How Are Moral Disputes Settled in a Democracy?

I went to hear John Burt at the Harvard Bookstore yesterday on his new book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. The central question of the book: Can a liberal political system be used to mediate moral disputes? And if it cannot, is violence inevitable? It is the Lincoln-Douglas debates that are most revelatory of this challenge to the American political system.

The phrase Burt kept coming back to is, “My conscience commands me, but it has to persuade you.” A person cannot violate their conscience. It is a stern master and commands full obedience. It is intuitive and fully self-evident to the one in whose hold it is. But it must persuade others who do not give it full sway in their own conscience.

Can liberal democracy survive this clash? Surely we have learned to compromise when it comes to competing interests, aware as we are that to require our ounce of flesh now only means that at some later point our adversaries will required the same of us. We have overlapping self interests that we must set about to manage and in which no one party to the dispute gets all that he seeks. Rational men understand this process and give to it their consent. But these interests are not matters of conscience.

When it comes to conscience, compromise will not do. And just there is thing itself. What is a democracy to do? We intuitively understand that the right is not decided by majority vote, nor is that position right which has at its disposal the largest number of cannons. The political model of early America was unable to solve this problem. Lincoln and others saw America as essentially fair-minded and reasonable and that there was some kind of restraint built into the resolution of moral conflict.

The Founding Fathers were all uncomfortable with slavery. They knew that it was a violation of the ideals of the American experiment. All men are created equal, at least when it comes to their right to survive and pursue the good, even if there was the belief that they were not equal when it came to social standing and ability. The Fathers seemed to believe that though the slavery issue could not be resolved in their own time, in time it would.

What they did not count on is the rise of that view held by such a man as Calhoun who actually posited slavery as a positive good and that all men were not created equal. And Calhoun was skilled in the use of power to protect the institution of slavery. Here was an impasse the Fathers did not see. At first Lincoln did not see this change in the conversation. When he did, he made the getting of power a step of the first order. For in this kind of conflict there would be no persuading of the sensible man. While might would not make the wrong the right, might would settle a moral dispute not able to settled in any other manner.

This is a lesson for our own times. Once the political system allows a matter of conscience to haunt one side or the other without resolving rather quickly its commands, the democracy is headed to a moment when “one man-one vote” will no longer lead to stability.

Some see abortion as such an issue in our own time. There are others. How will we create a nation whole and at peace again? People of conscience cannot compromise on what they believe they owe to God.

One of the ways this can be negotiated, I believe, is by changing the nature of the debate. My proposal is that the debate return to Reason and Natural Law rather than the authority of religion. I am not proposing the diminishment of religion for the believer. But I am asserting that the demands of religion cannot be reasonably foisted upon the electorate without their rebellion against the yoke of another’s religion.

I propose that those who are pro life seek the defense of their position of the basis of Natural Law. Robert George at Princeton is such a man. Aristotelean ethics points the way. From the basic assumption that we live in a purposive universe, an assumption that is not difficult to demonstrate, we can then build block upon block a paradigm of society that meets the demands of the good, the true and the beautiful, the three characteristics of ultimacy. See Robert George doing his thing here.

Christians are simply to take reason to the streets and walk it up and down boulevards, avenues, sidewalks and highways. While the electorate might not want your religion, almost all will want to be seen as reasonable in their own eyes, as well as in the eyes of another.

One of the reasons there was a Civil War in our country is that some made it a controversy over religion, and religion by nature demands absolute surrender. So does reason, but by another means. And, of course, the confidence of the Christian is that all reason leads to God.

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