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So, here’s the thing.

Part of me wants to go on with what I was talking about–especially because I think that there’s nothing surprising about people who try to formulate moral principles without know what their foundations are.

In fact, I think that’s what most of us do most of the time.  Most people do not think abstractly about morality.  We big up “right” and “wrong” from the society around us, and we seldom question what we have received. 

In an era in which consensus is widespread, such questioning becomes almost literally unthinkable.  In an era like this one, where there are competing paradigms for what is morally right and wrong, I think questioning is equally unthinkable for most people.  What they do instead is to find reasons to support what they already feel to be true.

And feel is the word.  For all the grand talk about “moral reasoning” in the secular movement and outside it (in, for instance, Catholicism, again), our moral principles tend to be formed early and to solidify over time.  It’s not really all that surprising that John Rawls didn’t reach the level of an Aristotle in constructing a moral system.  The vast majority of human beings on this planet couldn’t if they tried.

I also think that periods in which there is no solid consensus are inherently unstable.  They last for limited periods of time, because they are difficult to maintain.  People do not stay calm when their moral beliefs are challenged.  In fact, that’s putting it mildly.  People go absolutely crazy when that happens.

And I think that’s a lot of the reason why our present political situation in the US is as it is.  We are not deciding between policies, or electing one man over another.  We are voting for the triumph of our moral universe over competing moral universes.  And we have to demand triumph.  Coexistence, over the long run, is untenable.

Well, sort of.

Actually, once a consensus has been reached on the broader moral frame, we can tolerate quite a lot of coexistence.  We don’t mind the Amish going off and doing their thing as long as it’s clear that they’re a fringe group and not to be taken seriously.  We do mind any group espousing moral principles we don’t like who seems to be large and powerful enough to challenge our consensus.

That’s convoluted enough.

But such a consensus does not need to have any coherent foundational principles.  It only has to have the commitment of a large group of people.  It seems “obvious” to us that we should be nice to dogs and cats, care for them and feed them and treat them well.  It seemed just as “obvious” to a denizen of the year 1200 that dogs and cats didn’t matter and it was great fun to torture them with fire. 

If you stopped both groups on the street and demanded to know why their ideas were “obvious,” they’d certainly come up with some fast rationalizations, but under no circumstances would their moral principles have been derived from those rationalizations.

All of this seems to me to be eminently human.  We are moral animals. 

But we are going into a time of competing consensuses, and I find myself in complete agreement with none of the ones on offer.

I’m also continually aware that we live in time when the technology of communication has made it impossible for any of us to pretend that competing ideas are out there.  Get on the Internet for half an hour, and you can find sites advocating capitalism, communism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, atheism, the monster raving looney party…

We are, I think, in great need of a basic moral framework that almost everybody can sign onto, that would satisfy both the atheist and the believer, both the Hindu and the Muslim, and everything in between–not an elaborated moral code that we would all agree on the particulars of, but a set of basic, foundational ideas about who and what is “good” and “bad.” 

Once we get that, we can let the particulars sort themselves out in different ways in different communities.

Written by janeh

January 7th, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Consensus'

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  1. “We are, I think, in great need of a basic moral framework that almost everybody can sign onto.”

    I don’t think it’s possible to get one, outside of a family-sized group – and even there, you’ll periodically get someone who doesn’t quite fit. But you might manage ‘almost everyone’.

    I can’t think off-hand of a period in history in which such a thing existed – even the medieval church had critics and heretics; the US was founded in a revolution that drove out the Loyalists and had a civil war, Britain in the time of its greatest power had all kinds of radicals at home fighting for changes…in no case did almost everyone agree with what the ideas underlying the society.


    7 Jan 10 at 8:10 pm

  2. Given that a large part of the world seems to think that suicide bombing of markets and weddings is a legitimate way to make war, I fear that we are very far from a consensus.


    8 Jan 10 at 5:16 am

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