- Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country
While the two adjectives in Albert Borgmann’s title—“real” and “American” —are both important to understanding his thesis, the more central and challenging concept here is “real.” Though Borgmann recognizes some normative ethical significance to what it means to be American (e.g., the virtues of generosity and resourcefulness), America is perhaps most important ethically as the environment in which Americans live. For Borgmann, “real” ethics takes the tangible environment seriously. Reality is the visible and tangible “stuff” that surrounds us and engages us. Whether you have a television in your home matters ethically, as do the type and location of the TV set(s) you have. “It is ethically consequential where you place the set, whether in the middle of the living room, in a home theater, or out of the way on the third floor” (p. 29). These decisions have an effect on our behavior, on our perceptions and inspirations, on ourselves.
In 1943 when the House of Commons needed to be rebuilt after being bombed, Winston Churchill told members of Parliament: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Borgmann uses this statement as a starting point for understanding ethics and repeatedly refers to it as “the Churchill principle.” In responding to the ethical question “How should we live?” real ethics focuses on the endeavor “to shape the world we live in so that it inspires the good life and the good society” (p. 30). Real ethics has to do with design. We should seek, for example, to shape our home so that “doing the right thing comes naturally or at least does not require heroic self-discipline” (p. 10). We shape our space which then shapes us. Our responsibility to shape the space—that then shapes us—includes responsibility both for private space (such as where we choose to live) and public space (such as the transportation system). Unfortunately, perhaps because we have not given adequate attention to the ethical significance of what we build, we frequently fail to recognize the consequences of what we do. [End Page 817]
Borgmann situates real ethics in relationship to theoretical ethics and practical ethics (the latter being discussed primarily in terms of virtue ethics), both of which he discusses largely in the context of American culture. His work throughout is solid and insightful. The primary value and contribution of Real American Ethics, however, may well be the way it highlights the Churchill principle as a foundational concept in ethics. Both ethicists and the public can learn from this.
The author is correct in noting that the ethical impact of the shape of the tangible environment is rarely on the agenda of meetings of moral philosophers. This does not mean that his approach is at odds with the thinking of most ethicists or will not be welcomed by many. There are some widespread perspectives among professional ethicists that are compatible with, if not similar to, Borgmann’s. Many ethicists are uncomfortable with the “do good and avoid evil” understanding of ethical responsibility. Living well ethically means trying to achieve moral or ethical excellence—doing what is best, not just avoiding doing the wrong. The appropriate ethical questions are: What is the best thing to do in these circumstances? What contributes most to the good life and to the good society? Borgmann, who himself uses the term “moral excellence,” fits with this tendency.
There is another aspect of the work of many contemporary ethicists that should be noted. This is the emphasis placed on the importance of thinking about culture and organizations when considering ethics. It is not nearly enough to focus on individuals. Our understanding of the good life and of good actions is strongly influenced by the environment in which we live and work. Most employees, for example, learn more of what is expected of them from what gets recognized and rewarded in the workplace than they learn from the organization’s code of ethics. Those interested in promoting high standards...