Integrity & Moral Cautiousness

Posted: October 2, 2010 in Lessons, Peace

One of the more intriguing course titles in my law school career is my current “Law & Morality” class. This seminar is taught by the highly-esteemed visiting professor, Ellen Pryor. Professor Pryor has showered us with interesting readings throughout the semester. Recently, we read large chunks of Sissela Bok’s classic book, “Lying.” Me, the smart aleck, thought it would be great fun to go out to some public place to read this book, and when an astute observer would undoubtedly ask why I was reading a book on lying, I would respond, “Oh, it’s for law school.” 🙂 My follow-up line would be, “I took Cheating last semester, and Stealing is on tap next.”

This week, we’re reading Stephen Carter’s excellent book, “Integrity.” Which, if nothing else, is better PR for the legal profession should I choose to read it in public. But there was one passage that really struck me as profound, so I thought I would share it with the world via blogging/Facebook. As one who has from time to time been accused of moral relativism, this passage really resonates with me.

Your comments would be interesting and welcomed, but honestly, my motivation in sharing this is to provoke reflection more than to inspire conversation. Here goes (from pages 59-61):

“. . . we Americans do public dialogue badly. I suspect that the principal psychological difficulty that frustrates our national efforts to conduct public moral dialogues is not, as is sometimes asserted, that nobody believes that there are right answers to our moral dilemmas; no, the American problem is that we all believe that our own answers are the right ones. In this sense, we are a land not of moral relativists, as is often charged, but of moral objectivists: people who believe that there are universal, moral truths. Our necessary if sometimes uncomfortable celebration of moral tolerance is a mark not of our relativism but of our objectivism; having learned the lessons of history, we are trying in America to be morally cautious. It is not that there are no right answers, but that, given human fallibility, we need to be careful in assuming that we have found them. This point was made famously by John Stuart Mill, and today the very variety of moral truths in which different Americans wholeheartedly believe is proof of the wisdom of tolerance. Tolerance is the reason that the most liberal Americans must accept hateful speech and the most conservative Americans must accept homosexuality. It is not that nobody could hold the view that one or the other is morally wrong; it is rather that history has taught us to be careful about enforcing our moral views as law.”

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