The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
An Ethical Dilemma
by Alex Sweet

Among the many reasons Robin Cook will be missed, his aim of an ethical foreign policy stands out. This was a rare example in recent politics of the correct use of the term 'ethical'. Usually it is misused, in two distinct ways.

The dominant school of thought regards the whole concept of morality as rather dodgy: embarrassing, with religious or at least priggish overtones, and definitely best avoided in politics. What people get up to is their own business: as long as they're not breaking the law, politicians shouldn't stick their noses in. "You can't make sensible policy on the basis of value judgements, because everyone's values are different."

The minority use of the term -- exemplified in weekend newspaper supplements -- is in forms such as 'ethical consumerism' and 'ethical travel'. In this sense, 'ethical' appears to mean a Pooter-ish concern for the most trivial impacts of one's middle-class life. Key traits of this usage are a queasy mixture of guilt and smugness, and a studied refusal to make connections between the personal and the political.

It is easy to see how these two abuses of the concept of ethics re-inforce each other. The first group -- call them the relativists -- gaze in horror at the display of hypocrisy and self-regard put on by the second group, and feel even surer that if that's ethics, they want none of it.

In politics, this desire to avoid making value judgements can have strange consequences, sterilising debate and leaving an odd vacuum. For example, it can lead to a fatalism about the outcomes of market forces, even when the outcomes feel uncomfortable. Worried about spiralling executive pay, or the growing pay gap between lawyers and cleaners? Sorry, but the market has set the pay rates for these services based on their marginal value and their scarcity, and to bring a value judgement that disagreed with the market would be very high-handed. Another example would be extreme multiculturalism -- the belief that the norms of other cultures are not more 'right' or 'wrong' than ours, so we should make special allowance for them.

This dominant form of relativism is based on a mistake between ethics ("what's the right choice to make?") and meta-ethics ("what does 'right' mean?"). Relativism is a meta-ethical theory; and outside of analytical philosophy, nothing could matter less than meta-ethics. (Bernard Williams wrote that "contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing issues at all".) Whereas nothing could matter more than ethics itself. Turning to Wikipedia,

"Metaethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as good, bad, right, and wrong are not subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference. Given the same set of verifiable facts, some societies or individuals will have a fundamental disagreement about what ought to be done based on societal or individiual norms, and these cannot be adjudicated using some independent standard of evaluation, for the latter standard will always be societal or personal and not universal, unlike, for example, the scientific standards for assessing temperature or for determining mathematical truths."

Note that while there may be no universal truth of what is right or wrong, there are individual and societal answers. And if politics is about anything, it's about negotiating, acting on and shifting these social norms, both domestically and internationally. One assumes that nobody would be involved in politics unless they had a view, probably a very strongly held view, of what their country ought to be like -- the biggest value judgement of all.

Value judgements are fine; in fact, they're inescapable, and more dangerous when hidden. Anyone who wants to accept the market's pay rates for various different jobs without remedy by progressive taxation is actually arguing about the boundary where economic efficiency should take precedence over social justice -- a meaty value judgement indeed. Similarly, acceptance of the treatment of Muslim women in whatever country would be a value judgement rather than a neutral stance.

Hats off to Robin Cook, then, for understanding that ethics belongs in politics, and has wider scope than what type of nappies one ought to put one's child in.
posted by Apollo Project @ 2:04 pm  
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.

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