Saturday, June 12, 2004

Second Story Man

I’ve never been a big Stanley Fish fan, but I share some of his suspicions about abstract principles. My problem with immutable truths, however, is not that they are too abstract but that they often aren’t abstract enough. Partisans nail their flags to privatization or state’s rights or multiculturalism or some other slogan masquerading as a transcendent principle when these policy themes are at best means to end. To suggest that these ideas are good or bad depending on time or circumstance is not to embrace some sort of moral relativism, any more than the infinity of possible viewpoints in perspective drawing implies the nonexistence of an objectively real landscape. Just the reverse. Tactics are properly judged in terms of the strategies they realize, and policies by the higher purposes they serve.

I don’t favor the public ownership of utilities or the private ownership of utilities. I favor ensuring safe, reliable power at reasonable cost and with minimum damage to the environment. I don’t think it is decisively important whether health care is largely private or largely public, but I do care that it is available, efficacious, and universal. Sometimes a national news service promotes free debate and accurate news, sometimes it is merely the ministry of propaganda just as a privately owned press at times serves as a marketplace for ideas while at others, as in contemporary America, it is just a whorehouse.

People would like to believe that simple answers are available to problems just as they prefer to follow a preadolescent morality based on concrete prohibitions because, contrary to appearances, situational ethics are too rigorous. In politics, as in private life, the only reliable moral compass is gyroscopic, a complicated machine that allows an individual to maintain a sense of direction despite the turbulent motions of his or her surroundings.

The would-be student was disappointed with the Sufi master because he blew on his fingers because they were cold and blew on his soup because it was hot.

No comments: