Why Ethics Matters 1

History has constantly taught us that deceiving people about democracy is perhaps one of the most harmful political calculi ever made.

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The point of this article is to present briefly the reasons why a lively and stable democracy needs Ethics. I will argue that Ethics is not a luxury good for democracy; they form the conditions for maintaining a political regime respectful of individual freedoms. The following lines will aim to prove that, per se, Ethics is essential to guarantee and improve democracy. Before entering in this topic, it is important to draw the central difference between two conceptions of Ethics.

Very often, Ethics is understood as limited to the enforcement of the right, the good way to behave publicly or privately. The argument goes as follows: the content of good life is very easy to determine (in general a set of virtues); thus all problems that could arise are perceptive (difficulties to understand what Ethics require) or applicatory problems (difficulties to implement what is seen as good). Stated differently, it is because people lack ethical knowledge or will that they fail to “be ethical” or “act ethically.” This standpoint has two forms: one popular, the other elitist. According to the first formulation, everyone knows the content of a good life but not everyone is able to act consequently due to a lack of will for example. If one permits me this anachronism, this is the “Socratic” version. It comes from Socrates who defended a reminiscential conception of human knowledge. This approach says that people already possess moral wisdom even if they are not able to mobilize it.

The second formulation states that if people fail to act ethically, it is because they cannot see what is good for us or for the whole society. This is the “Platonic” version. Drawn very broadly, this argument affirms that people, due to the limits of their abilities, cannot determine what is good. It is the reason why, in The Republic, Plato emphasizes the role of the philosopher kings, the only people inside The Polis who are capable, due to their cognitive abilities, to contemplate the good, the beautiful, the right, or the truth.

The two formulations are flawed by the same false presumption: to estimate that it exists only one way of life that would be good to be followed by every member of society. The two are monist (believing that only one moral truth exists or has a value) and perfectionist (considering that this truth should be enforced in the whole society). Thus, these two formulations refuse to take into account the moral pluralism that characterizes every society.

Even if, on the surface, people agree on several core values or principles like equality, liberty, human dignity, when time comes to give a more concrete form to those principles through political decisions, strong disagreements arise. For example, no one would deny that killing a human being is wrong but people will disagree on euthanasia or abortion. Why? It is not because proponents and opponents do not share the same principles or values, but because they do not agree on the interpretation and extension of principles and values at stake.

One may be cautious here. I am not saying that no common rule could be enforced. For example, it is entirely legitimate that some professions, positions or public roles are regulated by Codes of deontology. What is important in those cases? First of all, it is important to regulate some activities (physicians, judges, politicians, lawyers, journalists…) in order to be sure that people involved in them do not benefit from their positions, respect equality between citizens and individual freedoms or do not create collective harms. Secondly, it is also important to be sure that those codes have resulted from a democratic procedure in which there has been some public debate and exchange of reasonable arguments, at least among people that will be submitted to those codes, as well as those who are or can be affected by those professions (customers, patients, users of public services…). After the elaboration of those Codes, it is normal to punish people who infringe internal rules of a particular profession. For example, a physician who is trying to dissuade a woman from having an abortion in a country that legalized it must be sanctioned. A politician that used her position for profit should face a court trial. In other words, a democracy must define rules and enforce them, which is especially salient when it concerns people who are in charge of certain public functions.

Now, does it mean that some people inside society have the monopoly of defining what is Ethics in general, or in specific spheres? No. And it is one of the consequences of living in a democratic regime, namely that paternalism has appeared, and for good reasons, more and more suspect. Persons who believe to detain the absolute ethical knowledge should, firstly, lower their wishes and expectations to make them more realistic and, secondly, accept to have their views and decisions challenged by their co-citizens. Good or not, it is the fate of a democracy. But, whatever our opinion about it is, however we may regret the “good old times” when decisions were so easy to make and implement, it is the price of living in a democracy: to expose our reasons and accept to discuss them publicly in order to reach widespread compromises.

Here, we are entering the very core of the importance of Ethics for a democracy. All lays in the importance of public debate, but not of any kind. There can be debates led and settled by force, fear, majority and so on. Not all debates are good for a democracy. Some are undermined by mobilization of stereotypes about certain categories of the population; a majority that does not pay attention to the needs and demands of a minority perverts others. It is easy to imagine other forms of unhealthy public debates. The issue of precise conditions that define an healthy debate are too broad to be studied in detail here. But some basic principles can be mentioned. First, a healthy debate is a debate that does not exclude people who have a legitimate interest in the forthcoming decisions. Of course, defining more precisely what a legitimate interest is would necessitate much longer developments than the ones that I am offering here. However we can rely on a very general definition: an interest is legitimate when it expresses partly a way of life of some people and when it does not represent a serious harm for others. Second, a healthy debate is a debate where asymmetric positions are limited. For example, during an argument about global warming it is justified to give more weight to scientific voices. But, during talks about access conditions to citizenship, it is highly debatable to exclude immigrants or non-citizens. Third, there must be a strong connection between discussions and decisions. In other words, decisions makers should not discard debate results in order to implement their agenda.

The role of Ethics is directly linked with that scheme. Actually, if we define Ethics as the discipline that evaluates the moral value of acts and states of the world, if, moreover, Ethics is the discipline which monitors reasons and arguments offered to justify morally these acts and states of the world, Ethics is indispensable for a democracy. It is so since it forms an important part of the search for a fairer society, a society in which inequalities, domination, and rights infringements would be reduced to a minimum. In that sense, Ethics should not be reserved to some people that would consider themselves as moral entrepreneurs or rulers. Ethics should matter for everyone and, of course, it does. In our everyday decisions, up to the very personal ones, we are constantly weighing bad and good consequences, asking ourselves if it is good to act in such a way etc. If we are so concerned to make the right decisions at the right time, and not just in order to push forward our own interests, why will it be so different for public decisions that affect our lives as members of the same society?

In that respect, topics of the conference “Ethics in Democracy” formed an important part of this concern. They were exercises of applied ethics, ethics applied to down-to-earth questions like the role of the judge, the effects of corruption, the management of social diversity, state-funded education, business ethics and more. All these topics are central in our lives. And sometimes (the?) news reminds us that some of them could be of crucial importance for our immediate future. Indeed two biases should be noted before ending this article. Two biases which are the two faces of a same coin. First of all, it is not when a society experiences some dramatic events that its members should take a look in public ethics. In a perfect world, we all should be concerned at every time by political, judicial and social decisions. But we are living in an imperfect world. Thus a minimum is to take sometimes a deep look inside the public sphere. The most obvious reason for this (almost) constant scrutiny lays in the danger to observe some self-proclaimed “moral specialists” monopolize the debates about the rightness or the goodness of decisions that impact numerous lives in case of a widespread absence of interest into politics from population side. Secondly, on the politician’s side, if there is too little concern about ethics, which means about public exchange of arguments and reasons, citizens can be tempted to equate democracy to a rhetorical political regime in which all is about appearances and cheats, that democracy is not more than a suit of word-games, superficial statements without a real, good impact on common people’s lives. And history has constantly taught us that deceiving people about democracy is perhaps one of the most harmful political calculi ever made.

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