Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Moral agreement and ethical debate

On abortion, doesn't the issue arise as a borderline case amongst people who agree on certain basic principles? I know that people who disagree on abortion seem miles apart, but think about it. They agree;

1) In cases where the child is already born, it should be a crime to kill the child if it is, say, an inconvenience (which children invariably are).

2) We should be concerned about the quality of life as well as about life itself.

The question is whether the case of a fetus is in any way relevantly different from the case of a born infant. No one questions the value of life or the value of the quality of life. They just disagree about whether the fetus is relevantly different from infants and toddlers. But there seem to be agreed-upon moral truths that both sides accept without question.

Sometimes we get so busy arguing about the ethics we disagree about, that we forget the huge number of moral judgments on which most all of us agree. But of course it would get boring in ethics class if we were to argue about, let's say, the ethics of serial murder.


Blue Devil Knight said...

I think that's one reason many at this blog, when we start to have detailed arguments about things like global warming (perhaps boring to them) tend to sink the discussion by bringing up meta-ethics. For some reason the relatively inconsequential topic (when it comes to first-order ethical claims) of metaethics tends to motivate people much more than run of the mill ethical arguments that we actually have a good chance of agreeing on given enough facts and logic.

Andrew said...

I think you hit the issue right on the head Victor. The problem (as is the case with most political issues) is that either side is arguing over different things.

I wrote about this a while back, in a post titled:

All Conservatives Are Actually Pro Choice

For some people though - they aren't attempting to understand the other sides argument - they just want to win. Understanding is of far greater value than agreement though - as it can lead to respect, (something political arguments greatly lack), even among people who disagree.

Mark Frank said...

I sometimes wonder why there is disagreement over metaethics. We all use moral language and apparently mean the same thing when we say "right", "wrong", "ought" etc. So why the disagreement? If morality is actually a reference to an objective property, how come I don't know that is what I really mean? If morality is actually an expression of a subjective point of view, how come the objectivists don't know that when they use moral language?

Shackleman said...

I don't understand the point of this post. Agreeing to agree that we agree on some things gets us precisely no where.

In the case of abortion, the disagreement is the only thing that really matters. Agreeing that it's wrong to kill baby humans is easy. Defining what a baby human is is the hard part, and is the source and cause of all of the political/ethical/legal/moral debate.

Further, if one defines a baby human to be a thing which is still inside the womb, then killing it by unceremoniously and barbarically dismembering its body will understandably elicit some rather passionate responses.

Would we expect people to be level-headed if "abortion" (complete with gory dismemberment) extended to 2 year old children? (as some insane people argue for)

*I* personally do not think there's a moral equivalent between a 2 year old and a zygote. But some do as a result of how they define "baby human". So what I'm doing here is not arguing for moral equivalency, I'm illustrating by analogy, the reason why some cannot approach this debate dispassionately. I'm not so sure they should be asked to be dispassionate about it either, even if I don't define "baby human" the same way "they" do.

Victor Reppert said...

The point I am driving at is the fact that very often moral diversity is used as an argument for moral subjectivism. But my point was that we spend a disproportionate amount of time arguing about borderline cases like abortion, because it goes without saying that we all think it's wrong to be rapists and serial killers. This lends, it seems to me, an unjustified credence to the subjectivist argument.

Shackleman said...

Interesting clarification Dr. Reppert, thank you. I see your point now about the weight it brings to subjectivists. Your analogy however doesn't seem to fit here (IMHO) because rape and serial murder are not legal, hence there's no need to debate them. Also, I'm not sure what you mean by abortion being a "borderline" case. Surely whether or not one views it as "borderline" depends on how one defines "human baby", no?

It's not a borderline case for those who think abortion is equivalent to infanticide. It's the reason they can't just drop it to pursue and argue for other less passionate subjects of debate.

The time we spend arguing is commensurate with the import we give of the topic, no?

Victor Reppert said...

It is disproportionate in the sense that we get our idea of what ethical thought is about when we debate controversial ethical issues. We are right to place the attention we do on issues that are controversial, but we sometimes overlook the forest we don't argue about for the trees we do argue about.

Abortion is a borderline case in that the status of the fetus has to be debated. The question "Are fetuses persons, who are entitled to a right to life?" is surely more difficult to settle than "Are Jews persons, who have the right to life?"

Shackleman said...

I don't mean to be thick here, but I still don't get it. The reason why we don't spend time trying to answer the question "Are Jews persons with the right to life", is because *no one* is asking the question. *Everyone* agrees that they are (certain insane persons notwithstanding). So there's no definition here to argue over.

Further, there's no legal debate either because it's not legal to murder them, be they persons or not. And since there is no disagreement on the definition of "Jewish Person", and no legal article to contend with, there is no ethical or moral debate to be had either, meta or otherwise.

I guess what I'm saying is, based on your post title "Moral agreement and ethical debate", I remain unconvinced that "Moral agreement" necessarily helps us in "ethical debate". I suppose it can in some cases, but not in others and abortion is a good counterexample.

There is moral agreement that it's wrong to kill baby humans simply because they can be a nuisance. But this agreement does not help us with the ethical debate of how our laws should reflect this moral agreement because the definition of "baby human" is in dispute.

I imagine other topics of debate would fit this category too. Everyone agrees that it is immoral to destroy the earth. However that agreement doesn't help us with the debate about carbon emissions because not everyone agrees that carbon emissions will cause the destruction of the Earth.

I'm sure there are other examples too where moral agreement doesn't help us with our ethical debates.

Shackleman said...

Hmmmm, reading your reply again I think we're talking past each other.

I *think* your point is that we should concentrate on the things we agree with so that we can make some progress.

If that's what you're saying then I missed it earlier---(thrice).

That being said, at some point we have to have the intestinal fortitude to contend with the subjects that are not easily agreed to. They tend to be the more important ones anyway.

Returning to our test case of abortion, if we couldn't agree on the specific point in time a fetus becomes a human, perhaps we *could* agree that they are at least humans in the 9th month of pregnancy. If we could agree on that much, then we could outlaw abortions that occur in the 9th month.

Is that closer to what you're intending? Am I finally getting it?

Victor Reppert said...

I never criticized us for paying attention to difficult moral issues. What I said was that when it comes time to assessing what we agree of disagree about morally, the area of disagreement is much smaller than the amount of debate and the enormous difficulty in settling that debate would indicate. The person who uses the argument from moral disagreement tends to exaggerate the agreement, because the idea is that we as humans are, for the most part, miles apart in our value systems.

Now I think the subjectivist probably has stronger arguments in his arsenal. One argument that the subjectivist could use is the argument from lack of method. But for some reason, a lot of people try to read subjectivism off of the fact of moral disagreement simpliciter. And that doesn't work.