Essay Ethics And Politics

Tempeungthe ruthless and relentless politics with the healthy spirit of ethical values has been a dream project of many idealists from the ancient times of Plato down to the freedom struggle launched by Mahatma Gandhi in the Twentieth Century. Both Plato and Gandhi won many adherents to the ideals of introducing ethical considerations in practical politics. But the ground realities disillusioned them both even during their lifetime.

Plato had to witness the unseemly spectacle of tyranny of the rulers in Greek city states, while Gandhi saw with his own eyes the great communal divide in the Indian subcontinent which claimed lakhs of lives thus making a great mockery of his doctrines of Ahimsa in the lives of his proclaimed followers. Ethics gets lip sympathy from the practitioners of Realpolitic, but rarely influences the political behaviour of the rulers, who will not allow considerations of justice and fair play to soften their relentless pursuit of power. In practice, politics has treated citizens as means and instruments to be used to keep them in power rather than as an end which the political leaders hypocritically declare while claiming to orient all their actions to subserve public interest

In order to fathom the dimensions of the moral degradation of present day politics, it would be instructive to juxtapose it against the polity of ancient India as reflected in our great epic Ramayana. Politics today has become synonymous with unlimited greed and hunger for power. In the Ramayana, we find newly married Rama gladly renouncing his right to the thrown of Ayodhya to enable his father, Dasratha, to honour his word given to the queen Kaikeyee. Not only that he leaves for the forest to undergo 14 years of Banvaas as desired by Kaikeyee to assure her that her son will have unchallenged reign in Ayodhya. Contrast the situation with the present day rulers. One Prime Minister of India resorted to the bribing of the Members of Parliament to win a Vote of Confidence and so to retain his prime-ministership.

For nearly three and a half months in the later part of the year 2000, a nation of one billion souls witnessed with horror the total helplessness of 2 big state governments in rescuiing the matinee idol of the South, Rajkumar, from the captivity of the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. The state governments of Tamilnadu and Karnataka were all set to release hundreds of TADA detainees and meet many other unreasonable demands of the fugitive but were prevented from doing it through the intervention of the Supreme Court of India. The rulers of the two states exhibited total disregard for upholding the law of the land.

The Ramayana shows a healthy contrast in Dsaratha's attitude to the menace caused by the Rakshasas in the forests. At the request of the sage Vishvamitra, the king of Ayodhya sent his teenage sons, Rama and Lakshmanato the forests to give battle to the notorious Taraka and Marichi who used to desecrate the Yajna rituals of the rishis living in the jungles by throwing bones and flesh in the Yajna fire.

Dasratha took a great risk in exposing his young and inexperienced sons to the magic and machinations of the Rakshasas. Rama and Lakshmana killed Taraka along with many others and drove away Marichi from the forest and ensured peaceful existence of the rishis in the forests. The forest brigand Veerappan is still eluding the security forces of the two states that are unable to risk anything to establish the rule of law by eliminating or capturing the criminal. Politics seems to have become synonym for moral depravity of the rulers.

The general conduct and poor reputation of the present day politicians should not blind us to the basic ethical assumptions of politics in democracy namely Freedom, Equality and Fraternity .A high moral conduct on the part of all the constiuents of citizenry, including the government functionaries, is a pre-requisite to realise these democratic ideals. Will a corrupt political executive allow the citizen clients freedom to criticise the acts of omission and commission of the political and bureaucratic regime? Only a nefarious collusion between the politicians and bureaucrats can temporarily succeed in preventing the enlightened citizens to expose the misdeeds of the state functionaries and bring them to book. Since both the politicians and the bureaucrats are serving their self-interest the people of developing countries like India are suffering. Unable to enforce morality in their conduct, citizens punish the politicians by overthrowing them in the periodic elections.

Equality before law is guaranteed to citizens in a democracy. If the state discriminates against a citizen and denies him opportunity or fair treatment, a citizen is free to go to the court for enforcing his right to equality. It is common experience to find the politicians using their position to secure contracts for their supporters and managing admission of their sons and daughters to institutions of repute. Independent judiciary in a democratic regime can check the arbitrary exercise of power by the politicians. In the Nineteen Eighties, Bombay High court set aside the admission of the daughter of the then chief minister of Maharashtra and established the rule of equality of opportunity to all. It is true, in many cases citizens are not able to obtain redress of their grievances against a high handed executive and morality is mostly a casualty in the self-promoting conduct of the politicians.

