On patience: some reflections on the ethics of argument

The all-too familiar morality of strong opinions which we let off all-too easily and which accomplish nothing at all.

I discovered yesterday morning, in the introduction to a seminar he was giving here in St Andrews, that Oliver O’Donovan, the leading moral theologian of his generation, is a colleague; apparently he took an honorary chair with us on his retirement from Edinburgh (which I probably should have known…). The above line is a quotation, as near as I could get it down, from early in a scintillating presentation on ‘Ethics and the Future’; Oliver reflected on time and action, hope and patience, as proper modes of Christian ethical life; it was, as we expect from him, beautifully crafted and extraordinarily tightly argued. The following reflections no doubt owe something to what he said, but are mine (his primary application was to the sterility of government by statistical prediction).

It seems to me that, particularly on issues that are held to matter, we presently operate with an overwhelming urgency of decision. You have to come to a view, pro or anti, for or against. Argument is a luxury that follows from forming a position, (at best) a post-factum articulation of the instant judgements that were made; more likely a groping for pseudo-intellectual fig-leaves to cover the exposure of our lack of moral reflection. It would, to illustrate the point, be fatal to any politician’s career were she to greet a new question, fact, or development presented to her on air with the line ‘That’s interesting; I need to think about that…’ She is required, culturally, to take a firm position immediately.

This might be presented as a requirement of honesty: it is certainly the case that, presented with a moral issue I have not previously considered, I have an immediate, instinctive reaction in one direction or another. In recent Christian ethical reflection – and more widely, if less universally, in moral philosophy – this has been valorised under the name ‘virtue ethics’: the goal of ethical formation is the development of such character that my instinctive decisions will be good, will instantiate virtues. To need to engage in moral deliberation when confronted with a question is, on this telling, already a sign of dis-ease, or a failure of moral formation.

Now, at one level I understand and entirely accept these arguments; faced with one of the banal moral ‘dilemmas’ so beloved of ethical textbooks, I should need no deliberation. Finding a wallet on the floor, I should not need to think about whether to steal its contents. It seems, to me, however, that the situation of finding a wallet on the floor is a rather particular one: I am possessed of all the salient facts, as well as whatever character traits I have developed, and so I am, at least potentially, able to make an instinctive and correct decision.

Compare a political debate – ‘What,’ to take the currently-noisy theme in my context, ‘do you think of the proposal for Scottish independence?’ I take it that the issue is, finally, one of moral deliberation: on the 23rd September (or in fact a little before, as I shall be away on the day and shall vote by post), I will make a decision on whether to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and that decision will be based on my best judgement as to which act is more ethical. Even if my moral intuitions are perfect and invincible, however, to come to that decision requires – at least potentially – extensive knowledge, some of which at present I do not have, and so I cannot form a snap judgement well.

(To take one of the issues that has caused some noise, currency union, there are two quite distinct questions to form any intelligent moral evaluation of the issue. First, does continued Scottish use of sterling actually matter? There is an economic judgement to be made concerning the effect of currency union or an alternative – the reintroduction of the Scottish Merk, say – on various issues. Were I to be convinced that the Scottish economy would be weaker one way or the other, and that that weakness would be detrimental to something that mattered (economic weakness usually is; witness this week’s reports about foodbanks…), then the question is ethically charged. Second, if the question is ethically charged in this way, what is the likelihood of currency union continuing beyond a vote for independence? That seems to be a political judgement; as I read the arguments so far, there is some agreement that the rUK economy would be damaged by excluding an independent Scotland from sterling, but also an argument that to allow an independent Scotland to continue to use sterling would establish an asymmetric system of guarantees such that the rUK would be liable to bail out the Scottish financial system in the fact of collapse, but not vice-versa. My reading is probably wrong/simplistic; but were it to be accurate, my ethical judgement depends on my views on a political question: would any future rUK government accept the risk for the economic stability, or would they choose to take the economic hit to avoid the risk? So, economic and political judgements, which are not aspects of a well-formed character, but depend on ad hoc reasoning on discovered facts, are necessary to make an intelligent ethical judgement in this area – and, I suppose, in most others.)

