Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Ethics and Politics - Part I

“The words "ethics" and "politics" go back to the time of Plato and Aristotle and are still used in much the same sense they had then. But the ancient philosophers' conception of the relation between the respective fields of these two branches of philosophy was very different from the modern one. Plato notoriously saw ethics and politics as one and the same subject. Aristotle wrote separate treatises on ethics and politics, but he considered ethics as a subfield of the science of politics, i.e. the knowledge that rulers would need to govern a state.

Nowadays the general tendency is, I suppose, to think of ethics and politics as separate though overlapping fields. What lies behind this difference in perspective?

A relatively trivial answer might be that the classical Greek philosophers did not clearly distinguish between legal and moral rules.

A more interesting explanation is that those philosophers held the view that the aim of politicians - legislators as well as rulers - must be to create the conditions for the best possible life of their citizens. They maintained this in opposition to those who claimed that the state and its legal system were based on an agreement to refrain from mutual harm and to cooperate for mutual benefit. The debate between these two positions continued in the Hellenistic era, with the Stoics actually subordinating politics to ethics, while the Epicureans defended the old contract theory, and the dispute is still going on today.”

Gisela Striker

Professor of Philosophy and Classics, Harvard University, USA

The thought comes that the dispute continues because confusion can never be clarified by yet another attempt at definitions of concepts. As a matter of fact, Cornelius Castoriadis showed that two conditions have altered man’s ethical disposition. One is that knowledge has ever since King Minos built the labyrinth become a symbol of growing bewilderment as more and more people loose themselves in the maze of thoughts leading to but dead ends with little hope of getting out of there any younger than when going into that labyrinth. Cornelius Castoriadis attributes this to dialectical thinking having been replaced by the binary logic and thereby forcing thinking into an iterative process dominated by ‘yes-no’ alternatives. This will bear down on any outcome while it might already explain why people feel that they have no real choices, or alternatives. In what politicians and more so political parties promise in their programs, they never find themselves again in such programs. Other thoughts, ideas and concepts have entered these programs being discussed inside of institutions to which they have no access. It leaves politicians without a true public opinion by which they could obtain orientation for their policy making decisions. All this has become standard of any computer based information system and by which the European Union strives to achieve a ‘knowledge based society’ through pilot projects aiming to bring forward ‘e-democracy’ as part of the Information Society.

Dialectical thinking would still allow the perception as to where the contradiction exists: in the concept, in reality or in the relationship between concept and reality as for example the concept of the ‘just society’ would imply. Moreover, it is well known that interpretation is one thing, resolving contradiction quite another. What then is politically wrong but morally right is but a way of saying if contradictions are no longer a measure of something being wrong, the condition for practical politics based on human morality is no longer given.

If so then the case is that no political, no moral argument exists by which one could convince the other as to what is right, what wrong. It would mean the distinction between ethics and politics is as wrong as nothing can be clarified either from a political or moral position since they tend to negate, or in Adorno’s terms of a negative culture, to neutralize one another.

That is reflected at practical level when people claim that they have nothing to do with politics but they resent equally anyone trying to impose his or her values upon them. Consequently the neutral system of making money is deemed to be above both morality and politics and taken if not for granted then as the only system that works. That leaves any moral reasoning unrealistic while any argument in favour of conscious political reasoning at best naïve.

In such a world ‘Ethics and politics’ find themselves separated like a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with no chance of getting together. It means a world without beauty excludes everything having to do with a true synthesis. If the case, it explains the very absence of any convincing philosophical position on this matter. Its very absence leaves people in a very weak position to clarify anything having to do with political morality as being very different from ‘moral politics’ as practiced, for example, by Christian Fundamentalists when campaigning against abortion while upholding the death penalty for capital crimes.

Indeed the modern world finds itself trapped in such a dilemma but it results out of the insight that power can be maintained as long as that, what belongs together, is kept separated.

