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On Behaving Badly

The news lately has regrettably been dominated by the exploits of (mostly white, powerful) men behaving badly. From the generally boorish and odious behaviour of Toronto mayor Rob Ford to the racist attitudes of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, it’s been some pretty unsightly viewing and listening.  A few rambling reflections, then, on these and other matters that I’ve been thinking about lately… 

The Donald Sterling case is perhaps less galling. There is no real prima facie good reason to expect an obscenely wealthy businessman to be anything resembling a moral exemplar, even if his attitudes on race are head-spinningly ridiculous. The Rob Ford story is a bit different. Here we are dealing with an elected public official. There was a time, I suppose, when this might have meant something. Yes, I know there have always been dirty, corrupt politicians, but Ford seems somehow to have taken things to a different level entirely. Like many who have been reading, mouths agape, report after report over the past few months, I have wondered how, exactly, it is possible that the leader of the largest city in Canada, and the fourth largest in North America can get away with consistently exhibiting an almost complete lack of self-control, flagrantly abusing drugs and alcohol, demonstrating attitudes of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, and repeatedly lying about his behaviour? How can the citizens of Toronto tolerate his ridiculous levels of self-aggrandizement and the way he consistently speaks in crude and demeaning ways about other human beings?

The answer, of course, is that his policies and leadership are saving taxpayers money.  Or, at least he claims that they are.  So, he gets a pass. Or at least he got a pass. Now he’s in rehab, I guess. And I genuinely hope this can be a turning point in his life.

But Ford and Sterling have me thinking about the decline in ethics in leadership and social life in general, about the lack of honesty, integrity, respect for others, and basic fairness. Is pragmatism the only bottom line when it comes to what we expect of our leaders, our neighbours, ourselves? If the bottom line isn’t negatively affected, if the job generally gets done, do we just stop caring about what people do in their personal lives?  Is this appropriate?  Is it possible that the horizons of our ethical thinking and concern have shrunk to an unacceptable level?

The only things that seem to get us excited/up in arms these days when it comes to ethics/morality are matters that have to do with our own individual identities—race and sex, usually. These are our new (and often, only) sacred cows in the postmodern West. In ethics, as in most of life, we often seem to have defaulted to a kind of radical individualism that pretty much starts and stops with me and my right to have my identity and the ways in which I am pleased to understand and define myself protected and preserved. Beyond the things that we cherish about ourselves, there don’t seem to be many higher ethical ideals of ethics that we aspire to.

What does a good human being look like? What is a human life for? Our public discourse seems to have little interest in even discussing these questions or expecting our leaders to wrestle seriously with them.

I remember being puzzled by this when I studied philosophy at university. Historically, a huge part of the philosophical quest was the study of wisdom and virtue. How should a human being live? What is the morally correct and/or excellent path to pursue? What character traits should we be training the young to cultivate? What is the nature of good and evil? Even a cursory reading of Aristotle or Plato would yield the conclusion that these questions (and other related ones) mattered greatly to these thinkers (and many other philosophers throughout history). Yet, when I studied philosophy at university, these questions had mostly been abandoned for other questions about the nature of language and how inert propositions could be justified and/or defended. Character and the pursuit of virtue were deemed irrelevant by many philosophy students (and professors). There was apparently little, if any, dissonance between studying Aristotle’s arête by day and a life of pretty much unrestrained hedonism by night.

It’s not fashionable to speak about things like “holiness” any more, I know. This is a word from the primitive archival past when puritanical folks obsessed about private morality and ignored the broader world around them. Thank God we’re past those days, right?!  Far better (and safer?) today to speak of broad social ethics and to locate any lingering moral imperatives in these.   This switch from the private to the public and the social  has (mostly) been a good and necessary corrective.  But I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far, as pendulums are so prone to doing.

Do we care about private morality at all any more? Are we “broken” people who have “weaknesses” rather than purposive agents who commit sins,who miss a mark that is real and true and worth striving for? Do we care about personal integrity? Letting our actions match our words? Do we care about sexual ethics? About telling the truth even when it’s not convenient? About guarding our language?  About self-control and restraint? About treating other people the way that we would like to be treated? About becoming careful consumers of media? About refusing to buy in to the entertainment machine that so often gives us false and degrading portrayals of what it means to be a human being?

The answer seems mostly to be that we don’t.  But we should.  It’s pretty easy, after all, to point the finger at (mostly white, powerful) men behaving badly.  Far harder, and therefore more necessary, to look inward.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, some of my work on virtues in my ethics class has felt like working from scratch – so many of the currenty resources, including ones from a faith perspective, revolve around social theory and epistemology – not bad, but often missing any personal ownership.

    Oh, and I just read this article on Calgary’s mayor and it gave me some hope for politicians: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/naheed-nenshi-the-reluctant-brand/

    May 18, 2014
    • Thanks for the article, Dave. Nenshi is a breath of fresh air, in so many ways.

      May 19, 2014

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