The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Ethics of a Democracy

What one word would you use to describe the government? Think about it.

Do you see that word as positive or negative?

In a recent poll, people were asked to come up with one word to describe the government. Most people came up with a similar answer to my own: Government is Big. And we don't usually use the word "big" here in a positive sense. I have seen a lot of rhetoric lately that places "Big Government" as the cause of many of our problems. Politicians on both sides have talked about deregulation of the private sector as a good thing, and it seems every person who has an opinion is pushing for smaller government.

But is smaller government better? I'm speaking here, ethically, of course. I am a no politician.

What I am is a concerned minister. I search for ethics in a world that desperately needs them. And although I'd shy away from calling myself an "expert" on ethics, I am most definitely in the business of ethics. 
Enter Kohlberg, who says that most people think at a stage 4. The government runs at a stage 5. Those of us who see universal ethics as the key to a better future, are operating at a stage 6. Kohlberg is concerned with our moral reasoning, not necessarily our moral action. It is our moral reasoning- regardless of our moral action- in which we participate in politics. After studying Piaget's stages of development, Kohlberg adapted them and then tested them. For reference, you can use the chart below:

 As you can see, we work our way through these levels. Kohlberg says that most people never get out of level four. Which means that most Americans are probably fours. Above you can see that for fours, rules are paramount."Fours" tend to they take care of and prefer their own family to others and to view ethics as belonging to "the group". Because of the group mentality, "Fours" tend to root for the sports team from their city exclusively and conveniently think their opinions are the only right ones. "Fours" are likely to think that the Bible is perfect and unquestionable, that authority is authority and that breaking rules and laws should have far-reaching consequences. Because of this, "Fours" tend to push for their beliefs/opinions to become laws.

The next step up the ladder is Stage 5.
From Wikipedia:
In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid edicts. Those that do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. This is achieved through majority decision, and inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

Indeed, I mentioned that the U.S. Government runs at a level five, according to Kohlberg himself. Simple majority almost never runs our country- just ask Al Gore. We have an electoral college because it is more fair to represent the country than a simple majority. Most votes in Congress require more than a simple majority to pass. We have rights that protect minority groups, such as Affirmative Action and Title IX.

So here we are: Stage 6.
(universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Legal laws are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for moral action. Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way. This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.The resulting consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.

The belief for many is that deregulation and free economy is more free and natural. But is it more ethical? 
The idea is that if people are given the freedom to choose for themselves, then people will make the right decisions for themselves. I know- wretched man that I am- for that not to be true.Tell churches that are trying to worship God that they are the only ones left to feed the poor and hungry with their limited resources and see how that works out. Give individuals money that should be saved for my retirement or health care, and see where that money ends up. Put me in a room with fried chicken and sweet tea- things I know to be bad for me- and see what happens. How long can we 
 allow people to harm themselves and others        in the name of freedom?

So should the government be big or small? I don't know.  But what I do know is that most people operate in stage 4 and our democracy operates in stage 5.

There is something else, something obvious. Kohlberg believed that showing people the steps to take could actually improve their moral reasoning; meaning, people are not destined to stay in the level where they currently find themselves.

Remember, there is no need for big government at Stage 6. Think of Stage 6 Icons such as Jesus, Ghandi and MLK. Each of them worked against an oppressive government. Each of them acted because the action was in tune with their moral compass. And, each of them protested nonviolently.

 If you want smaller government, the simplest answer seems to be to raise your self up by your own ethical bootstraps. Become more ethical than the government. Now wouldn't that be radical? 

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