Ultimately the relationship of politics and morality boils down to one of means and ends. If a politician adopts good means to achieve good ends, he can effortlessly observe moral precepts. However, if he happens to believe that ends justify the means and that he must obtain and retain power by all means, it will be difficult to expect from him a consistent moral conduct. Mahatma Gandhi advocated the use of good means to adopt desirable ends. He was not willing to sacrifice his principles of non¬violence in order to drive out the foreign rulers from India.

His non-cooperative movement generated great enthusiasm among Indians and sent a shiver down the spine of the British rulers when they found that the entire country was inspired to fight the foreign yoke. But in their over-enthusiasm some of the agitationists turned violent and burnt down a police station and killed many policemen at Chauri-Chaura. Gandhi was greatly disturbed to find that his followers were not following his principles of non-violence.

Without any consideration for the demoralization of the Satyagrahis, Gandhi stuck to his principles and immediately withdrew the movement. Although Jawahar Lai Nehru was initially disheartened by Gandhi's withdrawal of the movement when it had gathered great momentum and had caught the imagination of common Indians, he was later convinced of the rightness of Gandhi's approach. Nehru said:
"If I have gained any experience in the last thirty or forty years of my public life, or if I have learnt any lesson from the Great Master who taught us many things, it is this that a crooked policy does not pay in the end. It may be temporary." It happens thus because "there is just the same inviolable connection between the end and means as there is between the seed and the tree". If the seed is bad the tree will also be the same, if at all.

The use of evil means to achieve good ends will ultimately destroy the sanctity of ends. Once a person has given up moral principles, how can he observe morality in a different context?

Leaders of many revolutionary political parties in the world believed that ends justified the means and they were not constrained by moral inhibitions in employing violence or tricks to put an end to the rule of tsars and tyrants. Violent upheavals and suppression of individual liberty have characterized politics in such countries. Many revolutionary leaders were put to death or executed by their own partymen when they were suspected of deviating from the accepted policies of the rulers of the day. Inspite of their manifold achievements the communist regimes in the erstwhile Soviet Union and the present-day China have not been able to marry politics with morality.

Since elections determine the fate of politicians, the way elections are fought and won determines the moral orientations of the contesting candidates. Booth-capturing, intimidation of supporters of the opposite party and bogus voting are freely resorted to by politicians in many states of India. Many candidates win election by using questionable methods. It will be too much to expect that they would observe moral principles in their conduct thereafter. Elections today have become very expensive affairs. Assembly and Parliament constituencies are very big Prospective M.L.A's and M.P.'s have to spend lakhs of rupees in canvassing votes from the electorates. They spend a fortune in hiring vehicles to reach out to their voters.

When the voters do not buy their arguments to elect them, they resort to bribes to influence them in their favour. It is common knowledge that the business houses provide lakhs of rupees to the candidates fighting for assembly and Parliament elections. These funds are not given gratis, but as quid pro quo. Having won the elections with the help of the moneybags, the politicians are under obligation to favour them by fair and foul means and extend them patronage in bagging government contracts and obtaining licenses for liquor, transport and other lucrative business activities. This quid pro-quo between the businessman and the politician deals a heavy blow to the political morality. It will be well nigh impossible to root out political corruption without ensuring the state financing of the elections.


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Virtue, it turns out, is the exclusive property of the right. This was brought to my attention just a few months after I began writing “The Ethicist,” a weekly column in The New York Times Magazine, when it was denounced by four periodicals, each more right-wing than the last–the weekend Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator, Reason (the presumably ironically named magazine of the Libertarians) and the online version of National Review, where it was named the Outrage Du Jour, under the headline: “‘The Ethicist’ Better Termed ‘The Marxist.'” I may have earned this encomium by suggesting that public education was worthwhile, or perhaps by favoring breathable air. Or air. (Admissions requirements for Marxism have apparently been lowered precipitately, like some kind of ideological grade inflation.)

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I should not have been startled by the virulence of these attacks. A column about ethics necessarily embodies the values of its author; if mine were in accord with any of those papers, I’d be due for some serious soul-searching (or some sort of neurological procedure). And yet, there was something particularly vituperative about these screeds, as if they objected not to how I approached any particular ethical question but that by writing about ethics at all I’d poached on a preserve of the right. This is not entirely farfetched. Febrile moralizing–tut-tutting about song lyrics or frowning at the possibility that somebody, somewhere is enjoying a moment of sexual happiness–is more aptly associated with Republicans than Democrats (at least Democrats who aren’t Joseph Lieberman). Thus the question for me became: Is ethics simply politics in disguise? And if so, whose politics?

