3 Ways to Deal With Moral Disagreement

How to Deal With Moral Disagreements

How should we handle moral disagreements?

There are two common policies for when people disagree over moral behavior: confrontation, and tolerance. I propose a 3rd alternative: engagement.

I want to talk today about something that I've been calling "moral disagreement." So, this is when you think that someone else in your community is behaving immorally, or someone else in your community thinks that you're behaving immorally.

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I've noticed more and more cases of this recently. Just to give some examples of the kinds of things that there's moral disagreement over:
  • eating meat or other animal products;
  • not voting;
  • not recycling;
  • choosing to circumcise your child;
  • purchasing expensive luxury goods instead of donating that money to the charity where it could be used to save lives.
These are all actions that in my experience smart and reasonable people often disagree about, whether those actions are morally problematic or completely acceptable.

Approaches to navigate moral disagreements


I've seen basically two approaches to navigating moral disagreement.

1. Confrontation

The first is something that I call "confrontation." So, someone sees you eating meat, or sees you post a photo of a restaurant meal that has meat in it, and they comment, "Hey I see you're consuming the flesh of a sentient being, here's why I think that's a terrible thing to do." 

Or they send you an email saying, "I hear you're planning to circumcise your child, here's why I think that's a barbaric practice."

I'm not a big fan of confrontation as an approach to moral disagreement, and the reason is just that I think it makes it really hard to have communities.

If you know that going to a picnic and posting photos of your life on Facebook means you're going to get attacked for what you think is totally normal and fine, then we're not going to be inviting each other to picnics, or friending each other on Facebook.
 
And this seems unfortunate. 

So I've talked to some people who do advocate confrontation as a strategy, and I see where they're coming from.
 
From their perspective, with this act what they're trying to stop is causing so much harm, and so much suffering, that if you have to incur a little bit of social friction in the process of reducing that suffering, and that harm then seems like a small price to pay, all things considered.

And I get that. 

That makes sense, but at the same time, most of us have things that we think other people are doing that are immoral, and if we all practice the strategy of confrontation then everyone would be aggressively confronted constantly.

And there would be no picnics, or friend groups at all, except tiny little groups that all agreed with each other. 

So, not a fan of confrontation.

2. Tolerance (Live and Let Live)

The second approach to moral disagreement that I've seen advocated often in reaction to someone being confrontational is, what I've been calling "tolerance."
 
It's basically a less a fair hands-off "live-and-let-live" policy, where people will say, "Look, we all have our attitudes about morality, and that's fine, we're just going to disagree, but everyone should mind their own business, and let people make their own moral choices personally for themselves."

And this clearly has some advantages over confrontation as a strategy. We can have picnics, and you know, communities. 

At the same time, it seems still not ideal to me. Not a huge fan of Tolerance either, but it's better than confrontation. 

If I had to choose between everyone being confrontational or everyone being tolerant, I would choose the latter.
 
But it still seems not great, we can do better, I think. And the reason I say that is that I'd like our communities to be able to make moral progress over time. 

There are practices that used to be completely commonplace in our society, for instance: beating your wife, or owning slaves, and those practices are no longer considered acceptable in our society- which is good, and I would like that process to continue happening.
 
And on a personal level, I'm sure that there are things that I'm doing currently, which seem fine to me, which if I had more information and had access to more good arguments, and the time to consider those arguments carefully and objectively, I would, in fact, conclude:
 
"That thing I've been doing is not really okay, and I should stop. I don't know necessarily what those things are, but like outside view, seems unlikely that everything I'm doing currently is 100% correct, and I would like to know in theory. 

I'd like to know what those things are so that I can stop doing them. 

So I would like to be regularly coming into contact with arguments about why I should be doing something differently."

3. Engagement

So given that I think we want both basically harmonious communities and the opportunity for moral progress, what do we do?
 
Well, I favor this third alternative to confrontation and to the tolerance that I've been calling "engagement." 

So, basically, if a community were to practice this policy, it would mean we as a community, discourage aggressive confrontation, but at the same time, we encourage and apply a little informal social pressure to people to opt-in to engaging with their moral critics.
 
So, not constantly, but at least intermittently reaching out to people to say, "Hey, my understanding is you're a vegan, and you think that perhaps consuming meat is wrong, I'd like to hear why you think it's that way."

And then listening in good faith. Like, with the attitude that they could be right, and you could be wrong.  

That's just a simple example of what it could look like, to have a practice of moral engagement. 

There could also be an ideological Turing Test

It's basically a way to see if you actually really understand the arguments that the other side is making instead of some straw version of those arguments.

I have other ideas for what a social norm of moral engagement could look like, but what I mainly wanted to do in this article is just first to point out that tolerance is usually the policy that I've seen people advocate, and I don't think it's an ideal policy.

That's not to say that having a policy of moral engagement would necessarily be easy or quick to foster those norms, but I think it's important to at least acknowledge that striving for a pure less fair moral tolerance policy is not actually the best thing to strive for.

So, I've been starting to try to encourage norms of moral engagement in my social circles. I've seen some people doing this already, which is great.
 
But, it's not necessarily the norm. Also, I'm trying to push things more in that direction. I'd be curious to hear if anyone has any ideas either for how to encourage this kind of social norm, or if you disagree with me about this being a good thing to strive for, or there is a better Fourth Way or something like that.

I'd like to hear it, but for now, this is the takeaway: 

Three ways of navigating these situations of moral disagreement:

Confrontation: Which can push the process of moral progress, but can also fracture communities.
 
Tolerance: Which preserves social harmony, but at the expense of moral progress.
 
My preferred Third Way of moral engagement: Where people opt into engaging with their own moral critics.

Julia Galef, co-founder: Center for Applied Rationality

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