Are some moral divides unbridgeable?

Is it possible that some moral questions may only be resolved for a country through power instead of persuasion?

These questions have haunted me ever since I listened a few months ago to an episode of the podcast The Argument. Every week, Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg, and Frank Bruni discuss the goings-on in Washington, D.C., and the state of the country, analyzing the news from different political and philosophical perspectives.

I enjoy thoughtful and charitable debate, listening to the back-and-forth between people who disagree. Conversations where everyone is largely on the same page bore me. One of the hallmarks of a healthy pluralistic society is the presence of arguing as opposed to quarreling, a distinction I’ve written about before. Civility requires respect for your political opponent. Robust debate requires a familiarity with the opposing viewpoint that is so strong you could make your case in terms your opponent would recognize and understand.

And yet . . .

Are there not areas where the moral chasm between citizens in our country is unbridgeable?

The greatest example in American history is slavery. On one side, abolitionists saw slavery as a great moral evil—a blight on our society that must be eradicated. On the other side, some Southern statesmen made the case for slavery as a positive good—not only “not evil,” but a force for good in the world (even for the slaves themselves). No Missouri Compromise could bridge the gap between those opposing perspectives.

Today, the moral chasm is most obvious on the sanctity of unborn human life. Here’s a quick reading list.

  • For the best one-book summary of opposing views on this issue, read Abortion Rights: For and Against by Kate Greasley and Christopher Kaczor.
  • For two individual books that show how wide the philosophical and moral divide is, I recommend Defending Life by Francis Beckwith (who takes the abolitionist perspective) and Pro by Katha Pollitt (who claims abortion is a positive good in society, not a moral problem to be tolerated).
  • For a look at the politics surrounding this issue (and why famous Democrats in the last few decades have switched from the pro-life side to supporting abortion rights), see Anne Hendershott’s The Politics of Abortion.
  • To see someone trying to find common ground and agreement between people on these different sides, read Charles Camosy’s Beyond the Abortion Wars.
  • Or, if your book list is too full right now, spend a little time with Caitlin Flanagan’s searing essay in The Atlantic, which captures something of the emotional intensity on both sides of the debate.

Many in our society assume that progress occurs when citizens engage in healthy debate and give a thoughtful hearing to each other’s perspectives. No matter the tension surrounding a controversial topic, we can move forward by crafting careful compromises and engaging in reasonable and rational debate.

But what happens when you truly understand the viewpoint of your opponent and the moral status of that perspective horrifies you?

We catch a glimpse of this challenge in the episode of The Argument I referenced above. After discussing the complexity of people who are lifted up as standard bearers for a cause (Tara Reade, who has accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, and Norma McCorvey, the troubled Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide), the commentators recognize the danger of putting everyone in a category of “good” or “evil,” rather than realizing, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic columnist for The Times, replies that even if people are complicated, shining examples of virtue and righteousness are real. We can achieve moral clarity and aspire to a life that backs up our commitments. He says:

People are really complicated. Of course, I’m a Roman Catholic, so I think it’s also possible for people to be saints. When the Church sits down and tries to figure out whether to make someone a saint, at some level that’s part of what they’re looking for—a deep integrity between what somebody said and taught and represented, and how they actually lived. And often people are really complicated and there are huge gulfs between what they’re famous for and who they really were, right?

Frank Bruni wonders if the problem is partisanship. Are we unable to have nuanced political solutions because we ignore the complicatedness of the people who discuss them?

I have a harder time than you, Ross, in believing in saints. What I do believe is that we have political discussions and we come up with political solutions that are not nearly as nuanced and complicated as the people who are discussing and symbolizing and fighting for these things. And that discrepancy concerns me: the purity of the discussion around causes vs. the complexity of the human beings they’re going to affect.

Then Michelle Goldberg steps in from the perspective of someone who advocates for abortion rights:

It’s not just partisanship. This is life-and-death cause. This is something with immense moral weight for people like Ross. For me, the idea of forced childbirth is so dehumanizing that I don’t think I would feel like a full person if I lived in a country where it was mandatory, right? When Ross was talking about saints, the first person who popped into my mind was George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was murdered in Wichita, Kansas a decade ago now, and so when you’re talking about just such irreconcilable views of the good and what it is to be a human being, then of course, people are going to reach for the starkest possible rhetoric and examples.

Ross responds:

Yeah. . . . I don’t . . . George Tiller is not a saint. And he is not the first person that I think of . . . as tragic and horrifying as his murder was. And that’s a huge gulf between me and Michelle that . . . you know . . . is really hard to make policy that doesn’t leave those two sides thinking of themselves as enemies, which in a sense, they are. 

Bruni concludes:

It is definitely difficult to build a bridge across that gulf. So let’s leave the discussion there.

It is not merely difficult to build a bridge across that gulf. It is impossible. The reason why Michelle and Ross cannot simply “agree to disagree” on this matter is because, as Michelle suggested (perhaps more than she realizes literally), it concerns “life and death.” Similar to the questions surrounding the morality of slavery, we will find it harder and harder to achieve in our country a consensus that relies only on persuasion, when the foundational assumptions on the different sides of this moral divide are so stark that one side believes a late-term abortion doctor whose expertise was in dismembering unborn children can, in any sense, be considered a saint, while the other side sees moral virtue and righteousness in those who would abolish this great injustice in our land.

Persuasion is only one part of the strategy for abolishing abortion. Pro-life advocates have long recognized this. That’s one reason the culture war has raged on over the past four decades, as many Americans who are appalled at the reality of abortion have sought to influence the political process, to pull the levers of legislative and judicial power in order to protect human life in the womb. Other Americans, appalled at the thought of a society where abortion is abolished, have taken to “shouting” their abortion stories, recasting abortion as a positive good that deserves societal praise and appreciation, and funding candidates who pledge to enshrine abortion rights even to the last stages of pregnancy (and, in some cases, infanticide). We’ve watched the two major parties move toward the elimination of difference within their ranks, as the Democratic Party has consolidated around intolerance of any pro-life witness, and the Republican Party has strengthened its platform as unapologetically pro-life.

Where does this leave us? What does societal common sense around abortion restrictions look like when there is no common ground?

It is possible that Christians who have made pragmatic political concessions in order to steer the Supreme Court in a pro-life direction will be disappointed to see no overturning of Roe v. Wade in sight, as recent court decisions continue to labor under an increasingly strained abortion jurisprudence. It is also possible that these Christians will be heartened by incremental wins across the country, or even at the Supreme Court, that chip away at abortion rights.

Regardless of what happens, the moral chasm will not be bridged. Should Roe fall, the next battleground will be the states. Should Roe stand, the battleground will remain in the states. And that’s why persuasion, not merely power, will continue to be one of the strategies we must employ. Until we see cultural attitudes shift, it is unlikely that legal efforts will suffice.

But when the moral chasm is as wide as it appears to be, it is hard to imagine cultural attitudes shifting radically in one direction or another. If anything, the magnitude of this divide has only become clearer in recent days. Whether or not we are ever able to awaken the conscience of our country through methods of persuasion or put an end to this grave injustice through the reins of power, we must not let a sense of discouragement cause us to “grow weary in doing good.”

In the Supreme Court and in the court of public opinion, life may or may not win. Still, we are to be witnesses to the sanctity and dignity of every human life. Our witness doesn’t depend on a win, but a win will depend on our witness. And our witness may sometimes be seen in words and deeds great and small, even in profoundly discouraging moments when, in response to an abhorrent moral vision put forth by a friendly opponent, all we can sputter is, “George Tiller is not a saint.”

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