Indeed, the difference between ethics and politics seems to me artificial, if there is a significant difference at all. Sometimes the distinction is a matter of scale. If one guy robs you, it’s ethics, but when 435 people rob you, it’s politics–or the House of Representatives is in session. But surely the deliberations of that body are subject to ethical analysis. What’s more, politics can be a necessary expression of ethics. Often the only way to achieve an individual ethical goal is through group endeavor–i.e., politics.

Some political questions are not essentially ethical but a matter of two competing interests, each with a morally legitimate claim. For instance, that cowboy movie classic: Should the land be used by the cattle herders or the sheep herders? There is a kind of partisan politics that an ethicist should eschew, no matter his personal feelings about cows. However, it is his job to point out that the land belongs to the Navajo, and both the cattle and sheep herders should get permission before any grazing takes place. That is where what some call politics is quite properly a subject for ethical scrutiny. An ethics that eschewed such nominally political questions would not be ethics at all, but mere rule-following. It would be the ethics of the slave dealer, advocating that one always be honest about a slave’s health and always pay bills promptly. But surely any ethics worth discussing must condemn the slave trade absolutely, not quibble about its business practices.

It’s also true that there is an ideological component in any discussion of ethics. In “Responsibility,” the third chapter of The Book of Virtues, perhaps the bestselling book of ethics of the past several decades, William Bennett reveals his ideology as he explicates The Three Little Kittens:

“Children should learn early the practical lesson that responsibility leads to reward, which leads to further responsibility. We must keep track of our mittens if we expect pie, and then we must wash them if we expect ever to have any more dessert.”

By “practical” Bennett seems to mean “profitable”–not so much honorable behavior as behavior that will get those kittens what they want, and by dint of their own kittenish efforts. It is a curious notion of “virtue,” although any kitten raised according to the stern precepts of this book would make an excellent employee. If I ran a mitten-laundry, I’d hire that kitten. Both The Book of Virtues and “The Ethicist” find moral implications in brief stories: the latter in the actual accounts of their ethical problems readers send me, the former in the diverse tales Bennett has anthologized. Both apply to these particular examples general rules of conduct, and both reflect the very different values of their authors. In Bennett’s case, the values are Victorian and the tone is cranky nostalgia. In just the first few pages, he mentions “time-honored tasks,” material that schools, homes and churches “once taught” and that “many no longer do.” He wistfully invokes “a time–not so long ago.”

As Bennett notes, there are various lessons to be drawn from any story, and it is interesting to see which ones he emphasizes. For instance, to him John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man, is a story of courage and pride. But while it would have gladdened the heart of, say, Andrew Carnegie, if each of his employees saw it that way–choosing in the face of dreadful working conditions not to petition for improvements, but to work harder, even to work themselves to death–the United Mine Workers might read this story differently. But then, Bennett’s heart is with the boss, not the worker (unless the worker is working himself to death); with the general, not the troops.

Bennett has a fondness for the doomed hero–John Henry dead on the tracks, Scott (and all his men) dead in the Antarctic–as the personification of virtue. But there is another kind of virtue that lies not in extraordinary actions, not in saving poor orphans from burning buildings, but in steadfastly working for a world where orphans are not poor and buildings comply with decent fire codes. The Book of Virtues‘ hero is Horatio at the Bridge; The Ethicist’s is Horatio at the Office Filling Out His Time Sheets Honestly Even When His Supervisor Is Not Around.

Citing only ten virtues, Bennett still finds room for Loyalty, that quality so prized by dog fanciers and Richard Nixon. And while Bennett mentions that one can be loyal not just to a person but to an ideal, his stories tend to celebrate personal loyalty–Castor and Pollux, Penelope and Odysseus, the Little Hit Man That Could Have (But Did Not) Rat Out His Capo (I may be misremembering that last one). And if loyalties occasionally clash, he is sanguine about how easily such conflicts can be resolved: “The times when one cannot stand both ‘for God and for country’ are rare indeed.” This curious assertion would startle those Americans who opposed the Vietnam War, or the abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, or those fighting for women’s suffrage in the early twentieth.

Of course, the virtues Bennett wishes to instill in the young are fine things. We all honor work and honesty, compassion and friendship. However, we do not all see virtue as an accretion of cowboy qualities, practiced by solitary and disconnected figures. For me, virtue resides in how we behave among others; it is a quality not just of individuals but of the societies they create. The Book of Virtues is the champion of individual rectitude. “The Ethicist” sees honorable behavior reflected in, affected by and helping to bring about an honorable society. It is in this distinction that we see the difference between an ethics of the right and an ethics of the left.

