Assuming you subscribe to the negative sentiments of our current social and political situation, how would you answer the question: Are our politics unethical? Keep in mind that I’m not asking if our politicians are unethical. Corruption is par for the course and any social or political progress must happen despite it. What I’m asking is: Is the way in which political choices are made unethical? Is the system itself unethical?
Ethics in society as a whole are often confused with whatever ethical position is held by the individual evaluator. To put it another way, even if you feel something is unethical, your society might not. If enough people individually feel a certain way of doing things is unethical, then society changes.
Here, we touch on our responsibility. And given the circumstances, we could argue that our current social/political system is both ethical and unethical.
How and why is it ethical?
Clearly, the system persists because enough of us accept it. Even those of us who do not participate in politics—who shut our eyes and plug our ears—are allowing the current way of things to continue.
Our ethical positions en masse, considered in a very broad sense, set the context for our political system. What and how much can politicians get away with? It depends on how we view our ethical system. Our current system is pluralistic, so it is accepted that groups will assert their interests, jockey for power and influence and compete for resources, legislation, regulation, money, etc.
Here’s an example: Is it unethical for public service unions (such as bus drivers or trash collectors) to strike, even if their actions negatively impact the public?
In our current system, this is considered perfectly ethical. You might not like it, you might be inconvenienced or you might object to unions in general. But it is unlikely that to argue against this on ethical grounds would garner much support. We all understand that this union is a group asserting its interests in society. There may come a time when subverting the interests of the larger group for the interests of a small group is no longer an accepted social ethic. But for now, we reap the benefits and pay the costs.
One fairly hefty cost is the emergence of government as interest group. Our governments have been co-opted by “members” (politicians and bureaucrats) who view the entire apparatus as a tool for their own interest group. A huge portion of the power and wealth of society isn’t enough for them and government becomes their mechanism for competing with other groups for what’s left. The people—who theoretically are the government in a democracy—are viewed as a competing group. Using every tool at their disposal (completely “ethical” given the circumstances) such as a police force, military, legislation, technology, regulation, subterfuge, empty promises, distraction, clout, money and more, governments throw their weight against their own people. You could say something quite similar about large corporations as well, which at this point seem to simply be the business branch of government—or the government is the governing division of the corporate world. It’s difficult to tell at this point.
At any rate, it’s a rather lopsided competition if the public is to continue to play by established ethical rules. If the outrage surrounding the revelations that governments don’t just spy on each other, but their own constituents proves anything, it’s that the people don’t really like this game, which brings me to…
How and why is it not ethical?
Refer to the opening section of this blog. We’re not very happy about the road our society is on. Our view of this way of doing things is changing as we realize that certain interest groups have grown too powerful and most of us are being robbed of our opportunities and liberties as a result.
This is a society maturing. It is a society taking responsibility for its own circumstances. Clearly, leaving our well being up to an interest group (government) with only its own, often sordid interests in mind isn’t going to work out. We are almost to a point where we can say that the overall ethic has changed. Only one barrier remains to be overcome—the idea that this is all that can ever exist.
How do we give it that one, little push?
In one word? Effort. Have a look at Egypt at the moment. It’s obvious that Egyptians don’t want just a symbolic change. They don’t simply want appeasement and more pretty words. They ousted one president, elected another. They didn’t like the way he arrogated power for himself and his own group, so they ousted him as well. They did it with sustained protests, millions of people in the streets and a willingness to take a bit of a beating in the process. We don’t know what will happen next, but one thing seems certain: Egyptians won’t stop until they are satisfied.
If the U.S. and Europe want something beyond symbolic change—which I think they do—we will have to do the same thing. No leaving it up to activists this time. The West will have to absolutely erupt in defiance. It will have to be enough to overpower the inevitable paramilitary pushback. It will have to see through the distraction and appeasement government will throw up. We will have to do no less than literally scare our power structures straight. It won’t be pleasant, but our ethics will demand it.