In just a short while, televisions across America will be tuned to a spectacle other than the presidential debate, namely, the Peanuts halloween special. Once again, we will hear Linus deliver his prudent declaration that there are three things one should never discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin. What I can't understand is why “morality” is missing from that list.
I was recently reminded of the difficulty of discussing controversial moral issues, or indeed any moral issues, when I happened upon an editorial that appeared in the University of Portland's student newspaper the Beacon on October 5. The brief appeal, penned by the newspaper's editorial staff, criticized the one-sidedness of a panel on post-abortion narratives held by the university's Voice for Life student club and sought to “continue the conversation about abortion in a multidimensional way.”
However, rather than discussing the moral issue of abortion in moral terms, the editorial drifted into a barrage of statistics and illogical conclusions symptomatic of the sorry state of contemporary moral discourse.
The Numbers Problem
Though this single collegiate editorial is little cause for worry, I am afraid that it represents a larger trend in moral reasoning, one which could broadly be defined as falsely quantitative, verbally imprecise, and morally narrow. All of this is emblematic of a moral landscape that, à la the oft-cited opening chapter of MacIntyre's After Virtue, lacks a shared medium for moral discussion.
Throughout the editorial, the authors of the piece are quick to cite statistics about student demographics and post-abortion responses to 'factualize' their argument. However, these statistics rarely support the moral claims being made.
For example, based on the statistic that “58 percent of UP students have been sexually active in the past year,” the authors conclude that “Sex is happening on this campus, and students should have access to the resources they need to prevent unintended pregnancy.” The number of students partaking in a certain activity, though, says nothing about the moral status of that activity, nor does it entail that a university (which explicitly discourages such an activity) should provide students with the means to mitigate the harmful affects of the activity in question.
This movement toward quantification abounds in moral discussion. Arguments for the legalization of marijuana cite expected state revenue increases and the low number of marijuana-related fatalities, while arguments against the death penalty draw on the amount of money spent on additional litigation. I am left thinking, with a sigh, of a scene in Antoine de Saint Exupéry's classic The Little Prince, in which the narrator laments the need for exact numbers to convince adults that the little prince exists. “But of course,” Saint Exupéry writes, “those of us who understand life couldn't care less about numbers!”
Statistics remain a useful tool. But in adjudicating on matters of morality, they are often irrelevant. To draw from a relatively non-controversial issue, I could, if I wanted, cite statistics about the number of people who eat lobsters. I could tell you where these people live, what their religious backgrounds are, how many are likely to eat lobster in their college years, and which lobster eaters were present at a certain panel event put on by the campus representatives of PETA. But none of that would tell me anything about whether eating lobster is moral or not.
A Broader Morality
Even those who often contribute to the general moral confusion have picked up on the difficulty of discussing morality. This, at least, offers hope. In an article for Slate.com, a media outlet that often adds fuel to the fire of faulty moral reasoning, Nathaniel Frank asks in the very title “Has Support of Gay Rights Confused Our Understanding of Morality?” Admirably enough, Frank admits that the desire to push morality out of the public square has unfairly repudiated moral reasoning. Without any “moral judgements,” Frank reasons, society “won't be able to work toward a collective good.”
However, Frank's article also shows two additional features that mire moral dialogue: verbal imprecision and moral narrowness. First, Frank does little to define what “moral judgements” or the “collective good” might entail, aside from whatever will “make life better or worse for people in today's world.” Here, we stand only at the beginning of moral reasoning, for the very goods that would “make life better” have yet to be defined. Second, Frank falls into another contemporary moral trap hole in claiming that because “Homosexuality harms no one. It's not, it turns out, a morally bad thing at all.”
While the first claim is debatable, the argument itself is invalid, since morality is not simply a matter of causing harm, at least not merely in the restrictive physical sense that the article seems to imply. Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt goes to great lengths to dispute this narrow, “harm-only” definition of morality in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), as he lists fairness, loyalty, and sanctity as other influential factors. Moreover, we can think of plenty intuitive examples (desecrating corpses, bestiality, adultery) which we would rationally deem immoral despite the lack of physical harm.
At its core, the problem with contemporary moral discussion stems largely from an absence of actual moral reasoning. In the editorial I opened with, the only consideration of the moral status of abortion came in the form of an unsubstantiated conclusion, as the editors objected to portraying abortion as “inherently wrong” only to assert the other extreme, without argument, that “there is nothing wrong with a woman making a personal choice about her body.”
So we find that argumentation is replaced by polarizing rhetoric, reasons replaced by statistics and slogans. Until the shared medium of rational argumentation is recovered, and with it the “letter written on our hearts” (2 Cor 3:2), moral discussion will just sound like the adults in Charlie Brown's world.