Friday, March 30, 2012

Thoughts About Living Ethically in a Pluralistic Society

Recently, Marianna Davis shared with me a Viewpoint, "Living Ethically Without Judging Others," from The Charlotte Observer, Sunday, March 25, 2012, written by Carol Quillen, President of Davidson College. The piece really impressed me and struck me as relevant for a socially, culturally, religiously, and economically diverse school like ours. I hope you enjoy it too. Let me know what you think. I re-print it here in its entirety with The Charlotte Observer's permission.

What does it mean in a pluralistic society, to treat others ethically? This is harder than you think, because in a pluralistic society, people do not agree on what is right and what is wrong. They do not agree on how to dress, eat or pray. They do not agree on how to raise children or how to structure family life, or on who should have sex and when, or on the appropriate roles for men and women.

One solution might be "live and let live." Since everyone is different, let's leave each other alone. You live your way, I'll live mine. I won't judge you, you won't judge me. The implication here is that we have limited obligations to our fellow citizens. See a homeless woman? Walk by without acknowledging or responding to her. Read that children in Charlotte go to bed hungry? Blame their parents. Leaving others alone is often not an ethical thing to do.

You could surround yourself with people like you. This is a choice Americans are increasingly making. As national debates become increasingly polarized, we as individuals live, work, and worship in ever more homogeneous communities. We seek out as neighbors and friends others who vote, think, and pray like us. This is comforting, but when we choose to live like this, we do not learn how to deal with those who are different. Because we are so rarely challenged or offended, we come to expect never to be challenged or offended. We grow intolerant of anything other than what we already believe. This is a huge problem in a pluralistic democracy, where we will inevitably encounter people who do not share our views of right and wrong.

What we need is to find one small piece of common ground that would urge us first to mutual recognition and from that to tolerating our differences. That common ground is respect for human dignity. If we take respect for human dignity as an ethical imperative, then we have a framework that acknowledges our mutual obligations to others who are different and that encourages us to seek points of connection with others without presuming from the get-go that they should be just like us.

To respect the human dignity of other persons, we must be open to points of connection with them. This means we can't start out from litmus tests. We can't say, "Buddhism is too complicated," or "She's a creationist and obviously can't be reasoned with," or "they are immigrants, I won't understand them," or "I don't interact with lesbians." It means we take some responsibility for learning about traditions other than our own, so that we do not use ignorance as a veil for bigotry. And respecting human dignity means we have to nurture the various and sometimes contradictory parts of ourselves that open us to others.

The worst thing that can happen in a pluralistic society is for people to define themselves along a singular axis of identity, whether that axis is race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political affiliation. We are never just one thing, and we need to remember that. The ambiguity and the complexity within us allow us to see others as both human and different.

Living ethically also means that out of a profound respect for human dignity we do not seek, except through non-coercive argument, to suppress some practices and beliefs with which we fundamentally disagree. It means that we seek to create, every day, a community where all persons can believe and, within limits, live, as they see fit.  So I may think that wearing a burqua is wrong, but should allow other women to do it without interfering; I do not always like proselytizing but I defend those who are obligated by their convictions to do it. Each of us is responsible for what we make of our tradition. It is our responsibility to nourish the roots of tolerance within the texts and teachings we inherit.

Perhaps the most important payoff of genuinely respecting human dignity is that it encourages us to be intellectually modest. We must resist the lure of certitude without ever surrendering our commitment, our obligation to seek a good life each in our own way. Of course we will disagree. But if we genuinely respect the awe-inspiring dignity of all human beings, and if we together seek the limits to our freedom that the dignity of others establishes, then we always remember that even our deepest convictions might be wrong. When we remember this, we tread slowly and deliberately, we treat others who are different with respect, and our extraordinary nation can flourish in peace.