There They Go Again
In 2004, the greatest hurdle to creating an ethical culture is the remarkably resilient and spectacularly dunderheaded assertion of a vocal minority in the culture that ethics is just a matter of taste. These individuals, among them writers, philosophers, journalists, educators, elected officials, jurists, Bill Maher and Larry Flynt, strenuously object any time specific conduct is declared “wrong,” with a few exceptions that somehow managed to squeak through, like racism, slavery, bigotry and female circumcision. The current buzz-phrase used to condemn those who make moral and ethical distinctions is “cultural imperialism,” which means that declaring something wrong is simply a power grab, an attempt to impose one’s will on another person, society or culture. And that’s, uh, wrong.
The paradox of this position is a real one, because making and declaring distinctions between right and wrong is a culture in itself the culture of any nation, organization or society that wants to maintain values. The only way values can survive is with constant reinforcement through vocal and proactive efforts to distinguish and condemn conduct that violates key values, and to praise and encourage conduct that embodies them. This concept is, when you get right down to it, pretty obvious, and one would think that anyone with a minimal number of functioning neurons would accept it. But the “you have no right to tell anyone what’s wrong” cabal still soldiers on, undaunted by the inconvenient fact that their own protests constitute the very behavior they are protesting against. After all, what gives them the right to tell me that calling the conduct of others wrong is wrong?
It could all be dismissed as silliness, except that this flawed logic has real consequences. Many people feel uncomfortable declaring all but the most egregious conduct wrong, to “judge lest they be judged,” to “cast the first stone.” Never mind that neither of these Biblical caveats really argues against the crucial act of making moral and ethical distinctions. Recent decades have seen the culture determine that long-accepted behavior (discrimination, sexism, domestic violence) is wrong after all, and that other conduct considered taboo (homosexual relations) does not deserve condemnation. In the wake of so many changes, people with a non-confrontational bent don’t feel confident declaring behavior wrong. Intimidated by the anti-cultural imperialists, they stay quiet. Adultery is wrong for me, but maybe it’s OK for President Clinton. Ditto lying about it under oath lying about sex, you know. Everybody does it maybe it’s not wrong after all.
Thus do the values of a society crumble. So those who have the courage and the certitude to stand their ground and declare conduct right or wrong are invaluable. They are invaluable even when they are mistaken, because it is only through debate and argument, testing and thought, that our values are clarified. Often someone has to declare conduct wrong before we can determine that the conduct is actually right.
This brings us, finally, to Ronald Reagan. Since his death, a few of the boldest (we could also say rudest) warriors on the side of ethical relativism have once again declared their opposition to the late President’s famous (and effective) declaration that the U.S.S.R. was an “evil empire.” Shock cartoonist Ted Rall, in an editorial, declared that such declarations were “Christianist,” which Rall described as “the radical-right equivalent of Islamist–depictions of foes as ‘evil.’ “
To be blunt, if the Soviet Union wasn’t evil, nothing is evil. The astounding thing, in retrospect, is that Reagan’s original comment was even momentarily controversial. This was a nation built on millions upon millions of murders, that embodied most of the horrors of state domination over the individual that George Orwell portrayed in “1984.”
Even if one took the extreme position that the Soviet Union had the right to define mass-murder as “ethical,” the United States, in asserting its own cultural values, had to make the statement that it regarded such conduct as wrong. Absolutely wrong. The ultimate wrong. Evil.
That’s all Reagan did, and it was the act of responsible leadership, for part of a leader’s job is to clarify and strengthen values. Rall and those like him advocate a society in which positive values exist without nourishment, and negative values are free to proliferate like weeds. The road to a more ethical culture will be built by encouraging moral and ethical discussion and debate, which will point the way to ethical wisdom.
As Mr. Reagan proved, the most effective way to end bad behavior is to name it, condemn it, and focus public attention on it. The rest of us have to ignore the Ralls of the world, and follow the “Gipper’s” example.