We devote an enormous amount of time and energy, both as individuals and a society, towards arguing about the great social controversies of our time: issues of personal liberty vs. community security, euthanasia, animal rights, environmental issues, matters of economic distribution, abortion, etc.

Some of us approach these issues from a dogmatic viewpoint which either doesn’t care to listen to the other side or doesn’t ever lend a serious and sincere ear to the arguments the other side makes in its favor. Perhaps we adopt the values of our parents, church, or friends – and perhaps we even adopt them because we characterize ourselves as a member of a certain group (church, political party, art collective, music-oriented sub-culture, etc.) which has a certain stance on the issue as part of a whole set of stances on a whole set of issues. If you’re a democrat, republican, green, libertarian, (non-americans can include their own favorite or despised party here as well) or identify yourself with any other such group, then it’s usually all too easy to guess your stance on virtually every controversial issue, as well as the reasons you would declare for it if asked.

But almost no one wants to be called dogmatic. Accuse anyone of it, and they will either deny it and try to prove you wrong, or they’ll admit that they need to broaden their horizons and give greater consideration to both the reasons and value of their own arguments and of those of their opponents.

It’s the folks that don’t care about the charge of dogmatism that really frighten the rest of us. We might call them shallow, ignorant, and hypocritical – because they expect other to treat their own concerns about this or some other topic with the type of serious judgment they are not themselves willing to extend. If they simply don’t care enough about such a matter of high importance to extend it sufficient consideration we might call them insensitive or brutish. Even worse in our eyes, however, are those who both hold fast to their dogmatism and consider the matter of vital importance. We call them fanatics and are justified in being afraid of what they might do in cases where the moral necessity of their cause justifies actions most of us would consider horrific. We think of them as the people who bomb abortion clinics (USA), force the closure of animal-testing research facilities by threats of violence (UK), gang-rape women as a punishment for adultery (Pakistan), etc.

The great majority of us, however, approach controversial issues with what we believe is, to some degree or other, an open mind about the various arguments people have offered on these subjects. We believe that generally speaking we understand the arguments of the other side, not to mention that of our own, and that the arguments for our position are simply better. The problem, as we usually see it, is that those on the other side have simply failed to approach the problem in an honest, sincere and rational fashion. Instead of dogmatism and rhetoric what we’d want is a sincere debate where we can lay out our respective arguments and then (they’ll) see which side is right, or perhaps even whether what is right lies somewhere in between.

Not a bit of sarcasm is intended here, and this is certainly the way that I try to approach such topics myself. Last year, I TA’d a philosophy class on contemporary moral issues such as these where the focus was, of course, on the rational arguments that different sides offer on this issues. I had quite strong feelings about many of the issues (abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, for example), and although I tried to maintain intellectual neutrality, in the back of my mind I wondered how anyone could possibly be convinced by the terrible arguments of the sides I opposed and fail to be convinced by the arguments on the side I supported. As one who had thought long and hard on these issues for years and surrounded by others with mostly similar perspectives on the matter, it seemed to me that what was lacking was simply the open mind to drop dogmas or purely egoistic perspective and really, sincerely, think about why and how we answer these controversies.

Recently, however, I have become highly discouraged about the notion that sitting down and talking about the issues sincerely, calmly and rationally is going to do us any good with regards to actually solving these issues one way or the other. That there may not be any higher moral ground in these debates after all is a claim that goes right to the heart of how those of us who do see enormous, tragic, and often avoidable injustice in the world should consider what it is we do, how should we go about it, and most importantly of all, what kind of people do we want to be.

When we sit down together in an honest attempt to examine the reasons which we believe make one side or the other right, we can point to the inconsistencies and rational flaws of the specific arguments that people bring forth. This recourse to a well-meaning rational exchange is what separates us from the brutes and fanatics – and we believe it’s the only sane solution to resolving our disagreements. There are certainly other ways to resolve them: convince the other side through prettier rhetoric, stronger threats, or outright violence – these are all time-honored and proven ways of settling our differences. But we already know their consequences, and in these days where what we’ve come to call “weapons of mass destruction” are so plentiful, we want to avoid such options if at all possible because not only our own survival, but that of the whole planet depends on it.

The problem is that while rational discourse can help us recognize better and worse reasons for believing one way or another on such controversial issues it can not solve these problems for us. Arguments of similar rational force can be, and are, devised for both sides of the issue – the problem is that they all depend precisely on the types of controversial assumptions I brought up above. Arguments can be made in favor or against such assumptions, and their rational merit can be examined, but they can prove nothing. And for all of our best intentions, we have no way to solve them, and this means that they can’t help us to resolve our differences.

So what do we do?

There is no such thing as ‘doing nothing’ on issues. Can they really simply stand by and let such gross injustice occur in front of their eyes?

Our world is full of so much suffering and so many terrible injustices. I don’t think anyone will contest that, nor that only a few think that injustice is not worth fighting against. But what do we do when we disagree on what these injustices are and what makes them unjust? What do we do when even our most well-intended attempts at sincere and rational discussions are doomed to failure because the arguments are of a kind that only appears to us be resolvable by reason or verification of fact, but in actually is not?

I ask you, what do we do then?