Topic: Government & Politics

An Ethics Lesson from Bill Clinton
(5/30/2004)

Former President Clinton has recently stepped up to remind us, and one hopes political combatants on both sides of the ideological spectrum, of some crucial ethical principles.

He has made a valiant and unfashionable attempt to revitalize the most endangered value in this highly charged political season: respect.

Speaking at the University of Kansas, he responded to cheers from anti-war students by saying:

"This is thinking time, not cheering time. If immediately you decide that somebody who sees a whole new situation differently than you must be a bad person and is somehow twisted inside, then we're not going to get very far in forming a more perfect union."

Thank you, President Clinton. Let's hope folks at the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee were listening, as well as Al Franken, Ann Coulter, Paul Begala, Rush Limbaugh, Molly Ivins, Sean Hannity, Tom Delay, Nancy Pelosi, and all the other citizens, zealots, elected officials, commentators and back room operatives who have decided that insults and denigration are a proper substitute for argument. The much discussed "polarization" of the country along an ideological divide is in great part due to proliferation of the unethical tactic of attributing bad motives, bad faith, and impaired thought processes to everyone who holds a different view of the world. Such conduct fails the standards of ethical reciprocity, because nobody wants others to treat them in such a manner. It fails a utilitarian test because it makes compromise and persuasion more difficult, while making unproductive conflict and policy analysis more likely. The tactic undermines democracy, because democracy depends on mutual trust. And though freedom is nourished by love and respect for fellow human beings, organized disrespect and distain for opposing views embraces the values of hate, anger and revenge.

Today all over America citizens at dinner parties and casual gatherings are afraid to discuss political issues for fear that their opinions will brand them as bad people in the eyes of friends and relatives. Such is the social cost of ethically irresponsible rhetoric from leaders and opinion-makers. As bad as they are, the societal costs can be far worse. A breakdown in civil discourse in the 19th Century was a factor in causing the Civil War. The objective then as now was to form a more perfect union. President Clinton has properly identified an obstacle to that objective that can be removed with the application of basic ethical principles.

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