The following look at morality in politics is an excerpt from the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom, taken from the name of an Internet-based talk radio show I did in times past. The topic of chapter six is “Morality Applied to Politics.” My two impressive partners in dialogue are noted author and thought leader Arianna Huffington and progressive economics, politics, and philosophy expert, David Callahan, Ph.D.
Note: Arianna Huffington is symbolized by AA:, David Callahan is DM; I am JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type.
“Why should our political identities not express the moral and religious convictions we affirm in our personal lives in deliberating about justice and rights, must we set aside the moral judgments that inform the rest of our lives?” ~ Michael J. Sandel
JM: In the above quotation, Sandel, a noted philosopher who teaches at Harvard University, is getting at the idea that we can go too far toward the “minimalist liberal” position and believe that we can do well to have a society where pluralism, tolerance, and libertarianism rule; where individual rights and freedom to choose reign. He, however, is more inclined to think that we cannot reasonably enter public life (e.g., outside the home) unencumbered; we have moral and religious and cultural commitments perhaps not of our own volition.
Think of Jews in modern-day Germany, or African Americans in the United States. The German people might not wish to have a special dedication to preserving and protecting Judaism, but it is so. Likewise, white Americans often don’t feel like they themselves owe anything to blacks in the here-and-now, because they never harmed black persons and certainly didn’t enslave any. However, according to Sandel’s view of public philosophy, we do carry baggage that we might not have freely chosen to. “You are a Grantham, and that has attached to it certain responsibilities,” one might hear Lord Grantham counsel his children on the PBS series Downton Abbey.
One example of morality applied to politics comes from Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? On page 29, he notes:
“Debates over [post-recession financial] bailouts and [post-catastrophe] price-gouging, income inequality and affirmative action, military service and same-sex marriage, are the stuff of political philosophy. They prompt us to articulate and justify our moral and political convictions, not only among family and friends but also in the demanding company of our fellow citizens.”
…One can see why Sandel’s ideas constitute what he calls “public philosophy” in his use of the phrase: “…not only among family and friends but also in the demanding company of our fellow citizens.” It’s rather reminiscent of a more civic-minded society, such as Aristotle’s Athens.
Another example involves abortion specifically. I took the relevant quotation from Sandel’s book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. More to the point: whether decisions about the permissibility of abortion (a political issue) should be left to individuals who, in a pluralistic and fairly liberal society, are free to decide – and could just as conceivably decide in favor or against. However, Sandel here indicates that morality is inextricably intertwined with any libertarian, political, or personal decision:
“…the case for abortion rights cannot be neutral with respect to the underlying moral and religious controversy. It must engage rather than avoid the substantive moral and religious doctrines at stake. Liberals often resist this engagement because it violates the priority of the right over the good. But the abortion debate shows that this priority cannot be sustained. The case for respecting a woman’s right to decide for herself whether to have an abortion depends on showing that there is a relevant moral difference between aborting a fetus at a relatively early stage of development and killing a child” (p. 21).
…Note: This use of the word liberal is more precisely defined by Sandel and others as minimalist liberalism, which I find to be relatively libertarian in nature; not “progressive” or “Left” or however one would describe whatever political viewpoints Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders subscribe to. Think Howard Zinn more than Noam Chomsky.
Essentially, Professor Sandel is noting that we must first decide what is good before we can really determine what one’s rights are. In other words, whether it is good (i.e., morally permissible) to terminate a fetus must be determined before society can decide whether one should have a right to do it. Euthanasia is determined to be illegal because it is thought of as wrong. It does put a fair amount of power in the hands of the community/polis/State, especially from a free-market/libertarian perspective, but a reinvigorated “commons” is what he has in mind.
If civic engagement were to rise, and corporate/plutocratic influence fall, it would seem plausible that the “communitarian consensus” about right vs. wrong could trump individual rights at times. We don’t, for example, outlaw circumcision, cigarette smoking, or gun ownership, but we do outlaw marijuana use, marrying a 17-year-old, and shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Murder is verboten, but fighting foreign soldiers in the Army is honorable and even demanded. The idea that society legislates morality is not at all outlandish.
