1. Introduction

2. Dialogue and Other Political Theories

3. Dialogue Misconceived

4  Why Two Kinds?

5. Urgent Dialogue

6  Ongoing Background Dialogue


8. Bibliography

9. About this paper and the author


by Johanna Goth

1. Introduction

Moral disagreement poses many interesting questions and problems.  In some situations it is something to ponder over, something to spark our curiosity and provoke introspection.  Coming into contact with those who have moral disagreements with us or learning about those who would have moral disagreements with us if they were around today presents us with challenges that we would not otherwise face.  This is because the nature of moral training in most cultures makes us quite inclined to take for granted the obviousness of our own moral judgments, as they are inculcated in us rather than argued to us.  After a certain point there is no "because..." response which can be given to a "why?" query about a particular moral judgment, and for each of us there are certain bedrock moral claims which we ourselves would not sensibly question unless we came across people in the world (or in history) who do not appear to share them.

Moral disagreement with cultures of the past also raises interesting questions about responsibility and awareness.  The widespread acceptability of slavery in many past societies throughout history raises questions about what the groups which condoned or encouraged slavery could have been expected to know or do.  We might wonder whether they had the concepts available to them to come to the view that slavery was wrong, or, to put it more bluntly, to come to realize that slavery was wrong.  What seems clear is that without a concept of human rights, it certainly would be much more difficult to establish the wrongness of slavery—it is less clear what conclusions could be expected of a culture in the absence of that concept.  We might also wonder whether or not they were able to conceive of alternatives.  Perhaps they might have recognized the lot of the slave as unfortunate, but thought there was no other way for their society to flourish without the institution of slavery.  After all, life in most societies tends to have some unavoidable unpleasant experiences.  How many of our own social misfortunes, which we now passively accept as being unavoidable, will our descendants look upon with shock that we could tolerate such things?  For example, it is quite conceivable that a few generations from now, people might look back on our tolerance of the poverty of millions in a nation of incredible wealth as a blatant example of moral barbarity.  We do not tend to think that poverty is a good thing, but neither do we take strong measures to eradicate it.

At any rate, in examining such societies, we are often eager to point out why they were wrong in their moral judgments and why they should have known better, especially if we for the most part respect that past society a great deal.  I would suggest that this has more to do with justifying our own moral standards rather than really assessing their responsibility for their faulty moral judgment.  For the question that is posed to us by every moral disagreement we encounter is "Why not that way?"  What is so special about our own values and frameworks of moral beliefs?  It is very easy to judge things and courses of action against a particular standard; it is much more difficult to judge the standards themselves. 

But moral disagreements are not only or even primarily matters of introspection.  They are often causes of conflict.  There are cultural groups around the world whose practices for one reason or another are abhorrent to us, and vice versa.  Clitoridectomy, head-hunting, and public corporal punishment for criminals are all practices which most Americans cringe at.  We frown upon such practices and have a tendency to condemn the societies that endorse them.  However, the conflict is not too great in such cases, because it is intersocietal rather than intrasocietal.  We and those most close to us are not deeply affected by the practices in a far-off society—the few heated conflicts that do arise happen when a member of our society becomes affected by the practice or one of the members of the society in which the practice is endorsed appeals to us in some way.  In the absence of such a collision between the other society's values and our own, we are likely to coexist peacefully and not become involved.  We may be willing to accept cultural relativism as an account of the difference, or perhaps even as an excuse for not wanting to become involved.  At any rate, there is no real reason why two societies which are for the most part distinct cannot operate on two different moralities.  However, where moral views affect foreign policy, there cannot be too much moral divergence between different societies without causing trouble—there needs to be some sort of moral agreement on how nations ought to act towards each other in order to have a stable international community.

