Is there room for ethics as a debate topic?

Since 2008, economic bad news has been the order of the day. As we close the folios of 2011 and enter 2012, along with the euro drama and the U.S. budget deficit debates, what political drama can we expect in the run-up to the 2012 election?As usual, we have observed potential candidates enter and leave the field bringing and taking along with them their alleged fantasies and indiscretions. Once the presidential race enters the final gallop, those who survive the initial furlongs often turn to mudslinging in order to win electorate votes.This is always a disappointing state of affairs, as it invariably sullies the integrity of the entire race and distracts all of us from the key issues that require our ardent attention.Given the huge ethical lapses of the financial sectors on a worldwide scale, along with both the conscious and unconscious collusion of regulators and political leaders, I am of the opinion that some public dialogue on the ethics of our societies is long overdue.My sincere hope is that in the run-up to the election we will have that public dialogue.Aristotle believed that political association is about something higher and more noble than simply providing an alliance for mutual defense or for enhancing economic prosperity. He was of the opinion that the purpose of politics is to foster a society where people strive to be virtuous and where they can develop their human capacities to their fullest possible potential.The purpose of politics is to form good citizens who place value on developing their character, who deliberate about the common good, who demonstrate practical judgment, and who participate in caring for the community.In Aristotle’s political/ethical framework, political policies are not ethically neutral but should be explicitly directed toward some end that helps shape a good society.I am curious to what extent our political candidates subscribe to any of Aristotle’s ideas.Underlying assumptionsI sincerely hope that our aspiring would-be presidents have some interest in helping shape a society in which everyone has the opportunity to attain their fullest possible potential.I am particularly eager to hear what kind of coherent ethical framework fits behind each candidate’s proposed policies on the economy, the environment, matters of justice and so on.Without being able to articulate such a thought-out framework, I fear that any policies promoted by any candidate would be based purely on rolling with the tide of capricious electoral behavior.I recognize that some people might argue that Aristotle’s approach impinges on people’s freedom. They might insist that the benefits of a democratic and free society lie in that people can vote for those purposes and values they wish to pursue as determined by majority sentiment.In making these arguments, what people readily forget is that the majority frequently changes its mind, and that no political position or policy is ever ethically neutral. Whether it is health care reform, immigration, tax rates for the rich or benefits for the unemployed or homeless, the rationale for any position is always based on certain ethical assumptions about what is valuable and worthy of reward.What I would like to know from our aspiring presidential candidates is what those underlying assumptions are and what they consider valuable and worthy of reward in our society.I would also like to know and understand each candidate’s explicit ethical agenda that underpins his political rhetoric.If one is going to debate taxes, for instance, I would like to understand what ethical argument supports candidates’ views on, for example, taxing the rich more or less. Is the argument based on utilitarian principles that focus on what is best for the majority? And if so, who is the majority in this case and how is it best calculated? Is it simply a monetary measure, or are there other qualitative measures included? Maybe it is a libertarian argument with the ethical assumption that there should be no political or legal pressure for individuals to come to the assistance of others.It is my sincere hope that in the many coming discussions and debates that will fill our calendars during 2012 there will be at least one debate regarding the kind of society our candidates are trying to uphold and shape.Part of that discussion should focus on what we as a society value and what we as a society reward. Maybe that will help all of us reflect on whether we are supporting a society in which every person has some chance at least to be all that she or he can be.Annabel Beerel, president and CEO of the New England Women’s Leadership Institute, works as a consultant on ethical leadership. She can be reached at