Arguments

Can Liberals Speak a Moral Language?

How can the left make moral appeals in a diverse and secular age?

By Nathan Pippenger

Philip Gorski reviews a new book, Post-Ethical Society, which argues that moral arguments have faded from public debate because secular media won’t engage in them:

The main conclusion [of the book’s authors] is that secular media engage in a great deal of “moral muting.” By this, the authors mean the use of “prudential,” “instrumental,” or “utilitarian” arguments in lieu of explicitly moral ones. For example, instead of reflecting on whether the Iraq War met the criteria of a just war, a columnist in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal would have been much more likely to weigh how such a war might affect America’s reputation, whether a policy of “containment” might ultimately be more effective, or what the risks of inaction might be.

Let’s assume this is true—and there’s reason to believe it is: The authors collected data from newspapers, television segments, debates in Congress, and online discussion boards. Anecdotally, their findings match my observations of recent debates over issues like health care reform and torture. So: If moral arguments have vanished from public square, who or what is to blame?

One approach, which the authors advance, is to blame liberal political theory. Some prominent philosophers have argued that when we debate political issues in public, we should avoid appeals to things about which reasonable people disagree. Most obviously, that rules out religious justifications: One citizen should not, on this logic, base their political arguments on (say) the Beatitudes, since not every citizen is a Christian. But does limiting this kind of religious argument also limit moral arguments? The authors, for their part, note that writers for religious publications were “far more likely to evaluate the [Iraq] war from an unabashedly moral perspective and to do so in a complex way that mobilized and weighed various arguments.”

Gorski is dubious that this proves anything, and I agree. It doesn’t surprise me that religious publications engage in more straightforwardly moral commentary. If the secular media is different, I doubt it’s because they’ve been persuaded by liberal philosophers to avoid religious justifications. As Gorski notes, at the very least, they have a financial incentive to avoid alienating their readers. I’d suggest a further possible reason: Secular media outlets understand that their readers lack a shared moral vocabulary, and writers for secular outlets may lack a coherent vocabulary themselves.

Gorski is less convinced of this explanation: “the exclusion of religion from the public square does not necessarily entail the evacuation of morality from public debate,” he writes. Utilitarianism and Kantianism are secular ethical doctrines, after all. But while there’s no conceptually necessary link between religion and morality, there’s a social and functional one. Religions provide moral foundations for people whether they’ve read Kant or not. In that sense, they generate some of society’s most popular moral vocabularies and frameworks for moral reasoning. Writers for secular outlets might avoid appeals to religious reasons because it’s good business to do so, or because they want to respect the diversity of their readers. But in doing so, they lose one of the main moral vocabularies available in public discourse.

It’s far from proven by this data, but there’s reason to believe that a loss is involved here. The intellectual historian James Kloppenberg, for one, has argued that the growing gulf between religious voices and progressive reformers in America has been disastrous for the latter. Religion has not only been the incubator of many progressive ideas; it has provided a familiar and powerful vocabulary for communicating them. In a diverse and increasingly secular world, religions should not be the only vocabulary, but they’re still a better alternative than what Gorski detects on college campuses: “people often shift to another register when discussing disagreements over moral questions,” he observes. “Sometimes, it’s an aesthetic register: ‘That was in poor taste.’ Sometimes, it’s an emotional one: ‘It was kind of icky.’” These retreats from moral language arise from an understandable aversion to the fire and brimstone rhetoric of the Christian Right. But moral discourse can be forthright and courageous without taking that form. A reinvigorated American left will need that discourse in order to offer the country what it has always provided in its best moments: a sense of moral purpose, an imagined future that appeals to our best sentiments in unabashedly ethical and communal language.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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