The most problematic sort of moral disagreement is that which occurs within a pluralistic society like our own.  In a society which contains many very different cultures and a lot of people who belong to these different cultures to varying degrees and thus have vastly different personal identities, social understandings, conceptions of the good, and "comprehensive doctrines"—i.e., moralities and worldviews—the relations between individuals, groups, and the state are bound to be affected by the differences.  The most clear case is when the area of controversy deals with matters of law, public policy, or institutions. We can for the most part only have one law, one public policy, one set of institutions on each organizational level (e.g., federal, state, local) within a society, so they must govern all people within their domain regardless of the differences between them.1 Another clear case of moral disagreement likely to result in conflict is controversy about a matter in which the practice of one group affects other groups—the latter have an interest in the practice of the former, and may try to hold the former accountable in some way.  The one group can affect the others directly by infringing on the other groups' rights, or indirectly by influencing the society which the other groups have an interest in.  But these situations do not exhaust the possibilities.  If we have to work and live in close contact with those who differ from us morally, we will be inclined to be troubled even by our less confrontational disagreements, especially if we have to deal with each other to a great degree.  For as human beings in relationships, the moral status of those whom we are involved with matters a great deal, being essential for trust and all the other necessary ingredients for human interaction.  It becomes increasingly difficult for two individuals to work together the more their moral sensibilities diverge, regardless of how little their relevant practices affect each other's lives or society.  This paper will focus on ways of dealing with this third sort of moral difference—moral difference within a society. 

A whole variety of current controversies, some mainstream, some fringe, fit into this category.   The current debate about the morality of life and death, for example, spans the controversies of abortion, family planning, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and capital punishment.  There is a broad spectrum of views on sexual morality, most prominently reflected in the current controversy over homosexuality. There are disputes about what sorts of war (if any) are morally acceptable and in which contexts they are acceptable.  There is controversy about what sort of welfare a society should secure for its less-fortunate members; how much food, shelter, education, employment assistance, and health care we ought to insist upon as a minimum for all members of our society, and the corresponding question of who is going to pay and how much they are going to pay for these and the other things that the state attempts to provide.  There is disagreement about how much disparity between the standard-of-living of its richest citizens and the standard-of-living of its poorest a society ought to endure.   There is disagreement about the morality of capitalism, consumerism, and many other economic "-isms."  There is controversy about what sort of basic education children ought to receive and what the purpose of that education ought to be.  There are disagreements about gun control and gun ownership.  There are many controversies about the arts, in film, theater, music, literature, the visual arts, and all other genres, about what counts as morally acceptable and morally unacceptable art, and there are controversies about how "decency" should be weighed against artistic freedom.  There is a lot of disagreement over the ethics of environmentalism—how much ought we to care for nature or for future generations, how much should our freedom be limited (voluntarily or involuntarily) in order to protect the environment, how drastic should the measures we take to preserve our vital natural resources be?   How much do endangered species matter if at all?  There is disagreement about whether the killing of animals for food (and hence the consumption of meat and the meat industry), or at least the apparent cruelty involved in the production of certain meats like veal, is morally legitimate.  More generally, there is disagreement about what the moral status of animals or the earth should be.  There is a lot of disagreement over issues relating to imbalances of power and privilege across racial, ethnic, and gender lines—disagreements about affirmative action, quotas, and the value of diversity.  There are disagreements about what sort of reparations, if any, we owe to current cultural groups who are in large part descended from peoples our ancestors systematically abused or dispossessed, such as African-Americans and Native Americans. 

The list could obviously go on and on, and it indicates the pervasiveness of moral disagreement in our society.  Perhaps someone would question my labeling of all these sorts of controversies as "moral," but I think the designation is for the most part correct.  Yes, these controversies have political and practical facets to them as well, but the core of the conflict over each issue seems to be a moral one. 

