10 March, 2008

"Who's Who in Ho's," or, "A Modest Proposal Turned Indecent"

Eliot Spitzer: Governor, representative of the people, manifestation of popular executive will, avatar of the masses' collective psyche...whore monger?

I don't live in Our Lady of Blogalupe, but surely this deserves some devoted keyboard time.

I'm going to leave the man alone, here. At least he was big enough to go up in front of the cameras (wife at his side, no less), admit his mistake, and apologize. This is the type of thing that could happen to anyone, should we find ourselves in the position. By "the position," I of course not only mean missionary, but any and all of the preceding positions, such as the attainment of power and a sense of invulnerability, that precipitate that as well as the more interesting pages of the Kama Sutra.

We all face temptation of various sorts in our lifetimes. Do I take the cookie from the cookie jar? Should I eat all of the Hagen-Daaz in one sitting? Ought I to stay out at the bars when I know I have a mid-term the following morning? Do I pay this poor exploited woman to have sexual relations? Temptation, it seems, looms at every corner, and not just those on seamy back streets.

So what makes the mighty fall so far? Does power corrupt even the most moral of hearts? This is the man who brought down the Gambino's and has consistently battled for consumer rights during his law career. Perhaps we ask the unreasonable of our elected officials. They are asked to shoulder enormous responsibility; to weigh the differed and oft irreconcilable opinions of their constituents, and to pass judgment.

What more irksome task could we as citizens place on mortal shoulders than to repeatedly pass judgment? We offer up, to some extent, our very power of choice, and ask our lawmakers to choose for us what is most ethical and beneficial. I don't even like to choose what color shirt to wear, so I place my trust in GQ.

My question is simple. To what extent can we expect elected officials to maintain a "higher moral standard" when the bar is set so very low for everyone else? I wish I could remember where, but I've actually heard it said that politicians are expected to maintain a higher moral standard. Than whom? What does that even mean? The very statement assumes that it is permissible for your average American citizen to embezzle money, exploit the less fortunate, and engage in prostitution. America at large is not expected to behave morally?

To watch the evening news, it would appear not. To drive down the street every day, it would appear not. At best, the law is selective--situational. I don't have to stop at this crosswalk because I'm in a hurry. This 'no parking any time' sign doesn't really need to be here. My company can pollute this ecosystem because the law doesn't exactly say 'don't,' just 'not too much.'

Now, I noted two fairly common situations, and a third of a slightly different sort. I'm not trying to equate minor traffic violations with prostitution, I'm only saying that it starts somewhere. Most people follow the little laws only insofar as it's convenient, and will have the gall to be mad about the five-dollar parking ticket they received for parking where they shouldn't have in the first place. That third example is an interesting human phenomenon. It may not be expressly forbidden, and we know it's wrong, but we do it all the same. Still immoral.

Our country cultivates the feeling that anything goes, as long as I don't get caught doing it.

A higher moral standard? Why don't we first shoot for a moral standard, and we can talk about degrees of altitude later on. I'll leave off here in hopes that someone will respond. I think the issues raised here are of immense philosophical value--where morality lies, is there an objective standard, what can be expected of human beings--and I hope we can hash some things out.


Cassady said...

Yglesias makes a good comment about the hypocrisy involved with this particular scandal. I stayed away from that particular aspect for some reason, but it is a good discussion point on its own.

Elliot said...

The law is clearly situational and selective - indeed, I was just reading an article today about how the (Republican) prosecutors had plenty of evidence to move against the prostitution ring, but held off because they suspected that Spitzer was involved, and they wanted to trap him, specifically.

And its always going to be that way. In fact, despite Cassady's worry over the state of our law-abidingness, I think America has pretty much reached a ceiling in this area. Traveling in almost any other country (and especially studying their political systems) what strikes you is how incredibly transparent and efficient our system of justice is while still maintaining a very high standard for personal privacy. America, for the most part, has succeeding in inculcating its citizens with the almost subconscious faith that the law is the not just the law but The Law.

An Italian acquaintance of mine was telling me today how this sort of lawbreaking would never result in the resignation of a politician - if people cared at all, it would all be taken care of behind the scenes with some kind of bargaining, since oversight is so much more politicized.

