By Donella Meadows
–November 7, 1996–
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when an election is over. This year my sigh is more heartfelt than usual. While one presidential contender was ranting about “character” and the other was studiously ignoring the subject, I was teaching an ethics course. The daily contradiction between real ethics and the rhetoric of the politicians was hard to take — especially when I watched the faces of my students.
An ethics class is not a pulpit. I don’t tell the students how to behave; rather I encourage them to discover their own sense of what is right. I present difficult cases of both public and private policy and ask, What would be the moral choice here? Suppose someone wanted to do the right thing? What would that be?
The students find this a weird question. Only twenty years old, they’re already more comfortable asking, what would be the expedient decision here? What is economic? What is politically feasible? What can you get away with? But something in them also appreciates the quest for morality, and they search eagerly for moral answers.
Religious precepts and ethical theories can help, I tell them. They all rest on the simplest of principles: everyone is entitled to equal treatment, equal dignity, respect, compassion. Whether you phrase your guiding principle as “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or “do only that which you could recommend that everyone do,” the point is, you don’t get to be an exception. You don’t want to be stolen from, so don’t steal. You don’t want to be hurt, so don’t hurt others. You might want to drive 100 miles per hour or park in a handicapped parking space or cheat on your exam, but if you don’t want everyone to do that, then you shouldn’t.
Students have no trouble deducing specifics from the general law. You don’t want your spouse to commit adultery, and if everyone did, the whole idea of marriage and family would fall apart. So adultery is wrong. You don’t want to work all day for a wage that doesn’t support you and your family. So it’s wrong to pay such a wage to someone else.
Already we’re in trouble with the politicians. The one who fought against raising the minimum wage accuses the one who committed adultery of having a character problem. My students furrow their brows. What does “character” mean?
It means, I think, that one is committed to moral behavior, even in thorny ethical territory. Should we treat future generations with the same respect as present ones? Does compassion extend to beef cattle or redwood trees? What if you have to perpetrate a small bad in order to achieve a large good? Questions like these can keep an ethics course going for a long time — and a person of character praying for guidance.
That’s why humility follows naturally from a commitment to ethics, and hypocrisy doesn’t. If you have torn apart a family, you don’t accuse others of lacking “family values.” If you have taken money from unseemly sources, you admit that and repent and make amends and stop that behavior before you rip into others for doing the same.
When the pundits try to explain why fewer than half the eligible voters bother to cast a ballot, they rarely suggest moral disgust. Maybe pundits don’t think the public has much moral sense. Political handlers clearly don’t think so.
I think they’re wrong. I think the lack of voting, the flip-flops from one party to another, the low political enthusiasm, stem from thoroughgoing ethical revulsion. The public concept of morality may be as rough and ready as that of my students, but it is bang-on accurate. We know we’re watching pots and kettles calling each other black. Some of our leaders do manage to hang onto shreds of their character, but the longer they stay and the higher they rise, the more morally battered they get.
Neither presidential candidate was willing to question the accumulation of massive deadly force at enormous expense to taxpayers for no clear purpose. One of them accused the other of minor infractions in one outpost of the Savings and Loans disaster, but neither acknowledged the role of both parties in the bilking of the public trust in order to enrich a small number of greedy people. While the public was discussing the evidence that government planes were used to smuggle drugs to earn money to fight an unconstitutional war in Central America that destroyed whole villages of innocent people, neither candidate mentioned the issue. (Either high government officials knew about that smuggling, or they didn’t. Which is worse?)
Meanwhile my students struggle to define what is right. Actually, they know. The forests of the earth, they conclude, were not created for the short-term enrichment of large companies. It is not right to walk away from the poor. It’s wrong to take money from the rich and powerful — whether a foreign investment firm, a tobacco company, a weapons maker or a Midwest commodities purveyor — in order to gain power.
The students struggle, not to see what’s right, but to say it out loud, because it seems so irrelevant. They look at what’s right, and they look at what’s done, and — well, you should see their faces.
Twenty years old, and they’re cynics already. We shouldn’t do that to young people.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996