Thursday, September 17, 2009

Morals and Ethics, Conservatives and Liberals

Even I can admit that conservatives have a few compelling arguments which they use to varying degrees of effectiveness. I've written before that in a world without prejudice and greed, and far less complex than our current world, I could be a small government supporter. No matter how much I support public welfare programs, government-sponsored health care, and unemployment benefits, I believe fundamentally that a person should do all he or she can to be self-sufficient.

One aspect of modern conservatism that I cannot find compelling in any way, the very one that draws many religious people to the movement, is its overt morality.

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out just why I find morality and politics such a distasteful combination, when separately I place great value on both. I tried to suss it out here and here. I recently came across a little article from a source I am unfamiliar with, but which caused me to think about this subject again. The author tried to explain the difference between morals and ethics:
The difference between ethics and morals can seem somewhat arbitrary to many, but there is a basic, albeit subtle, difference. Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs. This could be national ethics, social ethics, company ethics, professional ethics, or even family ethics. So while a person’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics he or she practices can be other-dependent.
I think the example of the environment illustrates this concept. We don't have a very strong sense of morality when it comes to environmentalism. Most moral codes, religious or otherwise, haven't historically included the individual's relationship with the environment. On an ethical level, we can see that it is in our best interests as a society to protect the environment for our physical and mental health, economically, and scientifically. I think conservatives tend to either ignore or openly fight against environmental issues because it doesn't fit neatly into politics of morality. For liberals, however, environmentalism does fit into our ethic and thus we add it to our politics.

It's probably too simply to say that liberals stress ethics in politics and conservatives stress morality, but I think that is the trend. Liberals stress government action that strengthens the social system directly. We favor universal health care, strong environmental protection, and a progressive tax structure. We look at the overriding social structures and attempt to make improvements on that level. We, perhaps, focus on societal ethics.

Conservatives, perhaps, focus on individual morals. They stress moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality. The focus seems to be on me, the individual, as opposed to us, the collective. If the individual is moral, then the society will be strong. They believe that government should support what they feel is a common morality, or a majority morality.

My problem is that I get my morals from my bishop and prophet, so I don't need it again from my governor and president. When I get my morals at church I am with a group of people that have voluntarily chosen the same beliefs and religious structure. But on a national level there is so much more diversity of thought and belief, that legislating morality seems to regularly fail.

We have much less a choice when it comes to countrymen than we do when it comes to fellow worshipers. So I would rather focus our collective efforts on societal ethics than individual morality and leave the latter to the individual. I get my morals from my religion, you may get yours from your parents, or a philosopher, or MTV, or whatever. As long as you don't harm society, you keep your morals and I'll keep mine. And we'll both keep our ability to influence morals on the personal level, and our ability to influence ethics can take the public forum.

And I don't think you can avoid a moral decay of society by legislating it. Morals are dictated beliefs and values, and you can never force a person to believe or value one thing above another. Ethics, however, are dictated by a sense of community and the collective, and as such can be legislated. If we can show how certain actions affect not just ourselves and our relationship with God, but our community and nation, then we can change the way people act. I can't force a person to believe it is intrinsically wrong to pollute the air and water, but I can show that person the health and economic effects of that action.

I think conservatives try too hard to make people believe something is morally right or wrong and not enough time explaining how certain actions play out on the community and national level. I don't want to believe in politics and a political party, I save that for my religion. When it comes to politics I want rational arguments about ethics, not morality.


Useful Entropy said...

I have been searching for a place to hang my political hat for some time now and this article really spoke to me. I am lds,I live in Utah County, and I feel like between my neighbors and my family I am being preached to as if Beck, Hannity and the gospel of Jesus Christ could all be found in a triple combination. Thanks for your article. I will go back and read the others on this blog.

Anonymous said...

I too am a left-leaning Mormon, and I remember an Elder's Quorum lesson from a few years ago regarding the Church's position on keeping religion and politics in separate (but mutually inclusive) spheres. Lately, I wonder if that lesson has been lost on too many members of the Church, who seem more ready to follow Glenn Beck than the current prophet's direction to be hopeful, positive, and tolerant.

