The New York Times > Magazine > The Way We Live Now: The Moral Cataclysm
Bush's call for moral clarity may be a travesty of both words, but it speaks to a genuine need. People want it so badly that they are willing to project it where it's lacking -- or settle for moral simplicity instead. And we are right to beware of simplicity that offers feel-good kitsch and frank manipulation in place of moral reflection. But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused.
Most people, including most academics outside of philosophy, don't know that there's such a thing as ethics. They assume that there are, on the one hand, codes of conduct--professional ethics for various disciplines and theological ethics for different religions--and on the other hand murkey sentimentality. "Moral clarity" is a matter of buying a code of conduct with clear, simple rules--all else is sentimentality. Professional ethics only concern behavior on the job; for an overarching code of conduct we look to religion. Sentimentality may soften the edges of our commitment to a code of conduct in an agreeable and appropriate way but without commitment to a code of conduct we are left with mud, murk and moral relativism.
This isn't a conjecture. We discovered this in a class 2 years ago when, after years of hearing undergraduates use the words "ethics" and "morality" in funny ways I decided to ask the class whether they thought ethics and morality were different and, if so, what the difference was. The consensus that they did was overwhelming so in standard professorial manner I wrote "ethics" and "morality" on the board and asked the class to characterize what they thought these two concepts were all about.
The consensus was again overwhelming and almost perfectly reflected the consensus of non-philosophers at a workshop on "ethics across the curriculum" that I'd attended a few weeks earlier. "Ethics" was, students agreed, "rational" and could be articulated; "morality" was a matter of feeling and couldn't be articulated much less argued for. Ethics, they agreed, should govern our conduct in business, the professions and public life: there were rules for doctors, lawyers, managers and politicians and they should be followed. Morality was for private life and should govern life in the family and among friends. Most were skeptical about about religious ethics though and thought that religion, to the extent that it was of any interest at all, was about morality and had no place in business or public life.
Some of the more astute students then took the next step and opined that the problem with Liberals was that they were sentimental, short-sighted and confused ethics with morality. If an employee was incompetent but had a wife and seven children to support, Morality said you should keep him on but Ethics said you had to fire him: liberals just didn't understand that managers had an ethical obligation to produce results and that firms had a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. It was the same in public life: Liberals just didn't realize that if you taxed the pants off of people to provide for the poor it would undermine incentives, lower GDP and make everyone worse off; they also didn't realize that there were Bad Guys out there who would beat us up if we didn't have jails, armies and get-tough policies. Charity was terribly important--around the edges to heal the wounds--but couldn't be central without disastrous results.
This reminded me of one of C. S. Lewis' Narnia books where, after the boys are issued with weapons to fight for righteousness, Lucy is given a box of elixers with supernaturally curative powers because it's unseemly for women to fight. (I detest C. S. Lewis) The idea now was that guys, both male and female, fight the good fight in management, the professions and public life--girls, both male and female, follow after healing, salving wounds and dispensing charity. When Tsunamis strike the girls come out with their magic healing medicine boxes. If the Market beats people down they operate little charities and faith-based initiatives to make their people's lives better. That's compassionate convervatism. But woe to all if we let the compassion, the woman business, take over.
We ground our teeth and thought, you wait, you just wait. "We" isn't royal, or authorial or any figure of speech but the plain English first person plural: this was a team taught course I did with a colleague in econ. One of my colleagues at my first job, at Northern Illinois University, recalled going to dos with Gustav Bergmann who would lie on his back on the floor with a bottle of beer on his belly and who, listening to the paper a miserable junior colleague was reading would chant, "You wait, you just wait" before beating the crap out of the miserable untenured victim or grad student. I do this myself to the best of my ability.
We didn't convert most students, which wasn't the aim, but we got across the idea that the views they opposed weren't just naive and couldn't simply be dismissed: conservative views can't simply be dismissed, liberal views can't simply be dismissed and addressing that question of how to live ones life is hard, takes some time and thinking about. Most Americans don't seem to get this and it's a stinking shame that most colleges don't require a course in ethics to get students clear about how to deal with this stuff. That required ethics course is part of the Catholic tradition and, contrary to what parents think, at most places it isn't a matter of telling students that they shouldn't screw around. They get the real thing. I'm a pariah at my place because I have a big mouth but I'm happy and proud to teach at a Catholic college.