A friend recently posted a link on Facebook with this comment appended:
Alarming story over on /. today: not in the short term, but rather in the long term. Privacy continues to erode. Which is, perhaps, a good thing? Are we only ethical when someone is (potentially) watching? Panopticon?
One of his friends beat me to the reply button: "How is that a good thing?"
I remember having, a couple of years ago, a mind-blowing/eye-opening conversation with one of my most "progressive" friends about ethics. I kept trying to get him to review his own behavior, to evaluate his choices, etc. He kept trying to ask me "What about the poor?--what are you doing for the poor?" Then I asked him, "So, you think voting Democrat is an ethical act?" "Yes!," he finally proclaimed.
That completely stupefied me. His notion of ethical responsibility had become entirely impersonal (unless you count trudging to the voting booth as "personal"). Justice, for him, happened entirely at a collective/social level. Societies were just or unjust, but he wasn't interested in justice at a personal level.
I couldn't find any of the specific articles that I've encountered lately -- but trust me, they're out there -- articles that begin by saying things like, "Now that America has turned its focus from self-interest to collective responsibility...." I'm disturbed by this rhetorical trend. I'm not sure if it's occurring more or if I'm simply noticing it more; in either case, I don't like it. Inherent in that kind of syntax is a removal of ethical responsibilities from individuals and to abstractions like "government."
A different friend, a struggling wedding-photographer and part-time Buddhist who lives with his parents, posted this status update yesterday on Facebook: "[J- B-] opposes social control." I clicked the "like" button. As Scottish folk singer Donovan once sang (in one of the great songs of the 20th century), "Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinkin'." I'm thinking now. And I'm talking about Freedom. I feel like I live with a generation of scholars who has no emotional investment in that notion -- and the Devil always attacks where lukewarmism reigns. Now, go: write me a 250 word essay on what Freedom means to you.
No, wait. Here's a list of things I do wrong:
- I smile and say "Yeah, ok," and then don't follow through.
- With people who have power over me, I say what they want to hear; with people who don't have power of me, I speak too bluntly.
- I don't do enough of my (pregnant) wife's errands.
- I lie by omitting to mention my lustful thoughts.
- I'm afraid of so much, so afraid.
- I half-ass it most days.
- I am not fulfilling my academic potential.
- I eat much more than I need.
- I have closed my mind to certain ways of living.
- My e-passwords are relatively easy to guess.
- I never send birthday cards, even to my mom.
- I teach my students things they're not ready for yet.
- I argue just to have something to do.
Although this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, it is representative of the kinds of list I wish more academics would start generating in response to the recent surge in "ethics-scholarship." I think it would make the world better than the kind of discourse that focuses on vague abstractions about "others" and "social responsibility" and "collective notions of--."
In other words: I believe that Ethics that has to do with reforming the Self could change the world; and that Ethics that has to do with "collective, social notions of responsibility" can change the world... but not the way you'd want to see it changed. The kingdom of G-d is not out there*, is not over here; it is inside, friends. Explore thyself, Soto! All of the wisdom of all ages points in that direction. All of the folly points outward.
N.B. -- I realize, of course, the dreadful irony at the center of this post: in asking other academics to look inward, I fail to set an example for them. Callooh! Callay!
*A reference to saying #3