Toward an Ethical Polity

All political and social theorists, whatever their particular philosophic frameworks and normative commitments, agree that social and political theories always embody some ideal of a preferred way of life. Although a handful of postmodern or deconstructive contemporary theorists disdain all normative standards, most social and political thinkers insist that no way of life can persist without a widely shared cluster of basic notions. Those who locate ethical concerns at the heart of their theories hope for a world in which private and public lives bearing their own intrinsic purpose are allowed to flourish. A richly complex private sphere requires freedom from some all-encompassing public imperative for survival. But in order for the private sphere to flourish, the public world itself must nurture and sustain a set of ethical imperatives, including a commitment to preserve, protect, and defend human beings in their capacities as private persons, and to allow men and women alike to partake in the good of the public sphere with participatory equality (Elshtain, 1981). Such an ideal seeks to keep alive rather than to eliminate tension between diverse spheres and competing ideals and purposes. There is always a danger that a too strong and overweening polity will overwhelm the individual, as well as a peril that life in a polity confronted with a continuing crisis of legitimacy may decivilize both those who oppose it and those who would defend it.

The prevailing image of the person in an ethical polity is that of a human being with a capacity for self-reflection. Such persons can tolerate the tension between public and private imperatives. They can distinguish between those conditions, events, or states of affairs that are part of a shared human condition—grief, loss through death, natural disasters, and decay of the flesh—and those humanly made injustices that can be remedied. Above all, human beings within the ethical polity never presume that ambivalence and conflict will one day end, for they have come to understand that ambivalence and conflict are the wellspring of a life lived reflectively. A clear notion of what ideals and obligations are required to animate an authentic public life, an ethical polity, must be adumbrated: authority, freedom, public law, civic virtue, the ideal of the citizen, all those beliefs, habits, and qualities that are integral to a political order.

Much of the richest theorizing of democratic civil society since 1980 has come from citizens of countries who were subjected for forty years or more to authoritarian, even totalitarian regimes. They pose alternatives both to collectivism and to individualism by urging that the associations of civil society be recognized as subjects in their own right. They call for a genuinely pluralist law to recognize and sustain this associative principle as a way to overcome excessive privatization, on the one hand, and overweening state control, on the other. Solidarity theorist Adam Michnik insists that democracy entails a vision of tolerance, and understanding of the importance of cultural traditions, and the realization that cherished human values can conflict with each other____The essence of democracy as I understand it is freedom—the freedom which belongs to citizens endowed with a conscience. So understood, freedom implies pluralism, which is essential because conflict is a constant factor within a democratic social order. (p. 198)

Michnik insists that the genuine democrat always struggles with his or her own tradition, eschewing the hopelessly heroic and individualist notion of going it alone. Michnik positions himself against contemporary tendencies to see any defense of tradition as necessarily "conservative"; indeed, he criticizes all rigidly ideological thinking that severs every political and ethical concern between right and left, proclaiming that "a world devoid of tradition would be nonsensical and anarchic. The human world should be constructed from a permanent conflict between conservatism and contestation; if either is absent from a society, pluralism is destroyed" (p. 199).

A second vital political-ethical voice is that of Vaclav Havel, a playwright, dissident, political theorist, and, in the years following the "tender revolution" of 1989, the president of a then-united Czechoslovakia. In his essay, "Politics and Conscience," he writes:

We must trust the voice of our conscience more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent other responsibilities than the one to which the voice calls us. We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must see these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their "private" exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community. (pp. 153-154)

To this end, he favors what he calls "anti-political politics," defined not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the useful, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. "I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative" (p. 155). This is the voice of an ethical polity. Were this voice to prevail, the way in which our ethical dilemmas are adjudicated, including those emerging from bioethics, would be rich and complex enough to enable us to see the public and civic consequences of our private choices, even as it would guard against severe intrusion into intimate life from the outside.

Ethical dilemmas are inescapably political and political questions are unavoidably ethical. Bioethical matters can never be insulated from politics, nor should they be. But the way in which such matters are addressed will very much turn on the social or political theories to which the ethicist, the medical practitioner, the patient or consumer, and the wider, interested community are indebted.


SEE ALSO: Coercion; Consensus, Role and Authority of; Communitarianism and Bioethics; Contractarianism and Bioethics; Human Rights; Justice; Medicine, Sociology of; Natural Law; Paternalism; and other Ethics subentries

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