Philosophy and Morality in Public Discourse


If we want to move public discourse in the right direction, we should rely on the many assumptions we share with most of our contemporaries.

Adam Seagrave reminds us that the teleological eudaimonism of the Aristotelian-Thomistic moral tradition, which is based on the idea of an objective human nature and an objective final end determined by that nature, is profoundly at odds with the foundational presuppositions of modernity. This is certainly right, and although Seagrave credits this insight to Leo Strauss, practically everyone involved in the history of ideas recognizes it as patently correct. Much changed starting in the high middle ages, and key among the changes was a shift away from a eudaimonistic morality, in which the final end and the virtues hold central places, to a morality of rules and obligations, which finds its classic expression in the moral philosophy of Kant.

From this genuine and fundamental philosophical disagreement between the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition and most modern systems of morality, Seagrave infers that arguments based on Aristotelian-Thomistic premises can have almost no influence in the public square. He writes that “until Aristotelian-Thomists become politicians and judges or until politicians and judges become Aristotelian-Thomists … this [Aristotelian-Thomistic] sort of moral reasoning will find little purchase in the public arena.”

Happily, however, things are not quite as bleak as they seem for us Aristotelian-Thomists, for Seagrave misconceives the relationship between deep philosophical assumptions and debate in the public square about the live issues of the day.

Morality and Practicality

Seagrave seems to think that if two people disagree on fundamental moral premises, then they will disagree on almost all practical questions as well. In one sense, this is true; if you and I disagree about what words like should and ought mean, then even when we agree verbally that we should be kind to children and ought to refrain from stealing, we will be saying slightly different things. But this will be of little practical significance, because what matters in practice is action. As long as a man acts in the right way, there will usually be no practical significance to the fact that he does so for reasons that are somewhat different from mine. The difference will matter only when he and I are arguing questions in moral philosophy.

Seagrave insists that contemporary public discourse is agnostic “about the existence of any non-religious foundation for morality” and “talk of human nature, natural law, or natural rights is simply taboo.” But this is not quite true. In academia nowadays, moral philosophers are roughly equally divided among deontological Kantians, consequentialists of various kinds (including utilitarians), and virtue theorists, which is what Aristotelians are called in contemporary academic jargon. These people carry on a scholarly debate about all sorts of foundational questions in moral theory. In fact, a very large majority of professional philosophers agree that morality has some kind of objective basis.

What we do not see, of course, is debate in the political arena about foundational issues in moral philosophy. The reason for this, I suggest, is that such questions are usually irrelevant.

Here’s a good example of what I mean. Take Section 2714(a) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, popularly known as the Obamacare law. Section 2714(a) requires that most health insurance plans that cover dependent children continue to make such coverage available for unmarried adult children until such children turn 26 years of age. Is this a good, wise, and just law? It would seem to me that, in answering this question, differences of opinion about foundational moral premises are unlikely to matter. Much more important will be an analysis of the actual effects of Section 2714(a)—that is, a clear understanding of who is helped by the law, who is harmed, and in each case, how much.

Now, prior to the passage of Section 2714(a), if people who had health insurance covering their dependent children wanted such coverage to continue until the children reached the age of 26, most insurance companies would have been happy to oblige them for an appropriate increase in premiums (other government regulations may have made this difficult in some cases, but that’s a separate problem). Health insurance is sold in a generally competitive market, and so the added coverage would have been priced near to marginal cost. Without any government intervention in the market, therefore, we should expect that people who wanted such a benefit could get it if they were willing to pay for it. Who would these people be? For the most part, they would be people with adult children who had significant medical problems or who otherwise wanted but could not obtain health insurance on favorable terms, probably because they were unable to get jobs that provided health insurance.

Once Section 2714(a) comes into effect, however, insurance companies will find offering policies that cover dependent children more costly, and so the price for these policies will have to rise. People with health insurance covering dependent children will have to pay for this added coverage whether they want it or not. Hence, people with no children, people whose adult children would prefer to take the risk of not having health insurance, and people whose adult children can get superior coverage elsewhere, such as through their employer, now have to pay for a benefit they will not use. The effect of the law, therefore, is to shift part of the cost of covering the adult children of the people who will take advantage of this benefit to the people who will not. The law thus transfers wealth from one group of consumers to another. Now, why should the law favor parents of sick, unemployed, or risk-averse adult children at the expense of the parents of healthy, employed, and risk-neutral ones?