More often than not, these sorts of disagreements have been handled in less-than-ideal ways, leading to confrontations of polarizing rhetoric, the widening of cultural divides, the demonization of one's opponents, and in some cases, outright "culture war."  In the cases where the disagreements involve laws or public policy, our democratic institutions often seem to be the site of a massive competition or tug-of-war—legislation and policy seem to go one way or another and oftentimes back and forth based on the relative strength (in numbers or in money or in political sway) of each party in the disagreement.  I have no problem with qualified majority rule, but it seems that something more is needed, or at the very least something more would be extremely beneficial.  When majorities make no effort to justify their preferences, values, and actions to the disagreeing minorities, disagreement does not fade but rather festers, despite the fact that society has "made a decision" on the matter.  Other sorts of disagreement may be readily conceded by the minority (the loser in the disagreement), but moral disagreements seem rather unsusceptible to such acquiescence in the will of the majority or the government.  To use a rather striking example, Roe v. Wade clearly did not end the abortion controversy, and  today neither the pro-choice side nor the pro-life side in the abortion debate is likely to gracefully step off the battlefield if a particular branch of our democratic government or even a referendum of the people were to make a decision for the opposing side.  Unless one subscribes self-consciously to a particularly blithe version of moral relativism, one is likely to care a great deal about seeing good done and evil not done in society, especially in matters of public policy, regardless of the way majority opinion goes.  As a society we have "decided" on many of the aforementioned moral controversies one way or another in the cases where they are matters of law and public policy, but the disagreements still loom large nonetheless, with no sign of resolution anywhere on the horizon given our current practices.  Moral conflict seems to be indicative of a failure to stitch together the astounding diversity of social and cultural groups in America into one society.  Multiculturalism is one strategy which attempts to reconcile in some way the tendencies towards unity and difference.  In this paper I intend to argue for another:  dialogue.  Not, of course, in opposition to other strategies, but in addition to them. 

In one sense, dialogue seems like an incredibly obvious, perhaps even trivial, answer; however, I would suggest that those who are impressed by its obviousness consider how rarely it has been successfully utilized, or how rarely there have actually been attempts to implement it at all.  We think of "talk" as a way of mediating or resolving conflicts, but we don't take talk seriously. (Gutmann and Thompson 1996, p. 12)   I intend to take talk seriously here.  I want to examine where dialogue and discussion might fit in a democracy, as well as how it should work:  what its structure should be, what principles it should be governed by, and what its aims should be. 

My argument is going to be for a particular form of dialogue as being a just, fair, and otherwise attractive way of addressing moral disagreements within a pluralistic society.  I am not going to argue from results; that is, I am not going to try to recommend my view to the reader by trying to show that this kind of dialogue will produce this or that decision on a particular issue.  Instead, my aim is simply to defend the dialogue as being fair in and of itself, as being better able to make sense of our notions of respect for fellow-citizens and fairness than the alternatives.  Part of what is to follow is an implied criticism of precisely that motivation (of trying to pick a method of dialogue which will ensure a particular outcome in a deliberation) being used in evaluating different methods of resolving disagreements; if we fully appreciate the nature of moral disagreement and desire to extend suitable respect toward those who disagree with us and share a society with us, then we ought to look for solutions with an eye towards treating us both "equally" or "neutrally" in some sense, rather than with an eye towards choosing a method that is rigged in our favor. 

In the remainder of this chapter, I will try to give an answer to the question of why we should consider dialogue as a way of handling moral disagreements.  Then, in the next chapter, I will argue that dialogue can avoid some of the problems posed by some traditional versions of liberalism and communitarianism in their attempts to deal with moral disagreement.  After that, I will examine two recent theories of dialogue (or deliberation); that belonging to Bruce Ackerman and that belonging to Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, in order to assess how well they fit our needs as a method for dealing with moral controversy.  Finally, I will propose my own alternative.

Throughout this paper I will use words like "conversation," "discussion," "discourse," "debate," "deliberation," and "dialogue" almost interchangeably to refer to talk about (or through) disagreements among citizens.  Obviously each term has different connotations.  I tend to use "conversation" to describe talk that is not so directly outcome-oriented as that which I refer to as "deliberation," for example.  Nonetheless, since I want to understand each of these types of talk as species of the same genus, I generally want to emphasize the similarities between each of these kinds of talking rather than what distinguishes them from each other.  In contrast, the dialogue philosophers whose theories are being examined here generally stick to one word—Gutmann and Thompson use "deliberation" almost exclusively, and Ackerman similarly uses "dialogue" almost exclusively. 

Why should we consider dialogue?  It seems that this would be an obvious question.  What substantive difference does it make in our political and social life or in our political philosophies?  I have just claimed that we should take it seriously, that it makes a difference, but have not yet said much about what sort of difference it might make. 

There are two basic sorts of reasons for considering dialogue, which fit into two basic arguments for dialogue.  The first is a pragmatic argument—we should consider dialogue seriously because it can do good things for us, because it has beneficial consequences for a society.  The second is more of an argument from political principles—we should consider dialogue seriously because it is the best way of implementing and preserving our most cherished principles of how political life should be organized and justified. 

