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Moral Interpretation: The Right, The Real, and the Good
Basic categories for ethical reflection are presented in a simple concept scheme which can be useful for thinking about any moral issue in personal or social-political-economic life.
By Ed Knudson
I wrote this article in 2005 but have updated it in light of the current economic meltdown.
I. Introduction to Moral Philosophy
Ethics is the study of moral action. Most of human behavior is based on habits of thought; we don't always stop to think about whether a particular action is morally correct. But if a question arises, if someone else might think we are acting wrongly, if we face a minor or major change in our lives, then we may think about what it is we are doing, the patterns of our lives, and ask ourselves what it is best to do. Or we may face a new situation or the conditions around us may change which force us to consider changing our behavior in relation to those conditions. In those moments we are "doing ethics", we are reflecting on how we should act, we are asking "what should I do?"
If you sit down to read some books on moral philosophy you will find that two basic categories of ethics are examined, what is called "the right" and "the good". The right refers to what is called deontological ethics, that is, in quick terms, rules or laws or standards within an objective moral framework of some kind. The source of this framework may be nature itself as understood by various philosophies (natural law, natural rights, contract theory, economics, etc.), a social structure (like the family or nation), or a religious understanding such as the ten commandments. Or it may be what is called "positive law," that is, the law that is established by actual governments.
When the term ethics is used it often means in popular consciousness "do what the rules say" and rules are thought to be known by everyone in their "conscience". So formal business ethics in a corporation will most often be a set of rules or standards adopted for how employees are expected to act. The Right is, then, the most common popular understanding of what ethics means. But it is only one approach.
An ethics of "The Good" is another approach. It has emerged as an explicit form of ethics especially in relation to social and economic changes related to the application of science and technology to human affairs, as society moved from the Middle Ages into the Modern era and very large numbers of people began to live in urban settings. If in a small town setting everyone knows and follows the rules then there is little social change; the rules of the past are the rules of the present and the future will be more of the same. But the rise of the merchant class (capitalism), the Protestant Reformation, the development of science and technology, and political revolutions have dramatically changed the primary context of human life from rural to urban. A primary value associated with modernism is "progress", the idea that the future can be different from (and better than) the past.
In moral philosophy this idea is called "the good" or the "ethics of consquences." To do good one must consider the future consquences of alternative actions in the present and do that which will be best for one's self and/or others. Another way of saying this is that with modernity human beings have gained access to new knowledge about how the world works and the question is how to use this new knowledge. Since the knowledge is new it means that potentially the future will be different from the past so old rules about how to act may not be able to best guide use of the new knowledge. Human beings have a rational capacity to estimate future consquences of how to use the new knowledge for good. So human beings on both a personal and institutional level today engage in "planning" their futures to try to achieve what they believe to be good for themselves. We now live in highly planned technological urban infrastructures of many types connecting us in immense grids of electricity, roads, communication, economics, and institutions for health, education, welfare.
Moral philosophy that focuses on good consequences is often called "utilitarianism" following British philosophers in the 19th century. The moral idea involved is that in making decisions in the present a calculation should be made about what constitutes the "greatest good for the greatest number." If utility is understood as happiness, then, decisions about how to plan the city should be made based on creating the most happiness possible for people in the city. Each person would act in ways to increase their happiness or the happiness of their family. Built into utilitarianism is a consideration of not just the individual but the social, and this is one reason it is called a "liberal" point of view.
Classical liberalism focuses on the good of the future; classical conservatism focuses on doing the right, obeying the rules from the past. I say "classical" here because the meanings of liberal and conservative in actual politics today may or may not refer to historic definitions of these terms; in fact, definitions are often reversed!
