The Nation, 17 May 2010

A phrase I like to use is “moral reasoning.”  What I mean by this is that there should be ways of thinking about moral questions that make it possible for people who disagree with each other to come together in conversation.  In a society where people often find themselves poles apart about pressing issues of the day, merely agreeing to disagree is not always an option.  And in a pluralistic society, approaches to morality that leave people with nothing to do but issue commands or strike poses won’t get us very far.  Real conversation might.  In some cases conversation makes it possible to find agreement, and in others it makes it possible to find peace amid disagreement.  Of course, it’s far from certain that moral reasoning of the sort I would like to see become a universal habit is even possible, but I don’t think it’s been shown to be impossible.  In fact, I suspect that I have engaged in it myself from time to time. 

Historian Tony Judt doesn’t use the phrase “moral reasoning,” but he’s been thinking about the question.  Here’s something he says in an interview from this issue of The Nation:

In my second marriage I was married to someone who was a very active American feminist and very anti the antiabortionists. I would find myself listening to her angrily say that abortion is a good thing and these people are crazed fascists and so on, and I’d think, This conversation is taking the wrong turn. What you have here are two powerfully held moral positions, incompatible socially, backed by different perspectives. But it’s not a question of one of them being immoral and the other being moral. What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy… Then you could learn to think of difficult moral issues as part of social policy rather than just screaming at each other from either side of a moral barrier. Then we could reintroduce what look like religious kinds of conversations into national social policy debates.

From Katha Pollitt’s column: “In the topsy-turvy world of the Christian right, any restrictions on their collective sectarian power [are] a denial of individual rights.”  Pollitt frames her argument in legal terms, but one might say that she has identified a breakdown in moral reasoning.  Americans who want to see a separation of church and state and those who want the state to subsidize some forms of religious expression can’t really talk about what they most care about when they talk with each other.   

Stuart Klawans went to the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s festival of Lebanese movies about the Civil War.  I’ll list a few of these I want to remember for potential future viewing: Our Imprudent Wars (documentary, 1995); A Perfect Day (2005); Falafel (2006); and My Heart Beats Only for Her (2008.)  He also mentions a couple of non-Lebanese movies, notably Bahman Ghobadi’s portrait of Tehran’s underground music scene, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009.)


  1. lefalcon

     /  May 2, 2010

    Abortion and the relation of church & state seem like two good examples of a whole range of different controversial issues where the entire public discourse has frozen into a dreadfully pathetic and absolutely non-productive stalemate.

    When it comes to the legality of abortion, marijuana, and prostitution … I have been maintaining for years that the opponents are simply not dealing with reality. Specifically, they are assuming that it is possible to fundamentally alter deeply-rooted human behaviors by means of bits of legislation. Marijuana and prostitution have been illegal since time immemorial – yet they both endure as stalwart pillars of society. Similarly with abortion: Legislation can’t eliminate it.

    So I think this is an interesting idea, raised in this post, that we really need to have these discussion, first and foremost, as “stewards of society.” In other words, we can foreground as the chief criterion, “What is helpful or beneficial to society?”

    Anti-abortionists may be many things, but certainly one of their most salient characteristics is that they act like spoiled children bent on indulging their own individually-held sanctimonious opinions at the expense of society as a whole.

    We tend to filter any contentious social debate through the prism of “individual rights” instead of emphasizing a pan-societal concern. Thus, Christians piss and moan about not being allowed to ram their convictions down everyone else’s throats, at every turn … as if they possess some precious “right” to do so … as if to deny them access to all governmental and publicly-funded contexts is somehow a transgression, a victimization.

    I definitely agree that it would be a more fruitful approach to look at proposed policies on the basis of how they will affect everyone … rather than being enslaved to some sort of constructed, imaginary “absolute morality” which must absolutely be conformed to, regardless of what its detrimental (or entirely non-effectual) impact will be.

  2. acilius

     /  May 2, 2010

    I think I should let anyone who reads this post know what I cut out of Judt’s quote:

    What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy, so that abortion is a terrible thing and a necessary thing, and both statements are true. You see what I mean? With decent medical services and proper prophylactic facilities and real contraceptive education and proper support for young people, particularly in poor areas, abortion would not be nearly as big an issue as it is.

    I disagree with this completely. Judt seems to be saying, first, that we should all agree with each other; I don’t share that view. I value disagreement. Second, he’s saying that what we should agree to is that women should have abortions, but that they should feel guilty about having them. That seems to me to be a thoroughly useless proposal.

  3. lefalcon

     /  May 2, 2010

    Disagreement is inevitable, unless society is populated by robotic clones, lumbering metallic automatons, programmed to have the same opinion about everything. I think the idea that people can hold differing views and – at least ideally – express them at the metaphorical communal roundtable discussion … is fairly widely accepted.

    So maybe there’s something here I’m not quite understanding. Take the abortion issue, for example. I’m totally down with this guy’s sentiment that abortion doesn’t have to be the big issue people seem to want to make it into. Do you really see it as productive to have two sides at permanent, furious loggerheads with each other? I think this particular kind of disagreement is harmful and _does_ need a resolution. It’s not about forcing everyone to conform to some imperious edict handed down from above. Rather, there just needs to be a way of looking at the issue, so that there can be a workable resolution and society can move on … probably move on (unfortunately) to other and equally frivolous debates over further non-issues.

    So I’m unsure about what we’re talking about, anymore. Certainly, human communities require some level of consensus to function. The consensus will no doubt shift over the years and come to crystallize around somewhat different agreements as time wears on. However, a festival of blubbering children who intransigently refuse to accept anything anybody else says … it sounds so unappealing. In contrast to a banana: it lacks appeal \ a peel.

    I doubt whether he _wants_ women to feel guilty about having had an abortion. I think he’s just trying to concede that it’s not an ideal thing.

  4. acilius

     /  May 2, 2010

    Judt isn’t saying that agreement must be imposed, but his example of a productive conversation is one that produces agreement. This is where I dissent. I think people can learn a great deal from a conversation that does not move them closer to agreement, even from a conversation that moves them further from agreement. Judt might agree with this, the overall drift of his remarks suggests he would, perhaps he just chose that one example poorly.

    Also, I do think he is saying, in his example, that women should have abortions and should then go on to beat themselves up for having had them. He says that he wishes people would agree that “abortion is necessary,” which it can’t be if no one should ever have one, and that it’s a tragedy, which it can’t be unless the person involved ought to feel bad about it afterward. Again, I don’t know if this is really his considered view, or is just a casual remark, but that does seem to be the plain meaning of his words.

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