Back to Forum

“It’s the Morals, Stupid! On the Importance of Ethics in the Post-Truth Age”

It’s the morals, stupid! On the Importance of Ethics in the Post-Truth Age

By Ingeborg Gabriel

The slogan of Bill Clinton’s electoral campaign 20 years ago “It’s the economy, stupid” has gained prominence and still has something to be said for it. However, observing the social and political trends in the Western world, one asks oneself whether it fully explains why a scary phenomenon going by the diffuse name of populism that hardly anybody foresaw is gaining ground so rapidly. Ethicists (and not only economists) should help people better understand what, the hell, is going on in our societies and in politics which in democracies after all reflect positions widely held by the respective populations. Of course, there is real apprehension in the air. Old ethnic conflicts are flaring up, terrorists and fanatics attempt to revive the millennial war between Islam and Christianity within our societies and whereas during the past decades of globalization the rich became superrich, the poor and the very poor lost out in income and opportunities. But these – it seems to me – are not the only reasons why a growing part of the population in Western liberal societies is angry and frustrated. Moral disorientation also plays a significant role. An “(un)culture of arbitrariness” or – what may be called – emancipation from morals has grown at great speed. Moral transgressions, power grabbing, the unashamed breaking of rules and a general lack of consideration for others and their interests became ever more frequent. If one talks to people the complaints are the same everywhere: in banks, businesses, in government offices and universities. And just as important: there is less of an uproar against these practices partly out of opportunism, but partly also out of a growing uncertainty of what is right or wrong, what can be done and what is not to be done. Those who are in power at whatever level consider it their right to boss others around and to reinterpret facts to suit them, using any ruse to get what they want. Why complain: everybody does it and those who do it best are considered to be really smart. The Economist recently launched post-truth as Word of the Year (January 7th, 2017, 64) and already last Fall had dedicated an issue to “The Art of the Lie” asking: Why do voters prefer shrewd often rich and highly manipulative types aligned with capital and finance? What is the reason for what I once called the Berlusconi effect? Why do mostly poor folk (after all the majority of the population) find them so attractive? Do they admire them and their ruthless lies?

There is an ethical as well as a metaphysical side to this question. The definition of truth as adaequatio intellectus et rei may have something to teach. There is a reality we are to take as given and that we have to conform to. Facts are not to be changed arbitrarily. Man is not the master of everything. A will to a power that wants to command also over reality is hubris. Truth – to the heck with it – is what I make out of it! And after all: It’s up to me how I treat others. The consequence of this “outsourcing of morals” (the title of the speech of Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the 2016 Templeton Prize winner, at the award ceremony) is an immense erosion of trust. Yes, people have always lied and the Kantian demand that even under threat of life any lie is forbidden seems too rigid to most. However, the confusion caused in today’s world by uninhabited lying, twisting the truth and mocking those who stick to it, makes one understand, that there is more than a kernel of truth in it. Could the deep malaise in the Western world that brings all sorts of figures to popularity have to do with the obscuration of this fundamental human insight? Confronted with Communist propaganda Václav Havel spoke of the human need to “live in the truth”. May this also be a motto for the West today? In any case ethicists should ask themselves how to get their knowledge out of the ivory tower. It is needed more than ever.