The Politics of Ethics

The Politics of Ethics

By identifying ethics with civic virtue, we create an ethics of the left.


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.)

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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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