In this post, I will try to show that ideal socio-cultural debates, where different sides come together, appraise the facts, and then come to agreement, are not merely rare at the moment, but are in fact mostly impossible.
To begin, we know that we’re each complicated people with different interests and needs, many of which conflict. Literature and art thrives on this theme. As Raymond Geuss points out:
“People often have no determinate beliefs at all about a variety of subjects; they often don’t know what they want or why they did something; even when they know or claim to know what they want, they can often give no coherent account of why exactly they want what they claim to want; they often have no idea which portions of their systems of beliefs and desires to the extent to which they have determinate beliefs and desires—are “ethical principles” and which are (mere empirical) “interests.”
[P]eople’s beliefs, values, desires, moral conceptions, etc., are usually half-baked (in every sense), are almost certain to be both indeterminate and, to the extent to which they are determinate, grossly inconsistent in any but the most local, highly formalised contexts, and are constantly changing.
A result of being complicated in this way is that we have multiple ethical metrics by which to evaluate a scenario. It is instructive to think of two ideal types to see this:
1. Societies tend to be arranged by sets of norms through which people are intelligible, and these norms are expected to be upheld. There’s bound to be some freedom under these rules, and some infractions might go unpunished, but as a whole the stability of these norms is seen as very important.
An easy example is the patriarchal, multigenerational family. It’s important not to think that there’s some “person” who merely takes on roles, but rather that the different roles help constitute the person. So an individual is a son or daughter, brother or sister, and then later a husband or wife, and then father or mother, and then grandparent. And each of these comes with specific and specified rules and expectations, and in turn these are passed down and enforced.
What gets passed down isn’t restricted to gender norms. Although moral philosophers have a tendency to offer elaborate theoretical structures for what makes something moral, for most people what counts as good and bad are a matter of societal norms that have been passed down. The value of charity, kindness, reasonableness, etc., is passed down in ways such that the needs to value them becomes a part of who we are. This seems more plausible if we think about how children actually learn about the world. They’re constantly shown examples of people and actions which can serve as (moral) exemplars, and these are internalised as heuristics about what it means to be a person. For example, a child might learn from his father that to be a man means being strong and supporting your family. This fortitude isn’t learnt as some abstract commandment, but rather as a necessary way of being in the world, given who you are and who you have to be.
2. With stringent rules, comes a willingness, even need to violate rules. Freedom then can be thought of as a need to be free of constantly having to justify yourself according to whatever norms that bind you. So a woman raised in a conservative family might be expected to marry young, but might want to be free of this, even if she can’t justify why in a way that would convince tradition enforcers. Here, freedom for her would be a demand for space such that she doesn’t have to justify certain choices.
Let’s call the first moral metric goodness, and the second freedom. To talk about goodness is to talk about what has value, and what should or shouldn’t be done. To talk about freedom is to create a space free of judgements about value. These are distinct moral ends, although they are treated as though they’re the same. Here’s Roxane Gay talking about abortion access:
These [conservative] politicians do not understand that once a woman has made up her mind about terminating a pregnancy, very little will sway her. It is not a decision taken lightly, and if a woman does take the decision lightly, that is her right. A woman should always have the right to choose what she does with her body.
To point out that it is not a decision taken lightly is to indicate that the decision is complicated and that the various moral demands and interests are being weighed out carefully. This is an argument that the complexity of the scenario requires that each woman be the one who makes the decision about what is the best thing to do. To then switch to talk about the “right to choose” is to argue that there needs to be space for decision making, regardless of the quality of the decision made.
The problem here is that we don’t quite appreciate the tension between the two moral discourses. Zizek in his usual over-the-top way, comments:
As the experience of our post-political liberal-permissive society amply demonstrates, human Rights are ultimately, at their core, simply Rights to violate the Ten Commandments. ‘The right to privacy’ — the right to adultery, in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe my life…’Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion’ — the right to lie…And, ultimately, ‘freedom of religious belief’ — the right to worship false gods.
To go back to the abortion debate in America: pro-lifers argue that abortion is murder. This is clearly a point about goodness, about what has value. In response, pro-choicers argue for women’s right to choose, which is about freedom. If direct responses to either side seem stunningly stupid (“foetuses are just a clump of cells”), it’s because either side looks compelling only in so far as they stick to their moral standard. When pro-choicers try to talk about value, they have to have uncomfortable conversations about until when it’s ok to kill a foetus, and when pro-lifers talk about freedom, they typically end up looking like cartoonish misogynists.
One way that’s often suggested to solve the tension between freedom and value is Mill’s Harm Principle- you should be allowed to do whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting someone. Unfortunately, the political applicability of the principle suffers from the same problem the original principle had- ambiguity over what counts as harm. Conservatives will claim that even exposure to gay people counts as harmful to kids, while leftists now claim even speech can be a microaggression. In the case of abortion, pro-lifers will argue that killing the fetus harms the fetus, while pro-choicers will argue that imposing abortion bans harms women. This isn’t a good enough solution, unfortunately.
A minimum condition for rationality is that we have standards or preferences that people already share, or that ideal rational people would share. In most of our moral debates, we have different standards employed on either side, but no standard about which moral standard should be employed. Since we are all people who at least in the abstract subscribe to both goodness and freedom (among other incongruent moral standards), this means a lot of political disagreement should in fact be considered non-rational.
An important caveat is that not all disagreements look like this. Climate change denial seems to genuinely involve one side refusing to look at facts. But most debates about social issues- who counts as a woman, what should count as marriage, how much taxation is fair, etc- do not look quite so straightforward. While there certainly are deniers of facts, there are just too many non-factual judgements involved for these “debates” to be considered rational.
Does doing away with the idea of rationality mean we need to stop talking to opponents? Of course not. Different sides still live in a common physical reality and so there are certain common facts that need to be dealt with. Moreover, as a contingent fact, most communities do have a lot of overlapping beliefs and commitments, although this shouldn’t be overstated. And talking to people you don’t agree with can help sharpen your own views and arguments, and sometimes even change your mind. All of this is fine. But it’s important to keep in mind the ultimate end of all this discussion in the political sphere is to get your side to win- politics is fundamentally adversarial.
Does giving up the idea that politics is rational make it harder to be politically active? Maybe. After all, activism is probably easier when you think your opponent is simply wrong and evil, rather than when you think they’re just trying to manifest an alternative (if disagreeable) world. But there’s something to be said for self-awareness and honesty.