Tag Archives: ethics

Forensic Politics

It is often said, “If you are young and a conservative, you have no heart; if you are old and a liberal, you have no brain.” Implicit in the statement is its underlying reference to wealth. ‘No heart’ translates to an unwillingness to share wealth with other people. “No brains” translates to an inability or unwillingness to recognize that a good portion of taxation is theft, thereby supporting Robinhood Barons as opposed to Robber Barons.

On the surface, the adage appeals to individuals who attempt to infuse moderation to political controversy. That’s understandable. But beneath the surface, there are factors that weaken the statement’s validity.

To begin with, politics is inextricably bound to group thought and action. Individual thought and action don’t mix well with political movements, party platforms, and generalized ideologies.

The adage also neglects to acknowledge that there are many young and old individuals whose hearts and brains function at the same time. They are a distinct minority of course, so they get lost in the mix of large aggregates. Their objection to income tax is often based on the principle that one should be able to keep the wealth he earns or inherits, a conservative tenet. Others, support income tax because they believe that individuals are obliged to contribute to the general welfare of society, a liberal tenet. Whatever the thoughts and feelings may be at the individual level, government determines economic systems. However varied the definitions and specific details of economic systems may be, they are generally classified as Laissez Faire, Mixed, or Collective depending on the degree of governmental control over economy. (Of course totalitarian states obviate economic classification.)

Beneath the ponderous economic theories and complex layers of groups within whatever economic system prevails, there is the fundamental unit of politics: the individual. An individual’s impact on government is negligible apart from his vote. But voting is a classic example of ‘the whole being greater than its parts.’ The closer the results of an election, the greater the impact of the ‘whole.’ What goes unnoticed is that the winners and losers only appear to be motivated by the same political goals. After the election, voting results include precise details of voting constituencies in terms of age, gender, location, and so on. Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking includes detailed analyses of how and why groups voted as they did at the group level.

However, there is a microscopic level that goes deeper than that: the individual voter. Beneath the labeling of voting blocs and coalitions, there lies the character of the individual voter. Two voters within the same demographic bloc may vote the same ticket for totally opposite reasons. For example, one of them may be motivated to vote for higher taxes to help fund programs designed for the poor even though that help will be at his expense; the other may choose the same ticket because it is to his advantage, especially since the wealthy will pay the much greater percentage of taxes.

Johnny, the Plumber

When Johnny was young he was all heart. He voted for candidates who promised him that the wealthy would be required to pay a much higher income tax than he would have to pay. People who were at or below Johnny’s income bracket would not bear the burden of funding government programs designed to help people with incomes at or below Johnny’s income.

Now that Johnny is older, his income is in a higher bracket. Johnny is now all brain, but not as the adage meant him to be. “Why should I pay higher taxes for wasteful welfare programs.” As in his youth, Johnny also rants about being exploited by his employer- – -that habit never dies. Johnny also cheats at everything he does from playing at cards for money to overcharging clients for whom he works as a self-employed plumber. “Hell, she’s got the money, why not squeeze a few extra bucks out of her.” Of course Johnny also cheats on his income returns. The IRS will never know about the woman he cheated. When discussing politics, Johnny is still an outstanding champion for the poor, as he was in his youth.

Mary, the Senator

Unlike Johnny, Mary doesn’t cheat at anything. But, like Johnny, she was all heart in her youth. She volunteered or accepted pittance for social work while majoring in college courses that specialized in socio-economic classes. Despite her brilliance as a senator in her mature years, she doesn’t acknowledge- – -even to herself- – -that voting for every welfare program that comes her way amounts to a sort of extortion. As a senior senator, she is not concerned about the fact that many welfare recipients cheat, often in remarkably lucrative and ingenious ways. (I once knew a woman who traded food stamps for cigarettes and then sold them for a price lower than cigarettes on the market.) The senator rationalizes theft as marginal. She feels that the greater the welfare funds, the less important are incidences of cheating.


As we all know, corporations hire tax experts whose principal service is to get through every possible loophole in the tax codes. This skill enormously enriches the experts and the corporations they serve. One might irreverently quip that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Super Minority

Unlike characters from The Wizard of Oz, there actually are people who have hearts and brains at the same time, all the time. They are not perfect, but their psyche is such that they maintain a balance that belies the adage that separates heart and brain.

The cacophonous politics of our society is not the result of heart vs. brain. Rather, it is the result of a deep-rooted acceptance of the prevailing philosophy that individuals are politically interchangeable. That concept attains perfect realization in a totalitarian society. In effect, politics is dormant in those societies, sometimes through centuries.

In our mixed economy, politics is very much alive. It is also subject to storm and strife amongst competing groups. More often than not, groups have a way of wanting the same thing and consciously or unconsciously are at odds only in the matter of how to get what they want. This is blatantly obvious as the root of congressional deadlocks.

