Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ethics for sale

During campaign time--whether at national, state, or local levels--many of us may note that the words "ethics," "values", and "morality" are continually bandied about, by both left and right, as if we all agreed on what they meant. None of the political moralists ask the meta-ethical question: Why should we be moral? And what does morality really consist of? Obviously, it is in some people's interest to be moral (and to have others be moral); it is in some people's interest to be "immoral" (and to have others be what we might term "immoral," or act immorally). The needs of the moralists and immoralists are certainly going to clash sometimes. Imagine the requirements and goals of the following groups: teetotalers vs. bar owners and brewery owners; vegetarians vs. cattlemen; schoolteachers vs. casino owners and pornographers, etc.

There is ethics at the personal level-"normative" the Golden Rule, etc.---and then ethics at a political level--distributive justice; distributive justice might be defined as creating an ethical society based on entitlement, on the notion that everyone--except perhaps for criminal psychopaths--has a right to participate in the economy, to the best of their abilities; the two concepts are not easily demarcated, however (the distributive being based really on individual rights). Nietzsche claimed over a hundred years ago that "Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality." This sort of somewhat amoral view--a view of morality based on humans as an animalic herd rather than as rational agents acting for the "Good," is quite more accuate than the usual sunday school versions of normative ethics. And Nietzsche is not far from Darwin in terms of ethics, both echoing Malthus's pessimistic naturalistic visions. Any number of extreme situations demonstrate the futility of ethics. What is the status of values and morality or distributive justice during a famine, or plague, or warfare? Little to no status, to be sure.

Expecting humans to all suddenly become ethical (or rational) is about equivalent to expecting the barons and baronesses on the Forbes 400 list to start doling out cash, with no strings attached, to the millions of needy and impoverished. It was Bertrand Russell, I believe, who said that teaching people to be "moral" is nearly impossible, but teaching logic and rationality is possible; therefore, we should focus on developing intelligence rather than simply do-goodism, and with that intelligence hopefully morality will increase as well. But someone like VI Lenin certainly had some pragmatic strategies for bringing about a more economically-just society. So did, say, John Dillinger....

Humans, even ones that can program computers, spin integrals, or compose symphonies, are far more animalistic (and acquisitive, hungry, greedy, lustful, etc.) than any traditional religious ethics or philosophy portrays them as, and any attempts at rational ethics are most likely doomed. The great liberal myth of the "rational man" is, alas, mostly a sentimental fiction, useful to justify capitalism and greed, and any number of machiavelli-like strategies.

"Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun." Mao

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