“I was provided additional input that was radically different from the truth. I assisted in furthering that version.” ~ Oliver North
Well, that is one aspect of morality in politics: how does one deal with political issues from a moral perspective (and how society does so). What is right and what is wrong vis-à-vis my own personal engagement with the world around me. However, there is a whole other aspect to the subject which will be familiar to any reader because we all have opinions on how moral, principled, and praiseworthy politicians are. No one seems to not have an opinion on the relative goodness (versus unscrupulousness) of Bill or Hillary Clinton.
I’ve invited two heavy-hitters today to discuss one of my favorite topics: ethics as applied to the political sphere, to our national-governmental apparatus. Let’s look at “the system” and see how fair, righteous, and legitimate it is; let’s examine the behavior of those in power – office-holders, the wealthy and involved, and the now-ubiquitous corporation – as well as the actions and responses of “the ruled.”
If the people are accused of ignoring politics (low voter turnout, lackluster civic-mindedness, the relative unpopularity of protesting as compared to Europeans), is that a moral strike against the “us,” or is it the responsibility of “they” who foment and perpetuate our apathetic, disorganized, and often ineffectual participation in government? Is this just how politics is? Has it always been as unsatisfactory as it is in modern-day America?
“The moral and rational powers presupposed by the rule of law are also at work distinguishing between law as something to be faithfully obeyed, and law as but a word meant to conceal arbitrary, immoral, and tyrannical modes of control.” ~ Daniel N. Robinson
…One doesn’t ask prisoners how they would appraise the guards’ job performance, but citizens in a republic certainly should have approval and respect for the job their representatives are doing. That is integral to the very nature of the republican form of government the founding fathers instituted – rather than monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, or direct democracy. If representatives aren’t adequately representing our best interests, then what does that indicate about the success of American representative democracy? It seems fairly obvious that ethical lapses, chasing after money from donors, “feathering their own nest,” lusting after power, lying, cheating, conspiring, and failing to listen to a majority of constituents are some of the most prominent complaints.
These charges are reflected in the statistic published by Gallup. Respondents were polled about their view of the ethical standards of members of Congress. This is how the public felt: 1% gauged the ethics of Congress as “very high;” 7%: “high;” 31%: “average;” 39%: “low” and 20%: “very low.” That indicates the majority of our public servants are perceived to have low or very low standards of conduct. No surprise that the most recent approval rating of Congress was recently polled at 13%. That’s abysmal. Do we get the government we deserve, or have money and power captured the undivided attention of our “public servants”?
“Can a candidate win without taking a dollar from special interests? Watch me.” ~ Doris “Granny” Haddock
…My first guest, Arianna Huffington, should either bring a smile or an eyebrow raise to the face of any listeners who follow politics. A woman whom Los Angeles magazine painted as “the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers,” Arianna is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, a nationally-syndicated columnist, and the author of 13 books. Ms. Huffington is also the co-host of Left, Right and Center, National Public Radio’s popular political roundtable. Her most recent book is entitled On Becoming Fearless, and others are entitled: Right is Wrong, and Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom. Her 1978 book, After Reason, is, according to Vanity Fair writer Suzanna Andrews, “a densely written treatise that argued for the need to integrate spirituality into modern politics. Attacking the ‘bankruptcy of Western political leadership,’ and describing politics as ‘our hypnotized acquiescence in this organized sham,’ the book called for a ‘spiritual revolution in Western democracies. …Nothing less could save individual freedom [in a culture where] the pursuit of happiness has been reduced today to the pursuit of comfort.’”
I could hardly have found a more remarkable guest. I’m pleased to have Arianna Huffington on the program.
AH: Hi, it’s great to be on.
JM: I appreciate that! The idea of morality in politics is what we are aiming to examine today, and in some of the books you’ve written, such as Pigs at the Trough and Fanatics and Fools, I think what you’re doing is implying that there’s something wrong with the way that government is currently operating and, therefore, a solution is demanded. Is that correct?
“You’ve got the Koch Brothers and other billionaire families who are prepared to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on elections to buy the candidates of their choice, often extreme right-wing candidates. I am the former chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, and I can tell you that I don’t believe that the men and women who defend American democracy fought to create a situation where American billionaires own the political process.” ~ Bernie Sanders
AH: Well, there’s no question that public policy appears to be for sale. That is really one of the main problems, which I address in some of my books. Even in On Becoming Fearless, I’m addressing it from the personal point of view, which is to ask the question, Why do so many leaders not have the fearlessness and character to lead? Instead, following and being part of the lowest common denominator solutions.
