Friday, February 12, 2016

The Personal Ethic And The Decline Of The West

     Way back in the deepest, darkest Seventies, Frederik Pohl published a novel titled “The Age Of The Pussyfoot.” It was typical Pohl – mediocre story, vaguely Bellamy-Communist in theme, a lot of conceptual horseplay – except for one passage. In that passage, protagonist Forrester strives to explain to an alien – a Sirian captured after a space skirmish – the difference between laws one obeys because they’re morally imperative and socially constructive, and laws one breaks whenever it’s convenient because they’re morally irrelevant. The concept that resounded in that passage was the rise of the “personal ethic.”

     It’s beyond question that some laws (in which I include regulations with the force of law) are morally irrelevant, if not worse. Indeed, I would put more than 95% of all laws in that category. Yet there are a few laws on the books – mostly those we inherited from the Common Law of England – that are coordinate with the general understanding of morality and justice. The typical man of good will, while his personal ethic impels him to conform to the morally relevant laws as a matter of conscience, believes himself to be unaffected by the morally-irrelevant-or-worse laws. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

     In the Nineties, when Rudy Giuliani became Mayor of New York City, he imposed a theory of law and order on the city that emphasized the enforcement of laws many persons regarded as minor: i.e., laws against vandalism, littering, and other “quality of life” infractions. This was in accordance with sociologist James Q. Wilson’s “Broken windows” theory of crime and urban civility. There was, as you would expect from urban liberals, a great outcry against this change. The terms “Gestapo” and “totalitarian” were tossed about freely. We also heard about the “cultural validity” of street gangs, thugs, graffiti “artists,” and assorted vandals in sanctimonious tones. Giuliani, no stranger to controversy, stuck to his guns.

     The consequences of Giuliani’s approach to law enforcement became visible within months. New York City, which under various Democratic administrations had become an open cesspool rife with every imaginable sort of crime, depravity, and disorder, rapidly returned to a state akin to its best days, when it was America’s urban jewel. But at least as important was the rapid, dramatic decline in more serious crimes: murder, rape, robbery and burglary, muggings, and the like. Wilson’s theory, put to the test in America’s most demanding urban environment, had been confirmed.

     Mind you, the notion that respect for the law is a single, indivisible phenomenon wasn’t new:

     No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

     The author of the above, Frederic Bastiat, wrote it in 1850, in France. He may not have foreseen the luxuriant multiplication of “laws” that we endure today...but it’s a certainty that he appreciated the disasters that ensue when respect for the law as such has vanished and only personal ethics remain in their place.

     As important as they are, personal ethics cannot wholly replace near-unanimous concurrence about the fundamentals of law and justice. For one thing, what strikes one person as serious is likely to strike some others as trivial. For another, given the sort of creatures we are, one’s personal ethics are likely to be “flexible” when it comes to one’s own opportunities and the exploitation thereof. And there’s this as well: persons convinced that they possess wisdom and morals superior to the rest of us will set all ethical considerations aside in their campaign against us. Never has this last consideration been more important than it is today.

     A friend and Web colleague, Dystopic of The Declination, has some thoughts on the subject:

     Vox posted on the subject, as it relates to sexual assault charges against a scientist. The money quote:
     The SJWs in science are setting up their favorite damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario for male scientists. If you don’t bring young women along with you on your trips, you’re a damnable sexist. And if you do, you’re a sexual predator.

     That’s the nature of the beast. The only way to win is not to play. SJWs count on this, because their goal is to drive white men out of positions of power whenever they get the opportunity to do so. Indeed, that is their stated mission, to dismantle what they call “white male privilege.” So your choices are to risk being tarred as a sexist, and losing your job, being accused of sexual assault, losing your job, and being thrown in prison, or leaving your field voluntarily (thus losing your job).

     Dystopic himself has been a target of left-wing harassment and defamation, including attempts to ruin his disk-jockey-for-hire business. Fortunately, supporters rallied to him to beat back the assault. What matters most, of course, is the pattern: the rise among leftists of the “personal ethic” that pre-exculpates them for offenses that others would be condemned for, in the name of “social justice.” Ironically, the law tends to protect such harassers and slanderers from their victims. Nor can any degree of backblast ever convince such...persons that their presumption of superior wisdom and morality is an artifact of their swollen egos, unjustified by any objective consideration. Advancing their Cause is all that matters to them.

     “As above, so below,” the mystics say. And in social matters it is most certainly so.

     The deterioration of the original American concurrence that was expressed in our once-common personal ethics might seem a small thing, tenuously (if at all) connected to the larger matters that bedevil our society. The reverse is the case, as the behavior of many highly placed persons embroiled in various scandals should be adequate to demonstrate. When personal ethics don’t suffice to curb evil behavior, and the mechanisms of the law are in the hands of persons disposed to such behavior, it will flourish and proliferate.

     Which is the cart and which is the horse? Did the corruption of law bring about the decline in personal ethics, or was it the other way around? It’s extraordinarily difficult to tell. The rise of the late-Nineteenth / early-Twentieth Century “Progressives” is suspiciously contemporaneous with critical deteriorations in the law: e.g., the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, and the Income Tax. It might all be a single phenomenon driven by the emergence of the Cause mentality, in which the means used to pursue a desired end are placed beyond the bounds of moral evaluation.

     As “Law has lost its soul and become jungle” (Bertrand de Jouvenel), personal ethics have become the paramount force for the maintenance of justice and public decency in America today. In this, our society is beginning to resemble that of the late-stage Soviet Union, where nothing good or constructive could be accomplished except by breaking the law. Even most law enforcers understand this.

     Unfortunately, as has become all too evident, the personal ethics Americans once shared are no longer as uniform as they once were – and you cannot empower some lawbreakers without empowering all lawbreakers. That doesn’t stop at those who smash windows, litter, and scrawl swastikas on church walls. It goes beyond them to highly placed political figures who use their offices to cheat, steal, oppress, protect other lawbreakers, and generally run roughshod over every defensible notion of justice. This does not bode well for the rule of law, nor for any form of government reminiscent of American Constitutionalism.

1 comment:

Avraham said...

i was there during the 90's and in fact NY was an amazing place under gulliani.