Thursday, February 17, 2011

Morality-Public and Personal

What is moral? How do we define morality? If these questions make you uncomfortable, or if you’ve never really asked them, we may have an answer about our leaders in this nation. To understand and accept morality as a guiding element is the first step toward moral behavior. If one does not accept the necessity for morality, one cannot be expected to act morally, and if one does not understand the concept of moral behavior, moral life choices become coincidental or accidental. Philosophers and ethicists have grappled with definitions of morality for centuries. Shakespeare, perhaps the most celebrated of all Western writers, seemed to address the issue of an internal moral compass by penning (or quilling) the line, “to thine own self be true,” for Polonius in Hamlet. It seems to me that the first step toward questionable morality is self deception. If one is not honest about one’s motives or justifications, then the purposes of one’s actions will be distorted…divorced from reality. Okay, so how does this little preamble fit into today’s political climate? I’m glad you asked.
The impulse to run for public office seems driven by two primary motivations: self-aggrandizement and the desire to serve. Vanity in politics is as common as hair on a dog, and the politicians’ claims to be wholly dedicated to serving humanity are equally typical. At first glance the two motives would appear to be somewhat contradictory. How can a person serve him/herself and profess to sacrifice for others? I suspect, however, that the motives do not conflict. True morality is rare, but as a goal would require that our actions be noble and good. When we witness public morality, we applaud evidence of goodness and nobility. The self-deceptive aspect for politicians (and entertainers) is that they wrongly identify their desires for acclaim as a public recognition for acting morally. In other words they have calculated that their morally based actions justify their receiving praise and devotion. Their attitudes toward morality and acclaim are similar to an infant who utters a word or a toddler who uses the potty. They believe that they have earned our praises for doing what is right. Clearly, politicians and entertainers are infantile. True morality is expressed when we do what is right no matter the size of the audience, if any, or the desires of the mob. True morality is courageous and not self-conscious. It is self-effacing and extremely rare.
True morality is absolutely vital in a republic. Public morality (or imposed morality if you prefer) is the currency of a democracy. In the republic the representative must fulfill the public trust by doing what is good and what is right. She/he must be guided by moral and ethical principles while navigating the waters. In a democratic system the elected official or appointee is not necessarily influenced by absolute principles but is responsive to the citizens’ demands and whims….even if they are amoral, immoral or moral. If the politician yields to the clamoring crowd that lacks an introspective moral compass, the people will celebrate the politician’s actions. All parties will succumb to the notion that the politician’s behavior is principled and moral because he reflects the will of the citizens…the shallow-thinking, amoral public. The public construct of morality has usurped the notion of true morality. So, the self-aggrandizing vain public “servant” feels justified and moral because he/she does the people’s will, and, in turn, basks in the people’s praise. Meanwhile the republic drifts toward insignificance. The moral dream becomes a paragraph in future histories. The people and the politicians become joyful as they return to wearing skins and living in caves.

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