There is a third general category of types of ethics sometimes called "situation ethics." This focused on the facts in a current situation in which an individual is engaged; the emphasis is on determining what is best based on the current situation, since neither laws of the past or calculations of the future may adequately take into account of facts of a unique current situation. This type of ethics (associated with the work of Joseph Fletcher) has gone out of favor because several staff members of the Richard Nixon administration said they justified their actions based on situation ethics. The situation of the re-election of Nixon was more important than anything else, apparently, for these staff members, resulting in the fiasco called Watergate. It is ironic that those conservatives existing in the wake of the Nixon presidency are the very ones who complain about moral relativism today. Nixon had to resign because he broke the law, the law which is otherwise so very important to conservatives. In other words, we have to be careful about the difference between claiming a moral position and the actual behavior of those making such a claim.
For example, the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist speaking to a conference of college Republicans a couple years ago said "there are no rules in a knife fight" referring to the political process. He did not feel responsible as an adult to teach ethics to the younger generation. Politics is merely a violent war with no rules, some ethics. Yet this is a man known as a strong "conservative" these days. If your definition of the situation of a democratic society is violent war then you are quite far from the meaning of civil society in the democratic tradition. Norquist is a man without civil political ethics, yet is not ejected from the community calling itself conservative. This discrepency is part of the reality of current politics; labels don't mean what they say.
I do not like the term situation ethics and its implications. However, I have come to believe that it points to an important dimension of ethical reflection, what I want to call "The Real." It is important because the other two types of ethics do not take adequately into account the significance of social factors in ethical decisions, especially what is called social solidarity. No one makes ethical decisions from some god-like perch of perfect objectivity. All human individuals are also part of communities and their sense of solidarity with those communities lies in the background of all decisions. It is best to be honest and reflective about this fact in the first place. The laws one follows are the laws of a particular community. The consequences one calculates are what is deemed good for some community of persons. That does not make either The Right or The Good not important, it does mean that one must also consider The Real. And the reality is today that conservatives are willing to use any means necessary to win elections as the Grover Norquist example indicates.
II. Human Consciousness
With that basic introduction let me present a concept schema (below) which will guide the balance of the discussion here. The middle horizontal line represents time with a past, present, and future. The Right comes from the past. The Good is from the future. The Real is the present social situation in which we are engaged. Though moral philosophers see the three types of ethics as mutually exclusive, fundamentally different methods of doing ethics, I think the three methods are all part of human consciousness as we live our lives through time.
It needs to be said that I am talking about human consciousnessness of time, not time as an external factor or characteristic of the world. As far as we know, time is a human construction, time exists in the human mind and is created by language. Yes we are able to count the passing of time using clocks but exactly what this means is an uncertain factor in science. At least, for our purpose time in the concept schema is meant to refer to human consciousness. We are talking here about how human consciousness works.
To say that the realm we are speaking about is human consciousness itself is not a small thing. Some people writing about moral philosophy or people who claim they know for sure what is right and wrong may assume (big word) that they are able to know what is universally true about the natural universe or realms of ontological perfection. The western heritage includes the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle who make such assumptions. I do not make those assumptions. I do not believe with Plato that this world is not real but a world of shadows of some perfect world beyond and apart from this world. Nor do I believe with Aristotle that there is a hidden logical order or structure underlying everything in the world revealing its essence or nature. Not very many philosophers make those assumptions anymore. These ideas stay alive only in unreflective religious faith but they are not necessary for even Christian theology today and certainly not for the philosophical orientation known as postmodernism. The latter has undercut the confidence with which western philosophy believed it was able to know what is "out there" in the world beyond human consciousness. Science itself is a much more humble enterprise from what it once was. No longer do scientists speak in absolutes but in probabilities.
Certainly, chemistry can affect human consciousness, that's why there is so much use of drugs today, legal and illegal. Certainly genes affect how people think. And journalists often get excited to report this or that study which reveals that some moral tendancy is associated with the genetic structure. But drugs and genes are not what we are talking about; these are "external" methods of studying what's inside the human mind. What I am trying to do is talk about how consciousness works in terms of ethics, not from the outside but from the inside, so to speak, from inside the consciousness of the human self, from inside what is called human subjectivity.
