Thursday, September 02, 2004

Three Essential Values

Dear Colleagues:

It has been said that a wonderful thing about the Internet is that it gives a voice to people who otherwise would have none in American society. It gives a voice to persons who may, who hopefully, have something to say, but who are shut out of the traditional mass media: radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. The voice may be small, although some people have built an Internet readership of tens of thousands. But however small, the voice now exists where it didn’t before.

This posting is written in that spirit. It is written in the spirt of a small voice saying what the author believes to be the most important point that he can contribute to any discussion of public or private life. It is a point that perhaps sounds banal, simpleminded. It is a point that in certain respects is discussed all the time, yet is too rarely heeded and seems never to be truly accepted.

As is always true, we hear a lot these days about the inevitably transitory issues of the moment. Today those issues include the war in Iraq, terrorism, particular economic policies, lack of medical insurance, and the conservatives’ call for acceptance -- or imposition -- of their values regarding religion, abortion and family life. But although some of these issues will last or have lasted for awhile (albeit they nonetheless are transitory), in a larger sense they are not of the essence, are not fundamental. There are, I think, only three matters that are truly fundamental -- that truly determine the kind of society we have and the kind of lives we will lead as individuals, and that are permanent matters of permanent relevance. The three matters can justifiably be called values, truly basic values.

The three values I speak of are honesty, competence, and at least some concern for others, not just concern for oneself alone. And of the three, honesty is the most important because, without it, competence is not attainable and concern for others is less likely by far because one is not likely to know, understand or sympathize with the position of others.

If one looks back over, say, the last 50 years, it seems inevitable to conclude that much, even most or all, of our public problems stem from some form of, some level of, dishonesty. Sometimes the dishonesty takes the form of outright lies. Sometimes its form is lack of disclosure of the truth or lack of full disclosure of the truth. Sometimes it comes as spin. Sometimes it comes as what has been called, in a forthcoming book, "cornball crapola" -- standardized words or phrases that sound good but are false and are used to cover up the truth.* There was some form, some level, of dishonesty with regard to Viet Nam, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, the savings and loan debacle, Monicagate, the second Iraqi war, Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, American politics and civic life generally, and so on ad nauseam. Had full bore truth been the ruling desideratum in these matters, events at issue likely would never have occurred. It was some form or level of dishonesty that made them possible.

What is true of the public life is true as well of private lives. If a reader looks back at his or her own life, I would venture that as often as not he or she will find that problems and traumas were caused by, or at minimum were necessarily accompanied by, some form or level of dishonesty.

Honesty is foundational. Without it disasters occur, and without it there can be no competence. For competent thought and action depend on knowledge of the truth of a situation, knowledge of its actual facts. Conversely, ignorance or distortion of the truth and the facts lead only to mistakes and disasters (viz. Viet Nam or the current debacle in Iraq). Yet, for all the lip service paid to honesty -- and lip service is usually all it is -- it is relatively rare that one runs across a philosophy which holds that honesty is foundational and therefore is the single most important value of any. The idea that trustworthiness is of the essence was part of 17th Century England. There have been some philosophers and ethicists who stress the need for honesty, e.g., Sissela Bok, Michael Josephson. And recently Lewis Lapham, in Gag Rule, has opined that candor is crucial to our national life. But beyond these examples, and despite omnivorous reading, this writer is hard pressed to think of other examples of eras or persons that have held a philosophy close to the idea that honesty is the crucial fundament, the overriding necessity.

Having spoken of the necessity of honesty, let me now speak briefly about competence. Competency is a value whose necessity is widely acknowledged, is at least given lip service as being necessary for success. Yet it is in too modest a supply in a world where advancement so often goes to the merely personable, the sycophant, the person who can work the room, the smoothie, the person who knows how to maneuver in a bureaucracy, the person who is a friend. It is too rare in a world where people know that these traits, not competence (nor its inherent predicate, diligence), are how one advances, and where they act accordingly. So the value of competence is one that is often honored in the breach.

The need for competence in order to achieve success is, I note, of peculiar relevance to public life today. We are told that 9/11 was caused not by incompetence, but by failure of governmental organs to communicate with each other. We are equally told (as always) that the remedy is a new structure for intelligence operations. But the truth is that incompetence was the reason for 9/11, and all the new structures in the world won’t solve the problem we face if incompetence persists.

With regard to incompetence supposedly not being the reason for 9/11, we are told that nobody could foresee the use of airplanes as flying bombs to destroy structures. Nobody could foresee this??? How could that be when a bomber flew into the Empire State Building in World War II, when hundreds of Japanese Kamikaze planes tried to fly into American ships and some succeeded, when a private plane flew into the White House, when various government people knew of an effort to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower, when various governmental people had heard of alleged plots to fly a plane into CIA headquarters, when it was known that there were Muslims who were learning to fly planes at American flight schools. Despite all this, nobody in the government could foresee the use of a plane to destroy structures??? That was sheer incompetence and stupidity. Incompetence was the reason for 9/11, and if it persists we will have more disasters of one sort or another. For that incompetence leads to disaster is virtually a law of life.

Lastly, a few words about caring for others, not just for oneself. This value, too, is spoken of favorably but is most often honored in the breach in a society where, since at least 1981 (as previously in the gilded aged and the 1920s), unbridled greed has become the ruling principle and plutocracy and oligarchy have become dominant features. Many people find that unbridled selfishness is not a satisfactory way to lead a personal life, and at the civic and political levels it has in the past led or contributed to such world-shaking events as the French Revolution and the Great Depression, and to the stock market catastrophe of the early 2000s. No good can come to a society where lack of concern for others is the guide to action -- whether the action be domestic or, as the world’s increasing hatred for us shows, foreign.

Let us conclude with a political thought stemming from all this (although what has been said here is true wholly independent of politics or party, and could be adopted by any person or party). The conservatives in the Republican Party, from George W. Bush on down, have for years been on a crusade to impose on all of us values that offend many of us. Many are offended by the importing of religion into public life, by the conservatives’ use of their particular religious views as reasons why government should ban abortions for anybody and stem cell research for everybody and should ban gay marriage, and by the conservatives’ universalist conception of American values and their foolish conception of permanent American hegemony maintained by war whenever necessary. Equally offensive to many are the hypocrisy, stupidity, and deception the right wing conservatives have shown in so many things, and the oligarchic, plutocratic and dynastic nature of their policies and views. But nobody has arisen to challenge the values they put forth with counter values. John Kerry has occasionally spoken of values, though to me the values he purportedly speaks of usually sound more like particular political and economic policies than fundamental values. Be the latter point as it may, it is long past time for there to be a politician or politicians who put forth counter values in challenge to the values that the right wing has used to reach and maintain power. Such a politician or politicians could do worse than stressing -- and, crucially, living up to -- the values of honesty, competence and concern for others as well as oneself.**

*The book, which is the third volume of a quartet called Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, is entitled The Hopes And Fears Of Future Years: Loss And Creation (University Press of America).

**If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

September 02, 2004

I don't know who is on the list of recipients of these positngs, but I will add 2 cents worth for anyone who cares.

I think that I would include Mercy in my short list of crucial values.

Bob Seibel
CUNY School of Law

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