Sunday, February 27, 2011

What If Ethics Is Antithetical to the American Ethos?


The financial crisis and the Deep Horizon oil spill have revealed once again an all-too-familiar pattern in American business and government.  Business takes risks without regard for the potential negative impact on the public, and government regulators who are supposed to police such activity choose instead to give business a free pass to do pretty much as they choose.

These two habitual behaviors in tandem pose grave risks to the common good on a daily basis.  And so, there was much talk again about cleaning house in government agencies and promulgating new regulations.  And some minor progress was achieved.

But it seems to me that all this talk misses an important point … the proverbial elephant in the room … these problems at their core reflect a lack of ethics in American business and government.   Which raises the question, what role does ethics play in the American ethos?  By ethics here I mean a system of moral principles, the values relating to human conduct by which the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions are judged.

The American ethos has been defined in various ways … all related.   It is said to have capitalism and democracy at its core; it is said to be competitive; it is said to be a land of opportunity for all.  None of these implies or even necessarily encourages ethical behavior.

Interestingly, these definitions of the American ethos while in part related to our founding documents are quite different in their perspective.  For example, it is quite different to say that, “all men are created equal” as opposed to “equal opportunity for all.”  The latter means that anyone should be able to get ahead in life.  That is more a statement of the grounds of competition than the ethical statement that, “all men are created equal.”  The contention of many on the right that we are a religious country is also totally absent from these definitions of our ethos.

If we look at American politics, from the very beginning, politics has been rife with dirty tricks.  Even founding stalwarts Jefferson and Adams resorted to underhanded tactics in their battles against each other.

Then there are the ethical questions raised by a country founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and yet slavery was accepted and women did not have the right to vote.  Yes, these conditions existed elsewhere at the time, but nowhere else was a country founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  The ethical conflict cannot be denied. 

The Founding Fathers, however, were ultimately pragmatic souls who did what was necessary to achieve the birth of the new country.  It would take the Civil War to free the slaves, but their status in the South was not much improved until the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement.  Women did not get the right to vote until 1920.

During the expansion of the new country and the early stages of the industrial revolution, the government’s embrace of the capitalist system left business enterprise more or less free of any government oversight.   And as they became larger, corporations lost community contact; they became impersonal anonymous enterprises that were concerned only about acquiring wealth and power.  The result was a rapacious system in which the powerful exploited the weak … owners exploited workers, powerful companies devoured weaker ones.  The concept of ethical behavior was absent.

But by the dawn of the 20th Century, progressive ideas founded on the words of the Declaration of  Independence began to take hold in government.  As a result, a series of laws were passed that both limited the power of business and provided a structure that gave workers the power to negotiate with employers.  Thus ethical behavior was imposed on the capitalist system by government.  During the Depression, more laws were passed that both regulated business and provided a safety net for the poor and the elderly.

America was looking more and more like an ethical society.    But that was mostly an illusion.  Where government or the courts did not impose ethics that conformed to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the people, business, and government, especially at the local level, continued to exhibit a lack of ethical standards.   The business world was all about competition and getting away with what one could.  Local government corruption was commonplace.  In the larger society, prejudice and discrimination was prevalent, not just against blacks and women, but against Jews as well.

From this historical perspective, ethics was never part of the American ethos.   To the extent it broadly existed, it was because it was imposed from above, not because it was part of the very fiber of the people. 

But at some point after WWII, it seemed to become more expected for business, people, and government to act ethically.  We were now the leader of the free world and we needed to act like the leader.  Especially at the level of national politics, decorum and courtesy went beyond a formality and was genuinely part of an ethical culture.

Then came the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Suddenly, the ethical fa├žade began to crack.
And Richard Nixon opened the window for an unethical operative like Lee Atwater to begin his rise in Republican politics. 

Almost single-handedly Atwater brought about the nasty, unethical, political culture we have today … at least on the part of Republicans … where the only thing that matters is winning.  Where business, freed of regulation whether formally or through malfeasance of the regulators, has acted as one would expect, having little concern for the public impact of their actions and only concerned with making money.  And where the famous “me” generation of Ronald Reagan has lost a feeling of responsibility for their fellow man. A cynicism about government and authority arose among the people.

America thus seen has merely reverted to its underlying ethos, free of the constraints of a progressive mindset that had brought order to the unruly world of capitalist democracy.  But if we wish to be a great nation, be true to our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and do justice to all of the people, then the progressive moment in our history must be restored among Republicans and Democrats alike.