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Tuesday November 2, 2004: Politics and Ethics

         Well, it's been an interesting campaign.  I learned early in the game to head straight for FactCheck.Org -- both sides were flinging around misrepresentations with equal abandonment. That really wasn't much of a surprise; I believe the public normally views politicians' honesty as comparable to used-car salesmen.  (After this election campaign, maybe the used-car salesmen will come out higher on the list.)

         Someone once said that the word honesty defined one's actions in public; ethics defined how one acted when no one else was looking. I heard candidates talking about moral convictions, but assume neither claimed an ethical foundation.  I watched both engage in outer actions of mudslinging and dishonesty (oops, should I say misrepresentation, or different points of view?). No wonder I stayed an undecided voter for so long.

          I grew up in a family that was painfully ethical; I say painfully because somewhere along the way we all suffered from not taking the easy road, yet all agreed we would pay the price to keep our own inner standard.  Still, we struggled with issues of not only how to fit our ethics into the everyday world, but how to cope with other people's less-than-ethical behavior.

           When I was young and idealistic, I wrestled with the hypocrisy of people who 'religiously' attended church on Sunday and then did whatever was expedient the rest of the week to keep ahead of the competition. I remember being crushed to discover that scientists sometimes fudged their test results or manipulated the statistics.  It was a long struggle before I came to terms with basic human nature and with living in society.           

           Over time, I came to appreciate the inner peace that grows from a clear conscience.  I could appreciate the way ethical behavior deeply affected spiritual development, and quickly saw that just being on a spiritual path did not automatically translate as ethical commitment.  Some aspirants followed the ethical course only as long as it served their purpose; to me, provisional or situational ethics were not ethics at all.

           I wondered how to pass true ethical values to my children. Could you impress on a young child the need to follow what was right because of an inner conviction instead of an outer reward? One of my children seemed to instantly grasp the concept; one struggled; I agonized over my failure as a mother until I finally realized the problem resided in my own expectation. Children cannot be simply lifted to higher levels of ethical behavior, but must progress through earlier stages that control and monitor actions.

           For those in the earliest stage, one does what is right for fear of getting caught and punished.  Whatever one can get away with is fair game; regrets come not from the wrong action but from getting caught.

         In the middle stage, one does what is acceptable by group standards. One does the right thing because 'that's what group members are expected to do.'  The ideals are clearly defined, but it's common knowledge which rules can be bent (assuming actions are not too blatantly public). Regrets come from going against the norm and knowing public knowledge of one's actions would result in social disapproval. Note: the ideals of the United States are always higher than the daily practice of democratic freedom, and our society accepts this mid-level of ethics as a reasonable definition for being a responsible citizen.   

           It is only in the final stage of ethical development that one does the right thing only for the sake of deep inner conviction. The fact that others can get away with breaking an occasional rule or two, or the fact that 'everyone is doing it,' is not the individual's determining factor in choosing a course of action.  Regrets come from not being true to one's own moral code.

             No matter what the ideals a group or a career may proclaim, to hold to one's own highest standard in today's world can be at times lonely, disappointing, and confusing -- especially when those who live by lesser standards seem to be rewarded with the same or (sometimes) better benefits by the outer world.   

             Obviously, there are inner rewards for being true to oneself that become more evident as one ages.  As each decade passes, as I watch peers trying to run the rat race by the rules of the race, I begin seeing the difference in inner peace.  Oddly, I see the biggest difference in the way we view death; I carry around fewer regrets from my past, fewer anxieties over having life prematurely ended. Yes, I still have much I would like to do, but -- if life ended today -- I would be content.

           What took me the longest to notice is the social impact of maintaining high personal ethics. I've come to believe that in situations where there are different standards of what is 'acceptable or tolerable behavior,' it is the most ethical and honorable individuals of that group or organization who help maintain the overall ethics of the mid-group. It doesn't require large numbers of individuals with high ideals to keep the mid-group focused on an honorable path.  Nor, in most cases, does it require whistle-blowing. It requires enough ethical individuals to sway the undecided mid-group members, those members who may know the right action, but be afraid of standing alone.

          In an election year that has so polarized the country, I do not expect either candidate to easily unify the division created by their campaigns. When the president has finally been selected, I hope there will be enough individual citizens acting from an ethical basis to move our country forward. Please, let us progress into the future acting from ideals instead of carrying personal grudges. I know this will be my commitment, whatever the election outcome.  I only hope I will not be alone.

 

Posted on Tuesday, November 2, 2004 at 10:06AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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