Politics & Policy

A Return to Virtue

Farewell to "The Ethicist."

Dear Obscure Conservative Legal Guy:

I’m a professional ethicist with an ethical problem. I want to donate money to a goofy leftist wingnut outfit, but it turns out that my employer (a popular liberal periodical that sometimes runs straight news pieces) has some silly ethics rules that prevent me from doing so. Since these ethics rules are plainly dumb, should I just ignore them and do what’s right? I’d ask an ethicist but I don’t know any good ones.

Randy in Manhattan

Dear Randy:

Nincompoops talk ethics. Men talk virtues. Stop being a nincompoop.

My highest law-school grade was in Legal Ethics. I achieved a stellar grade because I devised an infallible mechanism for solving any legal ethical dilemma. My mechanism was this: Remember that legal ethics is a system of rules:

1) designed by sociopaths;

2) for sociopaths;

3) to prevent public acknowledgment of their sociopathy;

4) while still allowing said sociopaths to fleece said public.

Once you realize that contemporary ethics is not morality but the clever simulation of morality, you’re halfway to qualifying for an ethics-consulting job.

I’m only kidding a little about the sociopathy. By definition, a sociopath is one who can only emulate the rules and mores of society, as a sociopath never internalizes any sense of right and wrong. In a country where fewer and fewer people agree about how to determine right and wrong, the bogus pseudo-answers of ethics begin to sound more and more appealing. Put another way: As we grow more sociopathic as a society, ethics makes more and more sense.

And that’s where you come in, my fine ethical friend. Your job as a public ethicist is not to teach people how best to apply the rules and obligations of a transcendent authority, as the ethicists of old once did. That would be hard. And intrusive. And divisive. And let’s face it: “transcendent authority” carries the whiff of the red state, with all the unpleasantness (NASCAR, Wal-Mart, redundant children) there attached. Neither is your job to teach philosophy. That, too, would be hard, and unsatisfying as well; when do philosophers ever agree? No, your job is to provide just enough soothing advice to scratch that fleeting itch that your affluent readership feels when confronted with moral questions that vacuous self-serving upper class prejudices can’t immediately resolve. Forget right and wrong; the role of the modern ethicist is to move puzzled smart people from a state of mild dismay to a pleasant coma of satisfied smugness in the shortest time possible. You seek to avoid not sin, but the appearance of impropriety. But a great many virtues can appear quite improper, and a great many sins can appear quite proper indeed.

Consider, for example, the “ethical” rule that precludes journalists (and quasi-journalists like yourself) from donating money to politicians and overt shill machines. You’ve correctly deduced that this rule is asinine. Suppose for a moment that you obeyed it. Would you feel any differently, write any differently, be biased against conservatives any differently if you kept your $585.00 instead of donating it? And would you suddenly evolve into a better, purer, more ethically unstoppable self if you gave that money to The Medusa Fund for Underprivileged Maoists in Malibu, instead of Kucinich for President? No, this rule does nothing to prevent bias. It rewards those sneaky enough to donate anonymously, or through a proxy, even as it penalizes those who make their political biases a matter of public record. Note that my infallible ethics problem-solving mechanism predicts this rule perfectly:

1) It’s easily implemented, so that even a sociopath can enforce it;

2) It’s easy to obey, so that even a sociopath can abide by it;

3) It gives the public the entirely false sense that journalists who abide by this rule are honorable and unbiased; and

4) It doesn’t prevent any journalist with even a lick of cleverness from secretly donating money to politicians and then copping a “fairer than thou” attitude from an unassailable position of serene non-involvement.

Modern ethics is what’s left when trust has completely evaporated between leaders and the led. Whether it’s zero-tolerance school-violence policies that get kids arrested for drawing pictures of guns, draconian anti-pedophile policies that get priests bounced on the strength of an accusation, mandatory sentencing laws that put potheads in the slammer for life, or anti-touching school policies that outlaw hugs, the theme is the same: authority doesn’t trust you, you don’t trust authority, so let’s invent some rules that make no sense but sound good while eliminating any possibility that human discretion or common sense can penetrate our ethical paradise. To badly mangle Eliot, modern ethics is a system of morality so universally applicable that no one needs to be good. Was ever a compliment more damning than “He’s an extraordinarily ethical fellow?” Don’t leave your wallet or your wife around extraordinarily ethical fellows.

A real system for determining right and wrong requires commonly held first principles and leadership with the acknowledged authority to interpret and apply those principles. That kind of agreement is in short supply these days. In modern societies where people adhering to all sorts of creeds regularly interact in order to make money, principles and dogma will tend to take a backseat to rough ‘n ready codes of conduct – and modern ethics is nothing if not rough ‘n ready. Morality is for heroes; modern ethics is for sophisters, economists, and calculators. We tolerate modern ethics, as we tolerate sophisters, but they should both know their place, and neither should command great love or respect.

So ignore the rules, Randy, and donate away. Of course, your donation will expose you as an appalling hypocrite, and you may lose your job consequently. That’s okay. Your job is stupid. Why not write a column calling men to heroic virtue instead of cocktail-party pleasantries? With your tremendous experience as a comedy writer for Rosie O’Donnell, you’re pretty well qualified for either gig.

Ethically yours,

The Obscure Conservative Legal Guy


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