I can see no good reason for such a policy. If the argument is that the law redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, surely there ought to be some kind of means-testing built into the statute, which there manifestly is not. On the contrary, the law seems designed to allow politicians to say that they were providing their constituents a benefit at the expense of an unpopular minority—namely, insurance companies—when the reality is that certain other constituents had to pay the freight.

To be against this law, all you need to believe is that it’s wrong for politicians to pass laws that rob Peter to pay Paul and then cover up the robbery to increase their chances of reelection. Whether you think this is wrong because you’re an Aristotelian-Thomist who sees it as an action not properly ordered to the final end for human beings, or because you’re a consequentialist who thinks that the bad consequences of such a law outweigh the good ones, or because you’re a deontologist who thinks such dealings violate certain imperatives inherent in practical rationality, really doesn’t matter very much.

Points of Agreement

This point holds more generally. People disagree about issues in the public square mostly because they disagree on particular factual matters (for instance, some people fall for the canard that the insurance companies and not their customers will have to pay for the added benefits conferred by Section 2714(a)), or because they disagree on more general factual matters, such as how elastic the labor supply is relative to marginal tax rates on income or whether inequality of wealth and income is due mostly to technological and sociological factors beyond the control of government or to legal factors like tax policy and redistribution programs that the government controls.

In most of these cases, deep philosophical assumptions turn out to be irrelevant. People who hold different but reasonable sets of foundational moral premises—say an Aristotelian-Thomist and a traditional Kantian—will pretty much end up agreeing on particular issues if they also agree on the relevant factual matters and generalizations. There will be exceptions to this rule—same-sex marriage comes to mind—but it generally holds true. That’s because eudaimonists, consequentialists, and deontologists do by and large agree on such elementary moral matters as that murder, theft, and fraud are bad, but telling the truth, keeping promises, and acting kindly and generously are good.

In Thomistic vocabulary, almost everyone agrees on the secondary precepts of the natural law, the precepts that spell out which kinds of actions are always or generally good or bad. Aquinas recognized that, despite this agreement, people would often disagree about the moral quality of particular actions—they would disagree, in other words, about how these precepts should be applied in particular cases. Given his historical circumstances, Aquinas did not realize that people could also disagree about the foundational assumptions underlying the secondary precepts of the natural law—even about whether these should be understood as being precepts of the “natural law” at all—while nevertheless maintaining very substantial agreement about the content of the precepts themselves.

It is apparent, however, in our historical circumstances that just this is entirely possible. No one today has a brief for murder, rape, theft, fraud, lying, vandalism, waste, envy, cowardice, irascibility, ingratitude, skinflintery, or sloth, and everyone praises justice, generosity, courage, sagacity, patience, industry, and kindness. Agreement at this level makes disagreement at the more fundamental level irrelevant in most cases. For the most part, the debate takes place at the level at which generally agreed-upon moral principles are being applied to particular cases.

Seagrave thinks that most Aristotelian-Thomists deny or neglect the point that Aristotelian-Thomistic eudaimonism involves fundamental disagreement with some of the basic presuppositions of modernity. This strikes me as clearly wrong. If anything, virtually all Aristotelian-Thomists are acutely aware of this disagreement. Indeed, many of them flamboyantly trumpet it as if it proves the superiority of their views to those of our modernist fellow citizens. This is highly regrettable.

If we want to move public discourse in the right direction, we should engage in it relying on the many assumptions we share with most of our contemporaries. We will not always succeed, and occasionally the failure will indeed result from our disagreement on fundamental moral assumptions. But in other cases we will succeed, and surely making progress where progress is possible is better than declaring ourselves philosophically right but politically irrelevant. Anyone who holds that view would do better to preserve a dignified silence.

Robert T. Miller is professor of law and the F. Arnold Daum Fellow in Corporate Law at the University of Iowa College of Law.


Related Reading


Web Briefings