Nowadays it is impossible to bring forth such political arguments so that the public could hear the truth of the matter. As if it is intended that moral judgments of people should not count, business in coalition with politics relies on a different strategy to convince what is possible, what not. Here enters the global media. It serves then the interests of politics when combined with world business, but despite all the resources and money put into such an argumentative strategy (as replacement of the practical discourse as Michel Foucault would define it), it no longer convinces anyone. Rather it is resignation and more so structural violence within the very institutions which should serve public debate as the European Parliament or the United Nations which silence not only the people but also their political representatives. As shown in the run-up to the Iraq war none of these institutions facilitated opposition to the decision to invade Iraq although so obviously wrong from especially one standpoint, but which no one has ever used so far: the moral argument for democracy as basis of critical thought.

Democracy is all about a non violent form of governance. This includes above all a non violent change of government, something upheld by the Western societies during the Cold War in their criticism of Communist regimes as the latter did not allow elections or a peaceful transition from one leader to another. Therefore, it came as a complete surprise that politicians, in particular Bush and Blair should suddenly advocate as official doctrine of the West ‘regime change’ and if necessary by military force from outside.

War can never be justified. It is deeply morally wrong especially if it leaves on top of everything else in its wake countless innocent civilians dead as now the case in Iraq. But why no one has criticized ever Blair or Bush for such contradictory action especially if they claim to be doing this in the name of democracy, remains a puzzle. It can only be explained that Western Democracies themselves have given up the value premise of peaceful transitions of power as connected with not only free, but honest elections. This value premise has already been corroded by manipulated elections based on changes in election constituencies as done systematically by the Republicans in their favour in the United States. Moreover the Presidential elections of Bush both in 2000 and in 2004 have cast more than doubts on a voting system skewed in favour of certain results while disadvantaging other key voting groups from ever exercising their universal Right. Unfortunately that has history in the United States which allowed immediately after its founding the Southern States to count everyone on their territory to claim seats in Congress while leaving out conveniently the fact that slaves although included in the count to establish the size of the population had never the Right to vote.

It seems that the democratic value principle has been replaced after 9/11 by another value premise, namely that any leader or government not willing to cooperate fully and comply with the United States and Great Britain in its tail, shall be removed if necessary by force. Morality of the more powerful is like the skin heads beating up a foreigner in some dark alley; it is neither politics nor moral law being implemented but the rule of lawlessness despite all claims to be in the land where the ‘rule of the law’ applies. Unfortunately war situations sanction illegal and therefore criminal behaviour which would otherwise be reprimanded by society if based not merely on the morality of democracy, but more so on peace and therefore on the value of non violence.

The second point made by Cornelius Castoriadis is that the epistemological shift in knowledge can be explained by everything having become a labyrinth from which there is no escape. It has left people confused as to what is still a sound political argument. This is all the more the case once nothing can be validated in moral terms as still thought by Kant (‘act in such a way that the premise for your action can be a general law’). The spin doctors have made it impossible for people to know in a convincing manner what are still truthful arguments and a sound presentation of facts. Everything is skewed to make it appear as desired by the policy makers so that they can affect the outcome accordingly. It includes the manipulation of accounting books as recently reported by the BBC about the World Bank one year after Wolfowitz has taken over. Apparently the bank as governing body can undertake decisions on the basis of reports which have been knowingly manipulated by its own staff in order to allow for net gains in capital investments.

Interestingly enough the writer Robert Musil wrote in ‘Man without Attribute’, a book he never completed by the time the Second World War broke out and he died, that a society without knowing the truth will have only probabilities at the end of which is ‘terrorism’. Such an answer to amoral politics, namely terrorism as pseudo-moral stance justifying arbitrary use of violence, if only to make some oblivious statement no one can understand, has been anticipated by Cornelius Castoriadis. For he said ‘the moment someone attempts to impose his values upon others, this will lead to permanent conflict, if not violence and war.’ Therefore the realization about the futility of any moral and political debate has to be based fore mostly on the self critical reflection, that ‘values are not discussed, they are set’ and consequently value premises no one else is allowed to touch for otherwise…

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