I ran across two insightful turns of phrase over the weekend in editorial commentaries – one in our local paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the other in the Wall Street Journal – which illuminated for me the fundamental soundness of one of our ethical principles for government.
We propose that in politics and government, as a recognition of the dignity of all, discourse ethics should determine the use of public power – not arms, not the corruption of money or unjustified preference, not intolerance, not ideology or racism, not any repression of thought or insight, nor of the spirit, which seeks truth and justice in humility and through curiosity of mind with open heart. This Caux Round Table Principle holds that:
Discourse ethics should guide application of public power.
Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government. Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.
In a defense of free thought, the Star Tribune held up as a problem “deluminating” – the bringing of darkness through the extinguishing of light. This idea was borrowed from the Harry Potter novels and very appropriately applied to currents running strongly in America just now (and not only in my country) which would shut down thinking and speech which is not culturally or politically approved by the self-righteous, self-appointed adjudicators of justice.
In Harry Potter, the wizard Dumbledore had a device – a deluminator – which would suppress light.
The Washington Post imperiously, but rightfully proclaims that “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Secondly, Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal also wrote in defense of free expression. He acutely illuminated the harm that poor use of language can inflict on discourse and the search for justice and the common good. He spoke of demagogues and sophists who manipulate and twist emotions, prejudices, ignorance and meanness of soul and spirit. He called out President Trump for aggressive misuse of words.
Bakers’ warning is that “careless rhetoric needlessly undermines the trust necessary for a healthy democracy.”
The moral quality protected by discourse ethics is trust, the basis for social good and personal wellbeing.