The Obsolescence of Ethics: Robert Fitch

June 7, 2020.  I am revisiting this blog post that merely featured Mr. Fitch’s quote and his obituary and adding some reflections. They are disturbing reflections. Very uncomfortable.  Why?  This is the day after the funeral for a man named George Floyd whose death and the way many in our society mourned him illustrates what Mr. Fitch was trying to warn us about.

A society who mourns a miscreant.

A society who mourns a miscreant. What does that say about our ethics? And I recalled Robert Fitch’s quote yet again.

Our society strangely is not really more compassionate as so many think we are, but what it has done has been to invert *what* we feel compassion for and when. It used to be for those who had been on the end of criminals. Now we feel compassion for the meanest among us, for the worst of our nature, for the criminal. And despite our smartphones that is the most disturbing visual as to what it portends for us all.

I lay awake the other night considering the other side of this bizarre and inverted view we have of morality now in the West and its connection to how we view police brutality now and then.

Laying awake thinking about the history of Medieval England and Elizabethan England. Under those laws, for what Mr. Floyd had done that morning, he would have had his hand cut off. Police brutality? Let’s remember that the same scriptures we have today existed then. Under Saudi Arabian rule today, the same punishment would be enacted. Police Brutality for them? Not under their mindset, which is an ancient one. Islamic? Same thing, which by the way is part of African history. Indeed, not so long ago, the machete in Rwanda was used to mete out what the crowd thought was a just punishment. In the US, we get a baton, tear gas, and a bit of rough handling. Most of the time, we end up still alive, still physically intact, if we don’t resist a legitimate call for our arrest, which in this country is pretty much what happens because of due process. We are not like China or the Middle East in that respect.

I’m not advocating hand removal by any means nor a patronizing disregard for human life by police with a superiority complex ( and from his documented actions, it would seem Mr. Floyd had a disregard for human life and the rights of others) but I think contemplating the extremes that our society has allowed throughout history can give us some perspective of who it is that is deciding what police brutality is and why. I’m not completely persuaded that we have a more enlightened view in our modern day when our behavior is of such a completely arrogant and defiant regard when compared to our ancestors. At least then, I think you would be hard pressed to find an atheist among criminals. At least then, at death, they had a proper regard and fear of the Almighty and everlasting life. Not so today.

So what did Mr. Fitch try to warn us about in 1959 about how far our ethics had slid into inversion?


Original post: November 13, 2011. “Ours is an age where ethics has become obsolete. It is superceded by science, deleted by philosophy and dismissed as emotive by psychology. It is drowned in compassion, evaporates into aesthetics and retreats before relativism. The usual moral distinctions between good and bad are simply drowned in a maudlin emotion in which we feel more sympathy for the murderer than for the murdered, for the adulterer than for the betrayed, and in which we have actually begun to believe that the real guilty party, the one who somehow caused it all, is the victim, and not the perpetrator of the crime.”

-political science professor Robert Fitch, from a 1959 article entitled The Obsolescence of Ethics

I had a friend ask where they could get a copy  of this work, and much to my regret, I had to let them know it was out of print.   This kind of truth-telling deserves to be, no, it desparately needs to be highlighted in our day and age.  As I searched the internet for more hide or tail of Robert and his writings, I came across an obituary-tribute to him in The Nation.  The last paragragh I offer here as a possible explanation as to why its so hard to find Robert Fitch’s work even on so democratized a medium as the Internet:

“For all his truth-telling, Bob was ostracized not only by the progressive establishment in New York but also by academia, which found him not only too outspoken, but too polymath as well. Universities like well-behaved specialists, not rude questioners. Though his material situation improved somewhat in recent years, he lived most of his life on very little money. His major sources of income were freelance writing fees, small book advances, and the sweatshop wages enjoyed by adjunct faculty (which is what you call a temp worker with a PhD). As Guttenplan, the former Village Voice editor who introduced me to Bob, wrote just after his death: “[It’s a] scandal that they scrape the barrel to give these so-called genius grants to third-rate conventional fakers when Bob Fitch, a man who did his own thinking and his own research, and who came up with truly original insights about some pretty important topics—urban planning, organized labor, critical journalism—had to live like a luftmensch.”

Much to my regret, I’d fallen out of touch with Bob in recent years, and had just resolved to reverse that. I missed his mind—and, though he could be a prickly character at times, his warmth. RIP, Bob. They don’t make many like you.”

I would have to agree: they don’t make many like him.  RIP, Mr. Fitch.


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