February 13th, 2016
MORALITY has been living in the closet for over three centuries. Back in the fierce days after the Reformation, a stringent “don’t ask don’t tell” system was ushered in to get us out of the ideological bloodbath. The deal was brilliant and simple: if you want to live in a peaceful and politically stable society, you need to keep your moral beliefs to yourself and comply with the procedural rules of social interaction while tolerating the occasional annoyance of dealing with alien beliefs. Morality, which up until then was a key component of social life and played a central role in political discussion, was evicted from the social and relocated to the private arena.
This deal has pretty much stood up ever since—facilitating the spectacular rise of modern plural democracies along the way. However, despite the success of the liberal model, its sustainability is being threatened by the advent of the globalized and ‘digitally interconnected’ society. The internet together with a growing array of global communication tools have created new spaces where vastly diverging moral outcomes can increasingly challenge and clash with each other. By now it is becoming increasingly clear that the old distinction between the private and the public is undergoing a vast transformation.
Political Liberalism’s laudable (yet outdated) effort to keep world-views and moral outcomes secluded as depoliticized private matters looks increasingly untenable. Heated debate over moral, religious and epistemological issues is on the rise and the outcome of these discussions is having vast political implications. Consider for instance the fundamental disagreements in topics such as abortion, homosexual rights, the role of religion in politics, the epistemic value of science or the arguments over evolution and creationism. Or consider the current uprising against an amoral economic system that has lead to suffocating inequality. Is moral tolerance really sustainable between the opposing sides of each one of these debates when one can easily voice its particular preferences to the world through the web? For toleration to work, a certain level of mutual avoidance had to exist between opposing parties. This mutual avoidance has been destroyed—for better or worse—by the internet and other global communication tools. If toleration becomes impractical (as I think it has), so does Political Liberalism.
In a relatively uniform but disconnected society it made sense to break the individual in two pieces and push morality to the private arena while leaving the sterilized law-abiding citizen as the social agent. But now we live in a hyper-plural and hyper-connected society that, either we like it or not, is pushing morality back into the social debate. Instead of resisting and denying the inevitable, we need to embrace this new reality and take morality out of the closet by making it a social and political issue again—by making it again front and center in the ongoing discussion of what type of society we want for ourselves. Our moral beliefs should no longer be allowed to roam freely in the comfortable pastures of our own consciousness where they lay unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. This does not mean that the hardly won freedom of deciding our moral beliefs should be taken away—it should not of course—but the outcome of our autonomous choices should be expected to be defendable in ongoing social conversation.
For a plural and interconnected society to function, we should all be prepared to provide arguments in support of our moral beliefs and we should all be encouraged to demand the same from others. I see no reason why this cannot be done through an open, rational and enriching social conversation. Some will argue this is a threat against our freedom of conscience but one should notice that our freedom to pursue our own good in our own way does not exempt us from the epistemological responsibility of providing sound arguments to justify our beliefs. The time of successfully gluing a plural society by ring-fencing individual differences is coming to an end; we should work on building a flourishing plural society that channels diversity to construct common moral objectives. The question “what do you believe in and why?” should no longer be off limits. Instead, it should be one we should all be expected to answer responsibly. We need to embrace moral debate and recognize it can be turned into a constructive social force, otherwise there is no hope for plurality.
The intellectual struggle against fundamentalism is the main motivation behind the effort of dragging morality out of the closet of our autonomous consciousnesses and into the social sphere. The liberal notion of the autonomous moral individual who privately imposes a belief system upon itself without compromising the procedural political organization was, without a doubt, a gigantic step forward in the history of human liberty. However, despite its undeniable genius and effectiveness throughout modernity, the liberal framework is not the best choice for a hyper-plural and hyper-connected society like ours. The autonomous liberal individual lacks, despite all its virtues, a key ingredient that turns him into a latent fundamentalist: he lacks any real and meaningful accountability of belief. As the young Karl Marx brilliantly foresaw, the liberal organization of society actualizes political freedom but fails to unshackle the individual from its own fundamental and now “private” beliefs. We might have acquired political freedom, but we remain hostage to our own beliefs.
The core fallacy we need to put behind ourselves to start building a moral system compatible with our current existential conditions is the conviction that diverging moral frameworks are forever irreconcilable. Building a peaceful and stable society that gets around this irreconcilability was (and still is) liberalism’s core competency. But what if we take a step back and ask ourselves: “are diverging moral beliefs truly irreconcilable?” What if moral beliefs are being viewed less and less as objective mandates and increasingly assumed as pragmatic responses to the question on how should we live? And since the question on how should we live is turning into a global affair in this interconnected age, is there hope for launching an open conversation around shared global moral goals?
From a purely pragmatic perspective, Locke and Rawls were probably right to assume that diverging moral beliefs were irreconcilable as they both lived in societies that, although increasingly plural, remained relatively closed and individualistic. Assuming that our own private moral values were objective was the most natural choice in a world where contact with other cultures was still minimal. As we all held our own values as objective, the best political solution was to extract them from the public discourse and avert collision—and that is exactly what Political Liberalism did.
Now fast-forward to 2012. The growing consciousness that we are not alone (culturally speaking) is palpable. This rising awareness that our moral convictions vary depending on our own cultural background should not be, as many see it, a prelude to a total moral relativistic meltdown. Quite the opposite: this awareness offers a unique opportunity to launch an open and levelheaded global conversation about which moral beliefs are better suited to actualize the global goal of building a peaceful, plural and sustainable world that maximizes the well being of its inhabitants. This conversation cannot start if we keep our beliefs to ourselves hidden in the private realm. Rivaling moral frameworks should see the light of day; we should all be expected to provide reasons showing how our own moral beliefs contribute to this global goal.
Moral objectivists have always feared that if moral values are viewed as relative, intercultural dialogue about what is right and what is wrong is impossible as the validity of each moral framework is purely ethnocentric, i.e., we could not tell a Nazi that his actions are morally wrong since his moral framework is just different from ours. What I want you to notice is that when we go global, the intercultural argument against relativism evaporates. Our moral values should still be viewed as relative, but they are relative to a globally shared set of objectives about what do we want to achieve as an interconnected and plural society. If the goals are clear and the conversation is open, there is no reason for keeping moral beliefs in the closet.