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Because Telling Another Person They’re Just Wrong Usually Isn’t Helpful

November 13th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Gary Hartenburg

From what I hear, there was a presidential election recently. I’ve also heard that it highlighted (again) some fundamental differences about moral issues that divide the citizenry. Just in case those things are true, and even if they’re not, I thought it would be good to briefly outline a procedure for discussing moral issues with people with whom you might disagree. What I’m about to describe is not a moral theory per se but a way to open and continue a conversation about disputed moral issues.

Let’s start with a basic point of moral philosophy: Good is to be pursued and done, and evil is to be avoided. It’s a really simple statement once you think about it for a minute, and I find that there is hardly ever any dissent about it. Most everyone agrees that we ought to do good and avoid evil.

Careful readers will, of course, note two things about this statement that aren’t straightforwardly clear. First, doesn’t this statement fail to distinguish between “ought” and “is”? Second, what do you mean by “good” and “evil”?

On the first point, the answer is “sort of,” and I’ve been careful to formulate it—actually, I’ve borrowed the formulation from Aquinas—as I have in order to avoid making a commitment about whether you can get an ought from an is. For one, I think that in our everyday conversations about morality, this point isn’t really important. For another, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to not draw a sharp distinction between ought and is. The verb “to be” in Aquinas’s formulation, for example, is stated as a gerund, which suggests that what goodness is means that one oughtto pursue it. But even here, I’ve gone further afield than is usually necessary. In my experience, most people just understand the statement to be true.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa... Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the second point, aye, there’s the rub. What things do you think are good? What things do you think are evil? These questions will raise some hearty disputes, but the disputes that arise from them are important ones. If we are talking to someone with whom we disagree, we should expect disagreement. There may not be a silver bullet way of persuading our interlocutors that they’re wrong, but we cannot lose sight of the point that we must understand what precisely we agree and disagree about.

Here’s a good exercise related to this point (perhaps you can do it in the combox): Set down a short list of kinds of things you think are basically good. Try to keep your list as short as you can, but not too short. It’s not helpful to be Plato in this case. His list of things that are basically good consists of one item: the good itself. Well, thanks, Plato. In like manner, it’s also not helpful, for present purposes, to put down “God.” You’re looking for things that fall between the specificity of “the smell of pizza baking in a wood-fired oven” and the generality of “the good itself.” A traditional list would include some of the following: life, knowledge, friendship, aesthetic experience, and maybe a few others. Really try to keep your list to a manageable size, and don’t simply let it trail off with an “etcetera.” I’ll just mention that one thing that’s often disputed—should it go on the list or not?—is pleasure. Some people treat it as a basic good; others don’t. We should all think about whether it is or not, but not right now.

Suppose you have life on your list. At this point you can go back to the first point—that good is to be pursued and done, and evil avoided—and see how it comes out now that you’ve given it some content: Life is to be pursued and done, and death avoided. You can see that it makes sense to say that life is to be pursued, but what about saying that life is to be done? It’s best to reword that in something like the following way: life-preserving (or life-promoting) actions are to be done. And death-promoting or -dealing actions are to be avoided. Similarly for friendship: Friendship is to be pursued, friendship-promoting and -preserving actions are to be done, and actions that go against or undermine friendship are to be avoided.

From these examples, you might anticipate some complications, and you’d be right. The two main complications, which I’ll just mention now and take up in a later post, are these: If we say, for example, that death is to be avoided, does that mean we can do anything to avoid death? That doesn’t seem right. I can’t do just anything to stay alive, so there must be some limits to what I can do to avoid death. Secondly, I have a limited amount of time and energy, so how do I decide which goods I’m going to pursue and do? Is there a hierarchy among the things I think are basically good?

However, setting these aside for now, let’s return to the example of life as a basic good. Suppose you agree with someone else that life is good but that you disagree on a moral issue such as abortion. Awesome! You’ve got some place from which to start a discussion. In most cases like this, there is, in my experience, a fruitful way to proceed and an unfruitful way. The unfruitful way is to attempt to settle the question of why life is good. I want to be clear that this is not to say that there is no answer to the question of why life is good—though some moral philosophers would think that, perhaps rightly so—but that this line of inquiry is usually not helpful for understanding what really underlies a moral dispute such as the one about abortion.

The fruitful way to proceed—fruitful because it often brings clarity about what I and others truly believe—is to inquire together about what kinds of actions and attitudes promote and preserve life and what kinds do otherwise. If we accept that life is a basic good, how can we best defend and promote it? How can we guard against things that corrupt and destroy it? Are there some things we’d want to do but can’t because doing them would set us against the basic good of life? Conversely, are there some things I don’t want to do but must because failing to do them would be a failure to pursue what’s good? The answers to these questions aren’t always clear, but I find that you can usually sustain a discussion about the basic good of life, which is no small feat these days.