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The Politics of Ethics | The Nation

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The Politics of Ethics

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Virtue, it turns out, is the exclusive property of the right. This was brought to my attention just a few months after I began writing "The Ethicist," a weekly column in The New York Times Magazine, when it was denounced by four periodicals, each more right-wing than the last--the weekend Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator, Reason (the presumably ironically named magazine of the Libertarians) and the online version of National Review, where it was named the Outrage Du Jour, under the headline: "'The Ethicist' Better Termed 'The Marxist.'" I may have earned this encomium by suggesting that public education was worthwhile, or perhaps by favoring breathable air. Or air. (Admissions requirements for Marxism have apparently been lowered precipitately, like some kind of ideological grade inflation.)

This essay appears in different form in Randy Cohen's The Good, the Bad & the Difference (Doubleday).

About the Author

Randy Cohen
Randy Cohen is the author of The Good, the Bad & the Difference (Doubleday).

I should not have been startled by the virulence of these attacks. A column about ethics necessarily embodies the values of its author; if mine were in accord with any of those papers, I'd be due for some serious soul-searching (or some sort of neurological procedure). And yet, there was something particularly vituperative about these screeds, as if they objected not to how I approached any particular ethical question but that by writing about ethics at all I'd poached on a preserve of the right. This is not entirely farfetched. Febrile moralizing--tut-tutting about song lyrics or frowning at the possibility that somebody, somewhere is enjoying a moment of sexual happiness--is more aptly associated with Republicans than Democrats (at least Democrats who aren't Joseph Lieberman). Thus the question for me became: Is ethics simply politics in disguise? And if so, whose politics?

Indeed, the difference between ethics and politics seems to me artificial, if there is a significant difference at all. Sometimes the distinction is a matter of scale. If one guy robs you, it's ethics, but when 435 people rob you, it's politics--or the House of Representatives is in session. But surely the deliberations of that body are subject to ethical analysis. What's more, politics can be a necessary expression of ethics. Often the only way to achieve an individual ethical goal is through group endeavor--i.e., politics.

Some political questions are not essentially ethical but a matter of two competing interests, each with a morally legitimate claim. For instance, that cowboy movie classic: Should the land be used by the cattle herders or the sheep herders? There is a kind of partisan politics that an ethicist should eschew, no matter his personal feelings about cows. However, it is his job to point out that the land belongs to the Navajo, and both the cattle and sheep herders should get permission before any grazing takes place. That is where what some call politics is quite properly a subject for ethical scrutiny. An ethics that eschewed such nominally political questions would not be ethics at all, but mere rule-following. It would be the ethics of the slave dealer, advocating that one always be honest about a slave's health and always pay bills promptly. But surely any ethics worth discussing must condemn the slave trade absolutely, not quibble about its business practices.

It's also true that there is an ideological component in any discussion of ethics. In "Responsibility," the third chapter of The Book of Virtues, perhaps the bestselling book of ethics of the past several decades, William Bennett reveals his ideology as he explicates The Three Little Kittens:

"Children should learn early the practical lesson that responsibility leads to reward, which leads to further responsibility. We must keep track of our mittens if we expect pie, and then we must wash them if we expect ever to have any more dessert."

By "practical" Bennett seems to mean "profitable"--not so much honorable behavior as behavior that will get those kittens what they want, and by dint of their own kittenish efforts. It is a curious notion of "virtue," although any kitten raised according to the stern precepts of this book would make an excellent employee. If I ran a mitten-laundry, I'd hire that kitten. Both The Book of Virtues and "The Ethicist" find moral implications in brief stories: the latter in the actual accounts of their ethical problems readers send me, the former in the diverse tales Bennett has anthologized. Both apply to these particular examples general rules of conduct, and both reflect the very different values of their authors. In Bennett's case, the values are Victorian and the tone is cranky nostalgia. In just the first few pages, he mentions "time-honored tasks," material that schools, homes and churches "once taught" and that "many no longer do." He wistfully invokes "a time--not so long ago."

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