When I think of the First World War, my mind leaps almost immediately to an image of trenches. Here, in places like Verdun, the Somme and the Marnes, millions of soldiers fought a bitter, bloody and seemingly futile war, with measly gains. It’s no wonder that this war bred such despair among the generation of veterans who fought in it.
Though we’re now 100 years removed from that horrid conflict, we find ourselves in a new trench warfare: the modern public square. As our debates grow increasingly bitter and futile, with little advance (in the way of persuasion) by either side, despair proves tempting once again.
Many feel this temptation most acutely in the realm of our moral debates. Take abortion, for example. Nearly 50 years after Roe v. Wade, we continue to debate the biological and moral status of the human fetus, with huge numbers of supporters on either side. Not only that, but there are intelligent people on both sides. (Some, of course, will dispute this last claim. Another day, another challenge.)
We might summarize the above description by saying that our moral debates face a three-fold challenge: they are persistent, pervasive and involve apparent peers. Faced with such a challenge, many people gravitate toward one of two conclusions: they either abandon their belief in objective moral truth, or else they abandon any hope of finding it, inferring that such bitter stalemates should make us agnostic.
Some may wish to resist these conclusions, believing that there is in fact moral truth and that we can in fact know it. Nonetheless, they may wonder how to support such a position in the face of objections. I share this twofold belief in the existence of moral truth and its knowability. Though I’m sensitive to those who grow skeptical or agnostic in the face of disagreement like ours, I believe we can avoid such skepticism once we lay bare the sources of our disagreement.
Specifically, I think many of our moral debates stem from a prior or deeper disagreement along worldview lines. We view the world in fundamentally different ways, disagreeing about, e.g.:
– Whether God exists and what such a God, if existing, is like
– Whether this God has communicated reliably to human beings and which supposed text is authentic
– Whether we have a defined nature as human beings or are instead self-constituting
– Who among us (if anyone) really knows the answers to the above sorts of questions
I believe our disputes over these sorts of beliefs account, in many cases, for the kinds of moral disagreement we find downstream in the public square.
This suggestion shouldn’t surprise us, since we live in pluralistic society, a place where people of different worldviews live and work alongside each other. Yet, it should also prove hopeful. For, if I am right about the source of our moral conflicts, then this opens the possibility of avoiding the forms of skepticism noted above. Maybe, just maybe, one could maintain one’s moral beliefs and work with conviction in the public square, despite the reality of persistent, pervasive, peer disagreement.
So I’ve argued, anyway, in a recent essay in the journal Philosophia Christi. Those with an interest in these questions may find my reflections helpful (or in need of criticism!). I welcome both sorts of feedback.