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Hot buttons and cool reason: have we lost the art of moral argument?

Monday, 2 March 2015  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

Hot button - "word or issue that ignites anger, fear, enthusiasm, or other passionate response. Such an issue, frequently involving values or morals, serves to lift an audience out of its seats” (Safire's New Political Dictionary [Random House, New York, 1993]).

There are a number of controversial such issues within the Christian community today, including the role of women, the nature of hell, and the moral permissibility of same-sex relationships. At the interface between the church and society, abortion, euthanasia, anti-religious vilification law, gay marriage and access to IVF and/or adoption for singles and homosexual couples are all hot button issues. In Parliamentary democracies such as Australia, Christians have both the opportunity and the obligation to attempt to influence public opinion and public policy in relation to such issues. To bear witness to the biblical revelation of God's holiness and his plans and purposes for humanity, and to promote the biblical vision of human flourishing. But what is the best way to do this? And are there any methods which we ought not use?

When there is disagreement about an issue and people from both “sides” talk to each other or in the public space promoting their point of view, we call this an argument. But a look at the two distinct ways we use the word “argument” tells us a lot about the state of public moral discourse. An argument can mean a discussion in which reasons are advanced for and against some proposition, but it can also mean simply a quarrel or a controversy. Public policy debate on “hot button” moral issues is mostly argument in the second rather than the first sense. Big on anger, fear, enthusiasm and passion, not so big on reasonable persuasion. And this also, sadly, is sometimes true of Christians' contributions. Why might this be the case?


One explanation might be that we've picked up some bad habits from the world, specifically the adversarial practices of the law and of politics. Framing things as absolute dichotomies - guilty/not guilty, black/white- entails dismissing any argument against your own “case”. One side wins and the other loses. But this method is poorly equipped to deal with complex moral issues. Many moral issues are complex, and even when the moral issue itself is clear (eg there's no support for adultery or injustice in the Bible) the question of if and how this should be reflected in legislation and public policy may be complex. Multiple competing principles and considerations must be weighed against each other, until we arrive at a conclusion “on balance”. Whenever we come to such a conclusion, there will often remain powerful and valid counterarguments against it, which we ought to acknowledge and take account of. For example, a person who is generally opposed to euthanasia needs to recognise the strength of some of the arguments for legalised euthanasia and consider their implications for public policy (such as ensuring adequate palliative care provision including pastoral care for the dying). But we find this difficult. It's much easier to think that all the right is on our side, and that there can be no doubt or legitimate disagreement about it. To concede the validity of some of our “opponents'” reasoning might be seen as weakening our “case”. Such an attitude often means we don't really have to listen to arguments against our position, and are not open to being challenged, modifying or even radically changing our view.


People with whom we disagree can become opponents or even enemies. We do not seek to persuade, we simply assert as forcefully as possible that they are wrong, stupid, disgraceful, morally bankrupt, and so on. We might impute wrong motives to them, and we might employ rhetorical devices such as the use of hyperbole. So, anyone who considers there might be some legitimate grounds for legalising abortion becomes a “worshipper of Molech”. We might attempt to discredit a claim made by someone by attacking their character or by describing other claims/views they have (the ad hominem fallacy). For example, we might attempt to discredit everything Professor Peter Singer says about the moral argument for vegetarianism by pointing to his views on infanticide and euthanasia. We should not dismiss any argument out of hand just because it is made by someone with whom we often disagree, even if the disagreement is at a fundamental level.


There are other unfair or fallacious tactics of argumentation. One is the “straw man” tactic: misrepresenting another's position, making it appear more implausible, so it can more easily be refuted. Other examples include argumentum ad populum, which is an appeal to popular opinion to support a conclusion, and argumentum ad ignorantium, the claim that because a particular proposition has not been proved to be true (or false) one may conclude that it is false (or true). It is tragic when, in pursuit of so called godly aims, we resort to ungodly strategies. If the medium is even only a part of the message, the way we conduct our arguments speaks as loudly as their content. Might not graciousness, temperance, integrity, humility and respect for those with whom we disagree be more persuasive? “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).


I think the underlying explanation for the poor quality of some Christian argument in the public square, and the adoption of ungodly strategies of debate in place of reasoned argument, is a loss of confidence in the ability of Christian moral arguments to persuade a post-Christian, often militantly secular audience. We have adopted the view (most famously put by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue) that contemporary moral argument is incoherent, because we have no shared tradition to give meaningful content to a “common morality”. Even in the secular world there is intractable disagreement about the source of moral authority (if it indeed exists), and how we decide right and wrong (normative ethical theories). If disagreement exists at such a foundational level, is all moral argument doomed to be, as MacIntyre suggests, reduced to emotivism, the attempt to win others to our views by appeal to emotion rather than rationality? Do we have any common ground, any starting point, any agreed premises on which to construct a rational argument about moral questions? Next time we'll look at how we might legitimately construct moral arguments in the public square.



Janice Newham
March 4, 2015, 7:20AM
Denise, you have a really good point here, well explained. A reasoned argument!

The problem reminds me of the ridiculous Monty Python skit "Is this where I come for an argument?" The seeker of a reasoned argument is frustrated by the mere gainsaying employed so aggressively by John Cleese.

Is it fear that draws us into black and white approaches to moral issues, and the simplistic technique of contradiction?

I look forward to your suggestions on strategies for arguing in the public square.

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