I am currently reading After Virtue, a book about moral theory which a professor recommended saying, “You’d be doing yourself a favor by reading it.” It’s a bit on the heavier side of reading, especially compared to Wodehouse’s literary champagne, but it has proved itself worthwhile so far (for lighter reading I have Finding the Love of your Life, thanks, Mom!).
Alasdair MacIntyre has a rather dim view of modern moral debate. He describes it as essentially a “confrontation between incompatible and incommensurable moral premises and moral commitment [is] the expression of a criterionless choice between such premises, a type of choice for which no rational justification can be given.” I think an accurate way to rephrase this assertion is to say in modern moral debate all of our moral rationality is constructed on a foundation of moral irrationality. Not to toot my horn too much, but I was coming to this conclusion on my own. It seems almost any significant political and moral debate can quickly boil down to competing premises, and the persuasiveness of each argument ultimately depends on the individual’s ranking of the competing premises. For example, in the abortion debate each side has a treasured ideal they wish to preserve: bodily autonomy or the sanctity of life. It is plain that both of these ideals should be maximized in society. However, working out how these are to be maximized in society becomes very difficult and contentious. Pro-lifers put the sanctity of life higher up in their Scale of Goodness than bodily autonomy. Pro-choicers put bodily autonomy higher up than the sanctity of life. The only way to convince a member of the opposite faction to change his mind is to some how get him to change the prioritization of his ideals, but for most people bedrock premises such as these cannot be changed by brute arguments or deft persuasions. As a side note, this is why I’m convinced most radical changes in worldview/political orientation/religious beliefs can only be affected by calamitous life experiences. Of course, rational debate can change minds, but I would argue this occurs so rarely during moral debates that I wouldn’t bank on it.
In conclusion, moral debate is usually fruitless in terms of swaying opinions, though it is often helpful for gaining perspectives into the minds of people in error.