I taught a short introductory class on ethics for my firefighters a couple of weeks ago. I guess they enjoyed it because they’ve asked for more, but it was a bit of a rocky start. It seems that people who rarely think of anything in the abstract, think of ethics as something that is just a way of sort of somehow knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. So considering various ways of talking about ethics from descriptive, normative and critical points of view was a new experience. It also came as a surprise that ethical thinking has had a lot to do with the kind of political system we’ve crafted for our nation and the political views we hold for ourselves.
When we covered the basics of utilitarian ethics I figured that at least one historical name would sound familiar, if nothing else. How, I thought, can one get out of high school without reading at least something from John Stewart Mill? What a silly idea that was. But it also occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read any Mill in almost fifty years so who was I to talk? So here I am, deep into “On Liberty.” I’m struck once more by how fresh and contemporary he is, and never more so than in his advice about what makes for a “healthy state of political life.”
In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life… Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.
Our current problem, it seems to me, is that the Republicans have lost their identity as true conservatives who are intent on conserving the trusted means of order and stability within our society. Their leading public voices yelp angry, reactionary words that bear very little similarity to anything like our treasured heritage and national values, but do sound dangerously close to the Argentinean ultra-nationalism of the not too distant past. The only good I can see coming out of that is that, in another fifty years or so, someone will produce a hit musical featuring Dick Cheney in the role of Evita.