Since the advent of the blog, many billions of pixels have been darkened by discussions of morality. While it is true that we all have a natural desire to know what the good life is, it seems clear to me that most discussions (and, yes, battles) over the nature and universality of ethical norms are less motivated by a desire for truth than by the clash of political wills. It is rare to find a Socrates in the virtual marketplace of ideas, or anyone who sees conversation as a means to find truth. In fact, everyone’s insistence on his own position against all opponents can lead to the illusion that moral disputes are fundamentally insoluble.
In the world of textual exchange, it is all too easy to imagine interlocutors as floating pieces of thought or expression, and to generate caricatures of unseen people based on the visible text they produce. This is why internet debates go sour so quickly: I am not talking to you; you are not talking to me. Instead each of us is talking to a projection we have of the other, frequently as stupid and ugly and wicked as we typically imagine a person of those views to be.
Fortunately, these projections are wrong at least 90% of the time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the conversation any, and it doesn’t change the object-people or flawed-logic-generators we think we’re talking to into visible human beings with interests and struggles the same as the rest of us. Worse still, this combative approach to moral apologetics tends to blind us to weaknesses in our own argumentation. So much so, that some of the most common arguments used to defend traditional morals don’t really stand up to scrutiny.
The root problem with most arguments is that they are designed as tools to convince and not as modes of understanding or instruction. To illustrate this, here’s a (somewhat outlandish) thought-experiment. Imagine that you are a jolly college student with a great fondness for drink, and you have recently discovered that large groups of people think the practice of imbibing central to your life is morally diseased. So you go to the internet to talk to these people and inquire into their reasoning. You may not be determined to reject everything they tell you, but you have no incentive to accept the conclusions of an offered argument — in all likelihood you’ll be disposed to look for faults in it.
Now suppose that you, with bottle at hand and computer in lap, enter into two discussions with two different anonymous teetotalers, Mr. Grimm and Ms. Myagi (both totally fictional personages). You encounter them on two different websites in the midst of discussions about drinking. Mr. Grimm informs you (with apocalyptic zeal) that alcohol is evil and drinking damnable, pointing to numerous scriptural passages, cases of assault, addiction, driving accidents, and the general impairment of reason. You read these arguments and all you can see are logical holes. In fact, you’re so entertained by the stupidity of Mr. Grimm’s standpoint that you pour yourself an extra drink to celebrate and savor it as you reply. Not only are you entertained by the opportunity to intellectually dominate someone by showing how bad their reasoning is, but you feel a new sense of loyalty to the bottle, which this ignorant zealot has tried to forcibly remove from your life. End of discussion, beginning of flame war.
Meanwhile in the other discussion, Ms. Myagi likewise claims that the consumption of alcohol is immoral, and you ask her for her reasoning. In response, she asks you what you think the basis of morality is, and you give a vague reply about maximizing good consequences while protecting everyone’s freedom. Ms. Myagi admits that your answer is intuitive, but suggests that these principles are too vague to actually yield a moral framework, and says that actually she thinks morality is based on something everyone can agree on: that happiness is the best thing. You’re surprised and kind of disappointed that you can’t immediately roast her, but maybe you’re interested enough to continue the discussion.
As it proceeds, Ms. Myagi helps you think through what happiness is and what it is not, with the aim of showing how virtues and rational moderation are instrumental in the attainment of happiness. The longer this conversation continues, the more you and Ms. Myagi share your views of things and begin to understand each other. The common ground between you grows, and even if you aren’t ultimately given an argument against drinking, you leave the conversation with a sense that teetotalers aren’t all irrational judgmental bigots. They may even have some good ideas. In other words, Myagi has succeeded in changing your way of thinking (and consequently your way of living) where Grimm merely inspired defensive anger. Obviously in this thought experiment the specifics of teetotalism can be replaced by matters pertaining to any of the more common moral issues, concerning, for example, human sexuality, currently disputed on the web. (Incidentally, I am not a teetotaler.)
What’s the difference between Mr. Grimm and Ms. Myagi? Why do some conversations turn out so much better than others? There are clearly many factors, but I think three rise to the top. First off, a conversation can’t go anywhere unless the participants are talking to each other. People need to know each other not just strategically or as types, but as people. One of the fundamental facts about humanity is that we only move toward what we judge to be good. If one person never experiences another as anything but a belligerent purveyor of moral condemnations, those condemnations will never win him over. Never. Our thoughts and actions are swayed by emotion and prejudice: reluctance to capitulate to an arrogant conversation partner has driven many people to embrace ridiculous views. Most people in flame wars aren’t aware of how much they agree with each other, because they never bother to try and find common ground or affirm the truth in each others’ perspectives.
Secondly, explanations don’t work if they don’t make sense. As Thomas Aquinas says, a poor argument in defense of the truth does nothing but make the truth look stupid. The good explanation works from basic principles to particular conclusions in a way that actually makes sense to the person hearing it. Arguments like this come from a deep understanding of the topic at hand — those who don’t have a full understanding of what they’re talking about should be careful to qualify what they say or keep silent. Humility about one’s knowledge of things is a good safeguard against errors. It also helps us realize when we need to study for our own benefit to remedy faults in our thought.
Finally, pedagogy trumps belligerence. Arguments aren’t arenas in which points are scored, but classrooms in which we help each other grow in understanding. Our moral debates have become so unproductive because we treat them as wars over particular conclusions, rather than organic explorations of the truth flowing from first principles.The good teacher works by knowing his students, meeting them at their level, and drawing them patiently up to a fuller understanding of things. Education is about reconfiguring a more difficult truth into something easier to understand so that another’s mind can grasp it. No one is persuaded by defeat or humiliation. Instead, people are won over through the use of ideas they can understand, through patience and good cheer. Two people can fling valid arguments at each other all day, but without a spirit of friendship and charity underlying their conversation, persuasion is unlikely. But with charity there are multiple advantages: a mutual deepening of understanding, fewer battle scars, and perhaps even some new friends. Argument can, in the end, be transformed from the work of soldiers to that of apostles.