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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Values: Morals Versus Ethics

I think it is sensible that progressives are re-thinking the place of values in civic life, but it is crucial to remember that not all values are moral values. I am a gay man and I am horrified that rural homophobic moralism mobilized so much of the evangelical base that delivered Bush the popular vote this time around. This does indeed demand some soul-searching and rhetorical strategizing on the left.

But, in my opinion, for progressives to spoof the Republican moralist discourse is to mistake the conditions which give conservative moralism its force, and essentially would replicate in the sphere of values the somewhat disastrous “me-too, just more reasonable” DLC impulse that has nudged American economic discourse to the right to the cost of everyone.

“Morality” derives from mores, the values through which members of particular communities actively identify with one another and dis-identify with “outsiders”. Because social and religious conservatives are in fact an embattled minority in a broadly secular society, they are galvanized by moral language in a way that secular democrats simply cannot ever be. This embattlement gives conservatives organizational advantages -- especially given the institutional quirks of the American system of governance, which empowers sparsely populated, socially conservative, less diverse rural regions over dense diverse secular urban regions. The language of moral value cannot invigorate progressive pluralist politics in the same way.

Progressives should counter conservative moralism with ethics as our own value discourse. The ethical language of values does not derive from parochial identifications, but aspires to universality (or at least representativeness). Progressives should relentlessly flog the need for ethics – concepts of fiscal and environmental responsibility, transparency, accountability, legitimacy, and the like. Progressives should respond to moral appeals by countering with ethical appeals. We should insist on the private and personal nature of moral values and then counter with ethical appeals and ethical critiques.

All this has the advantage of being true, being true to actual progressive perspectives, offering an occasion to go on the offensive rather than trying to accommodate the language and temperament of wrongheaded conservative perspectives and focusing attention on devastating weaknesses in the culture of conservative advocacy as it has constituted itself since Goldwater.

This is not a suggestion that progressives leave value discourse to conservatives while we stick to the pragmatic calculation of shared interests and positive outcomes – it is a suggestion that we recognize that this outcome-language has a ethical value dimension we have hesitated to highlight but on which we must now insist.

And so, for example, when conservatives make a moral appeal to a particular construal of Christianity, progressives absolutely should not affirm their own kinder, gentler Christianity, but fearlessly insist that America is a society with a real diversity of Christian, otherwise religious and secular communities and that it is the job of politics to enable these communities to peacefully co-exist and collaborate with one another to achieve common values. This is not an abdication of value, but an insistence on ethics over morals as the proper focus of responsible politics in diverse societies where different communities all have rights and needs.

Progressives must insist on responsible and accountable conduct from elected and appointed representatives of government. We must relentlessly expose corruption, secrecy, unfairness, short-term irresponsibility in officials beholden to diverse constituencies. These are ethical issues and here democrats are strong. We must not fear to highlight the ethical value-dimension of these struggles, nor should we attempt to re-write these struggles in the image of the moral values of particular communities.

The bankruptcy of the parochial moralism of conservative ideology is nowhere more conspicuous than in their continual refrain that government itself is the problem, that government is better the smaller it is, that the drumbeat of deregulation without end is emancipatory. This is the voice of the hostility of powerful minorities to democratic checks on their authority, and the paranoia of social minorities exposed by democracy to the threateningly alien cultures that surround and seduce them. From an ethical perspective progressives can powerfully critique the impulse that would lead people presumably hostile to government into government. We can rightly point out that those who do not believe in the very idea of good governance cannot then be expected to govern well. Progressives like to point out that so-called “fiscally responsible” conservatives tend to bankrupt the economy, so-called “small government” conservatives tend to preside over swelling governments, and so-called “anti-government” conservatives tend to inspire the worst most corrupt cronyist regimes. Although we tend to frame these points in a straightforward pragmatic “interest” language, there is clearly a powerful ethical but non-moralist dimension in these critiques that progressives should embrace more forcefully.

As a strategic matter, it is simply more powerful and effective for us to insist on the need for ethical governance and to expose the unethical conduct of corrupt conservatives in the inevitable era of corporate and government scandal that is to come, than it would be to offer up weak “me-too” progressive pseudo-moralisms that do not speak to our strengths our sensibilities or the real (urgent!) problems that actually preoccupy us.

Moralism is primarily a private and personal and parochial language for talking about values, while ethics is civic and a better fit for pluralist and democratic temperaments. Even when democrats and progressives win skirmishes in moralist battles, this will often contribute to a larger denigration and cynicism about public service and public servants (eg, another corrupt politician) that plays into the larger project of conservatives to dismantle democratic governance and impose governments that serve very particular communities to the cost of others. The value language of ethics must assume that good legitimate governance is possible and desirable, so that even when we lose particular skirmishes the overall discourse consolidates the general standard that good government is an ideal toward which all are properly striving. It is too late to re-write moralism in the image of civic-mindedness. We must change the terms and momentum and stakes of these debates. We must demand ethical government and protect the moral life of each individual as a personal matter.

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