Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why Americans Suck at Talking About Ethics and Why it Is a Really, Really, REALLY Bad Thing

In a nation that purports to be a democracy (with the possible exception of Florida), little could be more important than serious, passionate, and rational discussion of ethical issues. Virtually every concern of modern life has an inescapably moral dimension and yet, today, it is more polite to fart at the dinner table and exclaim, “Boy, I’m glad I can’t pass on my gonorrhea that way” than to broach discussion about abortion, cloning, or stem cell research. And it is no wonder. Americans are horrible at discussing difficult moral issues. Most dinner-table discussions will quickly devolve into either high horse moralizing or "who's to say" shoulder shrugging, raised voices, insults, Nazi references, hurt feelings, lingering resentment, and on a good night, flying mashed potatoes. The real issues, the hard and intricate ones, rarely receive anything close to an honest treatment. The trenches are dug, our party affiliation determines with complete accuracy what side we are supposed to be on, and the key is to simply be louder than the other side so we need not hear what they are saying.

Not only are there just two choices about which side of any given moral argument you are to support, but there are also only two ways to engage in ethical discussion. One is to believe that there is an absolute right and absolute wrong and anyone who disagrees with you is not only wrong, but evil. Thus you need never listen to anyone else, only try to convert them while speaking in the most obnoxious, arrogant tone possible. Or you could be a subjectivist and just repeat the phrase "who's to say?" until someone punches you in the mouth. You think that if Stalin really thought that mass murder was ok, then it was ok for Stalin. If we want to engage in discourse about pressing ethical issues today, our choice is between being a dogmatic, holier-than-thou jerk or an anything-goes, relativist buffoon.

This sense of uneasiness is only exacerbated by those who are supposed to represent the apex of public discourse, the popular media. Of course, every moral judgment has political ramifications, so our wonderfully thoughtful media outlets invariably take one of three routes in discussing issues of ethical concern: 1) he said/she said reporting where the legitimate and intricate ethical dimensions of complex issues are minimized and treated as if it were nothing more than mere partisan demagoguery that minimizes the ethical dimensions of the complex issues, 2) nothing more than mere partisan demagoguery that minimizes the intricate ethical dimensions of complex issues replete with handy-dandy talking points to be drilled into your head and repeated, and repeated, and repeated, and repeated,..., or 3) "FOODFIGHT!" (Of course, the third option requires finding a liberal willing to fight and a show willing to present a liberal fighting back and therefore is becoming quite rare).

Our personal and public forums for ethical discourse are screwed up beyond belief. Let's be clear. The problem isn't with ethics, the problem is with us. The problem is that we don't know what we are supposed to be arguing about. We argue about the issues, but don't have a real sense of th underlying structure of morality itself. We get worked up which is good, ethics should be a source of passion, but we do it without being clear on how to express this passion in a way that will foster real, authentic, open-minded, good faith discussion. What we need is to understand what we mean by the terms "morally right," "morally permissible," and "morally wrong."

We have a vague sense of what we mean when we say that an action is "immoral" or "morally right" – we know that helping an old lady across the street with her bags is an ethically good thing to do and we know that stealing her groceries by running away with the bags when we reach the other side of the street is ethically wrong. We know that torturing an infant is wrong, but the minute you make even this incredibly obvious claim, someone will inevitably say something like, "Well, but suppose it was the infant of a terrorist who was about to detonate bombs in the obstetrics ward of every hospital in every city, killing every American newborn and torturing his child is the only way to get him to stop." This person will then put on a serious face with that obnoxious "so there" look and you are left with that feeling you get in line at the grocery store reading tabloid headlines about a 300 pound baby discovering that Elvis has been abducted by flying saucers. You know something in that move is bullshit, but you can’t clearly enunciate what it is. That move can be used to undermine all moral claims...maybe we just shouldn't talk about ethics.

But we must talk about ethics. We know this and we keep trying, we just keep failing and keep getting more and more cynical about the whole enterprise. And this is a really, really, REALLY bad thing because the more we surrender our place talking about ethics, the more we let the conversation be completely dominated by people like Ann Coulter who seeks to shut down moral discussion by demonizing those who have different points of view, Bill O'Reilly who yells "Shut Up" at people while alledgedly sexually harrassing those who work under him, and Pat Robertson who preaches while calling for the assassination of foriegn leaders. If we give up talking about ethics, then we let the people who are polluting our ethical discourse own all ethical discourse.

But what we need to do is not to shout louder, that just brings about more cynicism. Look at the way Cindy Sheehan went from an incredibly powerful position, evoking great sympathy across wide expanses of the American public to largely generating rolled eyes. Shouting doesn't work for us. (Can anyone say "Howard Dean"? That one still hurts.) We can't beat them at their own game, the game is rigged. We need to be smart (as well as funny and hopeful). To win, we must understand how moral reasoning really works and give good arguments, arguments that are strong but not oversimplified. We need to see where the complex issues are complex and show that complexity. On the hard issues, most people feel torn -- and they feel that way for good reason. We can't be black and white, but need to say that we fully understand why making this choice is hard and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, but nonetheless it is the right choice because the alternative is not acceptable. We need to learn how to discuss moral issues well. It is our only choice.

How do you do it? More to come...