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Talking Past Each Other



Have you ever been in a conversation with someone about an important topic and it just seems like you are talking past one another?


It is almost like they are using an entirely different rubric or paradigm to craft their responses.


I had this happen the other day at the coffee shop. I love to write at a nearby coffeehouse - the sounds and bustle of coffee grinders, timers, and people coming in and out give the place a sense of energy that helps me be productive (ok, it is probably the bottomless, refillable coffee that’s doing it, but still).


There’s a group of 15-20 older guys that are there EVERY morning by around 7:30am. I can’t help but overhear their conversations and sometimes I get roped in, usually willingly, into their debate of the day.


One day they were talking about capital punishment and whether it is something a government should do. What became really clear is that everyone was talking past each other, using fundamentally different ethical assumptions to support their view.


One would say, “capital punishment serves as a deterrent to others who might decide to commit a horrific crime, but would think otherwise now that they might lose their life for it.” Others would say, “Ok, but it costs the taxpayer anywhere from 6-10 times more to carry out a death penalty than life in prison - that money could be better spent on education/infrastructure than killing people.” Another says, “You guys are missing the point - some people just deserve to die for certain crimes. There are some offenses that are so egregious (let your mind imagine for a moment how sick some crimes can be) that they simply warrant capital punishment.” Still yet, someone wonders, “But think of the executioner, what damage are we doing to the character of the people who have to hit the kill switch? What kind of people are we producing when we have laws like this on the books?”


What’s going on here? How would you begin to navigate these waters of disagreement?

One way forward is to identify the philosophical ideas doing the work in these assertions and questions.

I found the following distinction to be really helpful in thinking about ethics - and the coffee gang did too!


Is morality primarily….

Forward looking?

Backward looking?

or

Inward looking?


Depending on which you pick, you might give quite different answers to the question of whether or not a state should inflict capital punishment. Let’s take a quick look at each.


To say morality is forward looking means that you care most about what the consequences of a given behavior is. Will it lead to more good or more bad in the world? It doesn’t matter so much what has happened in the past, let’s just try to make a better future. So, if you use this precept, you may find yourself appealing to ideas like deterrence and cost because these are consequences of a policy or action.


To say morality is primarily backward looking means that you’d like to know if we ought to do things based on decisions of the past or what people are owed. Before looking at the consequences, I want to know if someone has a claim on me - a claim for me to act in a certain way. Things like rights and promises are most at home here. That something done right now could be binding later, regardless of the consequences. Even if it were to benefit the world greatly, it would be wrong to violate someone’s rights, not repay debts, and break promises.


To say morality is inward looking is to be primarily concerned with the kind of people we are becoming. This way of thinking prizes the building of character and various virtues (courage, honesty, lovingkindness, humility, etc…).


So, when you can see this general moral landscape, you can more easily understand where someone is coming from when they offer their moral opinion. Instead of thinking, “Wow, this guy is off his rocker!” you could think, “Oh, this person is using a forward-looking moral rubric to assess this case” and then engage with that person accordingly.


I’m not trying to say which of these is the correct way to view morality. Instead, this is a tool to help us all practice a bit better the Intellectual Virtues of open-mindedness, charity, and thoroughness.


If you are curious about which of these ways of viewing morality is the one you hold, we go through an interesting thought-experiment called “The Mountain Road” to help you figure out your own ethical intuitions. You can watch it on YouTube or your favorite podcatcher.


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Stay Curious!