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.