October 15, 2020

There is no debate today….When I think about today’s extreme polarization in US society, however, I become concerned about public morality. It has nothing per se to do with being a Republican or a Democrat, or being left or right of center. It has everything to do, however, with our survival.

Public morality – what some call civic virtue — refers to ethical standards for public behavior. The survival of democracy depends on it. A democracy is a social system in which citizens are bound to fellow citizens, with each individual bearing social as well as personal responsibilities. Public morality governs everyday life: the decisions we make, how we treat ourselves and others, and what we think about the world — about nature, business, culture, religion, family life, and so on. Openness is essential as well as serious reflection and engagement.

Without a healthy public morality, democracy collapses into either chaos or authoritarian dictatorship.

Those dangers are very real today. Public morality is often cast aside in authoritarian dictatorships because social order is maintained not by adherence to shared public values but by fidelity to the dictates and wishes of the authoritarian leader. Authoritarian leaders like chaotic situations in which people living in fear can be kept obedient and dependent on the leader. 

In a healthy democracy there are certain generally held moral principles. Key primary values, for example, are that murder is immoral, theft is immoral, harming innocent people is immoral, and lying is immoral. When these immoral actions are turned into social virtues or social normalities, society is in trouble. Think about contemporary militia and vigilante groups. 

Public morality insures, in effect, the survival of the human spirit. By the “human spirit” I mean those positive aspects of humanity that people show toward one another: empathy, respect, generosity, connection, emotional bonding, and identifying with the other. These elements require a sense of equality and a demand for human rights and justice in all domains of life, especially social and economic justice. Extremely self-centered righteousness leads to conflict, not cooperation; to fear, not hope; to aggression, not mutual respect; and to suspicion, not trust.

People set and adjust their public morality through interaction with family and friends, and with social, religious, political, and educational groups with whom they identify. 

After the next presidential election, regardless who wins and becomes president in January, we will still need to safeguard our democracy based on shared common-good public morality. Maintaining the common good means caring not just for ourselves but taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

As the American philosopher, George Lakoff, stressed in a recent book: “Houses fall apart if they are not maintained, so do democracy and the gifts of democracy that we barely notice and take for granted: the right to vote, public education, human rights, due process, unbiased news, clean water, clean air, national parks, safe food, good jobs, ethical banking practices, affordable mortgages, fair elections.” [The Little Blue Book: Talking and Thinking Democratic]

And a closing thought from the French philosopher and writer Voltaire (1694 – 1778): “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

It’s all part of public morality and avoiding polarization and chaos. – Jack

6 thoughts on “Polarization and Public Morality

  1. Thank you for the years of taking the time and making the effort to share your wisdom and compassion with us. You inspire and guide us to be better. This latest essay if a perfect example. Yes, we all need to be conscious of contributing to the commonweal of this great nation under God.

  2. Dear Jack,
    What you have written today is of the essence when one views this present election and our view of democracy. Our government exists not because of authority or laws or power. Our democracy exists because each individual chooses to comply with the expectations of our society for the common good even when there is no one watching or enforcing compliance. Truth, honesty, and mutual respect demand, as you have so eloquently explained, compliance of the soul and not just of the body. I obey laws because it is the right thing to do and because it makes us all have a decent quality of life. It is sobering and scary that the present mind-set of so many people today is that “might makes right.” I only have one disagreement with Voltaire’s quote. While someone may make me believe an absurdity, only I can make the choice to commit an atrocity. You have crystallized the crisis in our society. Have personal integrity, morality, and values been abandoned by so many in our society that we are now a democracy in name only?

  3. Jack
    A great series of essays. I keep hoping to hear someone remind us that:
    “thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor.”

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