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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Morality and Ethics

 Why is it said that the graveyard of politics is littered with principled men? …

Whatever forces may be in play to attempt to change a powerful and hardened status quo are typically compelled to proceed at their own peril.  President Eisenhower had resisted the change in the law integrating the nation's public schools, the 1954 US Supreme Court's landmark unanimous ruling, as not involving a great moral issue.  Sometimes, that is the way the issue of change is ultimately portrayed.  That is, does the particular situation involve a moral issue which is at stake, or not?  If so, typically, change may be more likely to occur than not.  Otherwise, forget about it.  But it is important to take note that the word is often used as a default argument, when one is trying to articulate the need for change.

We ordinary citizens have all heard the expression: “I can’t do that – it’s the principle of the matter!”  As a lawyer who spent a good deal of time in the courtroom arguing contested cases, if I had a dime for every time I had to defend someone’s principles, I’d be a rich man.

When one thinks of morality, one must also think of ethics.  And the definition of ethics must include the idea of obedience to the unenforceable.  Woodrow Wilson, the highly principled man that he was, once said that “there is a higher law than profit” and that people “should be broader-minded to see what was best for America.”

The political process involves compromise.  But the compromise of principle often comes at the expense of conscience.  Sometimes, particularly when the stakes are greatest, the choice is not pleasant.  For these reasons, it is said that the graveyard of politics is littered with principled men.  Who does that leave us with?

A revealing story about ethics involves the somewhat familiar tale of a man who finds a lost wallet on the sidewalk.  Like a majority of ordinary citizens, the man had a good job but had virtually nothing to spare, once all the bills were paid, until the next paycheck.

Picking up the wallet, he put it in his coat and continued on to work, examining its contents as soon as he got there.  At around $600 in cash, he stopped counting.  His first thought was that he had won a mini lottery.  But he quickly dismissed that foolish notion.  The man called the owner to tell him to come by to pick it up.  The owner spoke gruffly, however, unlike what one might expect from a man whose wallet had just been found.

The owner did come by later that afternoon, turning out to be an older, white man with a permanent scowl.  The man handed the owner his wallet, and the owner immediately began counting his money.  Audibly irritated, the man said it was all there.  The owner stopped counting, grudgingly pulled out a $5 bill and handed it toward the man, who refused to accept it, stating that he hoped the owner would return somebody else’s wallet someday.  The owner turned on his heel and stalked away without uttering another word.

The man learns two valuable lessons from that experience.  The first is as familiar as it is simple: Honesty is what you do when no one is looking.  The second is perhaps more important, and more relevant, described as the defining moment in the man’s ethical development: A need, however great it might be, does not convert wrong to right, or bad to good.  The owner’s wallet was not his, no matter how much the man needed the money, or how rude the owner happened to be.  The man later became a member of the highest court in the land, the US Supreme Court.  The Hon. Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas often had occasion to remind himself in years to come that self-interest isn’t a principle --- it’s just self-interest.

One of Clarence Thomas’ heroes, the late Bobby Kennedy, had said that it was really a moral issue, the continued prosecution of the Vietnam War, against the increasingly violent street protests of the younger generation calling for its end.  The truth is that the US had expended more ordnance on the tiny Asian nation of North Vietnam than all the participants in World War II against each other, combined.  This inspired R.F.K. to pose the following question: “If we bomb every square inch of North Vietnam to rubble, then what exactly have we saved it from?”

Bobby Kennedy had been inspired by the message conveyed in Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”  And so, using an argument inspired by morality, he changed his position on the Vietnam War.  Such can be the power of morality to nudge the immovable object.

-Michael D'Angelo

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Senator's Son

What are the ingredients necessary to preserve the American Dream?  Do they include equal access to the American economic opportunity structure?  ...

How does an ordinary citizen become Commissioner of the National Football League?  Does he have to know or be related to Bill Gates?  Or Warren Buffett?  Or the Koch brothers?  Not even a few of us can be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to grow up the privileged child of the rich man.  As a matter of pure numbers, it’s just not reality.  Unfortunately.

And how about the US Senators?  Very few of us are the Senator’s son, either.  Is it any wonder that we seem to know very little of the sons and daughters of our US Senators?  Or of other historically noteworthy citizens?  Perhaps this is because, typically, born with the silver spoon, as the song goes, the house looks like a rummage sale.  That is to say, they don’t amount to much.  Call it human nature.

But a few notable exceptions come to mind in our own lifetime.  Roger Goodell, the current and only 3rd commissioner in NFL history, is one.  Mr. Goodell has picked up where his predecessor left off, growing rather nicely into the job he landed in 2006, and leading the NFL to new heights of prosperity.  He is the son of Charles Goodell, the late US Senator, R-NY, appointed to his seat by then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to fill the vacancy upon the assassination of US Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY in 1968.  Did the connection assist the commissioner in obtaining his first NFL position, an administrative internship in the league offices in 1982?  Did it assist him in being named commissioner?  It certainly couldn’t hurt.

Another is Al Gore, the former two term Vice President to Pres. Bill Clinton and the winner of the consolation prize in the hotly, and legally, contested presidential election of 2000.  Gore’s father had been a US Senator from Tennessee, as was Mr. Gore at one time.  Before beginning his years of public service, however, Mr. Gore served time in Vietnam in 1969, having enlisted in the army.  He reasoned that he did not want someone with fewer options than he to go in his place.  A 1969 graduate of Harvard University, he would become one of only about a dozen of the 1,115 members of his class who went to Vietnam.

Since the election of 2000, Mr. Gore has been involved mostly in environmental causes, founding and serving as the current chair of the Alliance for Climate Protection.  He has also been on a campaign to educate citizens about global warming via a comprehensive slide show that, by his own estimate, he has given more than a thousand times.  The slide show is the subject of the 2006 documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, winner of an Academy Award in 2007.  He was also the subject of a joint award with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the Nobel Peace Prize, also in 2007.  He has championed the idea of stewardship of the environment as a moral issue, more than anything else.

Yet another is President George H. W. Bush/“41,” who was the son of US Sen. Prescott Bush, R-CT, a Wall Street banker.  That makes Prescott a pretty distinguished fellow.  He was the father of one president, the grandfather of another president (George W. Bush/“43”) and the grandfather of the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, who many believe is also presidential material.

And although he was not the son of a US Senator, Gen. William T. Sherman had friends in high places looking out for him, too, among the politicians in Washington, D.C.  His brother, John, was a political mover and US Senator from Ohio during the General’s time.  Subsequently, John Sherman would become a future Secretary of State and the primary sponsor of major federal anti-monopoly legislation, which dates back to the 1890s.

Two of our 44 US Presidents were the sons of presidents: John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams, and the aforementioned Bush/“43” the son of Bush/“41.”  As distinguished was the career of each son of a president, the question for the ordinary citizen remains: Would either have had the remote chance to become President of the United States if his respective father weren’t?

Put another way, who holds the keys to the video room?  Who among us commands access to the American economic opportunity structure?  An ordinary citizen who dismisses these questions would be well served to consider the following proposition.  Understanding this complicated dynamic may provide the essential force in identifying what is necessary to preserve the American Dream.  The stakes cannot be fairly understated.

-Michael D'Angelo