Conquering, enslaving, censoring and murdering the opposition may have been the method of choice for a few thousand years, though it probably wouldn’t fly in today’s world. Fortunately, moral progress can actually be made in a variety of ways in present day.
Faced with someone in your circle of acquaintances you think is behaving immorally, you might try to convince them of your alternative viewpoint, or perhaps just live and let live. Similarly, if you were approached by someone that disagrees with your moral standpoint, you might find yourself receiving the same treatment. Take your pick out of the usual controversial examples:
• Why do you eat meat?
• Why don’t you recycle?
• Why don’t you vote?
• Why dost thou shame thy house having bastard children with lowly wenches?
Smart and reasonable people disagree about these actions all the time, with some seeing problematic practices and some seeing acceptable norms. Even if we take the time to consider an argument carefully and objectively, we still don’t always have converging opinions. While any party may place themselves anywhere between either, there are essentially two typical methods for navigating moral disagreement, aren’t there?
Picture your knight friend ‘Sir Vegan’ seeing you eating meat or perhaps wearing the pelt of a dead animal. He doesn’t like it and he tells you so, but how do you react? If for example eating meat was something you really loved you might feel attacked, or compelled to change his mind. If you know that having or talking about a meaty meal with your other knightly friends means you’re going to be attacked by Sir Vegan for something you don’t see as immoral, you and Sir Vegan might not invite each other to round-table get-togethers anymore. Apply this scenario to a more modern and ‘controversial’ issue like abortion or child circumcision and you can see how conflict arises. Trying to build a community of confrontation advocates is very difficult and this is unfortunate.
You can see why people advocate confrontation, because the thing they’re opposing could be causing so much harm or suffering, the chance to stop or reduce its impact with a little social friction seems like a good deal.
Most of us have opinions and things we think other people are doing that are immoral, but if we all practiced confrontation as a strategy for resolution, every social encounter would be back to back crusades and conquest, and there would be no friendly round-table talks or friend groups at all.
“Often, moral disagreements do cause discomfort and strain relationships. We cannot and should not always accommodate.” —Coping with Moral Conflict
Conflict resolved by confrontation can easily fracture communities, so it may not be the most productive way to challenge somebody’s world view.
Basically a live-and-let-live policy, with which people put down the sword and the agree to disagree about anything that comes their way. If we allow each other to make moral choices independently by staying out of the process, you will have largely different results to those of confronting, and maybe a whole lot more fun like knightly outings in the name of the king.
While ‘more knightly outings’ gives tolerance a clear advantage over relentless confrontation, it isn’t ideal. This is because choosing the former seems more likely to spur moral progress, with the latter only avoiding conflict.
There are things our society used to think was acceptable, like owning slaves or marrying-off your children at a young age for gold. It’s widely considered ‘good’ that those practices are no longer tolerated, and it seems likely there are things you and I do on a daily basis that seem fine and won’t years from now.
Our communities should make moral progress over time.
A healthy mix of both methods could give us more information and more good arguments to help us decide what really is wrong. Tolerance preserves social harmony at the expense of moral progress, but given that we want both harmonious, friendly-excalibanter-having communities and the opportunity for progress, what do we do?
3. Choose to be Receptive
To establish a widely-known ‘opt-in’ practice as a social norm, is one way to mix the other two practices. While discouraging ‘aggressive’ confrontation, we’d regularly encourage people to be open to engaging with their critics.
If it was normal to say “I know you don’t agree with my choice to be a vegan, why is that?” while listening and remaining open to alternatives, we could be on our way to a better future. Of course, the proposal of being regularly receptive doesn’t have to be taken literally because people are often more willing to listen to someone claiming what they think is right is wrong, rather than to someone claiming that something they think is wrong is right. We could be left with a society in which ‘everything is wrong’ because more people would typically change along with this bias. However, wanting to be fair and objective isn’t enough on its own, and we need a practical method to get around our hard-wired human biases to reach progress with discussion.
While it wouldn’t necessarily be quick or easy to integrate a new social norm like this, acknowledging there may be a better path is important to help us find one.
I’d love to hear more ideas about how this third method or something similar to it wouldn’t work, or of course better fourth method.