Revive the Moral Mandate

This article originally appeared on RealClearBooks.com on 02/22/2019.

Bad habits are hard to change, and even harder when America no longer has a meaningful public culture. Tocqueville talked about it this way:

Epochs sometimes occur in the life of a nation when the old customs of a people are changed, public morality is destroyed . . . and the spell of tradition broken. . . . The country then assumes a dim and dubious shape in the eyes of the citizens. . . . The country is lost to their senses, . . . and they retire into a narrow and unenlightened selfishness. . . . In this predicament to retreat is impossible, for a people cannot recover the sentiments of their youth any more than a man can return to the innocent tastes of childhood; such things may be regretted but they cannot be renewed. They must go forward and accelerate the union of private with public interests, since the period of disinterested patriotism is gone by forever.

Our predicament is uncomfortable. Our political muscles have atrophied. The parties are inbred, with values and ideologies that are diametrically opposed to what’s needed to support a practical society. But Americans are restless and demanding change, so the status quo is not an option either.

It’s little consolation that we brought it on ourselves. We tried to create a kind of automatic government, where lots of rules and processes would obviate our need to stand for particular values, or, indeed, even to pay attention. Now those supposedly neutral mechanisms are crowding out our freedoms and causing failure. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. Every year the corner of our freedom gets ever smaller.

That’s why Americans want to burst out. But we can’t just wrap ourselves in a patriotic flag and expect shared values to permeate our culture. We need to figure this out anew, and revive a sense of personal ownership in public choices and activities.

A new governing vision grounded in human responsibility, with citizens and officials aspiring to meet public goals in their own ways, could achieve Tocqueville’s proposal for a “union of private with public interests.” But liberating people to take responsibility is not all that’s needed. Letting people make public decisions requires a common frame of reference by which to discuss the fairness of choices, and to resolve differences by reference to shared moral principles.

Americans no longer have a shared sense of public morality. That too has atrophied. We no longer know what we’re supposed to believe. A kind of moral anarchy has descended upon the land. Moral debate is dominated by fringe groups and fanatics, with no keel to keep debate centered on the common good.

We no longer believe in belief. We’ve been indoctrinated into believing in moral neutrality. At every level of society, people feel uncomfortable making what are pejoratively known as “value judgments.” It is mandatory for judges seeking confirmation, for example, to kneel before the altar of complete neutrality and promise that they will not “make the rules” but only “apply them,” as if justice were a multiple-choice test.

Relativism is practically a religion on campus, with the notable exception, of course, that victimhood is put high on a pedestal. When a friend who is a sociology professor asked his students to judge which was better—the nurturing curriculum of Montessori schools versus the relentless high-pressure Korean schools—the students reacted against making that “value judgment,” even when presented with higher rates of suicide and other pathologies among Korean students.

For several decades now, thoughtful observers such as Michael Sandel have explained why moral neutrality is not only a myth but a scourge of a free society which causes our virtues to degenerate. People who want to do good have no moral authority to overcome selfishness: Who are you to judge?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, morality is not merely a matter of personal belief. Morality is the mortar of a healthy society. Man must be moral, Durkheim emphasized, “because he lives in society.” Morality infuses social dealings with mutual trust. People are able to achieve more when they trust others to abide by shared norms of fairness, such as the Golden Rule directive to “do unto others . . .” Truthfulness is essential for trust. Norms of sharing and restraint are essential for stewardship of scarce common resources—including protecting clean air and water, and allocating finite public budgets in schools and government.

A culture of people aspiring to do what’s right will have more “social capital.” Social capital is like money in the bank. Mutual trust in a shared vision inspires people. It gives meaning to activities independent of economic considerations. You can do so much more with yourself, and with your community, and everyone else can as well. Cultures with more social capital, such as the Centers for Disease Control where employees volunteer for hazardous assignments, are able to achieve high levels of institutional performance and personal fulfillment.

Every joint activity depends upon shared values. “Between ‘can do’ and ‘may do,’ ” a British law lord once observed, “exist[s] the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible.”

Adherence to moral virtues was considered by the Framers as an essential element of a successful democracy. They were explicit about the human tendency towards selfishness, and created a framework where people would act as checks on each other. But they also understood that people want to do good, and believed that the success of democracy hinged on shared social values putting the common good ahead of selfish goals. “Only a virtuous people,” Benjamin Franklin observed, “are capable of freedom.” Thomas Jefferson suggested that we must affirmatively enforce good values: “No government can continue good but under the controul of the people . . . encoraged in habits of virtue, & deterred from those of vice.”

