In my view, people ought to respect the principle of reciprocity whenever they find themselves in disagreement with reasonable people of goodwill, regardless whether [sic] they find the position (or even the arguments) advanced by such people to be worthy of respect. It is not the worthiness of a position (or argument) that makes this principle applicable. Rather, it is a matter of respecting people's reasonableness (even when they are defending a view that one can only judge to be fundamentally unreasonable) and their goodwill (even when they are defending practices or policies that one can only judge to be gravely unjust or in some other way immoral). By observing the principle of reciprocity in moral and political debate, one is not necessarily indicating respect for a position (which one perhaps reasonably judges to be so deeply immoral as to be unworthy of respect), but for the reasonableness and goodwill of the person who, however misguidedly, happens to hold that position. The point of observing the requirements of reciprocity is to fulfill one's obligations in justice to one's fellow citizens who are, like oneself, attempting to think through the moral question at issue as best they can.
However, reciprocity does not necessarily require compromising with one's opponents in circumstances in which political compromise is not a matter of practical necessity; for when it comes to issues such as abortion, no moral compromise is possible without doing injury to someone's rights (that is, the rights of the fetus if, in truth, abortion violates fetal rights, or the rights of the woman if, in truth, women have a right to abortion). Reciprocity does entail, however, that supporters of a right to abortion are entitled to a respectful hearing for their arguments, that opponents of abortion have an obligation to consider these arguments and meet them with counterarguments, and vice versa. It follows, then, that the obligations of the principle of reciprocity will, under certain circumstances, apply even in disagreements in which one side cannot but view the other as denying the equal dignity of a class of their fellow human beings.
Here the test case is surely the issue of slavery. Prior to its abolition, clearheaded people whose understanding was not impeded by prejudice, self-interest, pseudoscience, or other prevalent cultural conditions (of which slavery was itself partially a cause and partially an effect) saw slavery for the intolerable moral evil that it was (and is). Almost everybody today thinks of these "abolitionists" as moral heroes. Many of us imagine that had we been around in those days we would have stood with them. We should allow, however, that some defenders of slavery, although tragically mistaken and objectively guilty of grave injustice toward the enslaved, were not people of bad will. Opponents of slavery, however much they (rightly) held in contempt the pro-slavery position and pro-slavery arguments, had reason to respect the principle of reciprocity in dealing with those persons who, misguidedly but in good faith, held that position and made those arguments, even as they forcefully rebutted those claims and struggled in the political sphere for slavery's abolition. Today, however, in a society in which the institution of slavery has long been abolished, and which is fortunately largely free of the fundamental misconceptions and prejudices that made it possible for reasonable people—even people of goodwill—to rationalize so monstrous an evil, it would be wrong to say that those who would enslave others or rationalize their enslavement deserve treatment in accordance with the principle of reciprocity. Thus, there is no reason to give a respectful hearing to those who would revive those prejudices or stir up the residue of racial prejudice that, alas, remains.
Gutmann and Thompson are therefore right to treat arguments for the reinstitution of slavery or policies of racial discrimination as unworthy of reciprocity. However, I think the reasons they are right go beyond their belief that citizens have greater reasons for certainty on the subjects of slavery and discrimination than on abortion (p. 77). In my view, the key distinction between slavery and racial discrimination, on the one hand, and abortion, on the other, to the extent that the requirements of reciprocity are concerned, is that, whereas ours is (thank God) no longer a society in which it is difficult sometimes even for honorable people to see the wickedness of slavery, it is a society that tends to obscure even for many reasonable people of goodwill the injustice of abortion. Therefore, even those who share my view that abortion is an evil parallel to that of slavery in its denial of the equal dignity of a particular category of human beings can reasonably judge the disagreement about abortion to require them to respect the principle of reciprocity in debating the issue with their opponents, under current circumstances, even as they hope and pray that the day is not far off when people will look back on the era of abortion on demand the way we now look back on the era of chattel slavery.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the people who perceived the enormity of the evil of slavery prior to its abolition should not have opposed it with resolution and determination, or that they should have refrained from protest and civil disobedience in the cause of ending it. The opposite is true. I also do not suggest that slavery was somehow less evil when it had respectable advocates than it would be today when no respectable person would defend it. What I propose is that a certain sensitivity to the ways in which cultural factors in some cases facilitate, and in others hinder, sound moral understanding can legitimately enter into assessing whether those who perceive and oppose a grave moral evil are obliged to adopt a stance of civility toward their opponents and even a certain (if limited) attitude of respect toward their arguments (namely, a willingness to give their arguments an honest hearing, and a felt obligation to meet them with counterarguments, rather than dismissing them as mere rationalizations for positions adopted in bad faith).
I am not suggesting, however, that the evil of slavery (or abortion) is culturally relative. Slavery was no less unjust in the United States in 1857 than it would be here (and is in the Sudan, where it still exists) in 1997. What can be culturally relative, however, is whether advocates of what one judges to be a grave injustice deserve to be treated in accordance with the principle of reciprocity. My suggestion is that the principle of reciprocity should govern moral debate whenever cultural circumstances or other factors make it possible for reasonable people of goodwill to be mistaken about a putative moral evil; and reasonable people of goodwill can be mistaken about even serious moral evils when ignorance, prejudice, self-interest, and other factors that impair sound moral judgment are prevalent in a culture or subculture.
(Robert P. George, "Law, Democracy, and Moral Disagreement," review of Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot Be Avoided in Politics, and What Should Be Done About It, by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, and Legal Reasoning and Political Conflict, by Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard Law Review 110 [May 1997]: 1388-406, at 1397-400 [italics in original; footnotes omitted])
Note from KBJ: I think highly of Robert George as both a person and a philosopher, but he is treading on dangerous ground in these paragraphs. Instead of saying that the principle of reciprocity (i.e., civility) applies across the board, on every issue, he says that it sometimes applies and sometimes does not apply. In his view, it applied to slavery before slavery was abolished and it applies to abortion today. It does not apply to slavery today or to racial discrimination today. "Thus," he writes, "there is no reason to give a respectful hearing to those who would revive those prejudices or stir up the residue of racial prejudice that, alas, remains" (p. 1399). Does Professor George not realize that his distinction opens the door for progressives to justify incivility to people (such as George himself) who oppose abortion, homosexual "marriage," affirmative action, open borders, and many other progressive policies or practices? In the academy, as he well knows, opposition to these things is believed to stem from "ignorance, prejudice, self-interest, and other factors that impair sound moral judgment" (p. 1400). By George's own reasoning, therefore, the people who oppose these things, and who supply arguments for their positions, are not entitled to reciprocity (i.e., civility). If you think I'm kidding about the academy, spend some time on a university campus. I've spent all of my adult life there. The atmosphere is stifling. Certain positions simply are not taken, much less defended by argument. Anyone who argued against homosexual "marriage," for example, would be shouted down, if not threatened with physical harm. I believe that someone who argued for the overruling of Roe v. Wade (1973) would be treated similarly. I hope Professor George rethinks his position on reciprocity. The only defensible position, in my view, is that everyone, even those who defend unpopular or offensive views, is entitled to reciprocity (civility). If someone is arguing for the reinstitution of chattel slavery, listen carefully to the argument and find fault with it. Don't say that the position may not be taken or defended or that the person who makes the argument is not entitled to be treated respectfully. If the case for slavery is as weak as Professor George suggests it is, few (if any) people will be persuaded by it. Its weaknesses will be obvious.