One of the disturbing trends over the last decade, give or take, has been how ethical behavior has become synonymous with “a conviction overturned on appeal.” Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical. With that, I give you Matthew Yglesias (boldface mine; italics original):
They’re not actually saying that what they did was right. Rather, they’re saying that it was selfish but also legal. …one is within one’s rights, under certain circumstances, to insist on one’s ability to inflict suffering on vast numbers of people in order to make more money for your rich self and your rich clients. But it seems very odd to characterize it as “unfair” to be subjected to moral criticism for one’s conduct.
This, however, is one of the signal properties of our age. It’s one thing to model human activity as driven solely by the relentless pursuit of money. Such models can enlighten various situations. But it’s another thing entirely to actually recommend such a lifestyle as optimal or moral, or to make the claim that any conduct that rationally serves the goal of increased personal wealth is therefore “right” or that to criticize self-interested and socially destructive behavior is “unfair.” I think Obama is to be congratulated for his handling of the situation. He didn’t have the FBI storm in, guns blazing, and take these people’s money. He respects the law. He respects property rights. He’s going to go through the bankruptcy process. But he also didn’t respect the ethic of greed that’s come to dominate American public life. He reserved the notion that some conduct is wrong and worthy of criticism and held out the ideal that selfish people might someday be motivated not only by acquisitiveness but by some kind of shame and a desire to behave–or, at a minimum, be seen as behaving–in a public spirited manner.
Reclaiming the idea that there are ethical issues in life that don’t relate to gay marriage or abortion will be an uphill struggle, but it’s an important one.
I’ll blame this on two things:
- Libertarianism run amuck. In practice, libertarianism seems to be nothing more than a justification for preventing society from disincentivizing unethical behavior, as well as legitimizing the economic advantage of the powerful.
- The legalization of the rule of men. That is, our political system currently allows destructive behavior (e.g., usureous interest rates). Worse, it is not only allowed, but our so-called leadership (including the Fourth Estate) socially legitimates this behavior.
This is an opportunity for the Left to make moral arguments, not technocratic ones.