Richard Doerflinger

Have you had arguments in which the other person would not concede your point, no matter how many compelling facts and reasons you brought to bear?

That is most common in partisan politics, where mutual distrust and character assassination seem to have replaced rational debate. But it happens on moral issues as well.

Rod Dreher, author of the influential book “The Benedict Option,” suggests on the website “The American Conservative” that Christians might as well get used to this.

He says reasoned arguments about right and wrong, including what Catholics call natural law arguments, are “impotent” today. Not that they are invalid, but in practice “it’s like trying to explain color to people who have lost most of their sight, or music to someone who has lost the faculty of hearing.”

In this postmodern age, worshipping individual “choice,” he says, most people take moral arguments to be “statements of how the person making them feels about a thing.” With philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, he calls this reigning approach “emotivism.”

After decades of promoting Catholic convictions on human life to members of Congress and others, using well-grounded factual claims and nonreligious arguments, I partly agree.

For example, the availability of ultrasound photos and public images showing the gruesomeness of procedures like partial-birth abortion have probably changed more views on abortion than biological facts about unborn human life. These allow people to see the child in the womb as someone like themselves and their empathy is engaged.

At a conference on embryo research, I once presented a series of quotes — from embryology textbooks and expert panels advising a “pro-choice” administration — agreeing that the early human embryo is a human life. A distinguished professor replied that this secular documentation was a nice facade for where I was “really coming from” as a proponent of religious faith.

So even among academics proud of their commitment to reason, emotion (and the assumption that opponents offer only emotion) can dominate moral discussion. People don’t discover that unborn children are not human lives, then accept abortion; they feel they need abortion, then deny or evade facts about the unborn.

However, I would add some qualifiers.

First, this has been going on for a long time. G.K. Chesterton said a century ago that genuine argument had become rare. Most debates were about personalities and feelings. And “if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics,” he wrote in 1910, “you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion.”

Second, some psychologists claim this has always been true of the human condition. People make their moral commitments based on emotion and intuition, and cobble together seemingly rational arguments to back these up after the fact.

Presented with factual claims that back up their preconceived views, they look for reasons to believe them; they make the opposite effort when faced with claims contradicting those views. (Of course, all the testing for this process had to be done on thoroughly modern people.)

Third, I doubt that things are quite this bad. Yes, people resist inconvenient facts. Rational arguments alone are often not enough to persuade.

We must first listen to people, to understand the experiences and emotional connections that lead them to their views. Often it is by offering equally compelling narratives, images and appeals to empathy that we can level the playing field, allowing facts and reasons to be heard on their merits.

As Blaise Pascal said, the heart has its reasons that reason cannot know. We need to reach both hearts and minds to counter a culture of death.


Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.