Friday, September 22, 2006

Rediscovering Ethics in the Backwash of Moralism

I'm finding the strangest things from the strangest of bedfellows in my mailbox, suggesting to me at least, that I'm not the only honest conservative out there.

Indeed, this is the beginning of something that has gone to so many pages that it can no longer be seen as a blog post, I'm recasting it in the role of a potential long magazine article or short book.

That means this chunk will probably have to be re-written entirely, but for now, it's a good length for making one trenchant point - that we have to stop letting the moralists dictate our ethics, if for no other reason that many lessons of history telling us that those driven by morals maim and kill far more people than those who are driven by ethics.

Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future John C. Hulsman - openDemocracy:

"I have long been a Thomas Jefferson fanatic. While, like all sensible Americans, I have a sneaking respect for Alexander Hamilton, and am aware that we live in his world and not that of the sage of Monticello, Jefferson for me was always the poetry of the American revolution, if Hamilton was the prose.

Politically, Jefferson seemed to stand for what I as a Republican in the Dwight Eisenhower tradition believed in: a limited role for a small but accountable and effective government, the primacy of individual liberty over the nanny state, balanced budgets, local control of as much as possible (what Europeans call "subsidiarity"), and the promise that an educated people would safeguard the republic, forcing an inherently overly-secret institution to divulge what it was doing, so that free men could vote knowing what their government was up to."

I find myself uncomfortable with my own bedfellows - the activism of Progressives and Liberals and the widely influential, if politically impotent Libertarians.

The thing is, it's easy to find common ground when the most urgent common issue is to point out how and where Neoconservatism has utterly failed to fulfill every promise it's made to the American People, and even failed to live up to the expectations of it's most jaded corporate. Our common task and cause has been to wake up the "slumbering majority." The problem is in coming up with an alternate agenda that the majority of Americans can and will agree upon.

The term "Ethical Realism" may signify the beginning of such an idea, even as I feel that "neolibertarianism" may be the fundamental underpinnings of a philosophical framework that will support an ethical and realistic approach to foreign and domestic policy.

But in this, I would like to point out one or two things that, merely hinted at, suggest a fly in the ointment; a problem with specifically US Conservatism - a reflexive horror toward those who apparently live "godless lives" or lives directed by competing images of God" a horror that more often than not interferes with doing the right thing.

I say apparently, for I do indeed personally exemplify the idea of having a life that would exclude me from the most influential churches of the day. And I must say that the feeling is mutual; to me, the moralism of the Right is not based on morality or ethics so much as it is upon a host of social taboos that exist in mental isolation.

I could go on at length about how unethical it is to impose a vision of how people SHOULD behave as a foundational vision of government - but that should be trumped by the obvious; that government must exist in the real world of how people actually do behave in response to circumstance. You cannot rely on oughts and shoulds as a guide to law and regulation, but you can take self-interest to the bank and take out a mortgage on it.

Successful governments are ones that legitimately address the real needs of their citizens while being as deferential as possible to their whims, desires, expressions and follies.

Every single law requires a large investment in time and attention and often bears unforeseen consequences, usually proportional to the amount of wishful thinking or self-righteousness involved in crafting it. Every law that can only be selectively enforced will add to the pile of inevitable injustice that is one side effect of governmental power.

Further, any law that may be foreseen to be one that will be widely ignored or disrespected is one that will create a whole new class of criminals and promote disrespect for the validity of the rule of law.

US drug policy – dating back a century or more – is an example of such widely hated and disregarded laws; laws which often have more to do with preserving or promoting some commercial interest than it has with any genuine public good.

But there are much such intrusions into the private sphere based upon special-interest distrust of the wisdom of the choices made by those who do not share those interests.

The question of abortion has to be the single best example of what is a profoundly personal and inherently private decision being made, by fiat, into a matter of public concern against every principle of good government and common decency.

