Monthly Archives: April 2021

Humans disagree with each often. Ideally, we try to resolve our disagreements through intellectually honest rational discourse, but sometimes our views are irreconcilable. What do we do then?

Let’s set down some premises to frame this exploration. You don’t have to share them, but the exploration I am pursuing here is when given those premises, what shall we do when true fundamental moral disagreement occurs between us humans – so please take them on board “for the sake of argument”, if nothing else.

Premise 1: We have two example people having a sincere and strong fundamental moral disagreement. And since each has fully embraced their own moral position, giving ground on it is not an option – the two positions are instead diametrically opposed.

Premise 2: For our purposes, let’s presume the best case scenario that both of these people are intellectually honest and rational, where intellectually honest means “wanting to know the actual truth of all things” and rational means “wanting to eliminate all hypocrisies, contradictions, and inconsistencies from one’s own thinking”.

Premise 3: There is no such thing as an objectively true morality that reason alone can demonstrate. Instead, all morality is subjective, with right and wrong describing our feelings about what to strive for and against. Reason can sometimes demonstrate that two moral positions are in conflict, and when that truly occurs a rational person must choose which moral position has priority, but that’s about all the influence reason has in the realm of morality.

So given these three things, how do two rational people resolve a fundamental moral disagreement, despite morality being subjective?

First we should note that many positions seem like moral ones, but are instead actually claims of fact, and like all claims of fact they are either justified or not.

If someone says “God wants women to serve men”, that’s making an objective claim that not only does God exist, but we have reason to know how god wants women to relate to men. It does not say whether we agree, however – one could theoretically think the above was true, and yet disagree with God’s purported position. (Which, by the way, is why even if god or gods do exist it does not “rescue” morality from being subjective. Just because a god may feel one way about a moral issue doesn’t mean anyone else has to agree.)

But if someone says “I feel that women ought to serve men”, now they are taking a moral position on how they feel people should be. (Of course, this is still a statement of fact about what they believe, but just because it is objectively and demonstrably true that they do feel this way does not mean that one necessarily should. This is the is/ought problem that Hume’s guillotine acknowledges, and why morality can never be objective.)

There are many ways in which two people can find sincere and fundamental disagreement in what they each feel ought to be. The “proper” role of women and men as shown above is of course one of them, but there are countless others, including:

° Is all compulsory taxation theft, or do we have a moral duty to contribute materially to the needs of others, even if we don’t want to?

° Is it always wrong to lie? What if a lie is necessary to prevent a greater tragedy, such as lying to enemy soldiers to misdirect them and lead them away from harming others?

° Can the ends justify the means, for that matter – or are we supposed to follow rigid behavioral rules regardless of the outcome?

° Should all people be treated equally, or are there acceptable circumstances to treat some better or worse than others?

° Is punishment moral if it does nothing to prevent future injustice, but is instead merely an act of vengeance? Is it morally acceptable to have society kill people for what they have done, even if it happens to be objectively true that killing them does not make us safer than simply imprisoning them?

° Or to put it another way, should society be in the business of vengeance, even when such an act produces no future benefits for society?

° Do individuals have the right to flout social norms in the name of individual freedom, when that causes distress to others? Or ought we to constrain our behavior around others to avoid causing upset or offense?

…and many more. The numbers and scope of our sincere moral disagreements with one another is vast.

So let’s say two rational people who happen to agree on all the objective facts still have such an absolute moral disagreement between them. (Our three premises from above.)

I have seen three options for resolution mentioned: confrontation, tolerance, and engagement. Unfortunately, I don’t see how any of these three accomplish anything, in the circumstances of our premises.

A popular option is confrontation, that one person confronts the other. But while this may work with a disagreement of fact, a disagreement of pure value has nowhere to go. If a conservative Christian (who still happens to be sincere and rational as per the premises above) says “God wants women to serve men, and we should do what God wants”, confronting the Christian about whether the evidence actually supports concluding that God indeed wants that (or that God even exists), can be quite fruitful. If you can convince them that they are objectively misreading God’s intent, you and they can come into moral harmony, since their true moral goal above is to “do what God says”, which isn’t necessarily in opposition to “men and women should treat each other equally”.

But if the person instead says “I want women to serve men, I feel it is the right thing for them to do”, then confronting them is not going to change their mind. A confrontation on a true moral disagreement is intractable, as it is based on unshared values, not objective facts. So confrontation will not work to resolve the difference of purpose.

Tolerance, or live and let live, is similarly a non-starter. Most of our moral values are concerned with the ways we “ought” to treat each other. If one person thinks we have a moral obligation to materially help the unfortunate whether we want to or not, and someone else thinks that it is an unacceptable breach of personal freedom to compel donations to anyone regardless of that person’s need, then these two people will never agree on the moral value of taxation. And yet, at the end of the day, taxes will either be collected or not. In my view, if we could be “tolerant” of someone else’s moral choices, we would not be having such a moral disagreement with them now. Thus, tolerance as a useful option to resolve moral differences is no help either.

A middle path called “engagement” has been described by some as a way to neither turn one’s back on one’s own morals nor attack those who disagree, but as far as I can see it has all the flaws of both confrontation and tolerance, and no virtues to speak of that I can discern.

Ultimately, the root issue with sincere moral disagreements is that (as in the taxation dispute above) ultimately actions will either conform to them or they won’t. One of the moral positions ultimately has to be embraced practically. Either abortion is available, or it isn’t. Either we are permitted to draw Mohammed, or we aren’t. Either taxes are assessed and collected compulsorily, or they aren’t.

In practical terms, a moral dispute will be resolved, one way or the other, because things will either go the way one person wants or the way the other person wants.

Thus I think the only resolution that exists is what I call the Zeroth Option: we each try to get our way and see who succeeds.

While this admittedly does sound at first blush to be primitive and unevolved, it really isn’t. It’s an acknowledgement that sincere moral disagreements represent irreconcilable goals, by definition. That what we each want is (at least on this matter and in this moment) diametrically opposed to what the other one wants – and yet, being rooted in subjective values and feelings, each of our moral positions are equally valid.

The only way forward that I can see from such a place is that the person who can eventually get their way, will get their way. Morality therefore is an unavoidable and irreducible struggle between competing and disparate goals for society and humanity.

If two people have the same ultimate goal – the reduction of human suffering, for example – then they can have fruitful rational discourse about which approaches lower suffering more than others. This is a fact-based question, and so a meeting of the minds can eventually be reached, once the reality of the circumstances is understood well enough by both.

But if two people have truly mutually contradicting goals arising from mutually contradicting values, what else can be done except for the people on each side to struggle to have their way?

Fundamentally, moral values are the things we feel strongly enough about to engage in struggle with others over. Sometimes our fights happen socially, through campaigns of influence and coercion, sometimes they happen politically through voting and using the tools of government to our best advantage, and if worse comes to worse and we feel we have to take a stand, sometimes the struggle can be much more direct, or even violent.

But as far as I can see, when it comes to humans having opposing moralities and irreconcilable values, all we can do is fight for what we feel is right. Moral differences demand struggle. There simply is no other solution.

Is there?