Saturday, June 21, 2008
The Search For Political Ethics
"Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends..."
Once simply part of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song, this now appears to be the theme song for my never-ending quest to find the qualities worth seeking in a political candidate. Quite frankly, Indiana Jones (who also just keeps coming back) has had better luck finding stuff than I have. (Then again, perhaps objects of art and history are less rare than such qualities in political candidates.) Undaunted by this however (OK, maybe a little bit), I am back at this search in the hopes of bringing it to a quick end.
A few weeks back, we looked the concept of sound moral judgment as being a good and necessary quality to seek, and discovered that in fact that what we were looking for was an ethical person rather than a moral one. After waiting to let the dust settle a bit, I decided to take up the subject of the quality of ethical behavior as one that a candidate should have and see if this time we were on the right side of the line between morals and ethics. Continuing this journey with our handy, dandy reference book, the Meriam Webster dictionary, we find the following:
Conforming to accepted standards of conduct - I'm not sure that I like this definition at all. Some pretty stupid, contradictory, and down right evil standards of conduct have been accepted throughout history. As much as I think that there is money to be made in bringing back the Salem witch trials as a "pay per view event", I think I would like something more to use as a goal worth seeking.
Involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval - This definition sounds like judgment by way of the town busybody. I'm afraid that I have to believe that this one falls into the same category as our first definition, and is therefore equally flawed. I hve to believe that we need a consistent, higher standard than anything as changing as moral approval.
A System of moral values: a theory or set of moral principles - This definition strikes a little closer to the mark. Much like the Declaration of Independence did for the Federal Government, a candidate should have a set of principles which guide them and a set of values to fall back on. We still need to be careful of that word moral though, it's a dangerous double-edged sword that often seems to have no master.
The principles of conduct governing an individual or a group - This is ultimately what we want a candidate or a political party to have, assuming of course that we agree with such principles. At least then, we can debate something of substance, something that has some relevance in this process. Whether we want to use The Ten Commandments or The Constitution as the guide, we need to know what it is that an elected official will use when deciding right and wrong.
This whole morals vs ethics thing has come up in recent days on a number of blogs that I read. As a guy who spent a good part of his college days sitting in a mind-numbing array of philosophy courses (and yes, it is part of the reason that I ended up this way), I treat this with a great deal of seriousness. Being moral allowed an Egyptian pharoah to slay first born children, allowed Vikings to toss prisoners into pits of starving wolves for entertainment, allowed Romans to have human beings to fight to the death for entertainment, and allowed people to "own" other people throughout most of history. This moving landscape of ethical relativism has written off a surprising amount of stupdidity and evil in the name of moral behavior and I refuse to accept it.
Ethics on the other hand is an unchanging, but not rigid standard of right and wrong behavior. Such things as lying, cheating, stealing, and imposing our will on our fellow man by use of force are always going to be wrong. There will always be exceptions to such rules, dictated by the often dire needs of the moment; but these should be rare and performed knowing that even such exceptions carry personal consequences for those involved.
Well at the very least, I think that we have finally found something to seek out teeth into. If a candidate has no other qualities, perhaps it is essential that they have this one. But enough of this. When next we take this up (I mean I take it up, I wouldn't want to blame you for any part of this), I will try to sum up some of what has come before and draw some conclusions from our efforts.
Note: Forget the crystal skull, what I would really like Indiana Jones to find is a political candidate with anything "in" his skull, but maybe that's just me...