JM: Mm-hmm. Do you think that it has always been like this – since the days of Rome, and Machiavelli; George III, Napoleon, and Boss Tweed? Do you think that America, now, is peculiarly immoral in the way that its leaders conduct themselves and do the business of running the country?
AH: Oh, God, absolutely not. I think a lot of it has to do with human nature, but there are certain pressures in modern times involving consultants, the emphasis on polling, and the influence of lobbyists have meant that we definitely have a lack of leadership. If you look at Iraq, which right now is the major crisis facing our country, it’s really sad to see how many leaders— including on the Democratic side— have failed to stand up on this issue. Had they done so before they even authorized the war, we would not still be there. Or now, when we need principled leadership to say, “No. No more troops, no more funding for additional troops.” We’re looking for the kind of leadership the country’s desperate for.
JM: Do you think that conservatives have a better understanding of morality? They probably use the words moral, moral values, and morality more often, and there is at least one national, vociferous lobbying group that calls itself the Moral Majority (meaning that they represent the majority of Americans who are “more moral” than the rest). Put a different way, do you think they are using this angle in a disingenuous way, or do you think that morality is the proper domain of the Right?
AH: Well, the Right has, unfortunately, used the word morality for “sexual morality” and it has become tantamount to objecting to gay rights and abortion rights. That’s really one of the problems we are facing – that morality is being cast in Biblical terms. Instead, it needs to be expanded to the way we lead our lives, how we care for “the least among us,” as the Bible put it.
“Genuine politics – even politics worthy of the name – the only politics I am willing to devote myself to – is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.” ~ Vaclav Havel
JM: That’s one of the things I understand about your story that is most interesting. Tell me if I’m wrong, but you used to be a political conservative, and one of the reasons that you felt it was not a philosophy you wished to pursue any further was because of the idea that conservatism has a tendency to miss the Americans who have the most disadvantage, are the most disenfranchised, and who are the most vulnerable – the poorest, the least educated, the sickest, the youngest, the oldest, the disabled, the loners, the different. Do I have this correct?
AH: Absolutely. I believe that when I stopped being a Republican (which is almost ten years now), it was largely because of the lack of empathy about what political applications of morality really mean: concern for the least among us. That’s why I place a lot of demands on leaders on the Democratic side to stand up and fight for those values. It’s why I wanted to examine what makes us personally fearless and personally able to really take a stand and not just “go along.”
JM: Mm-hmm. When you say “personally able,” what do you think about the ability of politicians to make difficult decisions— those which turn out to be the right thing to do but which aren’t politically easy or expedient? Can politicians do this as well as teachers, firefighters, salespeople, accountants, babysitters and fast food employees? Should they be able to act with more courage, conviction, and character than others?
Politics, n: Poly (“many”) + tics (“blood-sucking parasites”). ~ Larry Hardiman
AH: You see that there are some who do do it; today we had Edward Kennedy introduce legislation to say that, basically, we’re not going to fund additional troops without a discussion. That is a wonderful example of leadership and of standing up to what the Administration has been wanting to do.
JM: Okay. By the same token, I think you “sliced it thinner than that” a minute ago when you said that the Democrats are not automatically the better of the two parties; that you have to take a look at examples and specific behaviors before pinning a rose on anyone. For example, with Kennedy’s legislation, you are claiming that it is a good position, and Bush does what a lot of observers believe to be wrong things. But with all the money that is swirling around politics, it must be hard for even liberals/progressives to do the right thing because there is so much that pulls against them following their heart and their conscience – and at times, simply doing what the majority of constituents wish them to. Corporations, high-dollar donors, and interest groups have enormous opportunities to influence the 535 legislators. I heard once that there are 100 lobbyists for every representative.
If wealthy individuals and corporations are self-serving or amoral, then what we see is a perversion of representative democracy. “Garbage in, garbage out.” The signs are all around us. Yes, there are many millions of citizens – an unwieldy number, perhaps – but we have come so far from the deliberation and wisdom that marked the noble Iroquois Roundtable it’s enough to make one dizzy.
“The absurdity of ‘the system’ provides us most of the material [for the jokes we make on The Daily Show].” ~ Jon Stewart
AH: I think that if you look at any time in history, including today, when political leaders stand up, it can simply create a new reality. When you have a lot of people saying, “Nothing can be done,” and then you have even one person who stands up and says that it can – that’s what leadership is about. Often, a new consensus can be created. As opposed to simply following the opinion polls.
