Can we separate political ethics and morality from personal ethics and morality? This seems to be the question America has been struggling with for some time. “Moral panics” are what George Lakoff refers to them in his book The Political Mind Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain.
America likes to gossip about the personal details of a public person’s life—the more outrageous, the more perplexing, and the more morally confounding the better. Such talk is considered “juicy” and America could talk about it all day long.
Representative Anthony Weiner is at the center of the current moral panic. Should he resign? Should his wife divorce him? Can he be trusted as an official elected to represent the voters of New York? Is he “true” to them? And if he indeed walks his political talk, should his actions within his marriage matter? Can we separate his morals and his ethics?
We can make a distinction between the two that I think is useful. Ethics refers to a theory or system that describes what is good and, by extension, what is evil. Morals refer to the rules that tell us what to do or not to do. Morality divides actions in to right and wrong.
Ethics are more theoretically focused: How do we judge white-collar crime versus violent crime? How do we allocate health care when demand and costs out strips resources? Mythology and theology are the oldest sources of ethics, though philosophical systems are often more discussed today.
Ethics are about theory, while morals are about practice.
Morales are the rules you live by; ethics are the systems that generate those rules. Morals have to do with your personal life: What is appropriate behavior on a first date? Is taking a ream of paper from your job home for personal use a crime?
Teachable Momemt: SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper author Howard Wasdin said to Jon Stewart on the 6/9/2011 Daily Show, that although he is a republican and did not vote for President Obama, Wasdin would consider doing so in the future because the President had it right on three accounts: keeping the mission operations secure, burying binLaden’s body at sea, and not releasing the pictures. Wasdin admired the President’s political actions.
Should we really care about a politician’s personal actions? Some say we should, for it gives insight into that person’s theory or system by which they judge good and evil and thereby decide what to do.
Stay tuned. As we enter another presidential election cycle, the major weakness of ballot-box elections will once again become glaringly apparent: the voters decide on a candidate by making an X rather than by exploring what it means to be the best candidate for the job.
The influence of smear campaigns, misleading political ads or the force of party-line habit voting, will make it a struggle for voters to possess a deep understanding and consensus on policy issues and thus elect the best candidate for the job.