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October 13, 2009
Some thoughts about public discourse
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Readers will forgive me for waxing philosophical for just one column. But let's take a step back from healthcare reform, unemployment, the economy, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, al Qaeda, Gitmo, water-boarding, gay marriage and stem cell research to think for a minute about just how the exchange of ideas is faring in the public square these days.

It is Christopher Tollefson, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, who has me thinking about this. His recently published and timely thoughts on the nature of public discourse are well worth a read. Tollefsen explains that public discourse is crucial to the common good and should transpire precisely in public forums where the general populace can have access to the exchange of ideas and even participate. As to the meaning of 'discourse', Tollefson continues:

"Discourse" indicates the crucial means by which [consideration of public issues] is to be pursued. Proponents of competing positions must communicate -- not just to those who already share their views, but to those who don't; they must be part of a public conversation. This conversation is not just, however, an exchange of views. It must be an exchange of reasons. It must have the character of a public argument.

So, public discourse achieves its common-good purpose most effectively when it entails, above and beyond a mere exchange of views or beliefs, actual argumentation.

Now, we are in fact absolutely afloat in public argumentation these days, perhaps like never before in American history. As Robert T. Miller, assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law, has observed:

Generally speaking, our society is more concerned with producing and responding to arguments than probably any other in the history of the world. Whether the issue is abortion or gay rights, tax policy or the trade deficit, global warming or third-world debt, everyone seems ready to adduce arguments in support of some position or other.

So, does the fact that we are awash in argumentation on pressing moral issues bode well for the moral health of our nation? I think we can be cautiously optimistic. Granted, the mere abundance of argumentation in the public square does not, in and of itself, assure a healthy moral fabric. It all depends on the kind of argumentation we should be demanding of those who debate moral issues in the public square.

First, we should demand that it unfold in genuine civility. Furthermore, our exchanges should obey the rules of logic and avoid linguistic fallacies. Most of all, we should insist that our exchanges get down to the level of first principles. In other words, our public discourse should require each side to articulate the most fundamental assumptions on which a particular argument is based. When discourse fails to do so, opposing sides all too often end up talking past each other and never explaining the reasons for the positions held.

If, for instance, the issue is embryonic stem cell research, the public interest would be best served if both sides articulate the reasons for asserting the personhood of the embryo or denying it. If the issue is euthanasia, both sides should articulate the meaning of human personhood, how body relates to self, and what 'quality of life means', and so on. The common good is not served when public discourse ignores sharp disagreements at the level of first principles.

Alexis de Tocqueville once famously asserted that "in the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own." Sadly, this parroting of the opinions of others is another major pitfall of public discourse, and a further consequence of failing to argue at the level of first principles. Such unreflective repetition of argumentation can give the impression of robust public discourse, but in reality it falls painfully short.

We can and should do our part to ensure that public discourse is vigorous and healthy by striving to avoid such pitfalls. In so doing, whether over the dinner table, on e-media, or in our town halls, we strengthen the moral fiber of our nation.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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