JM: Mm-hmm. What’s one of the things that helps you see what is the right – and the wrong – thing to do? When you’re alone, trying to determine if you should do a given thing, how do you make your decisions?
AH: For me, it’s been like exercising a muscle; like learning to listen to that “voice inside” that knows what the right thing is. The more we listen to it, and exercise that muscle, the easier it becomes. In my book, On Fearlessness, I talk about what often stops us from doing the right thing is fear— fear of taking a stand, fear of disapproval, fear of consequences. It’s one of the main factors I have found that stops people from doing the right thing. In the case of politicians, fear of losing an election.
JM: You’re definitely onto something there; Confucius said: “To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice.”
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence but we rather have these because we have acted rightly….” ~ Aristotle
AH: Yes, I totally agree with that. I do feel that people who know what is right have a special responsibility. I mean, in Dante’s Inferno there is a special circle in hell reserved for them.
JM: Indeed. It seems as though maybe your muscle of morality is perhaps better developed by habit than certain other individuals. Do you think that every person has the same level of development you’re describing – the same capacity to understand/sense/intuit/reason what is the correct ethical decision in a situation? In fact, quite a few Americans strongly believe the war is right, that affirmative action is bad, that gun rights should be greatly pared back, that welfare is a diminution of a person’s worth and unjust for the rest of us, that taxation is a type of unwarranted affront to liberty, and so on. How do you explain how, when these folks look within themselves, they arrive at a different answer?
AH: What I have found is, if you look at the war in Iraq, for example, it was the people who led the politicians. The citizens realized that we were sacrificing needlessly precious American lives and treasure, and it was the leaders who were forced to follow the people. So, in other instances, if people are shown the truth, you can change minds and hearts. Often, what is missing is an unequivocal presentation of the truth.
JM: I understand. I think it is probably worth noting that when government seems to be mired in a state that is immoral – the hiding, escalation, and the fraudulent initiation into the Vietnam War, for example –indeed it is a person or a small group of people who ultimately pull out the keystone, causing the wall to fall. I am thinking of the person in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, China. Or Daniel Ellsberg, in the Pentagon Papers. Abolitionists were a brave and vocal minority in the beginning. Christians in Rome. Freedom Riders in the Jim Crow South. Indeed, Margaret Mead famously declared about movements in politics: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
“One fight I took on that didn’t win me many friends was a reform effort called the gift ban. I couldn’t believe all the gifts, free meals, trips, and other perks lobbyists and various special interests showered on senators and their staffs. To me this was a serious ethics issue. How could ordinary citizens believe in the integrity of the political process if we were receiving all these gifts?” ~ Paul Wellstone
AH: Absolutely. I totally believe in that. It’s something that’s exhilarating to witness. Sometimes it’s a group of people, and sometimes it’s one person. Jack Murtha was the solitary Democrat (in fact, a Democratic “hawk”) who took a pivotal stand against the war in Iraq, and he began to change the reality in Washington; he dramatically affected the recent election. It is quite remarkable what one person can do, but they have to be willing to take a risk, because there are no guarantees. Muhammad Ali said, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
JM: Right. And influential African American legal scholar Derrick Bell, in his book, Ethical Ambition, wrote: “I find that people trying hard to lead ethical lives must draw on courage frequently, because standing up requires taking risks on a regular basis. In fact, risk-taking is probably the most defining act of an ethical life.” Notice he used your oft-mentioned phraseology about standing up being a metaphor for ethical decision-making.
Can I ask you, do you think that Al Gore is playing a positive and successful role in shifting the way the populace thinks about climate change and environmental issues in general? It seems to me that he is saying, essentially, People, we need to think about the fact that it’s the wrong thing to do to let the planet continue to degrade due to human-caused factors. Therefore, we have to do the right thing while there is still time. It’s an “inconvenient truth,” but a truth nevertheless. Is that how you see it?
“You see a scandal on the front page of the New York Times and you assume that steps will be taken. Wrongs will be righted. Villains will be brought to justice. You can scratch it off your mental checklist: Done. But time and time and time again that turns out not to be the case.” ~ Arianna Huffington
AH: Oh, absolutely. I think he has been great in leading the way. It has been an incredible impact.
