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The Politics of Ethics | The Nation

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The Politics of Ethics

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This is not to depreciate individual virtue, but we are unlikely to understand any behavior if it is seen only as a matter of individual moral choice detached from its social context. And we are unlikely to increase honorable behavior significantly if we rely only on individual rectitude. There is a kind of ecology of ethics. No matter how much you hector them, most Spartans will act like Spartans; most Athenians will act like Athenians.

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).

Just as individual ethics can be understood only in relation to the society within which it is practiced, it is also true that individual ethical behavior is far likelier to flourish within a just society. It might be argued that to lead an ethical life one must work to build a just society. That is, if most of us will behave about as well as our neighbors, it is incumbent on us to create a decent neighborhood. Every community is dynamic--Sparta or the precinct house. We not only live in it, but by our actions we create it. And as important, our community exists not only in the world but in our minds. It forms our values even as we shape its structures.

Sadly, the very idea of community life is increasingly out of favor, superseded by the values of the marketplace--privatized. The idea of civic life is generous, encouraging you to see yourself as living among other people, and to identify yourself as one of those others, with common purposes and problems. The marketplace is where interests clash--the buyer's low price is the seller's lost profit. Privatization is a world of antagonists at worst, of autonomous, isolated figures at best. But in an age where all of our lives are interconnected--in our economy, our infrastructure, even in our health--this notion of the lone cowboy is a fantasy, and generally a self-serving one for the buckaroo who owns the ranch.

Civic life--the sphere of an ethics of the left--is a public park, paid for by all of us, enjoyed by all of us. Its ethical necessities demand that we act in ways that make other people's well-being a part of its use. Private life--where right-wing ethics prevail--is a walled pool in your backyard. You need consider no one else, you need compassion for no one else. You can fill it with piranha if you like. (If you can delude yourself that the piranha didn't arrive on a public road, brought by a piranha handler educated in public schools, just recovering from a nasty piranha bite thanks to an antibiotic created in a lab with a government grant.) And if there's some kind of mishap with your chlorine that wafts clouds of gas toward the school down the road, well, that's hard luck for the fourth graders whose parents lacked the foresight to buy them gas masks.

And so it is very much a matter of ethics what laws you pass, what schools you create, what sort of highways you do not build on which to not drive your SUV. It is by declining to see ethics only as a matter of individual rectitude that we reject an ethics of the right; it is by identifying ethics with civic virtue, by considering the ways in which people's lives are intertwined in the broadest possible way, that we create an ethics of the left.

When the column had been running for a couple of years, I received a call from Colin Robinson, then the head of Verso books, suggesting a project that would, in his words, "reclaim ethics for the left." I thought it a fine idea for a book I'd want to read but not one I was eager to write. The book I did write, The Good, the Bad & the Difference, was intended to be something else altogether. And yet, the further along I got with it, and the more I reconsidered past columns, the more apparent it became that my approach to ethics, like anyone else's, necessarily embodied my politics. I hope that this book does indeed stake the claim he proposed, and that it will be furiously lambasted by four papers in particular.

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