Remembering Dana Meadows on the 8th Aniversary of Her Death
The Donella Meadows Archive
Voice of a Global Citizen
We Don't Need Leadership to Know Right from Wrong
"Assaulted by sleaze, scandals, and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings," the cover of the May 25 Time magazine says. The essay inside describes how the Reagan administration has failed in moral leadership -- or, more precisely, how it has succeeded in promoting "mindless materialism" and a "values vacuum".
Given the national confusion on ethical issues from Baby M to the defense of the Persian Gulf, we could use some moral leadership. But if I'm a typical example, I'm afraid we are likely to look for it in the wrong place.
My all-American public-school education was not exactly heavy on ethical analysis. In fact, since I took mostly science courses, my moral confidence was systematically eroded. Every day I absorbed strong messages -- values have no place in the laboratory; observe what is happening outside you, not inside you; your feelings have no validity.
My scientific training taught me to determine rightness and wrongness from outside, from measurable criteria such as economic profitability, not from the promptings of an invisible, unquantifiable conscience. And my elders provided me with hundreds of examples of how to rationalize glibly just about any act I might want to commit.
Then I was asked by my university to teach a course on ethics. I didn't know how to begin. How could I lead students through the thickets of moral controversy about population growth, nuclear power, acid rain? And yet what could be more important than to provide them with some ethical grounding?
To prepare for the course I sat in on philosophy and religion classes. I read books on ethics. I talked to pastors, priests, and gurus from many religions. I looked outside myself for moral leadership.
What I discovered was that I had known right from wrong all along.
Religions and ethical theories all have lists of moral rules. The rules generally boil down to the ones we learned at our mothers' knees. Don't hurt people, don't steal, don't lie. Help each other out.
The rules are not the primary authority, say the ethicists. They derive from something we all have within us, a clear sense of rightness, a sense that is given many names. We can get in touch with it whenever we want to. Prayer and meditation are ways -- not the only ways -- of getting in touch, of listening for moral guidance.
What that guidance says is consistent and simple. You are precious and special. So is everyone else, absolutely everyone. Act accordingly.
Don't do to someone else what you wouldn't want done to you. Don't do what would cause society to fall apart if everyone did it. Try to do what you would want done if you were someone else -- a homeless person in New York, a child in Ethiopia, a Nicaraguan peasant, a Polish dockworker.
You don't want your spouse to commit adultery, so don't do it yourself. You don't want to raise a family on a minimum wage, so pay your workers decent incomes. You don't want to live near a hazardous waste dump, so don't create one. If everyone cheats on income tax or insider-trading laws, the government and the stock market wouldn't function. So don't cheat.
It's really not hard to see what's right. What's hard is to admit how much of what we do is wrong.
Moral confusion is greatest not at the individual level, but at the level of nations. We forget that nations involve people too, people who are all as unique and precious as we are. The rules still apply. We don't want Libyan jets sweeping down in the night to bomb Washington -- therefore it was wrong to bomb Tripoli. We don't want Nicaragua to finance hoodlums to shoot our people and destabilize our government -- so it's wrong for us to do that. Creating weapons that can destroy not only enemy nations but also our own is so irrational that it defies ethical theory. To think ethically you have to be at least sane enough to recognize an evil when it threatens YOU.
The usual excuse for state-sponsored immorality is that it opposes the evil of others. When the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, when white Afrikaners oppress blacks, when Qaddafi harbors terrorists, when Chile tortures political dissenters, they are acting immorally. Don't we have an obligation to do something about it?
That's the hardest part of moral theory for me -- what to do about the evil of others. I have found Gandhi to be a wise guide here. Do oppose evil, he says, with all your might. Use every form of resistance and non-cooperation. But don't use violence, which sucks you down into evil yourself. Even a person doing wrong is a person, whose soul you must respect, though you do not respect his actions.
The base assumptions of our foreign policy -- assumptions not invented by the Reagan administration but greatly strengthened by it -- are clearly immoral. Americans are more worthy than other human beings. Our nation ought to have its way at the expense of other nations. The existence of evil elsewhere justifies committing evil ourselves. Not one of those statements is morally defensible.
New moral leadership does not mean someone to tell us what to do. It means someone to help us discover that we already know what to do. Someone who can recognize the smokescreens we all throw into ethical discussions to make us feel good about what we know we should feel bad about. Someone to keep reminding us that we are special and precious -- all of us, every one of us.
Copyright Sustainability Institute
This article from The Donella Meadows Archive is available for use in research, teaching, and private study. For other uses, please contact Diana Wright, Sustainability Institute, 3 Linden Road, Hartland, VT 05048, (802) 436-1277