JM: Yeah. It reminds me of this quotation by H. G. Wells: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
I know you’ve said that you think already we’re seeing consumers leading the way by buying Toyota Hybrids in large numbers. Wasn’t the fact that Governor Schwarzenegger drives a gas-guzzling Hummer a brouhaha you engaged in? You took issue with the values that that choice highlights.
AH: He has actually moved on. He’s now going to perhaps be introducing legislation [in California] to increase fuel consumption standards. There is something, again, to the public noting the scientific evidence on global warming that has shifted the debate on this issue.
JM: Well, let’s hope that the debate is shifting successfully. As you noted, though, powerful interests are influencing our elected officials to ignore, explain away, or fight efforts to prevent global disaster, and many of them – mostly Republican lawmakers, I must say – are tuning in and cashing lobbyists’ checks.
Well, Arianna, that’s all the time we have for this segment. I thank you for sharing your time and your opinions with me. Good luck with your newest book.
“The United States of America is still run by its citizens. The government works for us. Rank imperialism and warmongering are not American traditions or values. We do not need to dominate the world. We want and need to work with other nations. We want to find solutions other than killing people. Not in our name, not with our money, not with our children’s blood.” ~ Molly Ivins
AH: Thank you. I really enjoyed our conversation about morality in politics and would be happy to continue sometime. Your listeners can visit HuffingtonPost for the latest news and opinion.
JM: I am now eager to continue speaking about morality and politics with the insightful and sober David Callahan, Ph.D., author of the influential book, The Cheating Culture.
“As he groped to articulate a public philosophy adequate to the turmoil of his times, Robert F. Kennedy revived an older, more demanding vision of civic life. According to this ideal, freedom does not simply consist in fair access to the bounty of a consumer society; it also requires that citizens share in self-rule, that they participate in shaping the forces that govern their collective destiny.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
…I’m pleased to welcome David Callahan, Ph.D. to the show. George Lakoff, a noted politics professor at UC-Berkeley, and a successful author in his own right, said: “David Callahan was right – politics is based on morality – and the main division in American is between the ‘Cares’ and the ‘Care-Nots.’”
Dr. Callahan is the research director and senior fellow of Demos – “a network for ideas and action in politics.” He is the author of seven books, perhaps most notably, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, and The Moral Center: How Progressives Can Unite America Around Our Shared Values. His most recent publication is entitled The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. He also published Kindred Spirits, a history of the Harvard Business School Class of 1949. David received his Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University. Formerly, he was a fellow at the Century Foundation from 1994 to 1999, for which his focus was US foreign policy and international affairs. In 2013, Dr. Callahan would go on to start the online resource, Inside Philanthropy.
“Today, progressives have a chance to emulate the conservative success on values by highlighting a new moral crisis. This crisis infects nearly every part of American society, from education to sports to business to a myriad of professions. It often plays out in intensely personal ways and it deeply troubles Americans. The crisis is the rise of a ‘cheating culture’ in the United States.” ~ David Callahan
…We spoke before, and he permits me to call him David. Hello, thank you very much for joining me again.
DC: Hi Jason. Nice to be back on the show.
JM: Thank you sir. I’m excited to talk about ethics in politics. So you are “a new liberal with old values,” the New York Times wrote. Are you proud of that description?
DC: Yeah; indeed I am proud of that label.
“In Socrates’ view, the health of a State depends on the degree to which the national life is based on the integrity of its leaders. To help bring about a healthy State, Socrates took every opportunity that came his way to run incompetent people out of office, to urge people concerned with truth and goodness to seek office, to make politicians accept responsibility for their actions, and to offer them assistance in carrying out their duties. For Socrates, politics is identical with social reform.” ~ Judith Barad
JM: Once you told me that it’s difficult to look at values and morality in relation to politics, especially from that liberal/progressive point of view. But I see that you have examined the matter quite carefully, and declared that “Nothing’s the matter with Kansas.” Has it been interesting to look at the way liberalism and morality come together, and what the current state of our political situation is from that perspective?
DC: I do think that liberals have tended to cede the “moral high ground” to conservatives, and it’s really the religious Right and social conservatives who have dominated the debate about values and morality, and who have been most effective at articulating this kind of moral perspective. This, even as they have pushed a number of policies that I think are profoundly immoral. It is the irony of our politics: forces that have anointed themselves the “watchdogs of morality” have been engaged in some unscrupulous actions – for example, cutting aid for the poor, launching an illegal, ill-conceived war in Iraq, or any number of others.
