A Plea for Politics of Moderation

Is it possible to have to strong opinions without shouting others down? Perhaps -- if we can develop a healthy appreciation of doubt, says Peter L. Berger, university professor emeritus at Boston University. In his book, "In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic," co-written with Anton Zijderveld and published in August by HarperOne, Berger ends with a plea for a politics of

GUEST BLOGGER: Peter L. Berger

The contemporary world (and by no means only in America) is characterized by a curious alternation between relativism and fundamentalism - in religion, morality and, last not least, politics

On the one hand there is the belief that truth is either inaccessible or non-existent, that no norms are truly binding, that the only virtue left is an all-embracing tolerance.

A fantasy: Imagine a talk show host interviewing a cannibal. "I understand that you eat people. I certainly don't want to be judgmental. But I'm sure our viewers would be interested in hearing more. Do you prefer some categories of people ? Have you thought of writing a cook book?"

On the other hand is the belief that one's own truth claims are absolute, beyond discussion, binding on everyone, if necessary to be imposed by force.

A fantasy: "We know that the yogurt-only diet is most conducive to health and longevity. This is not a lifestyle preference, but a scientific fact no longer to be discussed. Our aim is legislation making the diet mandatory, with heavy penalties against producers or advocates of other types of cuisine".

These two attitudes are only seemingly contradictory. They are two sides of the same coin. Modernity, for readily explainable reasons, undermines taken-for-granted certainties. If beliefs and values are no longer taken for granted, individuals must reflect and choose which to adopt. This can be a liberating experience. After all, freedom can be defined as the capacity to choose.

But the experience can also be very troubling, for there is a profound human craving for certainty. To be modern means to live with the tensions of uncertainty. Both relativism and fundamentalism promise to relieve the tensions, the former because all certainties are illusionary, the latter because one particular certainty is once again to be taken for granted.

Relativism is dangerous because it undermines any moral consensus, without which no social order is possible. Fundamentalism is equally dangerous, especially in a democracy, because it divides society into warring tribes between whom compromises are impossible.

The politics of moderation is the ongoing search for the middle ground between these dangers. That is relatively easy if no deep convictions are involved. But most of us do have deep convictions on which we are unwilling to compromise.

What, for instance, would be the middle ground between promoters and opponents of genocide? Let it be stipulated that there are some cases where moderation is not feasible. But in most cases compromises are possible if one is prepared to recognize that in an imperfect world gradual steps toward an absolutely held end are better than no steps at all.

Take two examples from different locations of the ideological spectrum -- capital punishment and abortion. There are some (I count myself among them) who are convinced that capital punishment is absolutely unacceptable because it is monstrously cruel, and because it dehumanizes both those who suffer and those who inflict it. Consequently, the present legal situation in the United States is also unacceptable.

However, there are a number of recent developments which are gradually changing public attitudes and behavior in the courts:

-- DNA testing, which has shown that there are innocent people on death row and which make it probable that innocent people have actually been executed.

-- Botched executions, making it obvious that no really humane form of the death penalty is possible.

-- And the enormous cost of moving a death sentence through the judicial system.

None of these developments are sufficient moral reasons for abolishing capital punishment, but they may be temporarily supportable if they reduce the number of executions now and may be steps toward abolition.

There are others (I am not one of them) who are convinced that abortion is absolutely unacceptable at any stage of pregnancy, because it is a destruction of a human life tantamount to homicide. Again, nothing will be truly acceptable other than a complete reversal of the legal situation.

But here too there have been gradual changes in public opinion reducing support for abortion. Relevant developments have been:

-- The new techniques showing pictures of human-appearing embryos (yet another technological factor comparable with DNA testing in the other case).

-- The revulsion against the defense of late-term abortions by many in the pro-choice camp.

-- And apparently a greater openness to having children among classes in which singleness had been a preferred lifestyle.

To be sure, the final goal of the pro-life movement will still be outright prohibition. But some in the movement have concluded that imperfect steps may be supported in the meantime - such as parental notification, pre-abortion counseling, proscribing late-term abortions - if they reduce the number of abortions and may be steps toward the ultimate goal.

Is a politics of moderation devoid of passion ? Definitely not. Its underlying value is respect for the institutions of freedom. Few causes in history have inspired comparable passion.

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 13, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

They all want to outlaw it until it's their daughter that gets raped. Then all of a sudden minds change.

Posted by: timscanlon | October 13, 2009 8:37 AM

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