Ethics and Politics


My understanding of philosophy is simple: the love and practice of wisdom. Immersed as I am in the ancients and a few moderns such as Thoreau, I try to live a better life and to have a positive influence in the limited sphere in which I can be effective: to be a good husband, a good friend, a good co-worker, a good neighbor; to exercise financial prudence and mental clarity and physical health and environmental stewardship over my little plot of land; to help make my community a better place to live in and my company a better place to work in; and, at a more personal level, to achieve emotional self-control, to make the best use I can of my limited time on this earth, and to continually improve as a human being. This kind of self-goverance sounds so simple, yet in practice I find it continually challenging.

Beyond self-governance lies communal governance. My perspective on politics is again informed by the ancients, as well as by Jeffersonian localism (divide the counties into wards!) and by my upbringing in a town of 2,000 people with its New England tradition of local decision-making and town meetings. To my mind, democracy is literally people power: what happens when a small group of people decide to govern themselves. The current political arrangements in America are not democracy. The ancient Greeks opposed elections (preferring random selection of "representatives") because they feared that it would lead to oligarchy. And they were right!

One of the many problems with oligarchy is that tends to devolve into kakistocracy - rule by the worst. Abraham Lincoln once said (and I agree) that "no man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." The sentiment seems quaint now, when the "elect" who purport to govern the people are some of the worst among us, not the best or even the good. The problem is more serious the farther that the government is from the people - in general I would put more trust in a town or county government than I would in a state government or certainly the federal government (I call D.C. the "den of corruption"). Indeed, my involvement in governance is limited to something like Jefferson's ward, in the form of the civic association in my neighborhood of ~250 households.

Thus when folks get all worked up about politics - by which in a presidential election year they mean national politics - I mostly shake my head and sigh. Instead of spending even a few hours a month reading and watching and debating and agonizing over my meaningless vote in the primaries or caucuses or general election, I would rather devote that time to better governing myself and to helping with the governance of a true community in my neighborhood. Perhaps someday I'll extend that sphere of involvement to the county I live in, but I see no good reason to give much attention to state or national or international affairs when it is so much more productive for me to devote myself to my own ethical improvement (which is the only basis for healthy political action in the first place).

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal