Friday, September 19, 2008

Politics and Philosophy

I spent about 90 minutes today at the Center for American Progress’ noon-time discussion on “The Role of Philosophy in Modern Politics.”

The discussants were Michael Boylan whose most recent book is “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” and Susan Neiman, whose most recent book is “Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists.” The invitation included a framing statement that read: “At a time when political discourse is seemingly consumed with trivial matters, [the authors]…remind us of the moral and ethical questions that once informed our politics and how they can help move us forward today.”

The last clause in the above paragraph ties the discussion to the current presidential campaign. And unfortunately, at least as I listened to the discussion, it also unduly limited the exchanges to economic events – particularly the economic crisis that has been unfolding over the last year or two (that is, the sub-prime mortgage bubble).

Granted, neither of the authors is a political economist. Neither am I. What I think was missing in the discussion and in the questions from the audience was a willingness to look beyond distinctions between “traditional” value systems – those that spring from the community and its relationships and experiences – and value systems that are based on the primacy of individuals. (In modern western philosophy, the latter most often looks to the consequences for society of individual acts (utilitarianism) or to conformity to an a priori set of universal “duties” or motivations for actions such as Kant’s categorical imperative.

The audience seemed to want both a set of moral norms that would be enforceable by and within society but, at the same time, would not become immutable principles. One example might be the medical profession’s “do no harm” universalized to apply to all human interactions. “Help others” is another – a principle that generally holds but does not necessitate action every day or week.

The dilemma, of course, comes when a choice must be made between conflicting norms. Most often, we try to assess the outcome of each choice and pick the course that does the least damage – that is, we look to consequences. But that does not resolve the question of the criterion on which the assessment is made – that is, the “least damage to me, to my confidants, to society or to a segment of society?”

Despite the fact that religion – the freedom to practice religion, specifically – motivated many who came to America, the values that informed the deliberations of the American Founding Fathers did not emerge from religion but from the political principles that were fundamental to the Enlightenment. Put another way, politics – the art of retaining civility in the various interactions between individuals and communities – served as the repository of the underlying values on which actions (or the lack of action) were to be judged. That systemic division predominated into the latter half of the 20th century. When the “Moral Majority” coalesced into an organized political movement that effectively captured the Republican Party, it substituted rigid communitarian absolutism for individual conscience as the basis for societal values.

It is probably too much to claim that rigid codes applied religiously in a political context contribute to the creation of pro forma value systems in which everything can be justified. On the other hand, most ethicists hold that the exercise of individual conscience in determining “good” and “evil” leads to the development of a coherent set of principles for action that, in the long run, are conducive to a more just than unjust society.

One can only hope they are correct.

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