Friday, August 14, 2009

Epidemiological Surveillance

One argument in favor of telling the truth is that lying is ultimately self-defeating. It’s worth making claims about matters of fact because somebody is liable to believe what you say. Lying, especially habitual lying, devalues speech. As Robert J. Fogelin used to point out, however, people do lie, quite frequently as a matter of fact, but we nevertheless go on talking. The situation recalls a reply to an objection formerly advanced about a different vice. When told if he didn’t stop, he’d go blind, Woody Allen promised to quit after he got nearsighted.

Human society would hardly be possible if it could be easily subverted by individual acts of bad behavior. Indeed, since a certain amount of skullduggery is built into the machinery, displays of virtue can be entirely more threatening to the status quo than any rampaging murderer. No serial killer ever raised as big a ruckus as Martin Luther King. Of course most ethical behavior is not so alarming. Most of it is largely invisible, and what does surface is either treated as a vestige of a long-dead past like Walter Cronkite’s journalism or else is chalked up to the intervention of an angel of the Lord or the bite of a radioactive spider—religion and/or science fiction. Objectivity and fairness, in particular, are widely regarded to be impractical, either as a matter of principle or because, as one television anchor explained the other day, the threat of losing millions of dollars in income for doing your duty amounts to force majeure. You just can’t expect anybody but a Don Quixote to try to unsell their souls as long as there are several years left in the term of the contract. But are there circumstances under which ethical behavior can infect a diseased social system? Is morality ever catching?

At various times in history, justice, fairness, and disinterest appeared as marvelous new inventions. Societies paralyzed by the tetanus of internecine strife the ancients called stasis found a way out through the intervention of prophets and lawgivers, though it says something about habitual human behavior that disinterested benevolence was commonly associated with supernatural intervention or madness. One of the reasons that modern states emerged from the interminable savagery of early medieval knighthood was that a lawful monarch, be he ever so hypocritical, was preferable to the thugs in the castles so long as something like justice arrived with his regime. Indeed, even the thugs recognized the advantage of such a system, which is part of the reason that the kings eventually prevailed over the dukes.

Well, we don’t live in the Dark Ages, though barbarism and religion are obviously on the march and there is something feudal about the great corporations whose masters claim a right not merely to influence, but sovereignty in the nation. Is it possible that public spirit could spread like a new strain of flu among such swine? I’m not saying it’s likely—if anybody is immune to the virus of integrity, it’s surely Senator Grassley—but I wanted to point out that it has happened before.