So when I draw the arrow in the concept schema above I am pointing to time inside human consciousness, that the mind works in terms of awareness of past, present, future. The structure of language is what creates that sense of time, past, present and future tense, as human beings grow up in communication with others who use language. The language used in such relationships create a "solidarity" among the participants such as occurs within families. That is why I present the word "solidarity" in the middle section referring to the present. Ethical issues are never simply individual, they never simply affect a single person; ethics is inherently social. So inside our consciousness of ourselves is who we are in relation to others. It makes a critical difference how we feel in relation to particular others, whether they are inside or outside our circle of conscious solidarity.
The Right from the past pushes us through the present into the future. Following the law requires obedience in the present. The future in this sense is no different than the past, as indicated earlier, and there is a good deal of human satisfaction and comfort about that fact. One way to be sure of the future is to follow the law of the past. It is a means to social order. Social chaos is one of the greatest fears of human beings. In any given situation we bring into that situation a sense of what the rules require of us. We all have a stake in obeying the law to guarentee social order.
For this reason traditional societies put much emphasis on authority figures who maintain the law. The future is assured when the law is obeyed. To not obey is to threaten the anger of the authority figure and risk a negative consequence. Authority figures have power, a power of some kind of violence or punishment, which can be used against law breakers.
Following the law is so important for human beings that even in modern states it is the government which is acknowledged by all to have the power to use violence against law breakers for the sake of social order. That's why police officers carry a gun. The solidarity of the traditional community is maintained as long as people obey the law. But there is a price to pay for this social order, it is the violence that stands in the background. Finally that is a power of a kind of terror of which each member of the community is conscious; a consciousness of official terror that forces the law to be obeyed. That's why I say that people are pushed into the future by the law, by theories of the Right. Conservatives are those who especially believe in the law and the power of authority. They want the future to be the same as the past. Social change is bad, it creates uncertainty or threatens social chaos.
In today's political configuration it is the religious or social conservatives who fiercely believe that authority figures, fathers, pastors, teachers, political leaders, ultimately a divine law giver, should be obeyed, the law must be obeyed, there should be more and more police to force obedience to the law; law breakers should be sent to prison. The last decades have seen more and more police and more and more people in prison. Somehow solidarity has broken down, more and more people do not share the solidarity required if people are to obey the law, more and more reliance on external, violence-wielding authority is required. This has become a major crisis in society. At some point the few cannot use violence to imprison the many without the whole society falling into chaos. So today it can be said that the more social policy relies on the authority of violence the more social chaos can be expected.
It is at this point that I want to introduce the notion of interpretation, to begin to explain why I speak of an "interpretive ethics." Interpretation of history is part of what we might call a "modern consciousness." Much of what is called the Enlightenment can be understood as efforts of philosophers and others to re-interpret history. The classic Greek philosophers were rediscovered. The Reformation leaders seriously attacked the misuse of authority by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. The future was perceived as something that can be different from the past. The idea of "progress" emerged. Standing apart from official authorities scholars began to do the kind of historical research that undermined traditional authorities. Capitalism was theorized as an economic process separate from religious control. Even human development was examined as a biological evolution through history without the necessity of a divine force. Serious scholars even showed how the bible was formulated by the people of Israel and early Christians. All of these "modern" efforts undermined traditional authorities.
These efforts were exercises of "memory." They were efforts to identify "natural" or historical "laws" by the use of reason different from traditional religious or political authorities. Thomas Jefferson says in the Declaraction of Independence in 1776 that it is possible for a people to separate themselves from the traditional authority of the English king, and that this is authorized by the "laws of nature and nature's God." So here we see a different interpretation of history, a different basis for law.
