A funny thing happened to ethics on the way to the polls.
This process and discipline that seeks to translate values into responsible decisions, from personal morality to public policy – a special and delicate gift of our humanity – seems to be cut adrift from its moorings and “blown about by every wind” of ideology.
It is easy to blame the combatants and their handlers for the chaos that rises like floodwater around the foundations of our public life, and they have certainly played a significant part in what we see and feel being played out on a daily basis.
But they have not done this by themselves, and the response, “That’s just politics,” ignores the role played by the rest of us in fanning the flames of foolishness that are now burning like a California wildfire.
I now have the fact-checking website Snopes.com bookmarked so that I can send responses to those who “want to share with me” the latest “truth” about this or that.
Usually, these messages are not even carefully disguised propaganda against whoever is the demon-du-jour in their minds.
I know there is a commandment against “bearing false witness.” I wonder if one of the implications of that commandment is a caution against embracing false witness as well.
We probably should not be surprised at the tactics of political contests. They are not new, either in their nature or their intensity. And, maybe there is nothing new about the way the public in general responds to them.
What may be new is the quasi-legitimacy that any idea or argument can assume by being “published” in the public forum and then shared.
It’s interesting that the term “viral” has come to describe the effects of such sharing – we know what viruses do. It seems that the ethical dimension of our humanity may be the most seriously vulnerable to this virus.
Outcomes of our decisions can have good or bad consequences – economically, socially, internationally.
But the impact of such ethical erosion on the core of who we are, as individuals and as a people, seems to be a much more serious problem.
If ethics moves from a focus on doing the right thing to doing what is needed to get me what I want, it has changed from being a compass to being a weather vane; our decision-making will be guided not by a normative direction but by the strongest wind.
It should be reasonably clear that the mortar that holds the bricks of any diverse community together is an ethics that is (1) based on a foundation of integrity, (2) a process of discernment that can evaluate options, and (3) a choice of direction that best represents the core identity of who that community is.
When a community neglects any one of those three features, it runs serious risks.
The ancient historian who observed, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25), was not extolling the virtues of a monarchy, but rather lamenting the loss of a guiding center to the community’s life.
The prophet Hosea echoed the refrain, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
Thomas Jefferson famously noted that the key to the success of a democratic form of government was a “well informed electorate.”
I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to suggest that the intensity of our current political climate has allowed truthful and more complete information to be replaced by propaganda that is designed to support one or the other of the partisan positions, making it difficult for consumers to know the “real story.”
In such a context, partial information, misinformation and “mal-information” thrive and become the winds that blow the weather vane of ethics in all directions.
The victims of this transformation of ethics are all of us – eroding community and blurring vision of what and who we are capable of becoming.
The negative impact of an alliance of the uninformed, the misinformed and the mal-informed on the ethical dimension of our lives should be, it seems, a cause for concern.
I wonder if Jefferson could have imagined what we see playing out on the political stage now. In light of what he said in several contexts about a well-informed electorate, maybe he did.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.