The Ecphorizer

Whither American Ethics
Harry Raech

Issue #23 (July 1983)



As is apparent to even the casual observer of the passing scene, the ethical standards of a large portion of our population are taking a precipitous drop.

[quoteright'/>Historically, American society has believed that the moral fiber, like the body tissue, requires discipline and exercise in order to develop. In direct contrast to their fathers, the new libertines believe that the fulfillment of desires and the satisfaction of the appetites are the chief goals to be sought in life.

The tragedy is that many of the principles which this avant-garde proposes as liberal rights tend to degrade and even deprave the species. Sexual libertarianism, legalized drugs, freely legalized abortion, disregard of minority or majority rights are all factors which, far from raising the stature and welfare of mankind, tend to rush him into the morass.

Observation of the peculiar trends in court rulings and of the questionable business dealings of increasing numbers of political and other national leaders leads one to conclude that many of our leaders have abdicated ethical leadership in favor of mammon. Alarmingly, the term "square," always thought of as synonymous with honesty and uprightness, now connotes backwardness to the amoral segment of our society.

There is reason to believe that a root of the problem may lie in the historical swings of the ethical pendulum. Subsequent to the Middle Ages with their questionable morality, there followed a monarchal period of restrictions terminated by the industrial revolution. In this period, the ethical pendulum swung full from libertine to puritan.

It is unfortunate that the current leftward swing of the ethical pendulum has coincided with a peculiar attitude toward law starting in the mid-forties. It is possible that the Nuremberg trials triggered the real beginning of this movement. The need for control of obviously evil forces notwithstanding, Nuremberg is the outstanding example in modern times of the philosophy of inventive legalism, a trend which has influenced the philosophy of the courts in late years. This dangerous precept, affirming the rights of courts to create law, has no basis in precedent, and entirely upsets the foundation of western law. Historically, western law has based its authority on established proven systems and judgments. Men have been judged according to fixed laws - the Roman system - or the English system of fixed law modified by carefully reasoned departures from the past judgments. Never have men been judged (until recently) according to laws not existing as statutes at the time of the "crime."

It was the Nuremberg trial which gave the odor of morality to the concept of ex post facto law - that that which is right at a given time may be adjudged wrong at a later time, and that individuals may be punished for acts perfectly legal at the time they were performed. It follows from this, of course, that the reverse must also be true and that that which is wrong today may - ex post facto - be declared right tomorrow, and innocence declared! We are actually now seeing just such conclusions acted into law.

It was also the Nuremberg trial which gave support to the philosophy that the conclusions of the individual conscience outweigh both contemporary ethics and existing law. This sweeping and deceptively simple assertion has long been rejected by philosophical scholars. Of what value, for example, can be the conscience of a Nero or a Hitler? Yet we can be certain that these men felt they possessed worthy consciences. As John Ruskin put it, "Follow your conscience, but first be certain that it is not the conscience of an ass." Some of the great blunders of history have been made by "conscientious" men. Since conscience and conscience alone is to be the guide, then clearly the name of the game is to enjoy a dulled conscience.

Yet it must be apparent that any society that allows itself to be lulled into the trap of moral turpitude is heading for the abyss. No society based on satiety has managed to survive for long. Recall Babylon, or Rome, or Louis XIV!

If an examination is made of those cultures which have enjoyed pride, honor, vigor and wealth, it will be found that they were those that depended on authoritarian ethics - frequently religious codes. Ancient Judah with its Mosaic law, Athens with its distinguished constitution, China with its Taoism and Confucianism, all enjoyed centuries of stability combined with nobility and strength. Each fell when it abandoned those precepts. It is difficult to gainsay that authoritarian ethics - the conformance to established and proven codes - has provided the greatest force for sustaining a proud culture and a successful and happy people. Perhaps Immanuel Kant in his categorical imperative described the basic premise most clearly and succinctly when he said "Act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always as an end, never as a means."

Is it not peculiar that man, whose professed goal is to find happiness, finds it so difficult to understand that he cannot find happiness by bringing unhappiness to his fellow man. That he can so think is a perversion of his mental powers. Happiness can only occur as a "fallout" in one's effort to help one's fellow man. It can never be acquired by direct assault. The pursuit of pleasure by itself leads to its own defeat.

Jane Taylor expressed the problem well when she said:

Though non a thinking being is defined,
Few use the grand prerogative of mind:
How few think justly of the thinking few!
How many never think, who think they do! 

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Harry Raech




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