I will just say here my view that social solidarity is now based on an interpretation of history. The basis of law is now an historical event, the revolution, the creation of a new constitutional state which is done in the name of "the people." It is this exersize of memory in human consciousness that becomes a critical factor in social solidarity. It is a new way for the past to get into the present. The past is a source not only of law but also of inspiration and intention (see concept schema) which creates imagination for a different future, which in turn creates hope which is one of the most powerful motivations for human beings. Hope does not push from the past, as does law, but pulls us into the future. I am trying to put words on this dynamic mental consciousness so we are able to see that there is so much promise in this understanding of ethics.
It is through interpetation of history that identity is created, we are this people who have experienced these particular events about which we have a common understanding and which open for us a common future together. This is the very stuff of ethics, this is the way the Right and the Good are determined, not forced by authority but affirmed through a common learning process. A common memory is necessary for social solidarity and in order to envision both a personal and a common future. The United States is a fractured nation at this point in history because there are multiple, competing "communities of interpretation" each viewing the past in different ways with different views of major events and figures, and thus different orientations to the future. In fact, there has been a major shift in the past few decades against history, against fostering a consciousness of history among the American people, against the teaching of history, against the encouragement of political leaders to inform the people about history. Strangely, it is mostly those who think of themselves as "conservative," those who wanted to conserve the past, who today are now opposed to facing the facts of the past. Religious conservatives follow a new, American-created faith (actually based on classic liberalism with its belief in the efficacy of individual decision) and do not want to know the actual history of the bible and orthodox Christian faith. Economic conservatives do not want to study the history of the market because it may upset their belief in the ideology of the mystical market. Libertarian conservatives do not even acknowledge that there are historical communities through which people learn what is Right and Good and Real. And political conservatives of all types don't really believe in democracy; they try as hard as they can to make sure as few people as possible are allowed to vote.
It appears at this time that the conservative dominance of politics is ending. They have tried to create social solidarity through authoritarian religious nationalism, "my country right or wrong," but this has been revealed as so irrational that a modern society will not accept it. They have tried to change the facts of the country's early history to claim this is a Christian nation but finally such a view just does not stand up. In the process religious conservatives have severely tarnished the whole idea of religion in the first place. They have trivialized a large number of issues such as abortion and gay rights and evolution, all serious matters but which have been used by devious politicians to distract attention from the critical economic and environmental issues facing the country. There is a conservative consciousness about all these matters that is severely distorted, confused, and potentially dangerous if allowed to play out in ways similar to the politics of Hitler's Germany, a period of time in history which is very important for any interpretive ethics. Conservatives, stuck in 19th century mechanical world views and standards of truth which can only produce a false certainty in their consciousness, are not able to understand what is Real in today's world.
IV. The Real
It is not easy to know what is really real. Reality is a social construction. To know reality truthfully is to have become part of a community which has correctly interpreted history, which is able to "see" into the workings of the actual social, political, economic life of the larger society, and which has a sense of itself in relation to a concrete and possible future. This website seeks to gather persons to formulate an ethics within a Public Theology which can be known as such a community of interpretation.
Here I will use a few key words to point to what is real about the Real.
Who has what power in social relationships is always present in the consciousness of the actors in those relations, but not always spoken about explicitly. So part of what is real is who has what power and how that power is exercised and held accountable; what is real is politics. One becomes aware of power as it is exercised over time and thus makes itself available for interpretation.
What has emerged as the most powerful and dominant institution in the politics of the United States has no interest in history, in fact is positively opposed to historical consciousness. That dominant institution is the modern business corporation. It has adopted what in pschology is called behaviorism, the stimulus-response method; business stimulates the consumer and the consumer buys without thinking, without a broader consciousness about social solidarity in favor of personal greed, without a sense of the Right from the past, without a sense of what is truly Good for all in the future. The modern corporation wants to control the the mental process of human beings and has learned to do so through the latest communications technologies, analyzed by postmodernists. Modern capitalist economy theory views the human being as a simplistic utility calculator, which means egotistical personal pleasure seeking behavior without regard for others, with no concern for social solidarity. No wonder the prisons are full. Capitalist economics destroys the Right, the "law" required in social solidarity, in favor of manipulating people to go shop at the mall, malls which have become cathedrals of individualized pleasure seeking.
