Why we can’t agree to disagree

Richard Deeble explores not so much why we talk past each other when it comes to issues of the day but why we don’t seem to talk much at all. Surprisingly, he looks to the Kurdish Regional Authority in Iraq for a solution.

This post first appeared in CRUX (Te Kupenga’s random zine), August 2015.

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When Alisdair MacIntyre’s  After Virtue was published in 1981 it appeared not so much in the form of a reasoned critique of contemporary ethical theory than as a philosophical hand grenade aimed at an array of ethical frameworks that had emerged in liberal capitalist societies since the Enlightenment. More than trying to advance a new ethical framework, MacIntyre attempted to argue that the entire discipline of ethics, defined as the attempt to develop a rational moral framework independent of a tradition or communal identity, was a failure.

To put it bluntly, emotivism argues that ethical judgements express what we feel is right, rather what is right in reality… The problem here is obvious: no one can readily agree across cultures and traditions what these terms actually mean.

Far from establishing some sort of universal basis for morality let alone human rights, MacIntyre argued that post-enlightenment approaches to ethics had failed to achieve what they ultimately claimed to do: to independently ground ethical decision making in reason rather than tradition or metaphysics. This was illustrated most obviously in the rise of emotivism; an approach to ethics that regards ethical judgements as statements reflecting matters incapable of being verified. To put it bluntly, emotivism argues that ethical judgements express what we feel is right, rather what is right in reality.

It has been over twenty years since MacIntyre wrote After Virtue and yet his conclusion about the state of ethics appears even more relevant to public discussion. While some, like neuroscientist Sam Harris, have attempted to appeal to science as an ultimate arbiter of moral truth, discussions of ethical importance largely tend towards an emotivist bent. The paradox of this, however, is the manner in which these ethical value judgements are reified into universal absolutes. Yet this absolutism quite flies in the face of the way ethical debate actually occurs within our society. Debates over contested issues such as human rights ultimately hinge on language such as ‘dignity’, ‘compassion’ and ‘justice’. The problem here is obvious: no one can readily agree across cultures and traditions what these terms actually mean.

For example, in the discussion around assisted suicide the word ‘dignity’ signifies entirely different things to different parties. Those supporting the right to assisted suicide use the word to refer to one’s self perception in relation to being able to physically and mentally appear and behave in a ‘dignified manner’. Yet opponents of assisted suicide may understand dignity as a human quality independent of one’s self perception or mental or physical ability. Dignity here is understood as referring to one’s inherent worth that exists regardless of one’s mental or physical  state. Appeals to ‘dignity’ without any supporting tradition to provide context to its meaning will ultimately result in a stalemate.

The result is a form of engagement in which whoever shouts the loudest and manages to sell one’s vision ultimately wins. Peculiarly, the result of such politics is not intense and vitriolic debate, but an absence of any debate… The general trend by major players has been to avoid debate or discussion completely

The result of such a stalemate is exactly the kind of Nietzchean approach to politics which MacIntyre argued was typical of modernity. Political and ethical decision making becomes rooted in the desire of one group’s will to power over another rather than in a negotiated but lively discussion around the goods a community holds in common. The result is a form of engagement in which whoever shouts the loudest and manages to sell one’s vision ultimately wins.

Peculiarly, the result of such politics is not intense and vitriolic debate, but an absence of any debate, As J. D. Hunter has observed in relation to the so called ‘culture wars’ of American politics, the recent strategy of groups on either side has been to avoid lengthy discussions of their positions and to instead focus on their appearance;
attempting to  appear ‘normal’, while painting the opposition as extreme. 

It is true that the same type of ‘culture war’ surrounding issues like sex and gender has been far less prominent in New Zealand, largely because of the fairly marginal status of the Christian Right in New Zealand society. At the same time, when issues such as abortion have briefly featured in New Zealand political life, with the exception of political parties like Greens and Conservatives, and lobby groups like Family First, the general trend by major players has been to avoid debate or discussion completely.

This trend of either avoiding or disguising ideological posturing with pragmatism while assuming a universality of shared values continues into other more commonly mentioned ethical issues within New Zealand society. It has been a notable feature of discussions concerning moral challenges such as child poverty, inequality, elder care, and criminal justice. Politicians on all sides seek to avoid any hint of appearing to have an ideological bent while seeking to speak for the subjective but seemingly universal feeling of ‘what all New Zealanders really think’. As in the United States, the common denominator is absence of civil discussion and disagreement over matters of ethical importance.

If MacIntyre is correct about the current state of ethical and political discussion within liberal-capitalist societies, what might be the solution? MacIntyre’s own argument for a revival of Thomas Aquinas’ interpretation of Aristotelian virtue is unlikely to appear attractive or convincing today within New Zealand society. However, one key aspect of his analysis which remains particularly helpful is his analysis of ethical traditions.

All ethical frameworks, even those assumed by liberal political philosophers, are ultimately situated within a tradition which sets out principles and assumptions by which one makes ethical decisions. A tradition does not specify every single rule or ethical judgement, but rather functions as an historical and theoretical context within which ethical language is understood. If we think about ethics as akin to a particular dialect or language, tradition assumes the function of grammar in making our ethical sentences make proper sense. If our ethical statements exist beyond the organising command of our tradition’s grammar, it follows that they will fail to make sense.

Yet this approach should not be seen as an attempt to justify a kind of moral relativism in which all ethical traditions are considered equally valid. All successful ethical traditions must attempt to justify their view of life externally in a rational fashion, while also attempting to be internally consistent as a tradition. It is on this basis that we may choose to abandon, modify, or take on a new ethical tradition. The problem with most liberal approaches to ethics is not that they attempt to be reasonable but that they assume such appeals to reason can operate independently of tradition in timeless, universal fashion. According to MacIntyre, there is no form of rationality that exists independently of a wider tradition.

The advantage of a tradition-mediated view of ethics is that it allows a richer and more honest discussion when we have profound ethical disagreements.

In abandoning the pretension of ethical universality it allows us to engage and understand alternative ethical traditions on their own terms. In a word, it can help engender humility and consideration of rival views.

This does not prevent us from disagreeing or raising objections to rival traditions; on the contrary, such an understanding will likely result in more disagreement. Secondly, such an understanding allows for us to build a politics on the basis of a common good — a community shared across traditions.

Where might we find examples of such discussion going on? One surprising example is the emerging civil society within the territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Authority in Iraq. Despite being besieged and located within the reach of some of the most illiberal and violent regimes in the world, including the now notorious Islamic State,  the form of civil society emerging there is one which is uniquely tolerant. Despite the population being 94% Muslim, the KRG is pioneering a uniquely tolerant approach to both ethical and religious disagreements in the region. Despite the variety of incommensurate attitudes Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis may hold, the approach of the state towards minorities has been to defend their own right to practice and speak publically within general society and even within public education.

It is important to note that this is not the brand of ‘tolerance’ commonly spoken of in the West, in which dissent or strong disagreement is effectively discouraged. Rather, it is a far messier, contested and yet increasingly respectful climate of discussion in which multiple traditions exist. Thus exists a great irony: that the West might potentially learn more about toleration and hospitality towards the other from a predominantly Muslim region which was itself invaded only fifteen years earlier in the name of neo-liberal freedom and democracy.