Conventional wisdom is that Americans no longer share the same values. Indeed, people do have many differences in values—including work habits, ways of communicating, humor, attire, political views, and, above all, different cultural traditions.

The core values needed for a healthy society, however, are not optional. These are values of truthfulness, reciprocity, and loyalty to the common good. We must demand them in all social dealings, and hold accountable those who refuse to abide by them.

American culture has frayed in large part because we made those core values optional. Disabling moral judgments about right and wrong has steadily dissipated America’s social capital. Here is what moral neutrality has unleashed in America:

A culture of selfishness.

Public selfishness, Edmund Burke believed, spells the end of free society: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”

The supposedly neutral rules of correctness have transformed law into a vehicle for self-interest. The rights revolution, for example, has degenerated into demands for personal gain. How did it happen that lousy teachers have a “right” to keep teaching our children? What about the students’ rights?

Selfishness is a contagious disease. Once people start grabbing for themselves, others do as well. Distrust replaces sharing and helpfulness. Distrust breeds fear, causing people to act defensively instead of feeling free to act on their best judgment. People retreating into defensive foxholes lose their sense of ownership for society. The common enterprise starts to disintegrate. “A brackish tide of pessimism,” columnist David Brooks observes, “turns into passivity,” and “people are quick to decide that longstanding problems . . . are intractable and not really worth taking on.”

Overgrazing the commons.

A moral society requires fidelity to the future. As Frederick Douglass put it, “You have no right to enjoy. . . the labors of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors.”

Washington no longer feels a duty of responsible stewardship for the future. Budget deficits mean that our children will pay the tab for Washington’s refusal to fix wasteful programs. Obsolete programs stay in place because, well, some interest groups want to keep them. We are living on infrastructure built by our grandparents and great-grandparents, and can’t modernize it because Democrats won’t cut red tape and Republicans won’t raise taxes to fund it.

Political debate is about self-interest, not competing visions of the common good. Politics “lacks moral resonance,” as Michael Sandel puts it, and is replaced by appeals to personal gain. Republicans claim that tax cuts will stimulate the economy, but the subtext is that tax cuts will help rich supporters. Democrats argue that individual rights are critical for a just society, but what they really mean is that they will help public unions and other political supporters. Absolutist policy positions deny the need for balance—“No New Taxes!” is the natural companion to “Give Me My Rights!“

The irresponsibility of political leaders is matched by the anti-responsibility of civil servants. Officials worry about avoiding blame instead of getting things done. The surest way to get in trouble is to actually do something. Far safer to retreat into legal process. The proposed new power line is needed to access wind power, but who will defend the official when the farmers complain about unsightly power poles? Better to do a few thousand more pages of environmental review.

Washington has sold out the future of our society. We are living off the investments of our ancestors, while bequeathing our children the debt of our profligate entitlements. Without a vocabulary of public morality, few people even pay attention. Advocates of fiscal restraint, such as Pete Peterson and Paul Volcker, are politely ignored.

What you believe doesn’t matter.

Most people want to do what’s right, and feel pride in their work and in their role in the community. But morality needs to be honored, not treated as a foolhardy gesture by the weak. All around us, in politics, in the community, and in social media, we see people with antisocial values who are not called to account. People demand as much as possible for themselves, without regard for others. Bad attitudes, bad morals, and untruthfulness have no consequences. Self-absorbed people have a kind of competition for the greatest narcissist. The Kardashians are famous for. . . being famous.

Relativism grew out of justifiable guilt over bad social values, such as racism and gender discrimination. We were taught, as Michael Polanyi put it, that “to refrain from belief is always an act of intellectual probity.” But what we accomplished was not a fairer society, but one dominated by groups more than willing to fill the vacuum with their own values. “Fundamentalists rush in,” as Michael Sandel put it, “where liberals fear to tread.”

Relativism is an abdication of basic norms needed for a civilized society. The goal was to replace bad values with neutral rules, but this amorality opened the door to selfishness and inevitably degenerated into immorality. The erosion of mutual trust unleashed a downward spiral of destructive conduct. At this point, facts have lost their authority. Disregard for reality is not confined to fringe groups in their echo chambers—whether right-wing extremists or public unions defending indefensible abuses. Flagrant falsehood is now an accepted technique of partisan debate by our political leaders, including, profligately, by President Trump. When what’s true doesn’t matter, all basis for social trust disappears. American culture is transformed into an “anti-culture.” The harm is not just to our public institutions, but, ultimately, to our own ability to function effectively in society. Hannah Arendt explained: “The result of a consistent. . .substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted. . .but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world. . .is being destroyed.”

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