The Ethics of Giving Up on Ethics

Paul Daugherty, a sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer,recently wrote a column expressing a theme I hear all too often regarding politics, government, education, and society generally. Motivated by the steroid allegations against yet another hero, Lance Armstrong, Daugherty penned his surrender to a culture that doesn’t seem to care about ethics. Daugherty wrote:

“Everyone wants sports to be equitable. We all desire the level field. No one wants sports to be as drugged up as Woodstock in 1969. But it is. We’ve fought the ethical fight. We’ve lost. It could be time to let it go.
Even the athletes who lose still win. Mark McGwire got his, Barry Bonds got his, Brian Cushing got his. If you wait enough, deny enough, then rationalize believably, you get yours. Disgrace fades. Only Olympic athletes wear the stink of doping longer than the average 5-year-old’s attention span. In one respect, it’s not unlike the fight against legalizing marijuana. It has lasted so long, and now seems so pointless, I can’t even remember what we’ve been arguing about. We’ve become numb to it….It’s only a little outrageous now to suggest that a professional athlete be allowed to use performance-enhancing substances to his (enlarged) heart’s content, as long as he’s doing it legally….So what’s the point?”

“What’s the point?”

The point is that society’s standards will either be set by those without ethical values, who disdain fairness, justice, responsibility, caring, trust and citizenship, or they will be established by those of us who know values are worth fighting for, and care enough to fight for them. Daugherty’s cowardly, lazy, irresponsible lament could have been adopted, with more provocation, by John Adams, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Clarence Darrow, Samuel Gompers, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader and scores of other Americans, most of whom will never be celebrated by history, who argued and wrote and spoke and suffered to change the standards of conduct and public attitudes in this country. If they had followed Daugherty’s path, the United States would have been greatly diminished, if indeed it would have remained the United States at all.

Slavery, racism, sexism, child labor, worker exploitation, pollution, environmental destruction, and many other unethical, wrongful practices and attitudes were not only entrenched in our culture at one time, but overwhelmingly accepted by most of the American public. What happened? Some people, enough people, endured the apathy, ridicule and rationalizations until minds, perceptions and habits were changed.

Daugherty is both incorrect and ignorant of cultural history. We never “lose” the battle for ethical standards until we stop fighting for them. We haven’t lost the battle to stop the institutionalization of drug use (even if Daugherty can’t remember what’s the matter with it); we haven’t lost the battle to make sure children are born to adults and not other children; we haven’t lost the battle for gentility and civility in public life, or a fair justice system, or uncorrupted elected officials, or even sports untainted by doping, as long as dedicated, rational, articulate people have the persistence and fortitude to oppose selfishness, irresponsibility and chaos.

Those who give up on ethics, like Daugherty, only support the interests of the cheaters, the liars, the exploiters and the corrupt.  If they can’t muster the character to insist on an ethical society, not just now but for the generations to come, the least they can do is shut up and get out of the way. The growth of ethical rot in failed civilizations has always been fertilized by quitters.

One thought on “The Ethics of Giving Up on Ethics

  1. There are always those who will say that just to avoid making moral judgements. But when we fail to make those judgements and speak out, then the morals cease to be. That’s how nations and empires begin their descent into dissolution.

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