|Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis|
The financial and political events of the past year have given rise to a crisis of ethics. How do we decide our values? In what ways should our economic system change? How can we build a new politics of the common good? Three thinkers present their views in The Guardian.
26th February 2010
20th Fenruary 2010 - Michael Sandel, The Guardian
Today, most of our political arguments revolve around welfare and freedom – increasing economic output and respecting people's rights. But a just society requires something more: reasoning together about the meaning of the good life. Whether we're arguing about financial bailouts and bankers' bonuses, or the growing gap between rich and poor, or how to contend with the environmental costs of economic growth, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of civic virtue and the common good.
In 2008, Barack Obama tapped Americans' hunger for a public life of larger purpose and articulated a politics of moral and spiritual aspiration. During the first year of his presidency, however, he has found it difficult to translate this politics of aspiration into governance. So, as frustration with politics builds on both sides of the Atlantic, it is worth asking what a new politics of the common good might look like. Here are four possible themes:
Citizenship, sacrifice and service: If a just society requires a strong sense of community, it must find a way to cultivate in citizens a dedication to the common good. It can't be indifferent to the attitudes and dispositions that citizens bring to public life. It must find a way to challenge purely privatised notions of the good life, and cultivate civic virtue. Traditionally, schools have been sites of civic education. In some generations, the military has been another. I'm referring not to the explicit teaching of civic virtue, but to the practical, often inadvertent civic education that takes place when young people from different economic classes and ethnic communities come together. It is a serious question – how can a democratic society that is cosmopolitan and disparate hope to cultivate the solidarity and sense of mutual responsibility that a just society requires?
The moral limits of markets: One of the most striking tendencies of our time is the expansion of markets and market-orientated reasoning into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms. Consider the outsourcing of war to private contractors; the rise of commercial surrogate pregnancy; the growing use of market incentives to motivate students and teachers; the advent of for-profit prisons. These questions are not only about utility and consent. They are also about the right ways of valuing key social practices – military service, child-bearing, teaching and learning, criminal punishment, and so on. As marketising social practices may corrupt or degrade the norms that define them, we need to ask what non-market norms we want to protect from market intrusion. We need public debate about the moral limits of markets.
Inequality, solidarity, civic virtue: In many countries, the gap between rich and poor is growing, reaching levels not seen for many decades. Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires. As inequality deepens, rich and poor live increasingly separate lives. The affluent send their children to successful schools, leaving other schools to the children of families who have no alternative. Private health clubs replace municipal recreation centres and swimming pools. A second or third car removes the need to rely on public transport. And so on. The affluent secede from public places and services, leaving them to those who can't afford anything else.
This has two bad effects – one fiscal, the other civic. First, public services deteriorate, as those who no longer use those services become less willing to support them with taxes. Second, communal spaces cease to be places where citizens from different walks of life encounter one another. The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends. So, inequality can be corrosive to civic virtue. A politics of the common good would take as one of its primary goals the reconstruction of the infrastructure of civic life.
A politics of moral engagement: Some argue that politics and law should not become entangled in moral and religious disputes, for such entanglement opens the way to coercion and intolerance. This is a legitimate worry. Citizens of pluralist societies do disagree about morality and religion. Even if it's not possible for government to be neutral on these disagreements, is it nonetheless possible to conduct our politics on the basis of mutual respect?
The answer, I think, is yes. But we need a more robust and engaged civic life. In recent decades, we've come to assume that respecting our fellow citizens' moral convictions means ignoring them, or conducting our public life without reference to them. But this stance of avoidance can make for a spurious respect. Often, it means suppressing moral disagreement rather than actually avoiding it. This can provoke backlash and resentment.
Rather than avoid the various convictions that our fellow citizens bring to public life, we should attend to them more directly – sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening to and learning from them. There is no guarantee that public deliberation about hard moral questions will lead to agreement – or even to appreciation for the moral and religious views of others. It's always possible that learning more will lead us to like them less. But we cannot know until we try.
