Moral Disagreements: What good are they?
Protracted moral disagreements in our nation – and within the Church – continue to provoke anger and division. I don’t see any signs that resolutions to the most hotly debated issues are anywhere in sight. Name the issue – (abortion, the limitations on coercion in obtaining vital information from prisoners, sexual ethics, the death penalty, etc.) – each side to the arguments believes that they are in the right.
Is there anything good that can be taken from these often rancorous disagreements? It’s especially hard to watch various parts of our own beloved Episcopal Church become embroiled in protracted lawsuits. Where can the Church find a Gospel message to preach about the fact of ongoing, long-lasting, moral disagreement?
I have been reading Thomas Aquinas’ 13th century theology primer, The Summa Theologiae. Alongside this text I have had the able assistance of the moral philosopher, and Thomist interpreter, Alasdair MacIintyre. I am especially indebted to MacIntyre for an essay entitled “Aquinas and the extent of moral disagreement” (in Ethics and Politics, Cambridge, 2006).
In the section of the Summa on the Natural Law, Thomas defines the Natural Law as the way in which reason gives all human beings access to dependable knowledge about God and His creation – even without the benefit of the special revelation contained in the Bible. Some people have argued that what this means is that all we have do is look to nature to find how God intends things to work. This is not a very compelling argument. There is quite a bit of redundancy and variation represented in the natural order. It is not very easy to extrapolate from this data unless one were to be very selective in choosing what is “natural” and what is “unnatural.”
In fact, Thomas teaches us that the Natural Law applies to the human intellect itself in the way it interprets reality. Human reason is reliable in the sense that reason is consistent and does not contradict itself. Which is to say that proper reason seeks the truth and is not satisfied with anything but the truth. In a phrase that should warm the heart of any modern rationalist, St. Thomas actually defines sins as “transgressions against reason.” He says sins are caused by confusing a particularly less important desire for something that is truly the best for us. And he goes on to advise that a remedy for sin is deliberation with others about who is in the right.
In his essay on moral disagreements Alasdair MacIntyre, following Thomas, suggests that it is important to consult with those with whom we disagree the most. Obviously, these discussions are fraught with dangers because the emotions engendered by strong moral disagreement can devolve into even greater disagreement and animosity. As a guide for the participants in a discussion about who is in the right, MacIntyre proposes that each side must make a commitment to engage in deliberations according to rules that will promote the use of proper reason in directing the discussion toward finding out the truth of the matter.
These rules of engagement make practical sense:
1. Each person in the discussion needs to be free from the fear of the threat of harm in order to be able to tell others the unvarnished truth.
2. Everyone must make a common commitment not to endanger each other’s life, liberty, and property.
3. In addition, so as to demonstrate the desire to engage in rational deliberations, everyone must make a commitment not to take innocent lives, inflict harm on the innocent, or show disrespect for the property of others.
4. Everyone in the debate needs to be assured they can expect that the others will tell the truth and keep promises.
5. The communal life of the participants must be secured from internal and external threats, and an authority to deal with these threats needs to be assigned.
If we reflect on the conditions under which rational deliberations over moral disagreements should be conducted, we find that they are exactly Aquinas’ precepts of the Natural Law. And these also happen to be the very precepts embodied in the moral code revealed in the Ten Commandments*. The good news we can take from this is that no matter how distasteful the current climate is regarding various disagreements (sexuality, abortion, etc.), at least within the Judeo-Christian tradition the debates are carried out presuming that each person in the arguments has the obligation to speak the truth, and to be free from coercion or physical harm.
Not all traditions meet this standard of rationality. I was talking with a family member recently, and in the course of our conversation he wondered why he has been unable to successfully debate the issue of the stoning of women for adultery with his Muslim friends. He has found that even moderate Muslims, who otherwise have assimilated Western attitudes concerning equality and justice, are afraid to broach this subject. In the end, we both agreed that fear of harm is the most likely cause of this reluctance to either disavow the stoning of women or even to discuss the issue.
It is true that Christians don’t always live by the Natural Law concerning the conditions for rational dialogue. But we all know the standards, and are able to hold each other accountable to them. It is important that we convince the most moderate and rational voices of Islam to recognize that reason demands that moral disagreements be resolved in discussions that allow people to freely seek the truth, without fear of reprisal. By comparison, the divisions caused by the current moral disagreements within the U.S. remain fairly civil and do not pose nearly the same level of threat to the future of the civilized world. We should take heart that, even when we disagree most, our traditional rules governing the method of our debates allow us to gather together, and discern together, God’s will for us.
Our tradition is based on a form of life grounded in rules that have not been arbitrarily imposed upon us. These rules were given to us by a loving God who wants only what is best for us, and who has also provided us with a moral code designed to sustain a world in which people respect each other. Moral disagreements are not fun, but they provide an opportunity for each of us to give witness to the truth that God is Love.
* See the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, Chapter five – (fifth commandment, re: the family; sixth commandment, re: the sacredness of life, seventh commandment, re: marriage bond; eighth commandment, re: property; ninth commandment, re: protecting truthfulness and the judicial system; tenth commandment, re: inordinate desire).