Duty, Honor, Courtesy and Democracy

by | October 16, 2011

Democracies certainly seemed to work better years ago when a majority of people were honorable and had a sense of duty. Society seemed to be full of individuals who made decisions not only to benefit themselves but also to benefit their families, their friends, their communities and their society as a whole. Of course self benefit was important (we were still, after all, human) but it was balanced with consideration for others as well. It was not a perfect world; there were still criminals and selfish, fiendish people, but the majority seemed to take the larger view.

Today the world has changed and it seems that the majority are now much more self focused. In some quarters it seems that the very concepts of duty and honor are mocked as being opiates for the masses. Of course duty and honor are more than just a way to control people. There are many good reasons why an advanced society needs both duty and honor to be considered important parts of each individual’s personal makeup.

As a result of this shift in attitudes, democratic governments have taken to legislate behavior that was, just one generation ago, considered only common courtesy. Take, for example, seats on buses reserved for elderly or handicapped persons. In the 1970’s, everyone knew to stand up and offer his seat to an elderly or handicapped person. That was common decency. Years later, in many jurisdictions, the buses began posting signs above the front seats requesting that patrons give up those seats. Something had changed … people were no longer offering their seats without a reminder. Now many jurisdictions make it mandatory to save these seats for the elderly and handicapped. Something had changed again … people were no longer offering their seats voluntarily. This may be a minor example, but it is indicative of the deterioration of our society.

So what to do? The word citizenship may not be the right word to use, but the teaching of duty and of common courtesy needs to be an integral part of the education system. If students grow up understanding why they need to behave honorably and what the consequences are to our society if they do not, we might end up with politicians who do not lie to get elected, with bankers who do not advise their clients to buy a stock while they themselves are selling it, with lawyers who to not bring frivolous lawsuits because of a statistical expectation that they will make money on convenience settlements, and with doctors and dentists who do not gouge their patients because their associations hold a monopoly on the practice.

We would still need laws to protect us from the worst members of society, but the vast majority would behave honorably. We could prune our laws to eliminate those related to common courtesy. And we could have a much less confrontational existence. Besides, democracy won’t survive unless the majority of the electorate are honor-bound to believe in and act with honor. How else will the best government’s be elected? And wouldn’t that make for a better world?

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