Of course, it could be argued that a politician or someone else in public life should be sufficiently well-informed on most issues to be able to make an immediate ethical judgement; maybe; but I am not in public life, and nor are most people, and I certainly do not aspire to that level of background knowledge. To shift illustrations, there is, to the best of my knowledge, no proposal for a wind farm near our village; were there to be, I would need to investigate various facts before reaching a well-informed moral judgement on the issue.

Now, it might be argued plausibly that this sort of reflection is idle: in fact, we come to snap judgements, regardless of our ignorance and incompetence to decide. Psychologically, I do not doubt that (as I typed the example of the wind farm, I reflected that, yes, I do have certain leanings on the general issue); but to conflate my initial instinctive reaction with my informed deliberation, as if there were no possibility of change between the two, is to despair of the possibility of any process of reasoning (not just of any process of moral reasoning). My instincts could be wrong, and I need to acknowledge that. As I regularly say to students, ‘the only way to prove you have a mind is to change it on occasion…’

…and precisely this reflection gets us to the heart of the problem with making snap judgements instantly public; were I forced to commit myself publicly on the (imagined) wind farm issue today, I would be in a position where changing my mind because of new evidence would be rendered much harder, and so I would be in a pernicious moral position of being unreasonably committed to one side of the question, regardless of where any new evidence or argument might lead me. Better to be able to reserve judgement until I can be certain enough to make a public commitment that is appropriate and meaningful.

Patience is a central virtue in serious argument. The willingness to suspend judgement long enough to genuinely understand an alternative view, to feel its full force, is one we work hard to inculcate in our students (not always successfully…); a mature position on almost any ethical debate will contain within it a clear awareness of the grounds on which it may be reversed. (Of course there are limits to this – the primitive issues I noted above – theft, murder, idolatry,… – but pure examples of such ethical questions are remarkably rare in reality.) An immature position – and most of our positions at most times are profoundly immature – will be extraordinarily aware of its precariousness.

Patience is a central virtue because most ethical debates are hypothetical, or at least future projections. To take another example that is presently noisy, I am not currently facing an ethical decision over whether to marry two people of the same sex; I simply have no need to decide the issue right now. As an ordained minister it is a question that might potentially lie in my future – and as someone with some public profile on issues of human sexuality, it is a question that I might well be asked to advise on at some point in the future; given both of these facts, I do, I think, have an ethical duty to be currently thinking about and investigating the arguments – but that ethical duty carries with it, as a straightforward entailment, a duty not to make or commit myself to a position in such a way that I would find it difficult to follow through on my ethical reasoning in the future.

I have, genuinely, no idea how I will vote on the 23rd September; I know what my current view on the question is, but I also know that I will engage with extensive argumentation on both sides between now and then, and that my view could easily change. I have, genuinely, no idea how I would react to two gay/lesbian friends who, five years hence, might ask me to marry them; I know what my current view on that question is also, but I am also seriously and continually engaged in the literature on the issue, and know – in this case with some precision – what would change my mind (in private email discussion with a friend last year she asked me the question, posing the argument that an invincible commitment would be bigotry; in reply I accepted her argument without reserve, and sketched three different lines of argument which, if sustained, would lead me to change my view. Unsurprisingly, I had already thought then, and have continued since to think, about all three quite deeply, and I do not think any of them can work; equally unsurprisingly (I trust), I do not regard my own moral reasoning on these issues as in any way final or complete).

There is a classic opinion poll question which I have come to regard as pernicious: ‘if there were [a referendum on Scottish independence][or whatever] tomorrow, which way would you vote?’ It is a straightforward matter of fact that there is not a referendum tomorrow; if there were to be then the history of public debate over the last twelve months would be significantly different; for these reasons, the question is meaningless. More than meaningless, however, it is also pernicious, in that it asks for the culturally-demanded premature moral decision which, even if given only in the relative privacy of a polling interview, can serve to render a proper response to moral reasoning more difficult, perhaps much more difficult.

This becomes all the more true when the issue is one that has become publicly charged or divisive (did I mention sexuality or Scottish independence?); the cultural demand that a position is immediately owned and defended renders reflective discussion impossible. I find the independence debate fascinating, in part because I am presently of the view that it is not very important, and most others seem not to be of that view. (Quickly: I’m a Baptist, and so I believe: that there will be a government; that it will be poor; that its members will often be weak, incompetent, immoral, or even all three; that it will nonetheless after a fashion serve to preserve the peace of the earthly city; regardless of all this, I further believe that in the good grace of Christ the church will survive and the Kingdom will prosper; I am convinced that all this will remain true whether that government is in Westminster or Holyrood (or Brussels, or indeed my village); so its location does not excite me particularly.)

