Liberals and Their Situational Ethics – An Analysis
An Analysis by Dr. Lawrence Davidson
On 10 April 2012 the journalist Charles Davis did a guest posting on Glenn Greenwald’s website, Salon. The title of the piece is "The Liberal Betrayal of Bradley Manning." Davis’s argument is that President Obama acts much like George Bush Jr. when it comes to "security" issues. He has, for instance, "institutionalized the practice of indefinite imprisonment" and in several other ways undermined the nation’s civil liberties. The difference is that, unlike Bush, Obama has not experienced vocal opposition from most liberals to this process of despoilment. Chase Madar, a New York civil rights attorney puts it this way, "Obama and the Democrats being in power in Washington defangs a lot of liberal criticism."
Davis’s case in point is that of Bradley Manning, the Iraq war veteran accused of leaking a large number of Pentagon and State Department files to Wikileaks. Some of these leaked files clearly document actions that can be deemed war crimes. Manning made the mistake of confiding in a stateside blogger. He asked this person: "If you...saw incredible things, awful things...things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC...what would you do?" Manning’s answer was to make those facts public which, in my opinion, was the action of a hero. His erstwhile confident’s answer was to turn the hero in to authorities.
Manning is now in a military prison awaiting a trial that, almost certainly, will keep him "in a dark room" for the rest of his life. Our "liberal" President seems to find this prospect fitting for someone "who broke the law" (a public judgment that Obama made before Manning was given over for trial). Most of the liberal establishment has joined in by demeaning Manning as a "troubled young man" who, as the New York Times put it, had both a "desperate need for acceptance" and "delusions of grandeur." Alyssa Rosenberg, who represents the Center for American Progress, has declared that Manning "has pretty serious emotional problems" and the "Democratic [Party] pundit Joy Reid claimed that Manning is "a gay guy seeking anarchy as a salve for his own personal psychological torment." That he exposed blatant murder, among other dubious behaviors, seems not to resonate at all with these liberals.
Both Davis and Chase Madar conclude that liberals really do not oppose the violation of civil or human rights, be they those of Americans, Iraqis or anybody else. What they do consider unacceptable are violations carried out in an "uncouth" and "vulgar" manner that, they believe, characterizes conservative practice. Liberals are, allegedly, more sophisticated in their practice of double standards and that is why they can and do support Barack Obama when he does, in a more "professional" way, the same things that George Bush Jr. did. Manning’s exposure of the crimes of the U.S. military is, of course, anathema to both liberals and conservatives. In this regard both groups are equally unethical. They just express their lack of ethics differently.
Part II - Situational Ethics
Davis and Madar might be on to something here, but it needs to be understood against a broader background and its real implications brought out. Here are some thoughts that might help us move in that direction:
1. For the vast majority of people ethics are not "universal," but rather are situational. In theory the majority might profess to follow a definitive code of behavior. In practice, however, they will adjust those convictions to the demands of their community. In other words, people normally act as their neighbors act, as the local law tells them to act and in ways that are approved by their group leaders. The number of people who consistently practice an ethical code even when it goes against the point of view of their local community are very few. Maybe Bradley Manning is one of this rare breed.
2. Ethical behavior is also relative to institutional affiliation. The military (and not just the U.S. version) has values and principles all its own and they often not only condone, but also encourage, extreme violence. If you don’t believe me just ask your typical Drill Sargent. As far as I know almost all of the 1,430,895 people in the U.S. military have conformed to the parochial behavioral codes of their institution. Almost, but not quite all. Bradley Manning did not conform.
3. Given that there are a small number of people whose ethical behavior defies local and institutional demands, the claim that Bradley Manning acted as he did because of "emotional problems" can be seen as a gambit to deflect attention away from the real criminals. If, like Manning, you discovered definitive evidence of the outright murder of a dozen unarmed people in an American neighborhood and then ran off to the authorities to report the incident, no one would say you did so because you were mentally unstable. However, move the incident to Baghdad and put on a uniform, and things change. Now you know that, given "military ethics," those in charge are likely to just suppress any evidence. Also, as far as your affiliated institution is concerned, it is going public with your evidence that "breaks the law." What does one do when you can’t shake your more principled ethical view and adapt to the corrupt situational one of your group? In Manning’s case, you muster the courage to do what you think is right. As a consequence both liberals and conservatives now say you are not only a criminal, you’re also crazy. But Bradley Manning is not crazy. He is sane. However, he is a sane man in a crazy community.
Part III - Conclusion
It seems clear that liberals have no more sense of "universal" ethics than do conservatives. All they have is their self-serving situational values and an allegedly slick way of expressing them. And, in the long run, it seems to make little difference to the public at large if human rights are compromised by "vulgar" conservative opportunists or "sophisticated" liberal ones. Maybe this indifference has something to do with the fact that almost everyone else on the planet also lives by ethical standards that are situational. That is why the struggle to make the world a better place in terms of "universal" ethics never seems to be quite realized.
Regardless, we can take heart from those few truly principled people, like Bradley Manning, whose actions teach us that hypocrisy, even if commonplace, is not inevitable. Such people seem never to give up and their struggle to make things better is, in fact, a tiny peek at what a better world might look like. In each society there are a relatively small number of such people and they keep hope alive. They are the real heroes.
Professor of History
West Chester University
West Chester, PA 19383-2133