Global Ethics Corner: Obama and Ethics

Mar 27, 2009

Can public discussion of issues acknowledge gray areas despite being polarized by the media and single issue groups?

Will it work: a president talking about the gray areas around decisions, about uncertainty?

Recently, President Obama explicitly talked about ethics regarding stem cells, and ethics were implicit in his "turning a big ocean liner" discussion of economics. "I'm a big believer in persistence... I think, hopefully, people will judge that body of work..."

The media, to sell, posit ethical issues as obvious choices: "greedy vs. selfless," "invest today vs. mortgage your children's future."

Single issue groups, to rally supporters and demonize opponents, need to narrow debates to "yes or no."

Hence, practical politics and ethics become opposite ends of a field.

Pragmatism becomes the Machiavellian position that ethics is just tactical political choice.

Ethics becomes the polar position that values are unattached, higher callings.

But, they are not polar. The struggle occurs over long periods, in the center of the field, in the gray areas between the obvious.

What do you think? Can public discussion of issues include uncertainty and doubt; acknowledge gray areas while turning the ship? What about the pull of media and interests? Is everything polar?

By William Vocke

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