As for morality, I'm not sure where this idea of political leaders as moral superiors came from. Sure, we should elect people who seem to have more integrity, but once they are actually in office, I think it must be assumed that they are going to behave less morally. Especially if by moral you mean not lying, not manipulating legal ambiguities for personal gain, and not performing legislating in return for personal gain. Democracy is predicated on a pessimistic take on the corruptibility of individuals, which is why we build so much accountability and scrutiny into our political system.

It is a shame - I really liked Spitzer, he was a give-em-hell type. But I can't feel too sorry - our political system is working well when powerful, and even feared, individuals are held accountable for abusing their status and power.

Elliot said...

I would also add that morality is also situational, which is why it's so hard to enshrine it in legislation. That situationality makes it hard to talk about breaking the law in terms of morality. Am I violating some sort of objective morality when I park in a no parking zone?

Maybe. But I think it makes more sense to think of law in terms of the social contract than in terms of morality. That law about parking doesn't have a moral root, it has a utilitarian root - somebody in the government weighed the pros and cons and decided that it would be better for traffic flow if no one parked there. And we have a pact with our government that if they protect us and follow the rules we set for them, then we agree to follow the rules they set for us. Breaking with those rules is like breaching a business contract, and it has consequences. But is it really immoral?

I think I've ended up arguing against any sort of public morality, which should draw some fire...

Eremita said...

I don't think that Cassady, or anyone who thinks Spitzer should resign/be charged, is really bringing up the philosophical problem of situational morality. What is more pertinent here is that we hold legislators socially and legally bound to the laws they are involved in making and upholding. That is, we expect politicians (and policemen) to be the MOST convinced that the law is The Law. If we hold them to a higher standard in regards to following or being punished for not following the law, there is nothing particularly convoluted or (morally) situational about this: it is an emphasis that exists in line with the intentions of the democratic idea. This is why the legal issue is paying a prostitute, not adultery, and why the public interest is in why Spitzer thought he could break a law he helped strengthen, not in his infidelity to his wife.

spencer said...

Wow, Elliot, I didn't realize I'd had such an effect on you.

Elliot said...

I agree, Eremita, I was just taking Cassady's bait to discuss the broader implications of public morality. And I did think that Cassady was asking that larger question, but maybe not. But the real question of situational legality is not so much that of Spitzer's actions (which were clearly illegal and should be punished) but rather that of the legal system itself that may have investigated and prosecuted him more because he's a high ranking Democrat than because it just always prosecutes prostitution rings (which it doesn't).

How do you hold accountable the (at this point hypothetical) guy who decided to investigate one prostitution ring and not another because he had a lead that Spitzer was involved in one of them, and netting such a high level name would surely get him a promotion from his Republican boss? Or is that not a bad thing? Yglesias points out that our law is set up precisely to use partisanship as an incentive to keep politicians honest. Either way, it is situational, as the law is being applied selectively according to personal loyalty, or grudges, or ambition, rather than some non-existent "objective" perspective.

And Spencer, don't flatter yourself :)

Cassady said...

I may have missed an important point when I started harping about the morality involved with bad parking habits.

Elliot, I think you have a point that some laws are based more on utility than anything else. I'll draw back to my example of the polluting corporation, though, to say that other laws (and law breaking) have definite moral implications. This example is nice because it brings up exactly the question of situational legality, as well as the moral question.

One thing I would argue is that an intentional breach of contract, in the sense of the parking law, is actually an immoral act. Elliot describes nicely the mutual trust between elected law-makers and the public. Violating that trust, even in a small way such as abusing parking privileges, constitutes immorality--in my mind.

Eremita, I think you have a good take on this as well. I'm not going to admit that there is nothing morally situational about the issue at hand, but only that the connection is perhaps more complex than my initial rant made it out to be. The fact of adultery and infidelity should, I think, carry more of the moral weight here, but the breach of law must also be addressed.

The thought that was on my mind most while I was writing my post, is that the bulk of American citizens do not hold themselves to such a standard of following the law, even though some parts of it represent themselves as The Law. Elliot, I don't see things quite so transparently. Certainly, there is an overwhelming feeling of "Law-fullness" with regards to crimes like murder and grand theft. They are the biggies that most everyone won't touch. Those small things put in place for general safety and utility, however, are still laws, and as such ought to be followed with the same faithfulness as the biggies.

Well, there's a new post that calls to me, so I'll leave off here.