*This essay is adapted from Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?
Human beings begin their lives in a state of dependence. They need to learn how to speak, to trust, to negotiate a world that isn't always friendly, and involves unavoidable limitations. They need an environment secure enough for them to take the necessary risks of learning – where they know there are some relationships that don't depend on getting things right, but are unconditional. The family is the indispensable foundation for all this.
We are also beings who take in more than we can easily process from the world around us; we know more than we realise, and that helps us to become self-questioning persons who are always aware things could be different. We learn this as children through fantasy and play, we keep it alive as adults through all sorts of "unproductive" activity, from sport to poetry. It is the extra things that make us human.
This is closely connected with understanding and sympathy for others. If you live in a world where everything encourages you to struggle for your own individual interest and success, you are encouraged to ignore the reality of other points of view – ultimately, to ignore the cost, or the pain of others. The result may be a world where people are articulate about their own feelings and pretty illiterate about those of others. An economic climate based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, fed by a distorted version of Darwinism, doesn't build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified box room for paranoiacs.
What is encouraging is how few people seem to want a society composed of people like this. We have, to some extent, looked into the abyss where individualism is concerned and we know that it won't do. This is a moment when every possible agency in civil society needs to reinforce its commitment to a world where thoughtful empathy is a normal aspect of the mature man or woman. And of course without that, there will be no imaginative life, no thinking what might be different.
For myself, the roots of this view are deep in religious vision and commitment. From this viewpoint, the importance of the family isn't a sentimental idealising of domestic life; it is about understanding that you grow in emotional intelligence and maturity because of a reality that is unconditionally faithful. In religious terms the unconditionality of family love is a faint mirror of God's unconditional commitment to be there for us. Similarly, the importance of imaginative life is not a vague belief that we should all have our creative side encouraged but comes out of the notion that the world we live in is rooted in an infinite life, whose dimensions we shall never get hold of. As for the essential character of human mutuality, this connects for me with the Christian belief that if someone else is damaged, frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone's humanity is diminished.
I'm not suggesting that without Christian belief you can't have these commitments. My point is that, now more than ever, we need to be able in the political and economic context to spell out what our commitments are and why, what kind of human character we want to see. Politics left to managers, and economics left to brokers add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos, and threaten the possibilities for full humanity. To resist, we need vision; and whether we are religious or not, we need all the resources available for strengthening and deepening that vision.
It necessitates the cultivation of virtue, a word that is hard for many to take seriously. But it's high time we reclaimed it. We have no other way of talking about the qualities of human behaviour that make us more than reactive and self-protective – courage, foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare, which, under various names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for 2,500 years.
21st February 2010 - Madeleine Bunting
It's year 10's English class in a London comprehensive. Forty kids are debating the purpose of a school. "Teaching social skills," they suggest. Why do you need them? I ask, playing devil's advocate. "To get a job." Is that the only point of having social skills? "Yes, what else is there?" One demurs, hesitant and not entirely sure how to express herself. "No, there's more to life than a job. There's happiness. Social skills are needed to make you happy."
It was a fascinating illustration of how deeply the instrumentalist values of the market have penetrated our everyday thinking when kids talk in this way. "Social skills" is the type of phrase management experts dreamed up to put a market value on a set of human characteristics. Cheerful, punctual, able to co-operate, take instructions: these are all marketable skills. But to many of these kids, equipping them for the labour market was the primary purpose of education. Any idea of it as enriching and deepening their understanding of what it is to be human and lead meaningful, contented adult lives, had been entirely lost to view. The one girl who offered an alternative was just as instrumentalist, only her goal was different: social skills were needed for not a job but for her personal happiness.
These were bright and interested 14-year-olds, but if you ran this argument in any other school, you'd probably get pretty similar responses. The gap that intrigued me was the absence of any notion of being a good person, or of the many values that might not be able to command a market price such as being challenging, courageous, truthful, honest, spontaneous, joyful or even kind, compassionate.
