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Back to 2014_01_09_ICS_Convicciones y argumentos en la vida pública

Ana Marta González, Scientific Coordinator of Institute for Culture and Society and professor at Philosophy Moral

Convictions and arguments in public life

Thu, 09 Jan 2014 09:42:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

On the occasion of the new law on abortion, for some "retrograde" and for others "insufficient," old arguments have once again been heard concerning how to approach the relationship between morality and legality in a democracy. It is assumed that morality represents the realm of personal, private convictions, and therefore should not interfere in the making of laws, which, in a democracy, express the sovereign will of the people.

We are currently witnessing a crisis of the modern concept of political "representation", but this is not what I would like to focus on here, because, rightly or wrongly, in fact we continue to accept that the will of the people, expressed at the ballot box and reflected in Parliament, is the source of political legitimacy, even if it is not the source of moral legitimacy.  

My interest here is directed, above all, to analyzing the confusion that often creeps into the argument that establishes an iron division between the privacy of morals and the advertising of the law, because, on the one hand, this argument overlooks the fact that moral convictions are distinguished from mere interests or mere opinions, and, on the other, it also forgets that moral convictions incorporate cognitive contents, which can be the object of a public discussion much higher than that to which we are sadly accustomed.

To begin with, it is clear that a politician cannot, in the exercise of his position, divert the sovereign will of the people towards his personal interests, or those of any group . Nor should he use his position to coercively "impose" his moral convictions on those who do not have them. But that does not mean that he can and much less should he act against them, sacrificing his conscience, and becoming in his own eyes one more piece of the political machinery, or of a chain of command, like an Eichmann Eichmann. Not only is it a mistake to equate moral convictions with personal or party interests, but, as has been stressed by Hans Joasit is wrong to suppose that a person can treat his moral convictions as if they were mere opinions, modifiable at the drop of a hat: if that were the case, they would not be convictions - for which many people would be willing to sacrifice their well-being, their honors, their very selves - but mere ideas, more or less interesting.

Certainly, moral convictions incorporate ideas, which can be true or false; but any idea would not be a "conviction", nor would its public exhibition have such a dramatic charge, if it were not for the fact that in them the person sees subjectively compromised his identity and his moral dignity. The recognition of conscientious objection by the rule of law obeys precisely this circumstance: it does not assess whether, from a cognitive point of view, the idea in question is true or false, but limits itself to considering it a conviction, in which the person sees his or her dignity compromised. Those who hold political office are no strangers to this circumstance: they too have convictions - or should have them - beyond the varying opinions of their constituents.

However, the fact that moral convictions have have cognitive content, i.e., the fact that they embody ideas, and that these may be true or false, means that they can and should be argued publicly, without premature ideological disqualifications, and without dishonest emotional manipulations.

This, in general, is not easy. And it is particularly difficult in the case of abortion, insofar as some defend it as a right while others condemn it as a crime, and both things, obviously, cannot be true at the same time. However, the way to deal with this discrepancy is not to silence it in the depths of conscience, like someone who sweeps the dust under the carpet, and then hypocritically continue with life as if it were nothing. Moral convictions, when they are real, demand to inform the whole of life, including civic life. And if democracy has any value, for which it is worthwhile, it is precisely that of providing its citizens with sufficient freedom to express publicly and honestly their own convictions, whatever they may be, trying to argue them convincingly, without outrage. Ensuring public space for a discussion of this nature does not mean that both positions are objectively equivalent: it means that no one can arrogate to himself the right to claim that the other does not defend his position convinced of being right. Acknowledging this possibility, even knowing that other interests are often at stake, is part of the respect necessary for an authentic democratic discussion , from which we can all benefit. For although it is true that we will rarely witness "conversions" to the opposite side among the apostles of a certain position, the undecided will at least have more elements of judgment, and the dialogue itself will constitute a way of bringing positions closer together, of creating civil society, even in the midst of serious differences. With this, needless to say, our political discussion , today rather mediocre and technocratic, would gain dialectic and human height. On the other hand, we gain nothing by disqualifying the political adversary with crude ad hominem arguments, or by turning public coexistence into a shouting festival.