Summary of "Moral Conflict"

Summary of

Moral Conflict

By W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn

Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn. Moral Conflict. (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1997).

Pearce and Littlejohn seek to develop new, more productive ways of expressing moral difference and managing moral conflicts. By moral conflicts the authors mean "situations in which the social worlds or moral orders of the participants are incommensurate."[p. x] Their primary approach is via communication theory, but the authors draw on fields ranging from moral philosophy to the sociology of knowledge. The text consists of nine chapters in three parts, with an authors' Preface, and suggestions for further reading.

Part One opens by describing the research which has led Pearce and Littlejohn to focus on moral conflicts. In the first chapter, the authors describe their investigations of the "Culture Wars" between the religious right and the secular left in the U.S. They also describe their work in the Massachusetts Mediation Project, and in the Kaleidoscope Program. One key observation from that research is that normal ways of handling conflicts are inappropriate to moral conflicts, and even tend to aggravate and polarize the discussion.

In chapter two, the authors locate their view of moral conflicts within the broader literature on conflict. They observe that our understanding of conflict is still changing, and becoming increasingly sophisticated. The authors favor a process-oriented approach which focuses on the structure of conflicts themselves, rather than earlier strategic outcome-oriented approaches which focused on winning a dispute. They focus on conflict management rather than resolution. In this view, conflict can be beneficial. Pearce and Littlejohn argue that, "when conflicts are handled well, the participants form stronger, more open social bonds."[p. 44] Their goal in this text then is to find better ways of engaging in and managing moral conflicts.

Chapter three begins this task by examining the structure of moral conflicts. Moral conflicts arise from moral differences. By moral differences, the authors mean not simply differences of opinion. Instead they are interested in those differences which stem from incommensurate moral worldviews or differing social realities.

Not every moral difference results in a moral conflict. The authors give four features which help to identify moral conflicts. Moral conflicts are intractable and interminable, and are morally and rhetorically attenuated. Pearce and Littlejohn view moral conflicts as a form of communication. Communication is a process of making or doing something, and a process of coordination. Communication is always contextual. By drawing on these basic principles of communication, the authors hope to provide ways to transform moral conflicts.

Part Two develops new communication patterns which may improve the quality of moral conflict. In chapter four the authors argue that in general the quality of public discourse is poor, (though quantity is great). This is particularly true of public moral discourse. In moral conflicts, not only is there no agreement on an answer to debates, there is not even agreement on what counts as good evidence, or a good argument. Pearce and Littlejohn examine why the quality of discourse is currently so poor, and focus on improving the quality of discourse at the second level. Specifically, they hope to develop ways to proceed with productive discourse even in the absence of "an agreed upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it."[p. 104]

The authors observe that "all human beings use language to establish a sense of self and other, to define the boundary [between us and them], and to create some sort of orientation toward others."[p. 108] Chapter five introduces five ways of approaching differences between people. When differences are not perceived as threatening, people may communicate in ways that celebrate similarity and ways that celebrate difference. When differences are more troubling people may react by using persuasion to resolve the difference. Persuasion requires shared standards of discourse. As noted above, moral conflicts lack such shared standards, and so persuasion usually fails to resolve moral differences. Troubling differences may then prompt a move to repress the difference. Repression can become violent, and is generally not a beneficial way of handling conflict. The final way of approaching difference is by transcendent discourse. Transcendent discourse aim to create a new shared language through which the parties can coordinate their differing world views.

Chapters six explains the notion of transcendence more fully. The authors explore the tension between expressing and suppressing moral conflicts. They describe three levels where that tension occurs: between silence and engagement, between clash and peacemaking, and between encapsulation and transformation. The first choice faced by parties to a moral conflict is whether remain silent or to speak out and acknowledge the conflict. If the parties engage in the conflict, they are then faced with the choice of whether to take an inflexible position, or whether to attempt peacemaking dialogue. Peacemaking may proceed by attempting to encapsulate the differences, to separate them such that they can coexist. Or peacemaking may proceed by attempting to transcend the differences, to reframe the difference in a way that eliminates the tension. For example, "happy and sad are no longer contradictory when combined into the category of feeling (as opposed to, say, apathy)."[p. 142]

In part three Pearce and Littlejohn develop the idea of transcendent discourse further. Chapter seven discusses forms of eloquence appropriate to transcendent discourse. "To be eloquent is to represent the highest form of expression within a frame of rules adopted by a moral community. Within a moral community, eloquent speech elicits attention, respect, and compliance. Between moral communities, however, it can create frustration, hatred, anger, and even violence."[p. 157] Transcendent discourse will require a form of eloquence which bridges the communities. Pearce and Littlejohn argue that transcendent eloquence must be philosophical, comparative, dialogic, critical, and transformative. It must uncover the communities' basic assumptions, develop categories to compare incommensurate differences, seek to explore rather than convince, assess the strengths and weaknesses of both worldviews, and seek to reframe the conflict into more productive terms. Chapter eight examines three projects which have modeled aspects of transcendent discourse. The authors discuss the National Issues Forums, Public Conversations Project, and the Public Dialogue Consortium.

Chapter nine concludes the text by reviewing the elements of transcendent discourse. The authors give a broad description of what a transcendent conversation would "look like," pointing out the transcendent elements in the previous case studies.