Moral Difference

“Religions do not agree with one another, nor with secular philosophies, when it comes to some of the great moral issues: abortion, euthanasia, IVF, stem cell research, homosexuality, cohabitation outside marriage, and many other divisive matters. It is this very potential for bitter conflict that leads people to embrace moral relativism on the one hand (if religions do not agree, then morality is mere choice), libertarianism on the other (society should pass no collective judgment on moral matters; morality is a private affair). Both of these positions are, I believe, false. We argue about morality in a way, and with a seriousness, we do not about matters that really are relative (how to dress for a dinner party, for example). And we do not truly believe that moral issues are private – if we did, there would be no protests on environmental or human rights issues, no public moral debate at all. Yet the question is real and urgent: how do we live with moral difference and yet sustain an overarching community?”

“The answer… is conversation – not mere debate but the disciplined act of communicating (making my views intelligible to someone who does not share them) and listening (entering into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to my own). Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on their opinions even though they are not mine… In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective. That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. It does mean, however, that I may now realise that I must make space for another deeply held belief, and if my own case has been compelling, the other side may understand that it too must make space for mine. That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society – not by a single dominant voice, nor by the relegation of moral issues to the private domain of home and local congregation but by a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood across the boundaries of difference.”

The Dignity of Difference, p. 71