The Politics of Ethics | The Nation


The Politics of Ethics

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As Bennett notes, there are various lessons to be drawn from any story, and it is interesting to see which ones he emphasizes. For instance, to him John Henry, the steel-drivin' man, is a story of courage and pride. But while it would have gladdened the heart of, say, Andrew Carnegie, if each of his employees saw it that way--choosing in the face of dreadful working conditions not to petition for improvements, but to work harder, even to work themselves to death--the United Mine Workers might read this story differently. But then, Bennett's heart is with the boss, not the worker (unless the worker is working himself to death); with the general, not the troops.

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).

Bennett has a fondness for the doomed hero--John Henry dead on the tracks, Scott (and all his men) dead in the Antarctic--as the personification of virtue. But there is another kind of virtue that lies not in extraordinary actions, not in saving poor orphans from burning buildings, but in steadfastly working for a world where orphans are not poor and buildings comply with decent fire codes. The Book of Virtues' hero is Horatio at the Bridge; The Ethicist's is Horatio at the Office Filling Out His Time Sheets Honestly Even When His Supervisor Is Not Around.

Citing only ten virtues, Bennett still finds room for Loyalty, that quality so prized by dog fanciers and Richard Nixon. And while Bennett mentions that one can be loyal not just to a person but to an ideal, his stories tend to celebrate personal loyalty--Castor and Pollux, Penelope and Odysseus, the Little Hit Man That Could Have (But Did Not) Rat Out His Capo (I may be misremembering that last one). And if loyalties occasionally clash, he is sanguine about how easily such conflicts can be resolved: "The times when one cannot stand both 'for God and for country' are rare indeed." This curious assertion would startle those Americans who opposed the Vietnam War, or the abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, or those fighting for women's suffrage in the early twentieth.

Of course, the virtues Bennett wishes to instill in the young are fine things. We all honor work and honesty, compassion and friendship. However, we do not all see virtue as an accretion of cowboy qualities, practiced by solitary and disconnected figures. For me, virtue resides in how we behave among others; it is a quality not just of individuals but of the societies they create. The Book of Virtues is the champion of individual rectitude. "The Ethicist" sees honorable behavior reflected in, affected by and helping to bring about an honorable society. It is in this distinction that we see the difference between an ethics of the right and an ethics of the left.

One function of a column like "The Ethicist" is to make visible those ethical and ideological assumptions--left or right--that underpin our individual decisions and the workings of the society in which we live. It would of course be impossible to pause and question the propriety of each of our actions. Such constant analysis would be immobilizing, or at least so time-consuming that we'd never get out of the house, stuck by the closet door as we pondered the acceptability of leather shoes. Rather than subject every decision of daily life to moral scrutiny, most of us act as our culture directs, behaving no better and no worse than our neighbors. In his profound and moving book The Face of Battle, the British military historian John Keegan considers the question of why, when faced with the horror and suffering of combat, most soldiers don't simply run away. He concludes that they are motivated not by high ideals of patriotism, not by ideology, not by anything one would identify as ethics. Keegan sees these soldiers standing fast so as not to be the least worthy among those assembled. And by that he does not mean the entire army, but those few men nearby. Keegan suggests that even under the most extreme and appalling conditions, most of us will behave about as well as our neighbors.

Something similar has been observed in the early careers of police officers. If a rookie cop is assigned to a corrupt station house, he stands a good chance of being corrupted himself. Put the same young officer in a clean station, and there's a very good chance he'll turn out to be an honest cop. His or her personal ethics hardly come into it.

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