The project has as its goals:
This project consists of four forums.
Two of these - the opening meta-ethics forum and the forum on euthanasia - are the rough equivalent of expert conferences, conducted on-line. More specifically, in the meta-ethics forum invited scholars will present their thoughts and questions regarding the ethical perspectives which frame our project - namely, the "conversational ethics" of Habermas, Rorty, Putnam, and Rawls - in a virtual conference over a two-week period. As in "real life" conferences, the forum will be moderated in order to help keep discussion focused. In addition, dialogical exchanges will be governed by "rules of discourse," as suggested by Habermas and Dewey.
Similarly, in the forum on euthanasia, we will invite ethics committees to review and respond to a series of real-world cases which implicated euthanasia as a possible ethical outcome. The discussion of these cases will exhibit some of the casuistical reasoning advocated by Jonsen and Toulmin's recent work in moral philosophy.
In the remaining two forums - on pornography/free speech and abortion - we will again follow the model of expert conferences. In addition, after the initial expert conference, excerpts from the discussion will be available through the Internet for reading and response by interested parties. This discussion will likewise be subject to the rules of discourse - and we hope these discussions will serve as models for the sorts of dialogue necessary both for productive scholarly advance and for civil discourse more broadly.
In addition, each of these two forums follow a "microcosm/macrocosm" structure. As we take up the debates regarding pornography, we will focus on a particular arena of the debate - namely, current feminist debate for and against censorship of pornography. By limiting the debate in this fashion, we hope the resulting discussion will be both more focused and productive. At the same time, feminist anti-censorship and pro-censorship positions serve as a useful microcosm reflecting the larger macrocosm of issues in the pornography, censorship, and free speech. The focused debate should shed light on the larger domain of issues.
In a more complex way, we will use the debate within religious communities regarding abortion and abortion rights as a microcosm of the larger macrocosm. But here the microcosm will involve two phases. Phase one will be constituted by the actual debate between representatives of diverse religious positions on abortion. In phase two, invited experts will seek to apply conflict resolution techniques to the apparently irreconcilable differences we expect to emerge in the first phase of debate. This phase will serve as an empirical, on-line experiment to determine how successful conflict resolution techniques may be on some of our most intractable differences.
This two-phase microcosm reflects the larger macrocosm thematic of the project. In the ethical approaches we've chosen as defining perspectives (Habermas, etc.), civil discourse - however diversely characterized by these thinkers - is foundational to a pluralistic, democratic society. A central problem for such approaches is just this: what do we do when the foundational commitments of diverse communities within a pluralistic society threatens to tear apart the tissue of civil discourse, as these foundational commitments drive diverse communities in seemingly opposite and irreconcilable directions?
The abortion issue thus pushes our chosen theoretical frameworks to their limits, and should help us refine our understanding of both the scope and limitations of these frameworks as foundational for democratic societies.
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