Towards Moral Consensus: Reflections on Method


It’s titles like that one that leave little doubt about my current “profession”: I am a graduate student. I say that not as a boast (because voluntarily living on the edge of poverty for years on end is something to be proud of?) but by way of explaining why it is that I think methodological questions are worth serious reflection, especially as this new group blog gets off the ground. 


Now, of course, one needn’t be a student or an academic to appreciate the importance of method. It’s just that in the academy the importance of method is almost literally drilled into your head. (Even to the point that you know how to do something long before you know what is worth doing, but that’s a topic for another post.) For our purposes, method can be defined pretty simply: it’s how you do what you do.

Here at Hang Together, we are committed to seeking, probing, and discussing a “renewed moral consensus for a united America.” This goal is quite different than, say, finding the area of a triangle or determining the chronology of American presidents. It seems clear that for each of these goals there is a method that would be more useful than others. For the two examples I just gave, some form of mathematical and historical method, respectively, would be appropriate. As a corollary, there are methods that would not be appropriate to the inquiry. Try as I might, no amount of American presidential history will help me find the area of a triangle. So the first methodological reflection is that there are good and bad ways to go about doing what we hope to do. 

So what method is appropriate to our goal? I won’t pretend that there is a single or a simple answer. Indeed, as we are largely driven by a theory concerning the importance of moral consensus, it wouldn’t surprise me if a variety of methodological approaches could be fruitfully employed. Nonetheless, I believe it’s important that our methods, whatever they may be, are characterized by their concern with the common good we seek to promote. Too often in political discourse arguments aren’t so much exchanged between opponents as they are circulated amongst sympathizers. When we circle the wagons and preach to the choir, we foreclose opportunities to make progress towards resolving the questions we and our “opponents” agree are so crucially important.

As we begin an endeavor to find, rediscover, renew, or construct a moral consensus, we should think seriously about the prerequisites for such a journey. If, after all, we are united in a measured critique of the “culture wars” and the all too common tendency to conflate Christianity, conservatism, and the fate of America, then we should be wary of attempts to fight battles and worry about the aftermath later. Any eventual settlement of the questions we grapple with will be informed by and depend on how we get there. And getting there implies that we walk side-by-side with those with whom we disagree. Doing so requires framing and discussing the issues we explore with honesty and humility. The second reflection, then, is that, when and where possible, we should focus on the common stake we have in the questions we undertake to answer, the ground we hope to share with those who disagree with us.

The final reflection concerns the matter of disagreement just mentioned. We are, after all, treading over contested terrain. That we are seeking moral consensus tells us that agreement is currently lacking. And, like those with whom we will engage, we approach that terrain with deeply held beliefs of our own. Many of those beliefs are incommensurable with opposing beliefs. There will come times when compromise is impossible and disagreement will remain. Far from signs of failure, these instances are to be expected, for such is the nature of moral, religious, and even some political convictions. 

Thus, the final methodological reflection is that we must have the resolve to state the beliefs that may leave us at loggerheads with others and may exclude others from our ranks. We mustn’t fall into the trap of believing that there is some grand synthesis to be achieved between conflicting claims about our moral, religious, and political universe. But there is agreement to be had. The challenge of this whole project is to find it and invite others to join us there. 

To be sure, these last two reflections do not sit easily with each other. There will always be tension between engaging charitably and faithfully adhering to fundamental beliefs. But when negotiated thoughtfully and with our goal in mind, this tension can animate the pursuit for moral consensus. So with boldness and humility, let us begin that journey.

3 Thoughts.

  1. Amen, brother! Let me suggest three different ways of framing the quest for moral consensus. They’re not mutually exclusive alternatives but rather different aspects or foci that complement one another:

    “Seeking” moral consensus: the emphasis here is on identifying points that are currently off the radar, on which consensus might emerge if those points were brought to the fore. The pro-life movement’s decision in the 1990s to focus on partial-birth abortion is an example.

    “Building” moral consensus: working to forge consensus on the points that are currently at the center of attention but are not currently points of consensus. Welfare reform in the 1990s would be an example.

    “Discovering” moral consensus: demonstrating that there is actually consensus on issues that are currently thought to be divisive. This would usually be the case on issues that used to actually be divisive, but now are not. I can think of two recent examples: judicial nominees now almost unanimously profess to believe in “judicial restraint” and politicians profess to believe in freedom of opportunity over equality of outcomes, even when those commitments are manifestly not credible. This demonstrates there is a clear consensus in American culture for these positions.

  2. One of the failings of our current culture is that we have lost the ability to agreeably disagree, or at least we can no longer disagree without demonizing each other.

    It is a truism that politics is the art and science of compromise in which nobody gets everything, but everybody gets something, they want. Political compromise must always be over the means to achieving an agreed upon end, perhaps even over the ends themselves, but must never be a compromise of principle.

    In demonizing each other, we have come to confuse every call to compromise over means to an end with a call to compromise our principles. In such an environment, no compromise is possible.

    Nor is it helpful if only one party to the social compact does all the compromising. For our political system to regain its legitimate claim to the allegiance of all, every party to the compact must participate in the compromise.

    But, the most basic problem of all is that in our attempt to provide for the truly helpless and needy among us, we have created a great moral hazard. A moral hazard that saps the vitality and exuberance from our society, and replaces it with a potent concoction of government programs that create a dependency just as great as any drug addiction. Until we agree as a society that any work, nobly done, ennobles the human spirit, and gives meaning and purpose to our lives; until we agree that each and every person has an absolute right to the fruits of his or her labor; and until we agree that government has only those enumerated powers expressly granted to it by a sovereign people, a people who retain all other rights and powers to themselves, we will have only a small chance of “hanging together.”

    • The connection between economic dependence and cultural disharmony is an important one. The more people become dependent for their livelihood on the state, the more politics shifts away from “free persons deliberating about how to order their lives together” (as the editors of First Things defined it) and becomes a zero-sum contest of winners and losers.

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