I have made public comments on that debate that have been variously interpreted as pro- or anti- independence; in some cases the comment has been something which I recognised happened to support one side or the other; in other cases the comment has been neutral, to the best of my ability to judge; every time I have been, shall we say, ‘energetically engaged’ by people who assumed that I must be a partisan for one side; my protests that ‘no; I’m just interested in teasing out some arguments that are playing in public here…’ have not in any single case been accepted – not even, as far as I can tell, entertained for a moment as remotely plausible. (To be clear, I am not of course saying every particular engagement has been unreasoned and partisan; just that every comment I have made has been met by at least several unreasoned and partisan engagements.)

As I say, I do not particularly care either way about the independence referendum, and so I have ended any public comment (I tried as a last resort some humour this week; also a bad idea, apparently…). But it worries me that it has become impossible in our culture to think seriously about issues in public; partisan defence of any position is not intelligent thought (this is obvious, I assume(?); intelligent thought may happen to favour a position, but a comment that begins in ‘I am right, now I must justify my rightness,’ is inevitably inimical to intellectual debate).

I care very little about whether the government which I will in turns pray for, despair of, and attempt to influence, will be in Holyrood or Westminster (I am prepared to revise that judgement also in the face of a good argument; not, however, in the face of petulance or aggression); I care greatly that we seem to have constructed a culture where it seems impossible to weigh arguments cautiously in public on this, or any other, issue; we need to relearn the ethical virtue of patience in our public debates. Strong opinions easily released accomplish nothing at all in moral reasoning, as my colleague suggested.


  1. Alastair Roberts
    Apr 17, 2014

    Your comments seem to focus upon the moral deliberation of the private individual. However, the issues that you use as your primary illustrations—same-sex marriage and Scottish independence—are issues where the principal agencies that must make decisions are not private individuals, but a country, a government, Church denominations, and various other institutions. It seems to me that the deliberative processes of such institutions are not a mere aggregation of private deliberation and that different principles must apply.

    In particular, in the realm of public and communal deliberation, the strong position should not be confused with the strong ‘opinion’ and whatever judgments we might have about that. Strong positions can be essential means by which we ‘stress-test’ our ideas through public disputation, even when those positions are not articulations of our settled and closed convictions. By conflating the principles that should guide deliberation in the private realm with those which should guide public deliberation, I wonder whether we risk ceding the ground of public discourse to immoderate and intemperate minds. How would you distinguish between our role as participants in and facilitates of public processes of deliberation and our duty in personal deliberation? Can we be robust and vocal participants in public deliberation without having arrived at a settled private judgment?

  2. Bev Murrill
    Apr 18, 2014

    Certainly a post to give serious thought to :=}

    I particularly appreciated this paragraph:

    Patience is a central virtue in serious argument. The willingness to suspend judgement long enough to genuinely understand an alternative view, to feel its full force, is one we work hard to inculcate in our students (not always successfully…); a mature position on almost any ethical debate will contain within it a clear awareness of the grounds on which it may be reversed.

    I also love that the way to ensure that you have a mind is to change it sometimes, and I’m grateful that life has taught me that.

    Great post, Steve.

  3. Michael
    Sep 4, 2014

    Great to hear from O’Donovan, but the summary you gave of his comments on virtue ethics seems a bit odd. Yes, under virtue ethics, “the goal of ethical formation is the development of such character that my instinctive decisions will be good, will instantiate virtues.” So when the virtuous individual sees a wallet on the floor, they are not tempted to use deliberation as a means to convince themselves they are entitled to keep it; their instinctive decision is to return it. But as O’Donovan points out, for politicians the temptation is to skip deliberation and produce a sound-bite or apply a cookie-cutter policy instead, and in that situation, the virtuous choice is to deliberate. Is this a contradiction? No, because taking the time to gather information and think carefully is itself an action, and deciding whether to deliberate is a choice that politicians in particular may have to make very quickly, when a crisis erupts or a journalist asks an unexpected question. In other words, in the virtuous individual even the virtues of patience and prudence may at times have to act instinctively.

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