Easy ethics, hard choices

Former president John Quincy Adams. (Submitted photo)

By MICHAEL BUGEJA, Copyright 2020 Iowa Capital Dispatch

Few things in life come with clear, concise and reliable instructions.

Babies do not; they arrive without warning, and you need a library to raise them. Instructions change with each generation. All self-help genres — how to marry, divorce, get well, get rich, get smart, eat better, stay fit — require new editions.

That is not the case with ethics. Want to live them? Here’s how:

  • Distinguish between good and bad, outcomes over which we have little control, versus right and wrong, choices over which we have much control.
  • Foresee short-term versus long-term consequences before making choices.
  • Accept responsibilities for choices, no matter if the outcome is good or bad.
  • See the world as it is rather than through personal filters of self-interest, ego or fear.
  • Apply only as much power as needed to resolve a challenge without creating greater problems or harm to innocent others.

The instructions are ancient. They come from on high, as in the Delphi oracle — where Apollo’s minions gave self-help — and on low, in Plato’s cave. The sages knew them in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

If you live by these instructions, you become a “superior” human being, at least according to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC): “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”

Kind of resonates today, huh?

Perhaps no American leader understood ethics more than John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States and son of President John Adams. He tried to do the right thing, promoting human rights, fighting slavery, avoiding war, and affirming natural law — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

His motto was: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone.” So of course he was a one-time president (1825-29).

Nevertheless, he continued his public service as a member of the House of Representatives where he served from 1831 until his death in 1848.

His greatest moment did not happen in the White House but in 1841 as a defense attorney in the Supreme Court. It involved an international incident that ended up on the U.S. shore. Case law here was still evolving, and this one involved slavery.

According to the 1840 census, the U.S. population was 17,069,453, including 2,487,355 slaves, or almost 15% of the country.

Odds were against him.

Some 53 kidnapped Africans on the Spanish slave ship Amistad broke free and killed some crew members, demanding to be returned to their homeland. The crew instead took them to New England, where they were taken into custody.

Adams argued on behalf of the Africans in United States v. The Amistad. He based his defense on the concept of right and wrong. The Africans’ rebellion was justified, he stated, because they had a natural right to be free. They fought for liberty just as Americans did in the Revolution.

According to the court transcript, Adams said:

“When the Amistad first came within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, acts of violence had passed between the two parties, the Spaniards and Africans on board of her, but on which side these acts were lawless, on which side were the oppressors, was a question of right and wrong.”

And he won the case.

Adams foresaw the civil war before any of his contemporaries. He knew that doing the right thing could end in bad outcomes. In his inaugural address, he acknowledged the challenge of embracing “a Constitution founded upon the republican principle of equal rights,” human rights, justice, “the purity” of elections and “inviolate” freedoms of the press and religious affiliation.

We confront those very issues to this day.

Ethics are easy when nothing is at stake. So much is at stake in the current political environment, including student debt, health care costs, poverty, race relations, climate change, drug addiction, global trade, immigration and budget deficits.

Elected officials may know right from wrong but too often make easy choices in their own self-interest, ignoring long-term consequences and blaming their opponents when outcomes are bad. In doing so, they create greater problems.

That is old news.

We may not be able to solve our continuing problems to everyone’s satisfaction. But we do have instructions on how to do that, if not by our collective vote than by our choices at home, school and work.

We have to live our ethics every day, or they lapse and we relapse. Responsibility takes effort. There are always consequences and new problems. “Try and fail,” John Quincy Adams said, “but don’t fail to try.”

That’s all we can ask of ourselves and our loved ones.

(Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine.”  He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”)

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