot button issues is not resolved by this, at least the public discussion of them will be a lot less acrimonious and divisive.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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  1. Pingback: Noble Disagreement in Moral Matters | Iona Institute NI

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