I believe in X. I am a moral, conscientious person. I try to do what is right by others. I believe that in supporting X I am making the world a better place. I believe that if X comes to pass there will be (pick one or more) fewer uninsured, more people employed, less hunger, less homeless, less crime, world peace, etc.
You believe in Y. X and Y appear to be on the opposite side of the argument. Given that I believe my position is the morally correct one, you must be selfish, greedy, and downright evil since you do not support X. How could it be otherwise? X is the morally correct position (it must be for I am moral and support it), you do not support X, therefore you must be evil.
That seems to be the favorite method of discourse today on any controversial topic. How can we possibly make progress in the debate if that is the approach we take?
If I were king, before anyone would be allowed to debate a topic they would first have to discuss the goals, and discuss them clearly and in detail. What is the ultimate end in mind? What are they hoping to accomplish? I suspect that many people on opposite sides of a debate would find that they actually agree on the goal. They are fighting toward the same end of the football stadium. They disagree on the best, most effective means to get to the goal. One team thinks passing would be better. The other thinks running is more likely to get us to the end zone. If we are both trying to achieve the same end, then can one be any more morally upright than the other? Sure it is possible that the ends do not justify the means – there could be serious problems with the means. But too often I hear invective that unfairly and inaccurately accuses the opposite size of nefarious goals. Sure, go ahead and accuse them of having their facts wrong, attack the likelihood that their means will achieve the end, but be very, very careful about ascribing to them evil motivations – you may tar yourself with the same brush if you are both actually aiming at the same goal.
Postscript February 27, 2011.
After I wrote this post I came across a blog post describing how the author was subject to exactly the problem I am talking about. He cares about poverty and expressed opinions on the best method for alleviating it, but was accused of hating poor people by those who disagreed with his proposed methods.
Steven Horwitz has an excellent blog post describing concrete ways libertarians and progressives can start working together if they would only stop calling each other names.