Why argue ethics?

It is widely held that one of the prominent threats to both the well-being of human communities and global security in the dawn of the third millennium is a kind of social disintegration. People find out that there is very little they have in common, solidarity vanishes, and societies fall apart. What’s peculiar about this argument is the ambiguity of the vocabulary. What exactly does the notion of falling apart mean? Is it that the atmosphere of hatred defines the mutual attitude of ideologically-backed groups delimitated by whatever kind of identity-markers? Or, perhaps it refers to the atomization of individuals relying on their disentangled and fragile orientations that Charles Taylor, though in a slightly different context called the «closed world structures».

What’s most surprising about these two senses of falling apart is a very peculiar connection between them. They are not only to a large degree opposing but also both compatible and inherently linked. In recent years, the first sense has been disproportionally accentuated: the whole narratives of the upsurge of the right-wing populism, the new waves of culture wars, the revived rhetoric of ethnic and religious sectarianism have been brought about to confirm the point. Nevertheless, this accentuation is myopic. The reason why it is myopic is that it rests on a highly questionable assumption that people fall apart because they disagree about the matters they find important. Given that assumption – the argument goes on – the broad consensus can be reached either by banishing the matters people consider as important from the public forum, or by securing a tension-proof language of public deliberation on those matters. Otherwise, the conflict inevitably leads to the alienation of the disembedded individual microcosmoi.

But there is a problem hidden in this argument. Contrary to what it presumes, societies do not fall apart because people disagree, but rather because they are not able, not willing, or not permitted to convey and properly run the argument on the points of dissensus.

Consider one of the most prominent fields of disagreement – ethics. Moral value is notoriously a matter of heavy contestation. This is especially obvious when public morality is concerned. What extent of human autonomy is well-grounded? What exactly does human equality imply? Which one of the competing lists of human rights is the right one? What is the tenable scope of animal rights? How effective and justified are the social welfare policies in their present mainstream configuration? What, if any, action should be taken about the climate change? What are marriage and family? When does human life begin and end? Is it always wrong to have a war? These questions are not the questions without answers. These are the questions with many answers. Those multiple answers converge or differ just as do the fundamental rationales upon which they hinge.

It is true that the proponents of a particular theory of morality tend to be reluctant to acknowledge the plurality of standpoints and the presence of the alternative views on the wide scene of the contemporary intellectual landscape. That point noticed by Alasdair MacIntyre explains the striving of various moral standpoints to be a moral standpoint. And yet, it does not make people fall apart.

For one thing, value pluralism implies neither nihilism nor relativism. The lack of an overriding argument for objective moral superiority does not rule out the possibility of objective moral superiority. Values do not exclude the value. Moral truths do not exclude the moral truth, nor do they eliminate the possibility of the moral truth.

Despite the vital necessity of the common denominator or, to put it in the language of liberalism, the overlapping consensus, the disagreement is ineradicable. Nevertheless, even if the debates approach the deadlock, the deadlock is not what makes people fall apart, but the spirit of hostility, mutual accusations, ad hominem arguments, unwilling to engage, and inability to understand.

We need to leave our isolated individual comfort zones and argue precisely in order not to fall apart. There are conditions for this kind of constructive argument to happen. Those conditions are ethical in nature. But it is much easier to come to an agreement from the multiple standpoints on those conditions of argument rather than on the matter of argument. The judgments made from the perspective of utilitarianism and Kantianism will often end up being in tension. But the rationales for concern, honesty, civility, and intellectual responsibility can well be defended from both perspectives.

It is this kind of argument that is needed to face the irreconcilable disagreements of the present day. It is not going to bring about a consensus, but it doesn’t have the ambition to do so. Its actual purpose is twofold. On the one hand, it helps us to test our reasoning and check whether we are justified in holding the judgments we hold. On the other hand, this kind of engagement has an enormous integrative potential, which, unfortunately, is often neglected. It should not be so. In the times of increasing mobility and growing complexity of communicative networks, we should expect to sit at the same table with those whom we have reasons to avoid at best or hate at worst more often than with those whom we like. If this is the case, what other pathways to reconciliation except a good argument do we have?

These are the reasons why the difficult questions should be raised even if they are not always comfortable, the arguments should be articulated even if at the first sight they look divisive, and the theses should be advanced even if they sound unorthodox or insufficiently politically correct. There is no other way to keep robust and healthy public discourse alive.

Ultimately, the fundamental ethical axiom is that all the ethical standpoints are axiomatic. It means that, at some point, the sides are likely to insist on the infallible principle one cannot refute except by insisting on another principle equally infallible. But this is the risk to be taken for it is implicit in the strange mode of being that is called modernity.

About author

Viktor Poletko

Regional Coordinator for Academic Affairs and Programming (EU/European Region) PhD candidate, KU Leuven, Belgium

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