Ethics is the best guide through times of political instability, argues Simon Longstaff. Whether you find the new era exciting or frightening, you won’t survive it if you don’t know what you believe in.
In years past, one of my roles was to take meteorological readings for the northwest sector of the Gulf of Carpentaria. My job was to relay weather readings to an operator in Katherine. From there they would be added to the data pool used by the Bureau of Meteorology to track and predict Australia’s weather. Although my part was very basic, it was essential – irrespective of the weather conditions. And so it was that I found myself reading the weather at the height of a tropical cyclone.
I stepped into the maelstrom, physically wrestling the wind – absolutely exhilarated by this personal encounter with the unbridled power of nature. Meanwhile, other (perhaps more sensible) people were gathered together in shelters. The same cyclone that made me feel alive left them terrified. One phenomenon, two very different relations.
For me, that cyclone is like President Trump’s emerging impact on the world. The flurry of claims and counter-claims, ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and the swirling vortex of presidential orders demonstrate enormous power and have provoked extremely diverse responses.
Whatever divides Trump’s supporters from his critics, they are united by one thing: both groups are being buffeted by powerful winds of change
For some people, President Trump is a thrilling departure from ‘politics as normal’. For others, his conduct is a frightening repudiation of all they believe in. Whatever divides Trump’s supporters from his critics, they are united by one thing: both groups are being buffeted by powerful winds of change. As such, they have a common need to find stable anchor points.
Trump supporters risk being swept away on a tide of populism that knows no boundaries and ultimately ‘eats its own’. Critics risk their scepticism giving way to the kind of outright cynicism that inevitably corrodes the bonds of human society. Of the two risks, the latter is the greater. Cynicism so often ends in resignation and the hopelessness of despair. Citizens disengage and democracies unravel from within.
Neither outcome – self-defeating populism or rampant despair – is inevitable.
Core values and principles provide the anchor points needed to hold people steady. They are the ground we return to whenever making conscious decisions about how to live as individuals and as a society. Although the specifics may vary between people, places and times, the basic structure is the same. With one important exception, every human being makes choices informed by their values and principles.
History is full of examples of individuals and societies who have lost their ethical bearings, only later to look back in horror at what has been done.
The exception is the problem.
Too often, people act without giving much thought to what they are doing. Instead habits provide the pattern for ‘accepted behaviour’. In these circumstances it is all too easy for good people to drift until they either act badly or become complicit in the bad deeds of others. History is full of examples of individuals and societies who have lost their ethical bearings, only later to look back in horror at what has been done.
In nearly every case, the majority has made no active choice to take the wrong path. Instead, they have been led there in ignorance by a demagogue or have gone along unwillingly, having lost their capacity to resist to the pits of despair.
An ethical life is a life for the hopeful.
At its heart, ethics is about living an ‘examined life’. It is about resisting the temptation to act out of habit alone – even if those habits are virtuous. Although we all inherit values and principles from our parents and other people who are influential in our lives, a mature person will grow the capacity to make these values and principles their own. Their lives will be more than a mere imitation of others. It is only by moving beyond inherited values and moral codes we can genuinely take responsible for our own lives.
From a practical point of view, the first step is to establish a conscious, personal inventory of values and principles by asking ‘what things are good at their core and worth choosing above other things?’ and ‘what are the right ways to obtain those things?’ Only then is it possible to make an independent assessment of the currents that might otherwise dictate the movements of your life.
An ethical life is a life for the hopeful – a way of living that strengthens the sinews of all those affected by the political project embodied by President Trump. Political bluster can be every bit as dangerous as cyclonic winds. Let’s strengthen the ground on which we meet it.
Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.
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Header image credit: The New York Times