In his Politics, considered to be one of the founding documents for western political theory, Aristotle claims that every community organizes itself towards some good. My question is, what good is America aiming towards? Originally, I believe, it was towards a society where its individual citizens could live freely and pursue their own happiness. Yet, it seems that most Americans now define happiness, which Aristotle also saw as an end goal – at least in terms of moral behavior, as the possession of material things and monetary wealth. Yet these are all means to an end, and not the end itself. I think, given the current political climate in this country, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves a few fundamental questions – what exactly are we trying to accomplish as a nation and what exactly is the good life?
We also need to think long and hard regarding our ethics. There is a deep connection between politics and morality. Aristotle’s Politics begins where his Nichomachean Ethics ends. It has been understood for a very long time that virtuous citizens are a necessary condition for both republican and democratic forms of government. If citizens, for example, have no sense of justice, then a just government is impossible. In the decade between the Revolution and the adoption of the constitution, one of the driving questions was whether Americans were virtuous enough to sustain a democratic republic. They obviously concluded that they were, and yet, American history is full of ethical failures including, but not limited to genocide, slavery, and racism. Give me another hour and another cup of coffee and I’m sure I could create a much longer list of moral trespasses.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that we’ve historically confused religious belief with moral behavior. As a secular nation, we also need a morality that is not based on belief, but rather what is good. I think our current imbroglio with the Islamic world is America confronting its own shadow, we are like the psychotic who is unconscious of their own psychosis. Sanity can only be found by bringing into consciousness and facing what is worst about ourselves as a nation. We really need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and reflect upon who we really are as a people, rather than continuing to confuse our actual actions with our ideals. Evidence for this confusion is abundantly clear anytime the American president claims that we are a peaceful nation. We are not, neither at home or abroad. So another fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is who are we as Americans? What is it, really, to be an American? What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of nation? What do we do that supports this vision? What behavior do we engage in that is contrary to the kind of people and nation that we want to be? If our goal is to be the most powerful nation in the world, then I fail to see how we are any different than the tyrannical governments in which the U.S. Constitution was to be an antidote.
I think our inability, or downright refusal, to reflect on these questions has led us to our current sad state of affairs. We have one presidential candidate who is seen, rightly or wrongly, as being fundamentally dishonest, which violates one of the core virtues Americans seem to hold dear, as evidenced by the apocryphal story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, or our reverence for Honest Abe Lincoln. The other candidate seems to me to be the living embodiment of vice: he is greedy, arrogant, intolerant, gluttonous and prideful. He is also habitually dishonest, and encourages this bad behavior in the rest of us. Is this really who we are or who we want to be? If we want to make America great again, (and I’m not sure, given our past behavior, that we ever were great – whatever that really means in any case), we need to start with some self-examination which requires that core virtue of honesty, without which we are doomed to failure; after all, you can only get help when you first admit you have a problem. Indeed, without moral reflection and working to better ourselves as individual citizens, as a people and a nation, by continuing to embrace our vices rather than our virtues, we run the risk of losing all our freedoms and all that has been good about the American experiment.