Political essay #1 — D. McShea, March 2012
Moses McGovern, The Minister of Education and a third-party Candidate for the national Office of Presider, speaking to a packed lecture hall of academics at an interdisciplinary conference, held at the Central Theater by the lake in the Metropolis city center.
Ladies and Gentlemen. I stand before you a little sheepishly. I was once one of you. I was an academic, a professor of metaethics at a reputable university. I had creative and hard-working graduate students. I had brilliant and helpful colleagues. I had a supportive department and administration. And I would still be there now. Except I wasn’t very good at my job. When my career began I thought I knew what metaethics was. And I spent ten years writing about it. But later I decided I was wrong. I didn’t understand my own subject. So I got out and found a job in politics. Where my incompetence wouldn’t be so noticeable. And that’s why I’m sheepish now. I’m going to talk to you about ideas, about the academy, and even about my old field, metaethics. And I’m terrified someone here is going to notice that I don’t know what I’m talking about. With any luck, you’ll all be asleep before I say anything substantive.
Like all good academic talks, mine starts with a question. How did we get here? And by “here,” I mean politically. How did we as a nation end up in this situation, where the public dialogue between left and right is a combat, us-versus-them. Yes, it’s a culture war, of course, and it’s also a class war (poor and rich, who should have how much?), and a jobs war (who gets the last available job?), and a war about our future (are we making the planet too hot?). Yes, it’s all of those things. But calling it those things doesn’t explain it.
Some of you, who have been around, will pooh-pooh the idea that these are especially war-like times. You’ll say we’ve seen it all before, many times in the past century. I disagree. Yes, politics has often been emotionally charged. But I say this time is different. This is the only time in our history that only one side has carried the banner of morality. We have disagreed before about what is good. But never over whether there is a good. And that’s what the war is about now. One side, the right, believes in traditional notions of right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse. While the left has adopted the truly bizarre position that there are no such things.
As in all wars, there is collateral damage. Damage to people and to policy, to be sure, but also to our political dialogue. If politics isn’t about right and wrong – because after all, says the left, there is no right and wrong – it can only be about elections, about who wins. Worse, with the left denying there are moral issues, the right is free to set the agenda for moral discussion. Listening to political debate in this country, you’d think that morality is about unborn babies, gay marriage, guns, and God. You’d never know that for generations oppressive working conditions, the right of labor to organize, the sharing of the fruits of a free society, the right to vote, and education were considered *moral* issues. For the left, these are still issues. But they are not moral issues. Because there is no morality, says the left.
So here we stand amidst the rhetorical rubble of decades of political combat. And what does the left propose we do? Look for new ways to win? The political landscape is cratered and smoking. There is nothing left to win. Oh we have experts. Experts at winning elections. Experts almost as good as the right’s experts. And ours are good technicians. But wins crafted by technicians are temporary. They sway the people for a moment. They will not be the architects of a new progressive society, in which the ideals of the left are our national ideals, lastingly shared by all the people. No, politics is not a technical problem. It is not a question of winning. There is only one political question. It is a moral question. It is *the* moral question. It is the question posed by the great Greek philosopher millennia ago. How shall we live?
Some history. Where along the line did we on the left convince ourselves that there is no better and worse, that good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, are relative. That every cultural group is entitled to its own morality, and there is no basis for evaluating competing moral claims. That there is no reason to prefer one set of values to another. Intellectual movements often have no clear starting point. But in the 20th century we can point to Marxism, which claimed to show us a better future, but also saw “better” and “worse” as just ideology, as false consciousness, as fads almost, arising out of the current means of production, industrial and post-industrial capitalism. We can point to Margaret Mead and the rise of cultural anthropology, which in the early 20th century was discovering the virtues of non-Western cultures, especially small, vulnerable indigenous cultures. And seeking to understand them in their own terms, from the inside, a perspective from which all local values can be – and were – made to seem equally valid. And we can point to the postmodern movement, with its denial of absolute truth and insistence that all perspectives are subjective, in art, and even in science, and of course politics.
So here we are. Without any better and worse, there is now no reason to argue. There is no moral stance that could convince a reasonable person on the other side. The idea then is just to win, by any means available. Nowadays the weapon of choice is science. So moral problems are reduced to technical problems. Our best leaders on the left are technocrats, seeking the most “appropriate” and “efficient” and “effective” solutions to this and that problem. The most effective way to reduce teen pregnancy is to distribute condoms. The most cost-efficient way to get people to use seatbelts is to impose fines. As though such decisions could be made without first deciding what is good, what is fair, what is right.
The right knows, and has always known, where this position leads. And they have never adopted it. They have instead adopted what is seemingly in our time the only position available to non-relativists, an absolutist moral stance based on religion. And with that stance, they have claimed the whole field of morality, of right and wrong, to themselves. Lately of course, they too have adopted a win-at-all-costs mentality, and have even turned to phony science to bludgeon the left. But they have never adopted a relativistic ethic. To their credit.
