• Fred Guerin

Politics and Ethics

Updated: May 31, 2020


In the present world we have gone to great lengths to separate the political from the ethical. The political we say is about acquiring and holding power. In a complex multi-cultural world politics orients itself around opinions and the art of compromise—a concession to realpolitik which, by definition, eternally falls short of the categorical or clear-cut moral demand.


And yet there really is noescaping from the fact that humans are guided by reasoning, values and value structures—whether the latter are founded on deeply held religious convictions, social and cultural mores or issue out of humanist, or broader ecological perspectives. In most cases we act out of habit and without conscious awareness of whether the choice we just made is in line with our ethical ideals or principles. This does not mean we are necessarily irrational creatures (though we can be!).


What it does mean is that we will sometimes make decisions not based on any sort of principled moral demand or rational calculation of consequences, but on what we believe is expected of us from others, or in following in the footsteps of a family tradition, or just a ‘gut feeling’ about things. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting confirmation bias: that we tend to accept only those facts and arguments that fit in with what we already believe—in effect, shutting down alternative ways of understanding and immunizing ourselves from the possibility of thinking otherwise than we do.


This seems especially to be true when we speak about something like climate change. Those who are skeptical, for whatever reason, about the science of human-caused climate warming will rate news items, political rhetoric or newspaper editorials confirming their bias much higher than those which take great pains to lay out a reasonable and empirically founded case for why we should heed what the scientists are saying.


It would seem from all of this that opinions, moral relativism and individual bias and prejudice must inevitably triumph over truth, categorical ethical principles and reasoned argument. Indeed, a case could be made that the more education one has, the less open one will be to different possible ways of thinking and doing. However, it could also be that with more education and more learning about the deep connection between living things, the fragility of the biosphere and the incredible impact we humans have had on the environment since the industrial revolution, we will inevitably, over the course of years, develop not only a broader perspective on things, but hold views and convictions which are well-founded, and not so easily altered or refuted by trivial, petty or unfounded counter-arguments.


Does this testify to the power of reason and the persuasiveness of good argument? I think it does—but in a somewhat qualified way. When those who are actually motivated to learn more about climate or understand the science better are shown that the beliefs or convictions they hold are wrong, they may well be persuaded or moved to think differently. Developing the capacity to recognize the truth on the ground or discriminate between better arguments and worse ones is a challenge when we are dealing with more complex systems such as the relationship between climate warming and the biosphere.


And, it will still be the case that we use our reason more often to try and persuade people we are right (even when we are wrong!) rather than to discover the truth or reality through painstaking research. Again, this does not so much mean we are irrational, but only that reason and argument can sometimes take second place to historical or group allegiance, or to the need to justify a present lifestyle.


We are, after all, social creatures who take our cues from those who appear to think about things the way we do. But this social aspect of human interaction can also press us to think beyond the confines of our own tribe—over time most of us have been persuaded to accept gay marriage, advocate equal or human rights, reject slavery.


Part of the reason is that there is a certain ‘reciprocity’ constitutive of human social interaction whereby we feel compelled to give back something when someone gives something to us. Sometimes this reciprocity can manifest in the act of listening attentively to what the other has to say. If we can additionally demonstrate in a non-threatening way the reasonableness of our point of view, or help someone realize the shortcomings of their perspective, then perhaps we can gently nudge them in another direction. That is the human experience of reasoned persuasion--the capacity to move and be moved by another.


But be aware that once you open the door, and sincerely invite the other in, it could be you that comes away with a different take on things! After all, none of us have a sole corner on either wisdom or truth.

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