by Robert Maynard
As the media starts to zero in on the real estate deal between Governor Shumlin and the down and out Jeremy Dodge, an interesting assertion is being made. First of all is the observation that what happened was not illegal, but merely a political mistake. That conclusion is not as obvious as some may think. We know that the FBI began looking into the matter, but we do not know whether there is an ongoing investigation. The very fact that they looked into the transaction should raise questions that do not lend themselves to easy conclusions. The FBI would not investigate such matters if it was obvious that no illegalities were involved. The other question is whether Shumlin’s actions constituted an ethical or moral failing, or was merely a political mistake. Here is how the question was answered in a recent Vermont Digger article:
Shumlin’s mistake here was the opposite of the weakness that brings down so many powerful men (and not a few women) – the delusion that the rules the average citizen must follow don’t apply to them. The average citizen could have done exactly what the Governor did and suffered no ill effects. Your real estate transactions and mine don’t get analyzed, dissected, and interpreted. In some cases, the powerful have to obey stricter rules than do the rest of us.
This was one of those cases. The Governor’s governor should have told him.
The mistake was political. Not moral or ethical, just political. Might there also have been some moral-ethical failings involved? Oh, maybe, or then again maybe not. Unlike political mistakes, moral-ethical failings tend to be judged on the basis of conjecture and surmise rather than verifiable fact, and accompanied by gobs of holier-than-thou pronouncements, which have not been in short supply here.
First of all, taking advantage of someone like Jeremey Dodge is not considered a moral failing by the author because everyone does it and the average person’s real estate transactions are less likely to be scrutinized. In other words, it would be easier for the average person to take advantage of the less fortunate and get away with it. I am sorry, but this is clearly convoluted reasoning. Just because everyone lies and steals and are likely to get away with it, does that mean a political leader who got caught lying and stealing only made a political error and not an ethical or moral failing? According to the author, apparently not: “Unlike political mistakes, moral-ethical failings tend to be judged on the basis of conjecture and surmise rather than verifiable fact.” This is not only convoluted reasoning, but dangerous. Basically the argument assumes that there is no absolute basis for judging ethical or moral failings. This notion is known as “moral relativism” and is supposed to lead to more tolerance instead of “holier-than-thou pronouncements.” Historically the assumption that there is no absolute basis for judging ethical or moral failings has led to conclusions that were anything but supportive of tolerance.
In Ancient Greece there was a sophist named Thrasymachus, who was the best known as a character in Plato’s Republic. The sophists were a traveling group of intellectuals who visited the various Greek city states observing their beliefs and cultural practices. They note that there was a huge variety of different beliefs and that while many were making what the author of the Vermont Digger piece referred to as “holier-than-thou pronouncements,” there appeared to be no basis for making ethical or moral judgements. The conclusion derived from this observation was presented in an argument that Thrasymachus was portrayed as having with Socrates in Plato’s Republic over the nature of Justice. Since moral and ethical judgements are relative with no absolute basis for making such judgements, justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger.” In other words, “might makes right”. This theme was taken up in the Renaissance Period by Machiavelli in his political classic “The Prince”. His conclusion was that rulers needed to be ruthless and unencumbered by the Judeo-Christian notion of Justice. In the 19th Century, this notion was championed by the philosopher Nietzsche.
The traditional notion of Natural Rights held by Western Civilization, which formed the basis of our own Bill of Rights, rejected the moral relativist notion of moral and ethical judgements as a basis of justice. Instead, they based the notion of justice on what our Declaration of Independence referred to as “Self Evident Truths.” Are we now to reject such a basis for our rights and notion of justice because we believe that “moral-ethical failings tend to be judged on the basis of conjecture and surmise rather than verifiable fact?” If this is the case, how can we refute Thrasymachus’ notion that justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger?” Our founders had read the classics and did not consider such notions to be a solid foundation for the insistence on upholding human rights and the ideal of justice.