JM: Do you think the politicians, pundits, allied media outlets, think tank ilk, lobbyists, power-mongers and pollsters are still able to “whip people up into a voting frenzy”– talking about God, guns, gays, “Hollywood liberals,” foul-mouthed rappers, worthless prisoners, skeezy drug dealers, welfare-statists, and abortioneers?
DC: Well, it certainly didn’t work in 2006. The hot-button issues of abortion, gay marriage, etc. really didn’t have much traction, and even though the Republicans tried to push those buttons, it didn’t stop Democrats from winning the House and the Senate.
That said, I do think that a lot of Americans are really anxious about the values and direction of this culture. They are concerned about all the raunchy stuff on television; the violence. They’re anxious about the pressures on family life and all the materialism: the sense that America is all about making money. I think that conservatives have been really good at tapping into that sense of anxiety about the direction of the culture. I don’t think that feeling is going away anytime soon. I think that to be politically competitive, long-term, those on the Left need to speak to that discontent.
“It may be true, as I. F. Stone said, that ‘all governments lie,’ but democracy cannot function when journalists do too. This is why the success of liars like Robert Novak and Ann Coulter at the center of our political culture is a greater danger to America than a truck full of terrorists bent on doing us harm.” ~ Eric Alterman
JM: Mm-hmm. Let’s say that Iraq didn’t exist, and it had nothing to do with the 2006 election, do you think that the morality underlying American economic issues would have allowed the Democrats to have such a strong victory?
DC: I do think that the war in Iraq was decisive in the election, but there were other issues as well; I mean, the political corruption in Washington was big – all the scandals down there and the sense that the people who are really running that city have become more corrupt and become part of “the system.”
And that is a moral issue. When people think of moral values, what comes up is integrity and honesty in our leaders, and that they work on behalf of the public interest. I think that there is a sense that we’re going through one of those periods right now where Washington is very corrupt (and perceived as such) – the Abramoff scandal, all the lies of the Bush Administration, the failure to really help New Orleans recover, and the contracting problems in Iraq. There’s a lot of corruption right now.
JM: Agreed. Do you think that the moral differences in our country are now more “vertical than horizontal,” if you will? By horizontal, I mean “red state/blue state,” the death penalty debate, the drug war, and so on. By vertical, I refer more to the “us vs. them,” “the people vs. the powerful,” “corporations and billionaires vs. ordinary workers,” “politicians and their entire cadre vs. the governed.”
“Lawyer Bill Clinton lied under oath at his deposition in the Paula Jones case. He did it while sitting in front of a federal judge. I may be old-fashioned, but a lawyer committing perjury to defeat a civil lawsuit while he is the defendant is very wrong. Had he only told the truth, perhaps nothing would have happened.” ~ Nick Zales
DC: The way that I would describe it is, to the extent that conservatives succeed in defining “the values debate” as being “Republicans as the Party of traditional values such as personal responsibility; the Party that defends the family; those who defend religion against secularization” – a narrow definition – then I think the conservatives often have an upper hand.
But, the values debate gets more scrambled up; it becomes more about issues of working people who are living in poverty, lack of health insurance, an immoral war in Iraq, and the political corruption and dishonesty of our leaders. In such a case, the dichotomy between the Right traditionally heralding personal responsibility and the Left ostensibly representing social permissiveness is altered.
JM: Mm-hmm. In The Cheating Culture, I think you really highlighted the ways in which economic issues, such as the downsides to both laissez-faire capitalism and “crony capitalism” are critical to understanding how politics is related to morality. The Cheating Culture, I think, theorizes and points out that capitalism –the way that it’s so raw and the way that so many people “run into the buzz saw” through no fault of their own – is deeply significant in shaping American culture. It theorizes that when those “at the top” cheat in both small and big ways, that it fundamentally alters the “moral calculus” for everyone else who has to compete and cope with the pressure. Is this theme continued in The Moral Center?
