By Helen De Cruz
How can you maintain a friendship in the face of a serious moral disagreement? When should you accommodate - which should not mean that you should agree with the other, but at minimum agree to disagree - to let it rest and remain friends in the face of disagreement? When is a moral disagreement a good reason to end a friendship? However they did it, Justice Ginsberg and the recently deceased Justice Scalia managed to maintain a friendship in the face of deep disagreement about moral issues such as same sex marriage and affirmative action. It was such a remarkable phenomenon it made the news (even before Scalia's passing).
There is something valuable in being able to live and work, to pursue joint projects with those we disagree with. As David Wong writes, it may be an end in itself to live in harmony with others “not only on some degree of agreement in moral belief but also on ties of affection or loyalty, or on a limited set of common goals that may be educational, artistic, political, or economic in nature. As a matter of fact, we do typically live in communities with genuine bases other than identity of moral belief, communities that are often absolutely essential to the shape and meaning of our lives”.
Having moral differences, even about matters we care about, should not always be a deal breaker for engaging in productive relationships with someone else. And yet it frequently is. The following story strikes me as so extreme; it may be apocryphal, but it still illustrates the point nicely: A man asked Prudence for advice about the following situation. He put the following ethical dilemma to his girlfriend: choose between saving the last surviving copy of the works of Shakespeare or a single puppy. To his horror, his girlfriend - a vegetarian who cares deeply about animals - chose the puppy. He felt so bad about this fundamental disagreement he asked how to diffuse the situation. Prudie’s response “So to defuse this situation I suggest you apologize. Start with this quote from Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing: “Remember that I am an ass.” Let’s just hope things haven’t gone so far that she replies, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”
Often moral disagreements do cause discomfort and strain relationships. We cannot and should not always accommodate. Wong provides some examples where it may be better to hold fast and where the disagreement can be a deal breaker. Is the other internally inconsistent in his moral beliefs? Is the other categorically refusing to accommodate at all? Are you part of disempowered group that is being marginalised in the disagreement (e.g., you are a trans woman confronted with someone who claims trans women are not women)? These are legitimate reasons not to accommodate.
Other cases are less clear-cut. For example, I was traveling with a group of friends, one of whom was a Catholic priest-in-training. I was a teenager, and was discussing with a friend (also a teenager) what would happen if either of us got pregnant. My friend she said she would have an abortion. She was taking precautions not to get pregnant, but birth control is never 100% failsafe. A baby at this point would jeopardise many of her life goals, such as marriage, finishing college, and securing good employment before she started a family. I agreed that an abortion under these circumstances would be a good decision - I felt it was a personal decision in any case. However, unsurprisingly, the Catholic priest-in-training was virulently opposed. If it were up to him, my friend would not be allowed an abortion and would be forced to carry the child to term. He said there was always adoption, something my friend did not consider a live option. He bemoaned the fact that women could get abortion on demand in Belgium (in fact, the legislature is still very strict).
This did not end our friendship with the priest-in-training, but it made it strained. I could not help but take it personal that this man would deny my friend and other women decision power over their own bodies. So indirectly there is an asymmetry in our moral attitudes, in that he would, if he were in a position to do so, take away some bodily autonomy of women.
In cases where the disagreement does not concern our own rights and freedoms, they frequently concern others. For example, when your kindly uncle says he believes that marriage is something between a man and a woman and that same-sex marriage should not be legal, he is thereby denying the right of gay people to be married. Pro-life people who disagree with their pro-choice friends believe that foetuses are persons who have a right to life. To them, the ongoing free access to abortion amounts to a mass killing of innocent human beings.
Even political inclinations matter in this way, and may give rise to irreconcilable differences. As Rebecca Roache wrote about her decision to unfriend people who liked conservative party:
…the view that I have arrived at today is that openly supporting a political party that—in the name of austerity—withdraws support from the poor, the sick, the foreign, and the unemployed while rewarding those in society who are least in need of reward, that sells off our profitable public goods to private companies while keeping the loss-making ones in the public domain [… ] to express one’s support for a political party that does these things is as objectionable as expressing racist, sexist, or homophobic views.
So given that moral opinions concern sometimes us directly, and often concern people we care about, how do we draw the line and how can we be friends with people we disagree with? Wong is right that it is valuable to keep friends in the face of moral disagreement, especially given increasing polarisation and echo chamber phenomena. Having the right moral beliefs becomes a necessary signal of being member of a group (e.g., left liberals in academia), which may as a result become unwelcoming to people with other views (as Haidt and others have claimed).
Wong argues that an attitude of benevolence and care, as prescribed in the Confucian concept of jen (humaneness, empathy, love) would help us to continue to try to live in harmony with those we disagree with. Perhaps some intellectual humility might help. I do not know whether foetuses are persons; I would not even know what would count as decisive evidence in this matter. So perhaps we should acknowledge that there is room for doubt in this case. One could also choose to ignore differences in moral opinion by focusing on other things, such as opera in the case of Ginsberg and Scalia. If one has enough other projects (artistic etc) in common one can forget the deep moral differences and perhaps concentrate on common goals. Still, there is something troublesome about taking in one's stride the beliefs of friends that may be racist or sexist.
I do not have any firm conclusions at this point, just a bunch of conflicting intuitions about the harm of some moral opinions, the benefits of being able to live together harmoniously with people with whom we disagree radically, and the role that moral opinions have in signaling group membership (which may give rise to polarised opinions), which may give those opinions more weight in our dealings with others than they perhaps ought to have to. How do you deal with moral disagreements with people you care about?