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The Ethic of the Market and the Erosion of Moral Values: One More Lesson from the the Coulter Disgrace

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From the inception of my website (NoneSoBlind.org), I've been talking about not only the evil of the Bushite regime but also about the moral degradation of American culture over the decades leading up to this dark time.

Much of this degradation can be represented as a refusal or inability to make a distinction between right desire and wrong desire (as the Greeks framed the issue), i.e. between those impulses and wishes that are good to gratify and those that should be denied because they are destructive either of the wider world or of the actor him/herself (or both).

In my writings here on NSB, I've identified several sets of forces that have eroded the willingness and/or ability of people to make such moral judgments.

One of these derives from philosophical ideas that emerged with the counterculture of the 60s, and that remain a strong presence in progressive America. Among these are the advocacy of a kind of moral relativism that says that no one has any right to pass judgments on the choices and preferences of anyone else. "If it's right for you" is one locution that points to that way of thinking. As I put it in my essay, "The Concept of Evil," at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=91:
Among students I’ve dealt with across two generations, it’s been common to hear –even from those who describe themselves as Biblical Christians—such statements as “What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn’t what I would have done, but from within their perspective it was right, and so it was right for them.”

A second major force that has fed this abandonment of moral judgment I have identified in my essay, "The Challenge of Affluence," at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=449. A central part of my argument there was that the historically rapid rise in affluence had put people in a situation for which the cultural heritage from the age of scarcity has ill equipped them:

the proportion of life governed by how people answer the question “What do I want?” has expanded enormously. Yet the moral tradition has not been able to adapt and grow with anything like a corresponding speed. And with the old ethic of duty doing little to guide people in making wise choices for themselves, Americans have been falling into that moral gap.

Now I'd like to briefly point to another central part of the causal nexus behind this moral degradation: the effects of the market economy, with the ideological commitment to consumer choice that has developed in its support.

What brings this up right now is that news coverage of the recent Ann Coulter flare-up has included statements from media executives that epitomize this morally problematic market ethic.

Challenged to defend the corporate media's willingness to give such a vicious and irresponsible person as Ann Coulter such a prominent platform from which to spew her vitriol, one such executive made the following argument: Ann Coulter's books sell very well; thus many people are freely choosing to treat her as a worthwhile commentator on our political/cultural scene; therefore she is an entirely legitimate voice for the media to magnify.

In other words: if people buy it, it must be good. It is not for anyone to exercise moral judgment regarding the choices that people make in the market. What sells, according to the market ethic, is by definition "good."

This is no small part of the problem in America. I know from my experience in the radio industry that THIS IS REALLY HOW THE CORPORATE PEOPLE THINK. If it sells, it's good. Ratings are the measure of value. There is really no other measure that computes within that system. And in the publishing world, too, the idea that there are values to be served that are independent of market success has largely withered away.

And as that market-driven, corporate system wields enormous power over the evolution of our society and culture, gradually the idea that "if it sells, it's good" shapes the consciousness of the members of society generally.

Thus it is that over time, in the absence of the discipline of making moral judgment to distinguish between right desire and wrong desire, America ends up with movies that cater to our basest impulses, with TV shows that degrade us, and with the media feeling justified in giving their megaphone to a vicious and destructive voice like that of Ann Coulter.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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