I started with this classroom anecdote because it seems a good way to make concrete an absence. The central premise of the Citizen Ethics supplement published in this paper at the weekend (the full pamphlet can be downloaded on Comment is free) is that we have lost a way of thinking and talking about some very important things. The preoccupation with market efficiency and economic growth has loomed so large that other activities, and other values, have been subordinated to its disciplines. "You can't buck the market," said Margaret Thatcher, and no government has disagreed since. It was the adage that was used to justify soaring pay for the highest earners and stagnant earnings for the low-paid. The market ruled, and questions of injustice, honour or integrity were all secondary or irrelevant.
A poll for the World Economic Forum last month found in 10 G20 countries that two-thirds of respondents attributed the credit crunch and its ensuing economic recession to a crisis of ethics and values. Sir Thomas Legg declared in his final report on MPs' expenses that there had been a failure of ethics. There's a widespread perception that social norms have subtly and gradually shifted towards the centrality of personal self-interest. As long as it's legal, it's legitimate; no further individual judgment is necessary. However much we may have laughed at the Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" line, we can now see how it seeped into powerful institutional cultures such as the City and parliament.
Citizen Ethics was a project to ask nearly four dozen prominent thinkers what this was all about. Did ethics really have a role to play, and had it failed? First, despite plenty of disagreements, on one thing there was a clear consensus: ethics are crucial. They are the underpinning to all political debate; they frame the questions we ask of ourselves and of our political economy and therefore do much to shape the answers we end up with.
They are vital to the civic culture in which both politics and economics are ultimately rooted. So, as Will Hutton will do in his book, Them and Us, out in the autumn, if we really want to understand how some of the incredible myths perpetrated over the last couple of decades have gone unchallenged, we have to go back to some basic arguments of philosophy. What is justice? Who deserves what? What constitutes human flourishing?
Too many of these questions have simply been shelved for too long. Questions of justice and reward were left to the market to resolve; questions of human flourishing were privatised. It was left to everyone to decide their own sequence of pleasurable experiences in life with little acknowledgement of how many of those depend entirely on mutual co-operation. The classic paradigm is sitting in a traffic jam in your 4x4 with its astonishing powers of acceleration rendered useless.
One explanation for this abandonment of the debate is that we lost a language in which to think and argue about ethics. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the vexed legacy of institutional religion and the long shadow it still casts. The promotion of ethical behaviour has been bound up with particular institutions, and as they decline, it leaves a vacuum of authority. Who dares talk on this subject with confidence? It prompts fear that any such discussions are really a Trojan horse for promoting a religious belief. There's a suspicion that words such as "morality" tip us quickly into the kind of instinctive conviction made infamous by Tony Blair in which sincerity is regarded as an adequate substitute for careful reasoning.
Even the language itself is mired in a history of social control; morality and virtue are words that are reluctantly used, since both still convey overtones of intrusive monitoring of (particularly female) sexual behaviour.
But since most of the contributors to this pamphlet express their commitment to ethics without any reference to religious practice, perhaps it is finally possible to move beyond these familiar anxieties and resume a task of ethical reasoning regarded through most of history as essential to being human. This is philosophy as the Greeks understood it – love of the wisdom to lead lives of meaning and fulfilment, not some kind of abstract game with words.
Ethics is a word that derives from two Greek words, ethos for habit and ethikos for character, and it better fits what Citizen Ethics proposes rather than "morality", which comes from the Latin word "mores" for social institutions and customs. This is not about reasserting conventions, a preconceived code, but about reinvigorating a habit, a process of reasoning to the perennial question: what is the right thing to do? We wouldn't claim there is a consensus waiting to be found – on the contrary, our aim is to provoke a noisy debate on what kinds of habits and characters we need to run the good society.
To go back to the lovely kids in the classroom, what is the good society we want to inspire them with – beyond their future roles in the economy as workers and consumers? What habits and character can we offer them as conducive to deeply rewarding lives? If we don't know plenty of possible answers to that question, it's no surprise they don't.
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