A earlier era of conservative knew the truth that capitalism destroys community. But today's social conservatives have no idea about that truth, therefore they support a politics that allows corporations to have more and more power over the society, generating more and more social breakdown, undermining the trust which is actually needed even for corporate behavior to be successful in society. This is a false consciousness of the current conservatives which may express itself in increasingly hostile and violent ways if conservatives lose political power. Even after four decades of dominance by conservative politics the breakdown of society is more apparent than ever, something that must be somewhat destablizing for conservative consciousness.
Knowledge is real in contemporary social relations. People need professionals of all kinds in order to provide them with the specialized knowledge to live in their homes, fix their automobiles, raise their children, or maintain their ability to keep a job. How relations with professionals are carried out is a key aspect of modern living. The power of professionals over the lives of others is an issue in a democractic society. How the distribution system for knowledge is constructed makes a difference for who is able to do what with what success in society.
The knowledge divide has become very important for politics, for political identities. Conservatives, who used to believe in the importance of knowledge acquisition, now deride those with university education as elitist. The fact that this kind of attack works is an indication that the benefits of knowledge are not being equitably being distributed among the population. The internal consciousness of one with a college education is different from a person without, and this difference makes for often unhappy exchanges. It has been exasperated by the attack of conservative politicians on the public education system at all levels which means even fewer people have enjoyed a good education and are thus more open to the right-wing attack on those who have an education.
Finally, it is important to note that many professionals have sold their minds to the highest corporate bidder. After the election of Ronald Reagan I was surprised by how many intellectuals came forward to volunteer to implement his policies. It is corporations who have the money to hire the professionals who are the carriers of modern knowledge. Though most professions have codes of ethics the fact is that they have primarily come to serve the interests of the modern corporation. We hope at this website to address this issue regularly.
Race and ethnicity are real factors in human relations. The conservative backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement of the sixties has been a primary, if not the primary factor in electoral victories for Republicans. The depth of anger such a comment generates from Republicans is an indication of how true it is. The South turned Republican after the Democrats affirmed civil rights. A primary campaign technique has been to associate the Democratic Party with support for blacks over against whites. No interpretation of history or politics in this country can avoid the reality of the civil war and what has been done systematically to black people and continues to be done. The fact that a current black American presidential nominee has been forced by the white corporate media to reject his pastor and congregation, who represent the authentic black community on the Southside of Chicago, is an indication of the refusal of white America to face the reality of race in this country and which continues every day in urban America.
There is one aspect of this that is rarely mentioned but is quite important for political interpretation. That is the fact that English culture has dominated the American experience. There is often talk of the melting pot of immigration in this country, but there is not a melting pot of culture, there has been a domination of Anglo-American cultural experience to the exlusion of other immigrant experience. This is so strong that some conservatives literally believe the United States is being destroyed in its purity of heritage by current immigration from Latin America. This country is Protestant and English for these conservatives. The thinking is not far from what the KKK taught, of course, coming out of the English and Baptist South. The English have a long history of racial exclusion and the Baptists are fixated on excluding vast millions of people to eternal hell. There is something in that history of exclusion which must be recognized in the reality of the consciousness of people in this country in order to deal with it in a real politics.
In the United States there needs to be more appreciation for the cultural experience of other countries, including Germany and the Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. These countries have developed social democracies in some ways quite different from England and the United States. Today conservatives lift up these countries as examples of what they are opposed to rather than countries from which we can learn something. This exemplifies an arrogant refusal to open one's eyes to what may be positive in the experience of others. There certainly have been a social politics in English history which is important, but politics today needs to question the dominance which has been given to what the Amish call everyone but themselves, "The English."
There is another aspect of what is Real which must be faced squarely but is often left out of liberal rhetoric. That is the continuing reality of violation in human community. Those who call themselves liberals sometimes want to absolve themselves and others of the depth of this reality because they want to focus on the goodness of the human being, they do not want to face philosophically the depth of depravity in the human condition.
