When I teach ethics one of the questions we discuss is: Does everyone have different morals? Nearly every student answers yes. I find this an odd and inaccurate answer. But, even when presented with evidence for the sameness of our moral principles they remain unconvinced and continue to focus on the differences to the exclusion of any focus on our common moral foundation. Inasmuch as this has some pretty important implications for our moral discourse I'd like to posit some possible explanations for this focus on differences.
1. We confuse surface disagreements for deeper disagreements. It's easy to see disagreements when we discuss such issues as gun control, abortion, euthanasia, drug legalization. Could those who disagree about these issues really share common moral principles? I think in order to have the conversation at all, they have to. Take the abortion debate. Clearly both sides care deeply about the issue but not as clear is their common moral agreement. But, it is there. Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates believe in the moral principle: babies should not be killed for no good reason. In fact, I would go so far as to say that everyone agrees with this moral principle. The debate over abortion is not over a fundamental moral principle but rather some important factual questions such as whether the fetus should be classified as a baby. While this may be an oversimplification of the issue I think it remains the case that both sides share much in common when it comes to their fundamental moral principles.
2. We assume that having common moral principles would eliminate all debate. The claim is often made that if we all had the same morals, there would be no debate about such issues as abortion, euthanasia, etc. But, is this true? It is put forward as if it were true but rarely is any evidence provided for this claim. In fact, I think it turns out to be false. To illustrate consider an analogy to a simpler example; food. It is a universal human requirement that we need food to survive. But, even though this is a universal agreement, there is a huge variance in what counts as food from one culture to the next. There are even debates about what should and what should not be eaten. What explains these differences? Environment is an important factor as well as cultural traditions. But, the point remains that even with a fundamental agreement there are still debates. The same holds true when it comes to morality. As the philosopher James Rachels pointed out, there are several important fundamental moral principles we all share concerning care of the young, indiscriminate killing, and truth telling. But, while we all share these fundamental principles we still debate over such things as what counts as proper care for the young, who can and who cannot be killed, and when it is permissible to lie.
3. We don't want to dig deeper to see common underlying moral principles. In other words, we are intellectually lazy. It takes work and deep thinking to see the common moral principles which lie beneath the surface disagreements. It also takes a willingness to enter into a thoughtful dialogue. The only way we can really discover the common values we share is to slow down, ask questions, and listen to the answers we get. Ultimately this is a more valuable activity than trading insults and slogans.
One activity I encourage my students to engage in comes from a TED talk given by Elizabeth Lesser titledTake the Other to Lunch. In this activity you sit down with someone who shares a different view regarding some important issue and have a thoughtful conversation. As part of this conversation you ask them to share some of their life experiences and ask them the following questions:
What issues deeply concern you?
What have you always wanted to ask someone from the "other side?"
The idea is not to persuade but to understand. Perhaps if more people tried this they would see the common morality hidden underneath the surface arguments.