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Moral Dialogue

by Vasco Kunft


Dialogue can be described as the oldest philosophical tool. Its flexibility and the unpredictability of its outcome make it ideal tool for moral negotiation. Sometimes mere willingness to engage in dialogue can bring tacit agreement to accept 'usance', our customary understandings and accommodations.

Usance which arose from previous dialogues. Usance which is very important, because we have to make time for deliberation before we arrive at judgement, but we do not always have the time before we take action.

Although the question is dialogue between an 'I' and 'thou', the many pitfalls of such a dialogue apply to all types of dialogue.

Ideally one should enter into a moral dialogue with out any preconception and be prepared that at the end one may be proven totally wrong. Not many people I know are willing to start on that premise. We have our values (which we deem to be objective), beliefs, rules, expectations etc. which we want to present and defend. Yet if we take this stance we are entering the dialogue weighed down with a priori baggage of what the other party can justifiably claim to be prejudices. We should enter the dialogue with out any expectations, only with hope that it will be successful.

Should we then abandon our beliefs? Of course not, but we must be prepared to revise or adjust them if and only if the counter-argument is reasonable, believable and acceptable to us. We have to always bear in mind that dialogue is not a fight between two dogmas, but a way to reach agreement and, failing that, at least an acceptable compromise.

This sounds relatively easy, two reasonable beings reaching tHrough exchange of views a common solution. Dream on. How many times we have to reach decision on an action where the other is not available for consultation, never mind dialogue.

We then have to enter into a dialogue where we represent both sides and to make things bit more difficult we must avoid the temptation of partiality. We must not only try to see through the others eyes, but we have to defend his point of view (as we see it) with the same vigour as we defend ours.

The imaginary dialogue becomes even more difficult when the consequent action affect others. The prism through which we have to look becomes multifaceted and our position nay impossible. To complicate things even more, imagine that we are aiming at something new, untried, but something we strongly believe in, something we deem worthwhile, something we believe will be at the end beneficiary to all affected. How ruthlessly we will defend our view, how ruthlessly we will pursue our aim? Only as far as we are willing to accept full responsibility and full blame for, should we be proven wrong. (Not a rule, but my personal feeling.)

Not all moral negotiations are so precarious. More often then not we are not even aware that we have entered moral dialogue, and the outcome is usually satisfactory compromise. On the other hand how often we see skilled negotiator outmanoeuvre less sophisticated opponent. Such a negotiation then can not be called moral negotiation but a mere horse-trading.

We can see that despite the fact that there are not many rules governing true moral dialogue, they have to be strictly observed in order to avoid it sliding in to something entirely different and that the moral dialogue is a very strenuous and demanding exercise. We are not talking about mere willingness, but an honest effort to see through the others eyes, balancing self-assertion and self-sacrifice, being ruthless when necessary, being open minded, but defending our views without being dogmatic, trying to reach convergence, but be prepared to accept compromise. All that without the aid of some universal truth serving as a criterion.

Is there a way out of this seeming circularity? Is there practical use for moral dialogue?

We can not hope (at present) that moral dialogue will bring the ideal criterion, but any dialogue, which reaches mutually acceptable judgement, provides a comparative criterion on which to build and improve. Any successful dialogue is an added incentive to persuade those so far unwilling or unprepared to engage in it.

We see in every day life some form of moral dialogue taking place without being recognised as such. Therefore moral dialogue is not exclusive to philosophy, or everybody is a philosopher. Philosophy can provide and illuminate the metaphysic leading to the desirability of moral dialogue, but it should not end it there. The time, skill and moral qualities required for a true moral negotiation are not always readily available in any given situation. Role models provided by natural authority, cultivation of useful traditions, setting of standards, disseminating true and creating theoretical scenarios to follow, all this based on previous moral dialogues can be invaluable tool for smoothing the rocky path.

© Vasco Kunft 2004

E-mail: v.kunft@telecom.cz