Lesson 1: The Moral Crisis

Lesson 1: The Moral Crisis

Moral Crisis?Why is Michael Sandel’s introduction to ethics the most popular class at Harvard? What led “China Newsweek” to name Sandel the most influential foreign figure of the year 2011? How come my classes report using Sandel’s book has provoked some of our most exciting discussions?

I suspect the answer has something to do with the present crisis in ethics. David Brooks has lamented that our young people base all their decisions on what will bring them pleasure, because they no longer know how to do ethics. I see no evidence adults operate any differently.

In this situation many people have begun searching for help in deciding “What is the Right Thing to Do?” Part of the problem stems from the new challenges of a pluralistic, democratic society in which people no longer share common stories and values reinforced by the community and church; part of it from modern technology which has radically changed our social, political, and natural environment, exacerbating every temptation.

But the problem goes beyond that. Declaring a constant state of war allows us to exempt ourselves from traditional moral teachings. Labeling financial institutions too big to fail excuses them from legal accountability. Making the survival of Church institutions the first priority condones covering up criminal activity. No wonder some believe ethical action stands in the way of progress, complicating rather than solving our problems.

Our inability to deal with the power of the modern corporation adds to the dilemma. In the past both society and church expected morality from individuals but not societies. Now many believe we must acknowledge and control institutional sin. Our attempts to do this have led the courts to declare corporations enjoy the rights given all persons. They still have not shown how this includes the responsibilities expected of persons.

Without the benefit of moral judgment, people have turned from ethics to law. The question has become not if something is moral, but if it is legal. You quickly see the limitations of this solution. Laws proliferate in our attempt to cover every possible conflict resulting in a litigious society, mired court schedules, sophisticated efforts to bend the law, overcrowded prisons, and lawyer jokes. In reaction Libertarians call for doing away with as many laws as possible, claiming they interfere with the natural processes of human interaction.

So what are ethics? We’ll take a look at that next week. You might want to follow along using the first chapter of Sandel’s book, Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? However, that won’t be necessary. I hope to base most of the lessons on illustrations Sandel uses to make his points. My classes found these to be a great part of his attractiveness. Remember you can make comments by either e-mailing me at fritzafoltz@embarqmail.com or going to the site http://frontlinestudy.com/

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