“This is a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, which in too many cases has become so corporate and identified with corporate interests that you can’t tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans.” ~ Dennis Kucinich
DC: Oh Yeah, for sure. Capitalism produces a lot of wealth; it’s the “goose that lays the golden egg;” there are a lot of products and services we all enjoy from a market economy. But let’s not fool ourselves, there are also a lot of “moral downsides” that accompany capitalism which we need to manage and be aware of. Money is a great way to incentivize people, but it can also lead to greed. You need to have a bottom line and accountability, but you can easily have a “cut-throat” bottom line and a ruthless focus on efficiency. We want to avoid a worship of objects and a soulless consumerism.
JM: Yeah, economics in regard to morality is fascinating. It’s stunning that there is a small number of those who are so wealthy, and many who are so poor. It’s not morally praiseworthy, to put it mildly. I don’t think that a charge of “radical wealth redistribution” by defenders of the status quo can adequately disarm the argument for greater sharing of resources. It’s difficult to make a solid argument in favor of the status quo from a libertarian perspective; we are in a Gilded Age again and it’s pretty greed-dominated. Greed is a vice for a reason.
“Abraham Lincoln did not go to Gettysburg having commissioned a poll to find out what would sell in Gettysburg. There were no people with percentages for him, cautioning him about this group or that group or what they found in exit polls a year earlier. When will we have the courage of Lincoln?” ~ Robert Coles
…When you look at things such as the stagnating minimum wage, rising debt, the comparatively low tax rate the wealthy experience, and the relatively paltry contribution to our budget corporations now enjoy, it just doesn’t add up.
Imagine that we were participating in prominent political philosopher John Rawls’s hypothetical “original position” and were dialoguing about what kind of society we wished to create – where all were blinded to what their assigned position was going to be once we set the rules of society and took our places – very few of us indeed would choose to roll those dice. I mean, you could be placed in the position of a 15-year-old, black, lesbian, physically disabled sex slave as easily as you could become a media mogul or a titan of industry. It’s easy to laud the race as being fair when you are the clear winner. It is only because society has morally devolved so slowly for so long that the privileged few, the extremely hard-working, and the incredibly lucky feel justified in maintaining the noxious status quo. Can one characterize a metaphorical race, if everyone begins at different starting points, “fair?” There will always be heroes who excel at the game of life, but that doesn’t mean it is just for those less-well-endowed.
Do you think some of the typical or traditional methods of citizen activism and organization are going to be fundamental characteristics of the improvement of the majority of Americans? I’m afraid that union membership is at an all-time low, that education costs are on the rise, and that many jobs are increasingly shifting to automation.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states simply that ‘No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a signatory, states the same. The binding Convention Against Torture, negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the Senate, prohibits cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. …All of this seems to be common sense, in accordance with longstanding American values. But since last year’s [defense] bill, a strange legal determination was made that the prohibition in the Convention Against Torture against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment does not legally apply to foreigners held outside the U.S. They can, apparently, be treated inhumanly.” ~ John McCain
DC: I think, for starters, the Democrats have to get much better at talking about the economy in moral terms. I think they have a tendency to talk about it in terms of interests, and bread and butter, and phraseology such as, Does your family have health insurance? Or, Can you afford a house? Those are important issues, but we need to think instead about, Are people being rewarded for their hard work? And, Do Americans have a chance to improve themselves? And, Do citizens have an ability to enjoy freedom and chart their own destiny through starting their own business or owning a property? This is the better angle, as opposed to, What is the government doing for you?
I think conservatives have often won the debate about morality and the economy because they have focused in on people’s values and aspirations. The white middle class, for example, really believes in work, self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, and I think that conservatives have really used that language very effectively – even as they have contributed to an economy of growing inequality, even as the values of industriousness and self-improvement have been diminished.
JM: Hmm. In regard to progressive politics, did you happen to get a look at a short but potent little book called, All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy, by Jared Bernstein, the noted economist?
“Whenever we look around the world, we see smart leaders – in politics, in business, in media – making terrible decisions. What they’re lacking is not IQ, but wisdom.” ~ Arianna Huffington
DC: Yes, I’m familiar with the book, and he makes a very good point: that what we’ve seen over the past 25 years is a strong message of “You’re On Your Own,” and that the counter to that message is “We’re All in This Together.” I think the view that we’re all in this together is an appealing one. On the other hand, I think we need to be mindful of the fact that individualism is an extremely powerful force in this society and that a message of collectivism and community has limitations.