I give them credit, but I do not concede the high ground. It is time for the left to reclaim morality. It is time for us to allow the central political question to be asked. And that question is not: “What is the most efficient or effective way to live?” It is not: “What will maximize this or that social variable: happiness, hunger relief, or health care.” Rather, the question is: “What is a better life and a worse life? What is right and what is wrong? What is virtue, in our children, in ourselves? Again, how should we live?”
So what is right? What is better? What is good?
1. First, freedom is good. People flourish when given room to grow. And flourishing leads to success. But freedom to succeed is also the freedom to fail. The government, the state, forgets this when it interferes in our lives, even when tries to help. So freedom is good, up to a point. Freedom is bad when it allows us to hurt each other, whether freedom means people hurting each other with guns, or Hollywood hurting our children with crude portrayals of sex and violence, or corporations hurting all of us with pollution. So again freedom is good. Up to a point.
2. And helping is good. Sympathy is part of our shared human nature. It is central to normal human relationships. We need to feed it. We need to act on it. We cannot sit by and allow the weak to wither, the unlucky to die. We cannot do this because watching them fail without helping damages our natural sympathy. And make no mistake. Sympathy is part of all of us. None of us truly wants to live in a world where people who need help, and can be helped, are not helped. So helping is good. But only to a point. We should not take away people’s dignity. We should not take away from them the power to help themselves. There are few greater goods than the empowerment that comes with having saved oneself, of having overcome, of taking one’s own life in hand and molding it for the better. But in helping too much we create dependence. We allow people to indulge their weaknesses, rather than encourage them to overcome. Again, we need to help. The right’s demand that we ignore our sympathies, that all individuals be self-sufficient, is wrong. But our help must have limits. In the end, those who need help must also help themselves, or they are not helped.
3. Difference is good. In the past, we as a people have been too intolerant for our own good. Intolerant of those who are different. Different in their manners, in their language, in what they eat, even in the music they love. Different in their sexuality. Different in the way they worship, or decline to. Different in the way they think, in the matter and mechanisms of their minds. Intolerance of this sort is wrong. It visits wrongs on its victims. And it’s bad for those who practice it. Difference is good. … But so is similarity. Because for all our differences, we are all very much the same. Pick your metaphor. The differences that separate us are a stream bed, not a canyon. We are made of the same fabric, just colored differently. We are different from each other as days in spring day are different, not like summer and winter. It is our sameness that draws us together. Our sameness is our strength.
4. Justice is good. Reform the villain, yes. Support his reform in every way, psychologically, socially. But justice is a value too. Justice for the victim of course. And also justice for the villain. Justice, punishment, turns out is a good for the villain. It improves him or her, reforms him, dare I say it, saves him. The retributive rage of the victim is part of the criminal’s salvation. Punishment is partly a demand by the victim that the criminal ask for forgiveness. And reform begins – but only begins – when forgiveness is asked for, and granted. Justice is good, and good for, everyone.
5. (Under construction) And fairness is good. … Incentives are one thing. Good for the well-functioning of the machine. But only to a point. At some point, they become destructive. There is justice involved here too. All who have built wealth have done so …
What have I done here? Have I played both sides, left and right? It might seem like I am just another politician, eager to get elected, taking a stand in the middle, hoping for votes from both sides. That would be easy to do, it’s true. But it is not what I’m doing. I come from the left. But the point was to frame the left’s position in moral terms: good, better, right. And if in doing so we discover a partial rightness in the views of the other side. If our moral explorations lead us into new territory, to new conclusions, that lead to accommodation with the other side, even to agreement with it, so much the better. What we want is the good. Not just to win.
In the end, there will be much that we do not agree on. And that is what democracy is for. Differing moral visions make their appeals to the people, and the people judge. But make no mistake: ours is and must be a moral vision. We have lost in the past. Our appeals to the people have been too often rejected, and rejected for reasons that have never been quite clear to us. Can they not see that we represent their interests? Can they not see that we stand for enlightenment and reason? Have we not shown them that we have quantified the proper variables, done the calculations objectively, and come up with the optimal answers? We have, and yes, the people can see all of these things. They know their interests. They favor enlightenment and reason. And they can see, or at least they suspect, that our calculations are right. But what they cannot see is any moral foundation holding up all our calculations. What they do not hear is any clear statement of right and wrong, moral and immoral, better and worse. Freedom, helping, difference, justice, and fairness are all good. Their opposites are bad. No, they are not just bad. They are immoral.
Are we being judgmental? Indeed, we are. We seek out opportunities to be judgmental, to be morally judgmental. We educate ourselves and enlighten ourselves in the hope that we will make our judgments rightly, that we will make them well. We hold our judgments up to the highest standard, scrutinizing them for error, testing them against reality at every turn. We listen to our opponents, on the chance that they will find some error in them. And we listen even more closely to the whisperings of our own hearts, on the chance they are telling us our judgments are wrong. We do all this because judgment in human affairs, fallible mortals judging each other, is dangerous. But it is also necessary. It is our responsibility. And we do not shrink from it.