The first argument for dialogue claims that it is the best available way of achieving certain valuable social goods.  Ackerman, for example, suggests that dialogue is the only way to find out if peaceful coexistence among moral disagreers is possible.  (Ackerman 1989, p. 9-10)  This is a rather extreme example, but there are plenty of others.  Perhaps one of the most important is that dialogue makes a degree of social harmony possible that otherwise wouldn't be.  Moral disagreement is, after all, a large source of social conflict and tension.  Since such disagreement by its very nature tends to be rather passionate, fierce, and tending toward the extreme, a way of controlling it and confronting it seems quite necessary.  Furthermore, it is far from clear what methods besides dialogue could manage to control it.  After all, even if we have agreed on a fixed non-dialogic procedure for making political decisions, this will not go far towards addressing the underlying social problem of moral disagreement.  Disagreeing about moral-political issues isn't like disagreeing about who should win the presidency—we aren't likely to accept the majority decision as having decided the issue once and for all.  One might think that a cultural group's feeling that the government is being dominated by a moral worldview that is a rival of its own is a real problem.  People in such groups are likely to feel, rightly or wrongly, that they do not "own" the decisions that their government is making.  Hence that government might seem more like a tyrannical foreign power—and from a cultural perspective, it very well may be.  Dialogue could serve as a corrective to this sort of alienation and open up an avenue for peaceful resolution of moral conflicts.

One might think further think that dialogue is the best way to embody some of our most cherished political ideals—it may make for a more satisfactory political philosophy.  For example, one might think with Gutmann and Thompson that dialogue is an expression of mutual respect among citizens for citizens as citizens.  (Gutmann and Thompson 1990, p. 134)  This is because dialogue tends to take the views of moral minorities seriously; it attempts to justify its conclusions to those minorities.  A society with dialogue, then, holds itself accountable to cultural minorities in a way that a society with majority rule, for example, does not.  After all, majority rule often looks like a numerical version of "might makes right."  Dialogue helps to mitigate this by holding the majority accountable to the minorities, and by thus indirectly protecting the rights of the minorities to some degree.  The majority cannot merely do whatever it wants—its options are limited by the requirement that it must actually (not hypothetically) justify its actions to the minority. 

Furthermore, dialogue seems to be the best way to pursue the level of agreement idealized by most democratic political conceptions and perhaps some non-democratic ones as well.  "Social contract" political theories, for example, presume that showing that the state's authority is legitimate involves demonstrating that all the citizens under certain conditions would agree with that particular conception of the state and accept its demands on them.  Most of us have contractualist intuitions, at least politically if not morally—we think that we ought to justify ourselves (or at least that the state ought to justify itself) to all our fellow citizens.  Many think there is something not quite right with "imposing" one's morality on someone who does not share it.  In general, then, our liberal and democratic intuitions put a high value on agreement and on making decisions acceptable to all.  In the absence of a substantial concept of public reason, or a significant overlapping consensus, deliberation and conversation seem to be the best available ways for trying to come up with policies which are acceptable to all.  In other words, in areas in which we actually do not agree (i.e., most moral-political disagreements), dialogue seems like the best way of pursuing the most democratically legitimate solution.  We do not need to go so far as to say that community negotiation determines morality, or that deliberation somehow inherently produces moral truth, in order to think that there is a value to agreement and a problem with the unjustified imposition of morality.  Laws and policies can be just and unjust in different ways—and it seems that one of the criteria of a sort of justice is that laws and policies be acceptable to all citizens.  (This doesn't preclude unanimously-agreed-upon policies from being unjust in other respects.) 

I believe these two sorts of reasons, practical reasons and reasons of principle, are enough to make serious moral-political dialogue quite an attractive alternative to our current ways of dealing with moral disagreement.  In the next chapter, I hope to make the merits of dialogue even clearer by contrasting it with the most common versions of two major political philosophies—liberalism and communitarianism.

1. Societies governed by a caste system would to some degree be an exception to this rule, but the problem just emerges again on that level.  Those who disagree with the law and policy prescribed for their caste cannot have their own law and policy. [back]

[top | next]