Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame: The Search for Common Ground

President Obama's commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame and the controversy surrounding it remind us that religion cannot settle moral disputes.

In the debate over abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Obama says, we must look for "common ground" that goes beyond religious belief, because our disagreement over religion makes it impossible to settle this debate purely on religious grounds. The more general point that Obama has made in much of his rhetoric is the need for finding moral grounds for discussing public issues where religious diversity would create irresolvable disagreement.

In making such an argument, Obama revives a theme that goes back to the American constitutional founding. Most of the American founders--particularly at the Constitutional Convention of 1787--were not Christians. Moreover, they saw no way to organize the American regime as based on religious belief, because they saw too much diversity of religious belief, and because they wanted to avoid the religious warfare that had run through European history.

Consequently, they had to appeal to a natural moral experience that did not depend on religious doctrines. They could allow for a multiplicity of religious sects as long as all of those sects agreed in their moral teaching. Like Hume, the Founders saw morality as rooted in natural moral sentiments and natural moral judgments.

Don't we see this need for natural moral experience independent of religious belief in the debate over abortion and stem cell research? Religion cannot resolve the debate. Catholics appeal to the supreme authority of the Church. But non-Catholics cannot accept such authority. Protestants appeal to their individual religious consciences. But this does not persuade those who disagree with them. One might think that all Biblical believers could look to the Bible for answers. But the Bible never says that human life begins at conception. In fact, the Popes have admitted that the Catholic Church's condemnation of abortion as murder cannot be based on Biblical authority.

So, as I have argued in previous posts, we must rely on our natural moral experience as expressed in moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.

Some of those pertinent posts can be found here, here, here, and here.


T. Smith said...

Professor Arnhart,

I would be interested in hearing more on how religion fits into your worldview. Religion is not necessary for morality, but we have a natural need for religion, is that correct? What is the relationship here? What advantage (if any) does this desire for religion provide in your view?

I agree with you in principle that to make any progress in the political and social debates over issues like abortion we must look for a common ground among our sentiments, traditions, and moral judgments. It seems, however, that you downplay the importance of one's faith in shaping these things. I'm sure this is an oversimplification of your position and that you do see that religion can have an effect on one's morality.

Isn't the problem not so much the reliance on religion to provide moral positions, but rather the use of religion to appeal to authority in a debate where that authority is not accepted by all parties? In other words, we should begin moral discussions with those principles that we can all assent to rather than arguing from our particular beliefs whatever they may be. If a society shares the same religious belief, there will be greater agreement; if a society is more heterogenious, shared principles may be fewer.

This would not preclude the possibility of a true religion and moral principles based on such a faith. What is does is allow the believers of different faiths and non-believers to realize that disagreements over doctrinal issues need not lead to disagreements over everything. People may agree that human life is valuable, though their reasons for holding this position are different. Whether or not this value for human life is something natural that evolved, or something that was purely revealed, or came through some other source, as long as people can agree to the principle it seems it can can serve as a foundation for moral and social discourse as you discuss.

Larry Arnhart said...

T. Smith,

I agree. What you have said is exactly what I was trying to say. But you said it more clearly.

Despite disagreement about the theological doctrines of religion, the moral teaching of religion can be judged by natural experience and natural judgment.

We have a natural desire for life and for parental care. And so we have moral sentiments of concern for helpless children. Religion can contribute to our understanding of that concern and how it should be expressed.

If the proponents of abortion can convince us that a fertilized human egg looks enough like a human child to elicit the moral concern that we extend to infants, then we can be persuaded that aborting this fertilized egg is as wrong as killing an infant.

I would emphasize, however, that religious believers disagree about this. Many Jews, for example, interpret the biblical teaching about God breathing life into Adam as indicating that human life does not begin until the lungs are developed.

Sensible Knave said...

Dr. Arnhart-

I apologize if this sounds rather cheeky, but when you suggest that religion cannot solve moral disputes, I might add neither can professional philosophers of Ethics! Indeed, they seem oftentimes more skilled at multiplying disputes where none previously existed...

I do agree that among disputing parties moral emotions may serve as a starting point to the debate, however what are we to do when a party to the debate does not even recognize moral emotions as relevant? I cite Mary Anne Warren from her 1973 article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion":

"Neither is the fact that people tend to respond to the thought of abortion in the later stages of pregnancy with emotional repulsion, since mere emotional responses cannot take the place of moral reasoning in determining what ought to be permitted." (Section 3)

This seems to suggest that the common ground strategy of the Humean is perhaps not as 'common ground' as we would like, as not everyone seems to accept Humean negotiation of competing moral sentiments as a proper procedure for resolving moral disputes! That is, it seems that the Humean position of moral reasoning itself needs to be justified and that justification may appeal to notions that are not accepted by the parties in question.