Conscience Abandoned; Morality Betrayed

By Harry DeRienzo

This third week in July marks the 10th anniversary of the killing of the two sons and a grandson of Saddam Hussein in Mosul, Iraq.  I recall reading the New York Daily News account of how one of our soldiers put a bullet through the head of the wounded Uday Hussein just to make sure he was dead.  I remember waiting for some sense of moral outrage, but none followed.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle had nothing but praise for the ongoing invasion; the media followed suit, and the American public, still reeling from the September 11th attacks and wanting revenge, gave overwhelming approval to our military actions.  These two men were despicable human beings, but instead of being treated like prisoners of war, they were summarily executed. It was then that I came to believe that we as a nation had lost whatever was left of our collective conscience and common morality.

But this should not come as a surprise. I was naive to expect more from our citizens and our nation’s institutions.  I should have realized that long ago we had shed ourselves of our secular morality, a morality formerly framed by philosophy.

There was a time when philosophy represented the soul of politics.  From Aristotle to John Dewey, philosophy represented the hope and potential for enhanced human development and dignity through the operation of the polis, for the ancient Greeks, or modern society, as so eloquently ascribed by Dewey.

Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community and that every community is established for the sake of some good… the community which has the most authority…is called the city-state or political community. [Aristotle: Politics]

This [democratic] tradition has taught us that attainment of freedom is the goal of political history; that self-government is the inherent right of free men and is that which, when it is achieved, men prize above all else.  Yet as we look at the world we see supposedly free institutions in many countries not so much overthrown as abandoned willingly, apparently with enthusiasm… [Dewey: Freedom and Culture]

Sometime after Dewey, it seemed that we abandoned philosophy as a guidepost for political aspirations, replacing this discipline with more discrete, empirical social sciences.  In other words, we replaced philosophy with the gathering, organization, and dissemination of data.  We controlled for variables through regression analyses, and assessed behaviors and predictable outcomes.  We developed econometric models with innumerable variables and layered formulas.  We rationalized actions through defined and traceable models designed to understand and predict the modalities of human behavior.  Entire industries were created, much to the delight of those dependent upon consumer preferences for profit, and marketing took on whole new dimensions .  In the process, philosophy became to the applied social sciences what Latin became to applied languages.  Philosophy became the dead science.  For a long while we were content to rely on what we saw as the rational application of policies based upon hard, cold facts – reality, if you will.  But facts have no inherent value.  Facts aspire to nothing.

As our models became more sophisticated and out of reach for the average person to understand and fully appreciate, variables became subject to manipulation, with preferred results requiring no more than a minor change in the seemingly interminable chain of data.  And once this slippery slope was entered upon, it was only a matter of time before we graduated to political post-modernism.

Reaching perverse heights during the George W. Bush presidency, it seemed that we no longer needed the Emperor’s Clothes.  Instead, we could prance about naked to the world and announce that what was there for all to see was whatever we determined the viewer should observe.  To paraphrase a senior Bush aide, we are an empire now, and we make our own reality.  And, of course, this position does have an element of truth to it.  But that modicum of truth easily slips into a newer version of reality, that of reality being whatever we say it is. And this is often accomplished by repeating position over and over again until it is accepted as truth.  Thus, we formulate a new reality, similar to former President Clinton never using the word democracy except when joined to “free markets.”  Before too long we begin to accept the proposition that “democracy and free markets” are inextricably linked, such that you cannot have one without the other.

And so, here we are operating in a world as the most powerful nation ever to either grace or deface the globe, without moral framework or guidance.  George W. Bush can invade a country after providing that country with a deadline to “prove” it possesses no weapons of mass destruction, which is like asking a poor person to prove he is broke before agreeing to provide any form of assistance.  Barack Obama has no problems expanding a program of sending drones across international borders into nations we are not war with, with after-the-fact justifications that all those killed were terrorists.  We have clearly obliterated our moral compass.

We need to start working to rebuild a collective, secular conscience and look to lead the world with at least some reasonable framework of humanistic norms and an appreciation for the value of reciprocity.  Some would say that religion should frame this discussion.  But the founders of our nation were correct in calling for a separation of Church and State.  Religion can be uniting, but can be just as divisive, if not more divisive.  Religion has its place, but not in the realm of politics.  Any secular morality must come from a different discipline – a discipline developed in response to our efforts as human beings to build civilization through collective action, mutual aid, and cooperation.

…society between human beings…is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted [J.S.Mill: Utilitarianism]

We need to revive and elevate philosophical discussion back into our political processes and considerations.  Only then will we be able to provide a moral frame of reference with which to judge and guide our actions in a most inclusive and just manner.

Tags: No tags

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *