Given our continuing disagreements about human equality, Wesley J. Smith asks what general moral value or principle I think would work better than equality in promoting moral public policies, given our morally and culturally diverse society.
Recall that my disagreement with Smith began when, in responding to Michael Novak , Smith wrote that “in grappling intellectually with how to analyze crucial concepts of right and wrong, good and evil” in a pluralistic society, he “can discern a common frame of reference underlying many of these arguments,” namely, a belief in universal human equality. Now Novak had been pondering serious philosophical discussions with serious people like Heather Mac Donald, and so I understood Smith’s assertion about a common frame of reference as a claim in descriptive sociology to the effect that there is a widely shared agreement on a norm of equality that forms a basis for serious discussions between people who might disagree philosophically as much as Michael Novak and Heather MacDonald do. I disputed that claim, arguing that there are no such widely shared conceptual presuppositions in morals nowadays, whether about equality or anything else. Although we can secure near universal agreement on an abstract principle of equality (or anything else, for that matter), we do so only by evacuating the principle of any real meaning; the agreement on the abstract formulation of the principle masks disagreement that will reappear when we try to apply the principle to particular cases.
When Smith asks me, therefore, which moral value or principle I think will work better than equality in promoting moral public policies, he is changing the terms of the debate. What began as a sociological inquiry about shared moral presuppositions that could form the basis for serious philosophical discussion has been converted into a practical question about how best to frame arguments to advance a certain political agenda. This latter is the business of rhetoric, not philosophy. In saying this, I do not slight rhetoric. Rhetoric is a legitimate thing when used properly and for moral ends. But it is not, like philosophy, in the business of discovering the truth; it is about noticing and using the available means of persuasion.
I do not deny, as should be obvious to anyone, that rhetoric speaking the language of equality may sometimes generate good results, including in some of the controversies that particularly interest Smith. But there is nothing unique about equality here. Appeals to other grand moral notions can make effective rhetoric, too. Think about Ronald Reagan’s appeals to liberty in arguing to limit government regulation, or John Paul II’s appeals to the dignity of the human person and universal human rights in condemning the Soviet Union. Rhetorical effectiveness has less to do with the inherent truth of the principles embodied in it and more to do with the circumstances of the case and the mood of one’s audience.
Smith passes from the question about serious philosophical discussion that Novak raised to the question of effective rhetoric, I think, because, if there were moral norms that really were widely shared and really did settle hotly disputed moral and political questions, then these would be very important in rhetoric, because appeal to them would be a powerful means of persuasion. At one point, Smith contrasts deep philosophical discussion among opinion makers with the commonsense, decency, and pragmatism of the people generally (which, of course, moves the question to a context clearly different from what Novak was considering) and suggests that, whatever may be the case among elite opinion makers, the vast majority of the American people are with him in upholding a norm of equality with real moral bite. I do not agree. One need only listen to people who are not professional philosophers or theologians (and even a great many people who are) arguing about morals and politics to realize that they employ now some Kantian concepts (“What if everybody did that?”), now some utilitarian ones (“Government regulation is inefficient”), now some virtue-theoretic ones (“Public school teachers deserve to be paid more than professional athletes”), and who knows what else, all without the slightest hint that these concepts are not really fully compatible one with another. Such people do not agree among themselves—or even always with themselves from moment to moment—about their deep moral notions. A fortiori, they do not agree on some common frame of reference that settles any contested issues. Incidentally, if they did, the issues would not be contested, for when there really is widespread agreement, as with our moral disapproval of racial discrimination, the issue ceases to be a live one.
Thus, even when we move from philosophy to rhetoric, there are serious problems with Smith’s question about which general moral value or principle I think would work better than equality in promoting moral public policies in our diverse society. It is as if he asked me who I think deserves to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Heisman Trophy, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. There is no such individual, for no one meets all the relevant criteria, and, similarly, there is no moral value or principle appeal to which will carry the day in promoting moral public policies, regardless of the question at issue, the circumstances of the case, or the identity of the audience. Effective rhetoric, unlike the philosophical pursuit of truth, depends on these ephemeral vagaries of the circumstances.
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