Ideas

Public Morality in the Ages of Caesar and Trump

What is our common ground -- and common benefit -- when everyone in society has their own strong set of opinions? How do leaders lead or represent us? This episode takes a philosophical look at the interaction between morality and the public good, with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a lens into how private and public values can both unite and divide us. Recorded on stage at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, Paul Kennedy hosts a discussion featuring philosopher Mark Kingwell, political theorist Emma Planinc and actor Jonathan Goad.
Issues like the recently-reignited abortion debate in the United States complicate the historic idea of a common public morality, and public good. (Reuters/Jim Young)
Listen to the full episode53:59

From abortion wars in the U.S., to debates over immigration numbers and online privacy here in Canada, to Brexit in the UK, people have their own firm opinion of what's right. But how many of us are willing to sacrifice our personal morality for the common good? And as individual views and ever-shriller rhetoric fill social and news media, how much common ground can we actually find now?

We have large, diverse populations where we have different conceptions of what's good. And that, on the whole, is a healthy condition to be in. But it means that the political struggle and whatever local morality might possibly mean among citizens or leaders is always a question mark.- Mark Kingwell

These are the realities haunting a discussion of public morality that took place recently at Ontario's Stratford Festival.

It's a fitting setting, since the Shakespeare history play Julius Caesar acts as a touchstone for the conversation among philosopher Mark Kingwell, political theorist Emma Planinc and actor Jonathan Goad — a conversation that travels from ancient Rome to modern Washington D.C. 

Emma Planinc is a historian of political thought at the University of Notre Dame. 1:01

Julius Caesar is a tragedy that explores the complicated nature of individual truth and collective action. As Caesar, a successful general, becomes an increasingly popular figure in the Roman republic, his friend Brutus becomes convinced that Caesar is dangerously ambitious, and would become an authoritarian leader, enslaving the citizenry.

Brutus joins in on the lethal knife attack on Caesar. His funeral speech explains his thinking: "If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." 

Some 400 years later, we're still wrestling with what constitutes a common morality, and ethical leadership. The polarized attitudes toward U.S. president Donald Trump suggest the American public has highly divergent views of what "makes America great."  There is also the stark possibility that there may not even be a shared conception of what constitutes a common reality.

Further reading:

 


**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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