One function of a column like “The Ethicist” is to make visible those ethical and ideological assumptions–left or right–that underpin our individual decisions and the workings of the society in which we live. It would of course be impossible to pause and question the propriety of each of our actions. Such constant analysis would be immobilizing, or at least so time-consuming that we’d never get out of the house, stuck by the closet door as we pondered the acceptability of leather shoes. Rather than subject every decision of daily life to moral scrutiny, most of us act as our culture directs, behaving no better and no worse than our neighbors. In his profound and moving book The Face of Battle, the British military historian John Keegan considers the question of why, when faced with the horror and suffering of combat, most soldiers don’t simply run away. He concludes that they are motivated not by high ideals of patriotism, not by ideology, not by anything one would identify as ethics. Keegan sees these soldiers standing fast so as not to be the least worthy among those assembled. And by that he does not mean the entire army, but those few men nearby. Keegan suggests that even under the most extreme and appalling conditions, most of us will behave about as well as our neighbors.

Something similar has been observed in the early careers of police officers. If a rookie cop is assigned to a corrupt station house, he stands a good chance of being corrupted himself. Put the same young officer in a clean station, and there’s a very good chance he’ll turn out to be an honest cop. His or her personal ethics hardly come into it.

This is not to depreciate individual virtue, but we are unlikely to understand any behavior if it is seen only as a matter of individual moral choice detached from its social context. And we are unlikely to increase honorable behavior significantly if we rely only on individual rectitude. There is a kind of ecology of ethics. No matter how much you hector them, most Spartans will act like Spartans; most Athenians will act like Athenians.

Just as individual ethics can be understood only in relation to the society within which it is practiced, it is also true that individual ethical behavior is far likelier to flourish within a just society. It might be argued that to lead an ethical life one must work to build a just society. That is, if most of us will behave about as well as our neighbors, it is incumbent on us to create a decent neighborhood. Every community is dynamic–Sparta or the precinct house. We not only live in it, but by our actions we create it. And as important, our community exists not only in the world but in our minds. It forms our values even as we shape its structures.

Sadly, the very idea of community life is increasingly out of favor, superseded by the values of the marketplace–privatized. The idea of civic life is generous, encouraging you to see yourself as living among other people, and to identify yourself as one of those others, with common purposes and problems. The marketplace is where interests clash–the buyer’s low price is the seller’s lost profit. Privatization is a world of antagonists at worst, of autonomous, isolated figures at best. But in an age where all of our lives are interconnected–in our economy, our infrastructure, even in our health–this notion of the lone cowboy is a fantasy, and generally a self-serving one for the buckaroo who owns the ranch.

Civic life–the sphere of an ethics of the left–is a public park, paid for by all of us, enjoyed by all of us. Its ethical necessities demand that we act in ways that make other people’s well-being a part of its use. Private life–where right-wing ethics prevail–is a walled pool in your backyard. You need consider no one else, you need compassion for no one else. You can fill it with piranha if you like. (If you can delude yourself that the piranha didn’t arrive on a public road, brought by a piranha handler educated in public schools, just recovering from a nasty piranha bite thanks to an antibiotic created in a lab with a government grant.) And if there’s some kind of mishap with your chlorine that wafts clouds of gas toward the school down the road, well, that’s hard luck for the fourth graders whose parents lacked the foresight to buy them gas masks.

And so it is very much a matter of ethics what laws you pass, what schools you create, what sort of highways you do not build on which to not drive your SUV. It is by declining to see ethics only as a matter of individual rectitude that we reject an ethics of the right; it is by identifying ethics with civic virtue, by considering the ways in which people’s lives are intertwined in the broadest possible way, that we create an ethics of the left.

When the column had been running for a couple of years, I received a call from Colin Robinson, then the head of Verso books, suggesting a project that would, in his words, “reclaim ethics for the left.” I thought it a fine idea for a book I’d want to read but not one I was eager to write. The book I did write, The Good, the Bad & the Difference, was intended to be something else altogether. And yet, the further along I got with it, and the more I reconsidered past columns, the more apparent it became that my approach to ethics, like anyone else’s, necessarily embodied my politics. I hope that this book does indeed stake the claim he proposed, and that it will be furiously lambasted by four papers in particular.

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