When did it happen that politics drove a spear into the side of ethics, slaying any concern for the good in favour of a monomaniacal campaign against what is obviously evil – namely, beliefs different from our own?
We live in a time when concern for politics has all but obliterated concern for ethics. It is not, however, that there is no role for moral thinking – on the contrary, a large part of the political battlefield is focussed on morality. Rather, ethics has become a gigantic stick with which people beat those who believe differently from themselves, while apparently prescribing absolutely nothing in respect of the individuals themselves. The positive aspect of ethics – the search for ‘the good life’ has – been replaced by myriad crusades against evil, and the surest judgement people make is that it is certainly others, and not themselves, who represent the evil worth fighting against.
There is, and must be, a connection between ethics and politics. Our moral judgement guides our political support, or at least it could and should. Yet the twentieth century – and even more the twenty first – has seen ethics eclipsed by politics. Political thinking often draws terribly straight lines: this activity (say, nuclear power) is clearly wrong, this activity (say, renewable energy) is clearly right, therefore anyone supporting the former must be a tool of some lobby group and can be ignored. As if this basic situation wasn’t problematic enough, the media is always circling like vultures, looking for the next outbreak of outrage so it can feast on the corpse of some political victim in the never ending quest for sensation and spectacle.
The entrenchment of political camps is the biggest barrier to political progress, and it will take some improvement in ethics to overcome it. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the United States, a nation whose actions have severe consequences for the entire world but whose electorate are embattled against one another. As a young liberal living on the other side of the Atlantic, I could never understand why so many poor rural people would vote for Republicans who seem to do nothing to help them. This was a perspective born of ignorance. I’ve now had many opportunities to speak to Republican supporters in the US, and I can finally see the many other sides of this coin. For instance: why should poor rural people vote for Democrats who will take more money in taxes in order to fund largely ineffective programmes that support underprivileged people living solely in cities?
We live with an atrophied sense of moral perspective – and this is true whichever political camp we choose to examine. Scarcely a day passes when we don’t express our horror at something reported on the news, but how many of us can say that we daily do something positive for our neighbours or our communities? No, we aren’t interested in making life better, alas, not like we were interested in finding the people who are clearly evil and mounting some attempt to destroy them. The only kind of good life that is pursued is the imagined promised land that will purportedly come to be when all the evil people have been blocked, stopped and eliminated. People erroneously assign this impulse to religion; it belongs to humanity.
Perhaps worst of all is our unshakeable belief that we can see these situations better than others. Intellectuals who move confidently in one domain of knowledge gain confidence to pronounce their judgement against those whom they can clearly see are inferior, both mentally and morally – even without ever taking the time to watch, talk or listen to that which they condemn. They do not need to, after all, since they can clearly see the truth, and whatever is not true must be evil. For all the retrospective scorn that is poured upon the impiety of various Christian churches throughout history, the contemporary impulse to wage cultural war because ‘we’ clearly have it right is just as morally repugnant as what has gone before – even if the consequences of opposition have thankfully become far less serious.
Morality begins with care for those around us, but as politics has enslaved ethics our sense of compassion has become corrupted by an imaginative projection of the world in which our own ideals are the only things that can be trusted. Clearly, everyone would be better off if they adopted and supported ‘our’ ideals, hence ‘your’ way of life must be inferior because it does not measure up to ‘my’ standards. This ‘us and them’ attitude is not the problem, though - ‘they’ actually are very different from ‘you’, and this needs to be recognised and accepted. But the nature of this difference is not that ‘you’ are good and ‘they’ are evil – it is that ‘you’ pronounce them ‘evil’ because you think yourself ‘good’. Yet if ‘you’ truly are good, you must prove it by something other than taking offense at alternative ideals.
For all that political conservatives are condemned for their hostility to difference, political liberals have exactly the same failing – it is only the standard of sameness that changes between these camps. Whether condemning homosexuality or condemning homophobia, the important thing is condemnation. The other side doesn’t need to be reasoned with, engaged in its own terms, because the other side is wrong: ‘they’ cannot be convinced because ‘they’ already do not see wisdom and perfection of our own ideals and thus must be inferior. This is politics-as-usual, but it’s a far cry from ethics as the search for the good life. If liberals really wanted to help the gay community, they could start by engaging conservatives from within their view of the world – but this would be hard. It is much easier, and indeed much more viscerally entertaining on the news, to oppose bigotry by becoming a bigot.
If we truly and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, we would begin in our own neighbourhoods by being better people to one another. But we prefer pointing fingers and decrying the horrible situation in other countries – it’s more entertaining, and requires far less of us.
I watch the people walk down the street and grumble as they pass some broken bottle or piece of litter left by someone else. They do not pick it up, and so more people come and have the same negative experience, perhaps clucking their tongues about the youth of the day or the decline of values. If asked, they will say that the person who dropped it should have disposed of it properly. Maybe so, but they didn’t. And now you have the choice to do the same, but you don’t because ‘it’s not your responsibility’. Anyone could pick that litter up with an investment of less time than it takes to sit through a commercial break on television, thus making everyone’s day a little better. But no-one does.
No-one wants to be good, they just want to feel good by being opposed to evil – and everyone is evil who disagrees with you. Thus politics murders ethics, and our response is to tune into the news every day to ensure that the bad people are still out there so that we can feel better about ourselves for knowing that we did not do such terrible things. There are many good people in the world – flawed, no doubt, as we all are – but they remain invisible because we no longer care about the good, we only care about fighting evil. The simplest things – a smile, a helping hand, a friendly hello – can make a difference in a way that politics never can. Until we rediscover an ethics of the good, we are condemned to the politics of evil.