Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why Americans Suck at Talking About Ethics

My brilliant colleague, SteveG, has finally gotten himself a blog entitled the Philosopher's Playground. He just posted an excerpt:

In a nation that purports to be a democracy (with the possible exception of Florida), little could be more important than serious, passionate, and rational discussion of ethical issues. Virtually every concern of modern life has an inescapably moral dimension and yet, today, it is more polite to fart at the dinner table and exclaim, “Boy, I’m glad I can’t pass on my gonorrhea that way” than to broach discussion about abortion, cloning, or stem cell research. And it is no wonder. Americans are horrible at discussing difficult moral issues. Most dinner-table discussions will quickly devolve into either high horse moralizing or "who's to say" shoulder shrugging, raised voices, insults, Nazi references, hurt feelings, lingering resentment, and on a good night, flying mashed potatoes. The real issues, the hard and intricate ones, rarely receive anything close to an honest treatment. The trenches are dug, our party affiliation determines with complete accuracy what side we are supposed to be on, and the key is to simply be louder than the other side so we need not hear what they are saying.

Not only are there just two choices about which side of any given moral argument you are to support, but there are also only two ways to engage in ethical discussion. One is to believe that there is an absolute right and absolute wrong and anyone who disagrees with you is not only wrong, but evil. Thus you need never listen to anyone else, only try to convert them while speaking in the most obnoxious, arrogant tone possible. Or you could be a subjectivist and just repeat the phrase "who's to say?" until someone punches you in the mouth. You think that if Stalin really thought that mass murder was ok, then it was ok for Stalin. If we want to engage in discourse about pressing ethical issues today, our choice is between being a dogmatic, holier-than-thou jerk or an anything-goes, relativist buffoon.

This sense of uneasiness is only exacerbated by those who are supposed to represent the apex of public discourse, the popular media. Of course, every moral judgment has political ramifications, so our wonderfully thoughtful media outlets invariably take one of three routes in discussing issues of ethical concern: 1) he said/she said reporting where the legitimate and intricate ethical dimensions of complex issues are minimized and treated as if it were nothing more than mere partisan demagoguery that minimizes the ethical dimensions of the complex issues, 2) nothing more than mere partisan demagoguery that minimizes the intricate ethical dimensions of complex issues replete with handy-dandy talking points to be drilled into your head and repeated, and repeated, and repeated, and repeated,..., or 3) "FOODFIGHT!" (Of course, the third option requires finding a liberal willing to fight and a show willing to present a liberal fighting back and therefore is becoming quite rare).

You really need to go read the rest of this piece here. Steve's writing is the perfect balance between clear philosophical prose and Lenny Bruce-like zingers. And, more importantly, Steve is onto something. I can attest to how demoralizing the politicization of ethics is to a philosophy professor trying to engage students in meaningful conversations about ethics. The last time I tried to get students to talk about prisoner abuses, a young man in the back row raised his hand and merely repeated Karl Rove's line that liberals think that what we should be doing is getting the 9-11 attackers therapy.

I shared a panel with a Communications professor who pointed out that 8 years ago if you asked students to distinguish the Democrats from the Republicans on a variety of issues, they were little capable of it. However, these days, with a coordinated, well-funded, and "on message" right wing media, spreading the gospel of "patriotic correctness" students inhale daily what counts as a liberal position. In this climate, one first figures out what political outlook they identify with--the "mommy or daddy" party--and then get the memo on what ethical stances to take.

Ok, stop reading what I say, go check out Steve.