Good Advice on the Morality of Discourse Ethics

Divisive, quasi-religious or doctrinal confrontations in politics are so very human.  Those who take a fundamentalist position, who are convinced beyond all doubt that God or some kind of divine right, some absolute, totalizing truth, has blessed them with righteousness in their hearts and minds, push to the limit to get their way – all of it, right now.  They look upon compromise, even on listening to others, as making a deal with the devil, as condoning heresy and evil.

As political philosopher John Locke observed, when there is no common judge over both parties to a dispute, the parties are in a state of war with one another.  The argument then goes to the strongest, no matter what the truth might be or what mercy and compassion might prefer.

I was told that a battle cry of the fanatical Christian Puritans during the English Civil War was: “Jesus Christ and No Quarter!”  So much for the principle of “love thy neighbor.”

Islamic terrorists have joyously called out “Allahu Akbar” when killing innocent people of a different faith.  Khmer Rouge cadres would say when they were about to purify their society by eliminating those who, to them, were human “vermin:” “If you live, we gain nothing.  If you die, we lose nothing.  So, why not kill you today!”

In the summer of 1964, I remember Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater boast in his speech accepting his party’s nomination for that office: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!  And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Absolutist claims are all around us: stop climate change right now or we will all perish; Ukraine is part of the Rus community chosen by God as the Third Rome to redeem humanity; Taiwan has no claim to autonomy from the Chinese Son of Heaven in Beijing; human life begins at conception, so no abortion can be permitted; to carry or not to carry a fetus is only and always the mother’s decision as a matter of her healthcare or of her right to bodily autonomy.

The Caux Round Table Principles for Government offer a different course, one perhaps closer to that recommended by John Locke – civil discourse within community, not war to the death with those who disagree with you.

Our principle says:

Discourse ethics should guide application of public power:

Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government.  Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed, except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.

Just the other day, I read a commentary by the American public intellectual Peggy Noonan. Noonan worked for Ronald Reagan, but now does not approve of Donald Trump.  In her views, she reminds me of my grandmother Morris – part of a family with gentry status, most comfortable with a strong commitment to prudence, decency and propriety.  Grandmother was what has been called a “country club Republican,” aware of her responsibilities as part of a social and cultural establishment.

However to the point, Noonan recently recommended the ethical principle of discourse for all Americans in their disagreements over abortion.  She associated the ethic of discourse with being centrist, in the middle of a polarized cultural order and its political activists.

She wrote:

Moderate, reasoned, balanced approaches will appeal to the vast middle. …

We live in a democracy.  The pro-life side rightly asked for a democratic solution to a gnawing national problem.  To succeed, they need baseline political skills.  You persuade people as to the rightness of your vision.  You act and speak in good faith so they trust you.  You anticipate mischievous and dishonest representations of where you stand.  You highlight them and face them.  There has in fact been a lot of misrepresentation of where pro-lifers stand and why and what their proposals will achieve.  You have to clear the air.  You can win a lot with candor and good faith.  You can impress by being prepared and ready. …

Most important, there is a political tradition in democracy that consists of these words: “That’s asking too much.”  Don’t ask people for more than they can give.  Don’t go too far, don’t lose by asking for a sweeping decision when people will be willing to go step by step.  Ask for as much as they can give, pull them toward your vision, but don’t be afraid of going slow and steady, be afraid of overloading the grid. …

You have to be clear in explaining how society will arrange itself if you get the measure you asked for. … This is America working it out.