As I see it, the only way to ease class warfare without diminishing our inviolate form of democracy is to re-examine what issues should or should not be relegated to the custody of government. It makes me very uncomfortable to know that a significant part of my life is in Johnny’s control, whatever political flag he flies.

I’m sure that a re-examination of the function of government would be a daunting undertaking and that objections to specific changes would leap out of every corner of our society. After all, we already have a constitution. But the proliferation of issues- – -domestic and foreign- – -coming under the purview of government is alarming, especially so because even our foreign policies, for better or worse, are being influenced by globalization.

I am a minority of one. (Many would say, “Thank God.” And that’s okay.) But my heart and brain are not strangers to each other. They never have been. They agree that our current political discourse has descended to an irrational level. The principal cause for that is that emotions take their cue from thought, consciously or unconsciously. If our thoughts are nonlinear, our politics will reflect that. Hence the political gibberish in just about every form of communication, including comedy shows whose major agenda is political, e.g., Real Time with Bill Maher.

Politics is at best unreliable as a mechanism by which we can help decide the best course for our nation. Presumably, the laws of the United States are based on justice for all, even for Johnny, the senator, and corrupt corporations. But the fountain of justice is only as deep and springs only as high as the individual members of a nation allow. In that crucial respect, ethics overwhelmingly trumps politics.


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Lifeboats, Trolleys, and Ethics

My first encounter with formal ethics included the virtually obligatory paradigm of the ultimate dilemma associated with human behavior. More often than not, that dilemma is presented at the very beginning of a discourse on ethics. Its threadbare description takes the form of a ‘loaded’ question: If there are six fishermen on a sinking vessel with a single lifeboat that can stay afloat with only five of them, what ethical course of action should the fishermen take? Stripped to its core, the question asks, “Which one of the six men should die so the others may live?” From there, ethicists proceed to open Pandora’s Jar. Complex and ponderous arguments chase after each other in a maze of circular reasoning in quest of an answer.

But back on the sinking vessel, the fishermen have a simple answer: they draw sticks. Fishermen know what to do when confronted with a life-or-death situation before they set out to sea. A sinking vessel is not conducive to a discussion on ethics.

More recently, the lifeboat riddle has been replaced by that of a racing trolley which will kill lots of’ people unless a switch is pulled that veers it into another path, thereby exposing only one track worker to certain death. Do you pull the switch or do nothing? Oh…and there’s still another popular scenario…the one where six people can be saved if six vital organs of one healthy man were to be distributed among them. Do we proceed with the transplants? The dilemmas remind me of an aunt I had who, being poor, would give each of her daughters the same doll as a gift, birthday after birthday, as though the doll were new, by sewing a new dress onto it each year.

Like the dolls, ethics has had new dresses sewn onto it through the centuries but its study had always been in the realm of the humanities, not the sciences. The study of ethics, widely considered a branch of philosophy, included an enormous range of issues, of course, but its scope was limited to the behavior of humans as issued by nature, i.e., the behavior of a whole human being.

Enter neuroscience. There are neuroscientists who reduce the very concept of ethics to the level of automatic reflexes. They ascribe moral behavior to automatic activity in specific regions of the brain as the source of ethics. To paraphrase a Biblical passage, if your neurons, dendrites, and axons offend you, desensitize them. Of course neuroscientists are not required to shed light on the source of ethics, but their brain research tends to equate thought processes with involuntary bodily functions.

As technology increasingly reveals the functions of brain matter, region-by-region, synapses by synapses, the fundamental source of ethics is paradoxically illusive. Add to that the fashionable philosophic current that denies any substantive difference between humans and animals, and the source of ethics becomes more illusive than ever. In place of a conflict between right and wrong (or good and evil) we have a conflict between the medial frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate gyrus. Whole human beings are lost in the laboratory.

Since I have only one life to live, knowledge of the source of ethics is not nearly as important to me as how I choose to live my life. Perhaps I’m simplistic, but morality is not as complicated to me as most ethicists make it out to be. In any case…

  1. Contrary to the notion that morality is tested during the direst of circumstances as depicted by morality riddles, the quality of an individual’s behavior is determined by calm reason and its application to everyday living, not on board a sinking vessel.
  1. As laudable as the scholarship of the best ethicists may be, there is really no need for the categorization of ethics. ‘Personal Ethics’ as distinguished from ‘Business Ethics’ is a contradiction in terms.
  1. I’m not troubled with an afterlife. I live as I do, not to avoid being a beetle next time around,” or for the approval of others or of a personal God, or in anticipation of rewards or in fear of punishment in this or any other life. If I were provided with absolute proof that either death ends me or that there is an afterlife, I would continue perfecting my moral behavior as an end in itself. That includes ‘doing unto others’ and maintaining my integrity even when no one is watching.

Ethics is an art, an exquisite blend of knowledge, wisdom, and empathy. Its elegant simplicity may be expressed in quiet acts, often wordlessly, and not necessarily acknowledged by others.

Best of all, I live as I do because I enjoy an ethically integrated life. 

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