I, for one, cannot imagine why it would be more important to prevent people from making a choice to terminate a pregnancy than it would be to devote time and effort to widening the range of choices pregnant women have in order to enable them to "choose life."

None of the time, effort and money given to the first cause does much of a damn for the second; indeed, they second is often seen as competition, if not an outright appeasement of evil.

In order to "choose life" as a moral imperative, it must a real choice for Life, not merely a resigned acceptance of a more prolonged form of death. My wife has a saying: "Babies are always good news." And while I love her, and think that she ought to be right on this point, she's only right as a matter of how things ought to be in an ethical society; that is not in fact how it is.

For far too many people in this world, inside and outside the borders of the United States, an ill-timed pregnancy is as welcome as cancer - and often brings a similar, lingering fate to one or all of those involved.

It is an inarguable fact that, inside our own borders at least, it is within our power to make every infant welcome, well fed and even well-cared for, and yet we refuse to do so. This is a truly damnable irony; thrice damnable as the same people railing against abortion are those railing against any consideration for those living such marginal or circumscribed lives they may not reasonably envision any other choice.

If you have the means to chain yourself to an abortion clinic and pay for the inevitable trials, you have the means to create opportunity and choices. But any such suggestion is dismissed as "unchristian."

Well, that is sheer nonsense; false Christianity and false doctrine engineered specifically to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Right-wing Christianism is not a creature of conscience; it has become a placebo for the lack of one; an excuse for not giving a damn about what happens when your crap floats downstream.

While more than 80% of Americans identify as being Christian, if it were actually true, there would be no hunger and no homelessness. There would be no widows or widowers having to choose between food and medication, there would be no orphans in orphanages. There would be no people working two jobs and still suffering from rotting teeth, there would be no rationing of mental health care - and certainly no profit-motive provision of mental health institutions or prisons. If you are guided by your faith as to the things that must be made available to all, than one way or another, these questions would have been addressed long ago – as has occurred in the more agnostic nations of Europe.

The existence of HMO's, lack of universal access to mental and physical health care and the plummeting standards of education for anyone unable to afford private schools belies assertion that 80% of Americans are "Christians."

In fact, the number of US citizens who's faith is central to their lives in any sense outside of social obligations and cultural identity is probably closer to 10% - and my horseback guesstimate is deliberately generous. Most people go to a church on Sunday for the same general reasons that they drink at the Elks on Saturday and go bowling on Friday. It's a social and recreational activity with their peers, with perhaps some gloss of "socially redeeming value."

The battle for abortion is emblematic of a system of thought that reflexively sacrifices the good upon the bloody altar of an illusory perfection - and the sacrifice is always expected of people outside the ranks of the "elect."

A morality that exists to emotionally reward an in-group at the expense of a far larger out-group is not just unethical and immoral; it amounts to a cultural suicide pact; one cannot imagine such a situation being allowed to persist very long at all in historic terms.

The US has gone through several of these moralistic spasms in it's history, and in every case calmer voices have prevailed in the end; but there has always been a huge price to pay; the moralists resist to the last ditch, creating problems so deeply divisive that it ends in the repudiation of everything right of center for a decade or more. One might argue that such a situation creates the pragmatic necessity to empower a strong central government to address the widespread eliminated and corruption of local alternatives.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl comes to mind; a perfect storm of political disaster met by a right-wing shrug as both investment capital and topsoil dried up and blew away. What DID Conservatives think they were conserving, one wonders?

I wish to point out to those who hold generational grudges against FDR and the New Deal that had their ancestors had more vision, FDR would not have risen to power - and had he had less - we would have become a centralized communist state, based perhaps on the Trotskyite model, with some populist ideologue as it's paraded saint and despot.

Or in other words, a state not unlike what glimmers in neocon and theocon visions, a vast State that emanates from and replaces the Church as moral authority, and brooks no debate on the issue.

UPDATE: Here is a perfect example of a moralistic, doctrianaire authoritarian approach to an important matter causing greater problems than it prevents.

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