I found the article linked below an extremely useful prism through which to view this issue. Of course, the morality/politics dichotomy is nothing new, but the modern "conservative" movement's insistence on injecting religion into politics (marketed as a political strategy by your best buddy and fellow Utahn, Karl Rove) is hugely puzzling on a number of levels. See what you think of the article.

peter said...

I’m glad you brought this topic up again because I have also been contemplating what has been said before, unsatisfied with the way the subject was left.

“Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs.” In other words, an individual’s character is shaped by what he believes is right, but his individual morals may be subjected to the expectation of the group that he live up to a particular standard or code. How did these standards or codes become the group expectation? How did they become the measure of what is “right” in the group? It seems that the author is saying that ethics are only morals that have been codified or legislated. You explicitly state that this is a problem, “[Conservatives] believe that government should support what they feel is a common morality, or a majority morality.”

The example given by the author of the article you cited was abortion. He stated that abortion is legal and therefore ethical, but a doctor might have a personal moral issue with abortion. The reason that abortion is legal and therefore ethical is that a group of people got together and decided that it was more moral to consider the wishes of the woman (no matter what her previous choices had been) over the life of an unborn child. Logical arguments can be made by either side, but ethics falls on the pro-choice side simply because a small group of people decided that it should be so. (Though the concurring opinion bases its claims on the constitution, the dissenting opinion also presents valid constitutional arguments and therefore cannot be discarded.)

In 1850 slavery was lawful and therefore ethical, but the country was divided on the morality of the issue. Both sides made seemingly logical arguments about the economic and social implications of slavery. Eventually those in power legislated their morality and it therefore became unethical to own slaves. This was definitely a “majority morality.”

peter said...


As for the environmental example, can we really say what is ethical in regards to the environment until the “standards or codes of behavior expected by the group” are laid forth and legislated? Until then isn’t either side of the debate arguing from a “moral” standpoint? Or, are you saying that because the Democrats have a “standard or code of behavior expected by [their] group” in regards to the environment, their stance is ethical and the lack of a “standard or code of behavior” in regards to the environment puts the Republicans on a moral ground?

Are you saying that protecting the environment is not a part of your personal moral code? That you don’t think it is “right” to protect the environment? You claim there are economic benefits to environmental legislation; the opposition also claims economic benefits to opposing environmental legislation. Is it more ethical to subject companies to economic hardship in order to force energy innovation or to provide funds for innovative research in the field of energy technology, knowing that that companies would gladly switch to lower cost, more efficient alternatives? This dilemma is compounded by the fact that alternative energy sources are not up to par at this time. I don’t think, at this point, that ethics lies solely on either side of the current environmental debate.

I think that you are trying to simplify the issue too much. As nice as it would feel to be able to say that liberals are more logical and thoughtful, and therefore ethical and superior, they are guided by their personal morals as much as conservatives are, though their morals are probably less likely to come from religious traditions. Does this make their morals more valid? Conservatives have logical arguments to current political debates, and though I wish that some conservatives would separate religion from politics a little more, this does not invalidate their platform or policies. Morals and religion are not synonymous, so though you can state that religion shouldn’t have a role in politics, leaving morals out would be impossible.


Jacob S. said...

I don't think I'd go as far as to say that anything legal is ethical, and that you check your morals at the door when it comes to ethics. What I would say is that ethics, a sense of what is good or bad for the community/nation as a whole should be our gold standard in politics, as opposed to any individual's morals. Most of the time, I imagine, the two are going to more or less line up.

The homosexuality (or adultery for that matter) issue is another good example. As a religion, Mormons believe that homosexual acts (or adultery) are immoral and we consider them a sin. Practicing and unrepentant homosexuals (or adulterers) will likely be excommunicated. That is our moral stance. As members of a diverse community, however, we can have a differing, but not incompatible, ethical code which says that such acts between consenting adults are legal because we are not going to legislate our individual morals and no one is getting hurt.

Now, I try hard not to write in absolutes, but I do think that conservatives are more likely to legislate morals than liberals. I do simplify the issue because this is a blog, not a masters dissertation, but I want to get the ideas out there anyway. Of course I know that there are many intelligent and thoughtful conservatives. Unfortunately, the voices of the Republican party are now Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh, and I have no respect for them. So when I criticize conservatives for leaning too heavily on the moral side of public policy I am really thinking about them.