Australians can breathe a sigh of relief now that the federal election is behind us for another three years. Choosing who is going to be the next prime minister is one of the most important decisions a citizen of our country can make. And like any other decision, choosing one option invariably excludes choosing others. So it’s “either … or.”
When it comes to making other kinds of choices—say, about how we live our lives, end our lives, or express our identity—we increasingly think about choosing in terms of asserting an individual right. And we also insist that the right we wish to exercise when we make that particular choice must not only be respected by others but also affirmed by the law.
But making choices is never as simple as we might like to think. It is never always just about us. That’s because every single choice we make almost always has an impact on others.
In a world made more complex by advances in medicine, science, and technology, we need to take particular care in making choices about what we consider to be right and good.
And choosing can be difficult. One of the problems many people faced during the election campaign was that the “either/or” option held little attraction for them. This happened because the campaign was often not only about policy but also about personality. Indeed, a lot of the time, policy actually took a back seat to personality.
Barbs were frequently exchanged not so much about the economy or the cost of living or housing affordability as about the characters of the leading candidates. It wasn’t a question of what each leader would do if given access to the levers of power; it was more a question of how they’d make us feel regardless of what policies they had to offer.
This shift in emphasis from policy to personality—with appeals to feelings, likeability, and trust—suggests that our society is increasingly placing a premium on empathy and emotion, and the capacity to demonstrate compassion in relationships with others.
And an emphasis on empathy and emotion is also likely to mean that the way we make ethical choices will change, as well. Too often, discussions about ethics and morality turn into a “zero-sum” game where those who claim to be right about something dismiss their opponents as being wholly wrong. But ethics is seldom as clear cut as that. The way we feel about an ethical issue can sometimes be more important than what we think about it.
Even when we are discussing difficult topics around which there are very strong emotions and opinions—such as abortion, capital punishment, or euthanasia—people will continue to have different points of view. What they feel and what they think about the issue may change over time depending on circumstances. The questions are eternal; but our own explanations can only ever be partial.
Let’s accept that this means ethics is likely to be much more “fuzzy” than we might have thought. Our own principles and values are not static but can change as we, ourselves, change over the course of a lifetime.
One scholar who has emphasised this evolution of values is bioethicist Margaret Somerville, who speaks about “values packages” to describe the fact that people can have a combined mix of progressive and conservative values.
“It is important to keep these infinitely variable combinations of values in mind because it opens up the possibility of agreement on certain values while disagreeing on others,” says Somerville. “That agreement can result in having valuable experiences of belonging to the same moral universe as those with whom we are in conflict on other values issues.”
Awareness of a growing polarisation in our society tends only to be heightened in an election campaign where political parties display their wares in a bid to attract the support of voters. Open and vigorous exchange of opinion is, of course, one of the distinguishing marks of a liberal democracy, and we should defend it proudly.
But we must also remember that we share a moral universe with those with whom we disagree. After all, few among us would surely deny the importance of promoting human dignity and flourishing—a goal often described as “the common good” and one we can almost certainly agree upon, even though we may disagree about how to attain it.
Polarisation only makes the already complex business of doing ethics harder because it tends to ignore that which we have in common as human beings.
Holding fast to values and principles is, of course, important. But acknowledging the fuzzy edge to what we like to think of as the sharp lines of our moral reasoning can help us bring greater compassion and empathy to our engagement with those with whom we disagree.