Last night I wrote a post
relaying my discomfort and chagrin at what I considered to be an unethical gut
reaction to the homage paid to Michael Jackson after his death. A few days earlier, Hillary referenced an
article asking if morality came from the heart or the head. Yesterday, the New
York Times published a column by David Brooks called “In Search of Dignity“.
In a way, this column is the
other side of the ‘head or heart’ story; it preaches what Brooks calls the
Every year, the concept of
dignity suffers a bit more – ‘dignified’ seems to become more and more
synonymous with ‘stuffed shirt’. But mixed with equal parts compassion,
bringing back dignity could find us a new, more ethical path.
The column is a call to
politicians, along with the general populace, to show a little dignity. By
showing that oft-forgotten quality, Brooks also believes we will behave more ethically.
So, is this true? Is leading a dignified life a precursor to leading an ethical life?
Obviously that’s not always the case. To state an extreme, a dignified, genocidal dictator is still, at the end of the day, an unethical, genocidal dictator.
Still, I buy into this. Besides simply desiring a bit more dignity out of society (Brooks uses the oh so timely examples of Jackson, Palin and Sanford), there’s also a fairly direct path from dignified behavior to ethical behavior.
According to Brooks, the dignity code of the past required the following:
The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to
put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.
Disinterest, reticence, dispassion, distrust – okay, at first these rules of conduct sound a tad negative. But taken both in moderation and as Brooks describes, they lead to respect — for ourselves as well as for others – and respect most often leads to moral and ethical behavior. Simplified but true.
Disinterest doesn’t mean lack of interest, it means putting aside self-interest to discover what’s in the interest of the many – step one in my copy of “Ethical Behavior 101”. Dispassionate? Well, as lovely as passion is (in every sense) it tends to get in the way of reason.
Personally, the section of this code that strikes a chord is “never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public.” Does this mean always maintaining a stoic facade and never betraying emotion? No! But goodness, people, sometimes our deepest emotions deserve a little privacy! (Ahem, Michael Jackson’s memorial).
Does this column strike such a chord with you? Would you like to see a massive return to dignity?