JM: That’s probably true. We don’t like to “draw our circles very wide” when it comes to empathy and care, as it were. So, you wouldn’t go so far as to use the word socialism to describe where you’re headed? I happen to think democratic socialism is a great way to shear the sharp edges off of capitalism – or to kill dead the noxious “crony capitalism” that America is currently stuck on. Individualism is a positive thing, up to a point. It can be austere, and a society founded on it can be a dystopia before too long. It needs to be wisely mixed with a communitarian ethic to be stable.
DC: Yeah, I don’t think anyone is talking about “capital-S” Socialism because there is a definite belief that the free market economy is the best way to produce wealth. The question is, How do we balance the dynamism of the free market economy and all the good it brings while still “looking out for everybody.” We need to care for each other and have strong mutual obligations to each other. What we want is “the best of both worlds.” Efficiency and markets and everyone having a decent standard of living, everybody has security against the catastrophe of a negative “twist of fate.” We all should have health insurance; everybody who works should get a living wage; you should be able to have portable childcare. Those things should be basic and elementary.
JM: Right. Will politicians be willing to enact such measures? As I understand it, the way that some of those societal goods are brought about is through the creation of laws. Status quo isn’t very just, and politicians are the ones who vote for new paradigms, programs, and progress. We all seem to agree that “big money interests” have politicians in their debt, and, harkening back to our previous concept of political machinations, a huge percentage of Americans are misled and manipulated by the Right’s “disinformation tactics” into voting against their own economic best interests.
“It’s true that we live in a moment when the notion of a moral compass is so politically vexed that it ought to be depicted with its little needle spinning like a pinwheel in a good, stiff breeze.” ~ Patricia J. Williams
DC: Yeah, I think what we need is political consensus behind creating a fairer economy, which will ultimately mean some redistribution of wealth— which I think is fine. The people at the top at this point in time are making so much money and doing so well that they can afford to share some of that wealth in order to ensure that others can succeed, and everyone can enjoy a basic level of security.
JM: Indeed, I think it is morally unacceptable: a) to be very wealthy while others suffer through no fault of their own (more often than not), and b) when those people use their money to influence politicians for the purpose of perpetuating the current system. Faced with such a plutocrat, I would chastise the rugged individualist, in the immortal words of Joseph N. Welch, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Further, it seems obvious that, given enough time, the situation in this country will become unstable and revolutionary, and wouldn’t it be prudent to stop that before it starts. Alas, the bourgeoisie seem absolutely addicted to the accumulation of dollars. Since they fancy themselves wiser than the proletariat, wouldn’t it make sense to share more now in order to preserve the majority of one’s wealth and privileged position? I mean, simply from a pragmatic perspective.
Let me ask you: If you could change three things about the American system – politics, economics, culturally, educationally – what would you do? If you had a magic wand, what would be three critical changes that would alter our course away from the iceberg that we are inevitably headed toward?
“Reasonable people can disagree, and disagree passionately, yet politics can proceed in a healthy manner when there is a shared respect for people’s dignity and a commitment to rational argument. When those two qualities are absent, politics becomes either a freak-show distraction or a breeding ground for violence. In other words, democratic politics becomes impossible.” ~ Robert Jensen
DC: Well, I guess I would get rid of our two-party system and institute more of a parliamentary system, so that there are more parties and so that people felt more of a sense of their vote matters; an antidote to low voter turnout and citizen apathy. The second thing I would like to do is really change the health care system in this country: replace the current, incredibly inefficient health care system with a “single-payer system” that most other wealthy nations have. The third thing I would like to see is a serious energy policy and a real effort to contend with our long-term environmental and energy challenges.
JM: Understood. Well thank you so much for your time, David!
DC: Sure, thanks for having me on the show, Jason.
Note: “the right over the good” refers to society prioritizing one’s rights (i.e., freedom, individuality and autonomy) over the good (i.e., society’s best interests). That is to say: “liberals” in the sense I described wish to place the individual’s rights over and above society’s needs.
Note: Thoughts on Michael J. Sandel and his ideas are my relatively nascent interpretations of his “public philosophy,” as expounded in his many books. I should apologize if I mislead you with less-than-accurate commentary. I don’t mean to misinterpret his views.
This is but one of twenty chapters in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. An e-book is a mere $2.99. For more quotes about politics, progressive politics, government, morality in politics, and responsive government, see this blog. As well, you could search on any of those words (or any you can imagine) in The Wisdom Archive.