Yet, practically, on the other hand it has been liberal education which has been willing to face the facts of violation in current teaching of history. It is conservatives today, who say they believe in the sinfulness of humanity, who then close their eyes to the violations in the politics and history of the country, who do not want to hear about what the country has done wrong, who refuse to face the many times when this country has forsaken its own heritage and best beliefs. A politics cannot be real if it engages in such refusals.
In the public schools courageous teachers have been willing to teach their students the reality of how the country has violated its own principles, such in honest teaching about Christopher Columbus and the Thanksgiving holiday.
What is needed today is an honest history about wars and domination in Latin America, Vietnam, the Middle East, other places around the world. Few Americans know what the CIA did in Iran in 1953 to overthrow an elected leader to install an autocrat who would do the bidding of England and the U.S. by providing access to oil. If this is mentioned then conservative politicians say that this is "blaming America" and refuse to face the facts, meaning that the same blunders can be done over and over again, which is what has happened in Iraq. The United States under conservative leaders picked up the colonial mission the British wisely left behind; such neoconservative fantasies about American empire can only lead to disasters in today's global environment.
The original violation against American Indians has emerged in the consciousness of many Americans due to honest historical study and interpretation in the last decades. This violation was so great that the very legitimacy of the country is called into question. It is hard to live with. The dead Indians of the past will not go away; there is a sort of retribution of the dead which is still a factor in actual history and authentic consciousness. It is not something that many people associate with politics, yet it is Real. It is a real factor in Germany concerning another population. It is a real factor in the historical life of many countries. It is something that people of faith also need to grapple with, difficult though it is. The voice of those unjustly killed cannot finally be silenced.
V. What is to be Done?
In order to create a sense of social solidarity it is necessary to have the courage to engage in acts of interpretation. I have begun to do some of that here but what is needed is an immense flowering of conversation in multiple forms about the past, present, and future, exersizing our capacities for memory and imagination, intentions and hopes. We need to interpret the events of the past, to be inspired by the great figures in the history of movements for social and economic justice for all, to re-craft new visions of the many possibilities for the future, especially in the light of growing environmental limitations. In other words, we need to do interpretive ethics.
I have begun to think with a three-part concept of human relations: polity, economy, society. Each has a characteristic means of power in human relationships. The polity has to do with law backed up with violence and includes the political process. Money and calculation of personal profit is the power in the economy. It is from society that we learn social meanings through a plurality of cultural and religious groupings.
I believe the power of the business corporation has become so prevalent in current times that both democratic polity and society are threatened. The business corporation has so opposed The Right, so fought against having to function under any rules or law, that it has been able through both Republican and Democratic political leaders to dominate the whole political and governing process in the country as well as the society. It is now in the position of being able to manipulate tax payers to pay for its activities through privatization. It has come through the corporate media to literally dominate the internal mental consciousness of oridinary Americans, so that Americans think not as they were taught in their families or communities or churches, but to think in ways beneficial to the modern corporation. It has even installed itself as the primary force in the creation of culture by which people identify themselves and determine right and wrong, good and bad. Culture-for-profit is a very debilitating force in a society which otherwise should be free.
The corporation has been allowed to literally destroy the social solidarity of the country. Financial speculation was allowed to run so completely wild that the system has now imploded, destroying the social sense of trust and confidence that even an economy needs to be able to function. The financial speculators acted without regard to ethical considerations; their economic philosophy taught them they did not need to consider others in their calculations of personal profit. They justified their behavior by appeal to no real sense of the Right or the Good and no regard for the Real of social solidarity. In other words, they operated without ethics. The breakdown of the economy teaches one important lesson: there is a great need for some moral authority and ethics among those engaged in economic activity. And finally that needs to be enforced by a government capable of acting.
There is much to be done. Other articles and materials at this website will be suggesting lots of different activities.
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