Thanksgiving is around the corner for Americans. It’s a time for food, family, and thanks, but also arguments about politics. This used to be tolerable to some, but now the country feels so polarized that many find it too exhausting to engage in discussion with those who have different views.
This is just one way in which the unhealthy divide in this country manifests itself. Even if there is a sense in which we have always been so divided, it’s toxic. And one side is not more to blame than the other. Liberals think conservatives are certifiably insane and vice versa. Neither camp seems willing to locate or concede any common ground. The government shutdown we dealt with this time last year is one consequence, thanks to our pathetic “do nothing” congress. Obama and McConnell have recently vowed to get along better, but we can only hope these aren’t empty promises from Washington.
Regardless of how the new congress behaves, we should do better. Often we cast our moral and political opponents as evil and unreasonable, rarely making a serious effort to understand why anyone would think differently. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, most everyone is motivated to do what they think is right. Liberals, for example, err when they “understand conservatives as motivated only by greed and racism.”
Haidt and others think this is the key to getting along better. However, even if Haidt is right about how liberals and conservatives think about morality, understanding moral disagreements as grounded in fundamentally different moral values would presumably make disagreements more entrenched. As Jesse Prinz points out, this would make political debate across parties “a bit of a charade,” as one’s opponents must be viewed as either morally bankrupt or ignorant. But we shouldn’t underestimate the common moral ground we have and how often the sticking points are non-moral facts.
Consider abortion, still one of the most contentious issues in America. Liberals and conservatives tend to agree that we shouldn’t sacrifice a person’s life for mere convenience. Much of the disagreement is about when a fetus becomes a full-blown person, with basic inalienable rights. Conservatives tend to believe that life begins at conception. Many liberals instead say that, while a human organism may begin at conception, a person does not exist until at least the organism can suffer. If the abortion debate hinges greatly on when personhood begins, then this is not primarily a dispute about fundamental moral values.
Other moral debates likewise seem to boil down to non-moral facts. Liberals and conservatives can both value social stability, for example, but disagree about whether same-sex marriage is likely to erode it. The great opposition to human cloning is often due to misunderstanding the science (e.g. cloned individuals are not mindless servants or even exact copies of people, but rather very much like twins). Often people just have different beliefs about the likelihood of various threats (e.g. climate change, mass shootings, government take-over, terrorist attacks) and about the best ways to avoid harm (e.g. whether capital punishment deters crime). Other disputes stem from different religious beliefs about the nature and origin of the universe (consider the debate over creationism in schools) or about whether a practice (e.g. divorce, contraception, homosexuality, premarital sex) is unacceptable to one’s deity.
Conservatives and liberals might seem to exhibit fundamentally different values concerning social programs. But often these disputes turn on disagreements about the severity of lingering racism or innate differences between the sexes. These beliefs effect, for example, the heated debates about the killings of unarmed black men (in Ferguson and elsewhere), welfare, and equal pay for equal work. Conservatives care about fairness and people’s wellbeing, but the opposition to special treatment for certain groups often seems driven by the non-moral belief that racism is no longer a substantial problem in America. (This is precisely what led the Supreme Court last year to overturn a core part of the Voting Rights Act.)
The point is this. If moral disputes often turn on disagreements about non-moral facts, then we are in a better position to get along. First, with common moral ground, we can focus on the arguably more tractable issues. Second, even for those numerous disagreements that will undoubtedly remain, a proper perspective on one’s opponents can aid in compromise. No longer believing the opposing side is evil or insane should make one much more willing to debate the issue in a civilized manner and concede certain points, even without agreement on all the non-moral facts of the case. Compromise, not agreement, is often the more attainable goal, especially given our stubborn nature. (Congress, take note.)
Perhaps the primary prescription is humility. Whether we should increase taxes on the rich or whether disadvantaged groups are entitled to social services, it all depends a great deal on complicated historical, sociological, and economic facts that are difficult to settle. Deferring to experts is often required, then, even if that means the moral verdict may be influenced by our best science, for example.
So this Thanksgiving remember that, just like you, your fellow citizens on the other side of the issue also want to do what’s right. And by and large they value life, liberty, fairness, happiness, family, kindness, respect, honesty, property rights, desert, justice, just like you. More than half the battle is figuring out how these values apply to the complex issues of our day. We should expect in advance that reasonable people may disagree.
Department of Philosophy
University of Alabama at Birmingham