Column on Morality, the Professions and Politicians

Morality, the Professions and Politicians

Tibor R. Machan

While I see strong merits to an ultraminimal government idea, whereby the state has no other function than to protect the rights of the citizens from criminals and foreign aggressors, I do not share the view that politicians are necessarily corrupt. Sure, a welfare state attracts the kind of politicians who see little wrong with taking from some people to make available for others, including themselves, when they feel it is important enough. This is no different from how vice squad work attracts moralizing or puritanical police officers rather than ones who believe that victimless crimes should not exist and police should stick to guarding the peace — they used to be called “peace officers.”

Any corrupted profession is likely to be a Haven for people who yield to various temptations to do wrong because they can now do it with legal approval. The Nazi doctors who experimented on innocent victims were certainly that segment of the medical profession that had already gone bad. And going bad in this way is a subtle, psychologically complex process, beginning with the person convincing himself, first of all, that the policy being followed is acceptable, even necessary. So most of these people are quite sincere!

How does one encourage genuine ethics in the various professions? First, the profession must itself be morally upright — Murder, Inc., certainly isn’t going to be manned by saints. So if a profession already embodies some measure of evil, it’s going to be tough to ask of its members to behave themselves. Politicians in a system which legalizes theft are not likely to resist the temptation to steal! Medical or legal professionals whose prestigious associations support monopolies will probably lean in the direction of some immoral practices, ones that reflect the organization’s policies.

Yet apart from all this, much else is wrong with current thinking about professional ethics. For one, the prominent moral teachings of our time are confusing, indeed. Perhaps the best statement of this fact came from Adam Smith, who is known mostly as the founder of scientific economics but was in his own eyes and by his university appointments actually a moral philosopher. Here, in a someone lengthy passage, is the gist of our problem with contemporary thinking on morality: “…In the ancient philosophy, the perfection of virtue was represented as necessarily productive to the person who possessed it, of the most perfect happiness in this life. In the modern philosophy, it was frequently represented as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life, and heaven was to be earned by penance and mortification, not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of a man. By far the most important of all the different branches of philosophy became in this manner by far the most corrupted” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations [New York: Random House, 1937], p. 726.)

Smith got it right: moral teaching for the last several centuries has been mostly of the self-sacrificial variety: those who care to live well aren’t morally worthy, those who care to make others live well are, period. One reason for this is that much of theology and even some social science claims that people are innately selfish, so why bother teaching them how they need to care for themselves, how to be prudent, how to do well at living? Isn’t that hard wired into everyone?

Actually, no it is not. But another thing that suggests that unselfishness is the height of ethics is that professionals do often take an oath to help others who seek them out. But they do this mainly because they find the profession rewarding to themselves. Indeed, nearly all parents urge their children, and teachers their students, to find a line of work that is self-fulfilling instead of a constant drudgery or chore.

But the ethics most widely championed tells us mainly that it’s good only if it hurts. Not that simply self-indulgent conduct is ethical, no. If one lives by following his or her desires, nothing else, this can neither promote one’s life or that of other people. It is senseless, helter-skelter. But it is the business of ethics to guide one to the true, actual, serious enhancement of oneself as a human being.

If one understands that the human being has a self that can flourish only by being alert to the world, including other people, a self-enhancing moral code will leave plenty of room for generosity, kindness, compassion, without being self-sacrificing, self-denying.

It is especially pointless to talk about business ethics, for example, if all one means is that people in business should give up trying to succeed in order to be ethical. That simply means business people will disregard ethics altogether. And disaster waits along such a route.

If, however, it is clear that business — or education, art, science, medicine, etc. — is a professional calling that requires success within certain limits, just as, indeed, all life does, ethical business can make clear sense. It will not include, for example, trying to profit from deeds that are unethical, since profit itself will have to be understood as meaning prosperity that is productive, not destructive.

Unless moral education changes toward teaching folks to be ethical because that is how happiness is achieved in life, many folks will indeed try to avoid doing the right thing. If you think that cheating, lying, stealing, and so forth are the road to happiness, while honesty, justice, prudence, generosity and the like make you a looser in life, it is not surprising that you will often choose to do the wrong thing.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Ethics is a discipline that’s supposed to help us live, to flourish. Even when we are generous or charitable toward other people, such policies are supposed to enrich our own lives in the process. The virtuous life is suppose to be something beneficial to those who live it.

Once morality is recognized as life enhancing, it is not going to be very difficult to champion it among our professionals, including politicians. A culture that makes morality constantly painful, however, cannot very well expect morality to be well received.

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