On Public Morals – Two Sources

What kind of moral values are acceptable in the public square?

It’s an important question in the current political climate, already rife with discord between liberals and conservatives, and now thrown into a kind of perpetual chaos by an unpredictable president.

On the one hand President Trump seems willing to flout traditional public morality and moral norms in both behavior and speech, and on the other he derives power from Christian evangelical base who would like to see their version of morality imposed upon the culture at large (and who see liberals as trying to do the same.)

So whose version of morality wins? By what standard are we going to determine which morals are acceptable in public life, i.e. as grounds for policy and legislation and the formation of a public shared understanding of our civic responsibility? Is there a way to talk about all of these values in a way that a majority of people (and not just a bare 51%) would support?

In conversations with conservative friends, I have had the strange sensation of ships passing in the night. We try to talk about the same subject but drift off into separate spheres quickly, because our value narratives are so different as to be almost alien.

For example, one person recently said the “values of human dignity found in the Bible” supported a capitalist, market-driven economy in the exchange of goods and fair accrual of money according to one’s work. I reacted with some sense of befuddlement, and only later realized why: I was confused because I think of the value of “human dignity” as a universal religious value, not a sectarian or an exclusively Christian one.

What my friend said in support of a Bible-based society, in other words, was actually not a statement about the Bible. It was a statement of agreement with a concept (in this case, human dignity). He was conflating the two–Bible and dignity–as though belief in the one entailed belief in the other.

But the Bible does not always treat people with dignity (I’m thinking in particular of the victims of genocide at the hands of God’s people in Joshua, the lack of condemnation of slavery in both Old and New Testament, and the language about unbelievers going to eternal suffering and damnation spoken by Jesus, to name three examples). But leaving that fact aside and assuming “human dignity” is a value indeed found in the Bible, does that mean that our source concept “human dignity” is exclusively biblical or Christian?

I don’t think so. To the extent that we follow rules of fairness and dignity as a capitalist society it is not because those values are found in the Bible, but rather because they resonate as universal values that are accessible by everyone.

Such conversations with conservatives about values led me to compose the following premise, in an effort to clarify where some common ground might lie between liberals and conservatives:

PREMISE: Public moral values, i.e. values that can transcend the personal, private sphere and become an acceptable source of common discourse in the public square, must be a) secular, based on non-religious reasoning, or b) universalist, based on what is accepted by all religions.

In some cases such public values will overlap with both a) and b).

This premise, if accepted, would accomplish at least three things:

  1. Establishment of common ground on which to build arguments that can be heard by all sides, because they are based in values and values language universally recognized.
  2. Prevention of publicly sectarian, divisive language that only seeks to judge those outside on the basis of narrow morals
  3. Recognition of the source of many national ideals we hold as being secular, and thus attaching a sense of morality to that which is secular in origin.

As long as liberals and conservatives are deriving our sense of public morality differently from each other, and at the same time have no way of adjudicating that discussion, no method or framework for deciding the outcome, we will lapse into condemnation and vilification. Rather than build and support our society together, we will simply build our own towers of hubris and overconfidence.

Seeking consensus on secular and universalist values is not only a necessary step to any lasting and meaningful dialogue, it is a way to re-assert a rational process into a highly charged political environment and bring it to a healthier place. Could a more robust secular, universalist reasoning be the answer to what ails us?

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