I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.
Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:
“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”
Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts? Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us? Why are so many Americans so enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?
My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation. We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.
No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?
The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role. Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.
In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.
What might such a moral compass guide us toward?
Well, it might start us on our journey by considering the wisdom of great thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who recognized the unique human attribute of being able to reason, and who therefore argued that all persons (as rational beings) should be respected as universally dignified and valuable. All persons – without reference to refugee status, what their sex or gender identity is, who they love, what side of a promised border wall they might be on, or even whether some “useful” information might be obtained by subjecting them to torture (which is categorically shown to be a false premise in any event). Kant placed such high respect on universal human dignity that he absolutely rejected the notion that people should ever be subject to instrumental status – to be manipulated and used (or tortured) in the pursuit of someone else’s goals. Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his assertion that only he has the answers and only he can produce the results (results which are never made clear) leads straight to the instrumental use of people, instead of building coalitions and solidarity among equal, dignified human beings (even if they happen to be female, or disabled, or African American, or Latino, or other “lesser” people as Trump’s world view implies).
There is no shortage of resources to build our moral compass. We can and should draw on the moral thinking of people across the ages: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Cicero. We have more contemporary (if still historical) thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, René Descartes, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There are many modern moral secular thinkers too, such as John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Nell Noddings, Peter Singer, Christine McKinnon, and many, many others. We also have the example of robust forms of “applied ethics” as used in fields such as medicine, law, biology, environment, media, business, and international development.
Still, most of us aren’t even aware that we’re missing a moral compass, or perhaps we just do not care. Our current amoral flailing about is a by-product of a political system gone badly awry. Clearly we have people in this country (as exist in every country) of remarkable integrity, ability, wisdom, humility, and principle. Clearly we have people who are dedicated to public service, even if it isn’t the deal-maker’s path to richness and celebrity.
While Hillary Clinton is arguably not a perfect candidate, she is being subjected to astounding levels of vitriol, mischaracterization, and disdain. Few can doubt that she is exceptionally well-qualified and forward-looking, optimistic and committed to forging a stronger union. She is a strong believer in our democracy. Given our choices, she is the clear choice.
Even if we can get through this election and avoid what the Washington Post terms a “unique threat to American democracy”, we still will have much work to do to get this ship of state back on course. We won’t make that course correction without a moral compass.