Everyday Ethics: Moderation

We live in a strange time where common sense and moderation are seen as the enemies of political life.

Columnist Jim Hightower, a former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, once wrote, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

I don’t want to be a dead armadillo with a yellow stripe down the middle of the road, but I believe many of us share common sense, halfway perspectives that get lost as those who find the most attention on the margins. Maybe we need a new political slogan: “Armadillos of the nation, unite.” You have nothing to lose but your stripes.

I know from having worked in state, county and local governments that work usually moves slowly. But in the long run, people are best served by those who listen and serve, often without much fanfare but little by little by putting people’s work first and themselves second.

In a democratic republic, moderation is essential to make things work since giving and receiving are essential. The nature of a democracy demands conversation, common ground and compromise, the latter of which is almost absent these days. No wonder we can’t find common sense solutions when extremes often dominate the airways.

“The squeaky wheel seems to have grease on it,” sad to say, in words attributed to 19th-century American humorist Josh Billings. The problem is that serving only the loudest does little to help the much larger majority of frustrated and often disillusioned people. In other words, the squeaky wheel may have grease, but the wagon could crash without everyone on board.

Finding common ground through honest dialogue, consensus and compromise seems like a much better and more rational way to serve citizens. But this requires a willingness to find solutions in which each party to the dialogue gains and loses something in the agreement. I would argue that there is a lot more consensus on certain social issues among us than extremists admit, because their goal is often to nurture their like-minded bases rather than solve problems.

Think of the common-sense approaches we all know, whether it’s abortion, immigration, voting rights, religious freedom, or even the future of democracy.

In the ethical world, Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean, described over 2,500 years ago, is a principle of moderation that strives to achieve a balance between extremes. Essentially, the concept implies that interested parties each get a little of what they want, but not everything.

Aristotle’s ethics can be understood when applied to personal morality. Take the virtue of courage as an example. One extreme could be cowardice and the other recklessness. The moderating principle might be to be cautious in making decisions while taking risks when reason leads the way.

Could there also be ways to pursue civic virtue – that is, common-sense moderate positions in which parties get a little of what each wants but not everything? Perhaps we can remember and act on the words of President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address as a guide to the importance of civic action and public service. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

John C. Morgan is a writer and professor of ethics whose weekly columns appear on readingeagle.com.

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