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Americans confused about ethics


Like the passenger sitting next to you on the airplane, American popular culture eagerly reveals its troubles to us. Just read a column titled “The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine every Sunday.

While it is admirable the nation’s cathedral of newspapers should offer pew space for the discussion of what troubles the modern conscience, its mode and manner reflect, rather than resolve, the nation’s ethical dilemmas.

First of all, who is able to speak as one having authority on ethics? That is a difficult question in many universities, medical centers and in businesses.

An alarming number of ethicists have had little special training for the job. Some are philosophers in an era in which there is little demand for them to teach what they know well.

Others, in specifically religious settings, have sturdy roots in moral theology. In business, ethics sometimes goes hand in hand with private investigators. Others hold the job by default and do the best they can to find their way through unfamiliar territory.

Randy Cohen’s credentials are right out of the American Dream of itself. According to The Wall Street Journal, he is a “veteran television writer” for “David Letterman and Rosie O’Donnell.”

You could not make up, as they say, the ironic triumph of having the ethics of a television culture examined by a writer of lines in the closest thing we have to invisible ink -- late night lists and gags that disappear without a trace by dawn.

Don’t criticize Cohen. His reflections have that bull-session flavor of college students who read their first Russian novels and try to give birth to deep thoughts about the world. All America likes a nice guy.

He is, however, just the barker for the sideshow that ensues when people improvise their decisions because they are cut off from a dynamic moral tradition. In short, it is awkward if not impossible to take and maintain a stand in midair.

Ethically impaired, we fail to distinguish between law, morals and ethics.

Morals are principles that are rooted in and wrested from human experience as the product of a long search and profound reflection on grounding and expressing intuitions about right and wrong, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” embedded in our common human nature.

America’s sense of right and wrong rested on the Judeo-Christian tradition before we emptied it from the tabernacle and replaced it with the sacrament of individual choice.

The law, on the other hand, is not, of itself, either ethical or moral. It is rather that which is “set down” by a competent authority, such as the legislature. Laws are often on the books that are unethical, such as those passed to cover tawdry political donations.

Good law may be in accord with fundamental moral principles but it may also be arbitrary, as in setting speed limits, and it may be immoral, as in Third Reich legislation justifying the Holocaust.

Law does not create basic moral insights. Ideally it gives voice to them but this usually comes only after a long effort to form the principles that enflesh a moral insight, such as the immorality of slavery.

The difficult work is always searching out the arguments that win a change of heart in people. The law, as in our post-Civil War constitutional amendments, catches up only years later with moral conversion.

Ethics are principles of right or good conduct, or a body of principles that codify the ideals and behavioral expectations of certain groups, such as lawyers or physicians. It comes from the Greek ethos, which means “moral custom.” They reflect the ideals and spirit of specific entities and are, therefore, very different from law or morals.

America’s general confusion about these matters is advertised by the Times columnist who sometimes offers answers based on law, sometimes tradition and sometimes a subjective sense of what is right and wrong.

In our own time, can we possibly think that sexual harassment is wrong because it is against the law? Or because it violates professional ethics? Have we ever wondered what happens to people if we violate their intimacy? Or the effect on ourselves if we do? That is the work of moral reflection in the Judeo-Christian tradition that, like prayer in school, has been ruled out of modern life.

This confounding of ethics, morals and law is evident in the belief, held by many Americans, that the Supreme Court authors moral judgments when all it can do is pass on the constitutionality of laws. Legality and morality are by no means synonyms except in a country operating in the relativized space of thin air.

These developments are merely the fulfillment of philosopher Daniel Callahan’s 1996 observation: “If personal morality comes down to nothing more than the exercise of free choice, with no principle available for moral judgment of the quality of those choices, then we will have a ‘moral vacuum.’ ”

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000