Common Morality and Moral Agreement

Let’s not forget our common beliefs

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-11-17

Some people were not happy with the outcome of the 2012 election. Rocker Ted Nugent called it “spiritual suicide.” Tens of thousands of citizens in some states have signed petitions asking for their states to secede from the Union. And Matthew Staver, dean of the Law School at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, explained: “Millions of Americans looked evil in the eye and adopted it … Abortion, same-sex marriage, and immorality carried the day.”

Some states legalized marijuana. Some other states legalized same-sex marriage. And a Democrat was re-elected president. It’s not clear that there is much new, or especially evil here. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Marijuana has been available for “medical use” in California since 1996. And abortion has been legal for 40 years.

Despite our disagreements about these issues, we tend to forget how much we agree upon. Consider, most importantly, the fact that the election and transition of power proceeded peacefully. We take that for granted. We also take it for granted that most of us agree most of the time about what philosopher Bernard Gert called our “common morality.”

Gert maintained that morality could be reduced to the basic idea of minimizing harm to others. He pointed out that no one thinks that it is morally acceptable to hurt someone simply because you don’t like him. While this sounds trivial, it is the broad heart of our common moral agreement.

It is remarkable, for example, that no candidate or referendum advocated harm to others out of malice or hatred. It wasn’t always so. In the bad old days, it was possible to advocate harming others based upon mere dislike. Racism is the idea that some others can be harmed simply because we don’t like them. But no one in American public life can get away with advocating racist ideas today.

Even those who disagree about homosexuality, marijuana and abortion would most likely agree that freedom matters. No one should be forced into a homosexual relationship. No one should be forced to smoke pot. And no one should be forced to have an abortion.

The abortion question is complicated by the question of the moral status of the fetus — and yes that is a tough question. But if a mother were forced to have an abortion, we would all agree that this was wrong.

It is easy to forget our agreements because we tend to focus on our disagreements. But our common morality becomes obvious when we think about our common ideas about a variety of issues.

Consider women’s rights. We would agree, I hope, that forced marriages and honor killings are wrong. That’s not true in other parts of the globe, where girls are forcibly married and murdered for dishonoring their families. Perhaps this shows us that our “common morality” is not common to all cultures. Much more needs to be said about cross-cultural standards and universal human rights.

A further problem is that our common morality does not extend in the direction of charity. While we agree about minimizing harm, we do not agree that there is a duty to assist those in need.

Gert’s idea of common morality is fairly modest. He only thinks that we have a duty not to harm others. But this does not mean that we have a duty to help them. Of course, people are free to give their money to help others. But the common morality does not require charity. This common morality may not be very useful for dealing with the problem of poverty.

Despite the talk of secession and evil, we will most likely continue to expand our agreement about the need for liberty with regard to activities that do not harm others. But we will continue to disagree about whether there is a duty to help. And we will continue to disagree about specific cases — such as about the moral status of the fetus.

We should not let our disagreements cause us to forget our general agreement that it is wrong to deliberately inflict harm on another simply because you do not like her. And we should not forget that in some parts of the world such ideas are not yet common.