I recently finished up James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, which provides a marvelous critique of American moral education, chronicling our gradual descent from a focus on virtues and eternal truths into a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”
Hunter’s diagnosis, from the prologue:
A restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy-making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.
These “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, believing that morality is “self-evident” in and of itself and all we must do is help individuals “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Anything else is too dogmatic, too sectarian, too potentially offensive.
Particularity is inherently exclusive. It is socially awkward, potentially volatile, offensive to our cosmopolitan sensibilities. By its very nature it cuts against the grain of our dominant code of inclusivity and civility. In our quest to be inclusive and tolerant of particularity, we naturally undermine it. When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.
Indeed, there’s something about particularity that scares us, regardless of our own particular beliefs in our own particular moral philosophies. The secular progressive is afraid of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is afraid of the Muslim. The Muslim is afraid of the secular progressive. And so we fight for control over the monopoly on the narrative.
So if this inclusivist approach is ineffective and actually undermines the ways in which morality is formed, how is morality actually formed?
Morality is always situated—historically situated in the narrative flow of collective memory and aspiration, socially situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities. Grounded in this way, ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient…
A morality conceptualized without basic links to a living creed and a lived community means that the morality they espouse entails few if any psychic costs; it lacks, in any case, the social and spiritual sanctions that can make morality “binding on our conscience and behavior.” What is more, without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes—variations of the emotivism that now prevails everywhere. Critics who point to the absolutist quality of this moral pedagogy are not far from the point. Outside the bounds of moral community, morality cannot be authoritative, only authoritarian. In the end, these alternatives [i.e. any modernistic attempts to instill virtue] do not advocate virtue, but at the their best, it is virtue on the cheap.
This, of course, is very much in line with the thesis of this blog. If we want to achieve a just, or as I would prefer, a properly Christian society, we should aim to foster an environment where individuals can maximize their God-given callings. This means fostering an environment where unique moral communities—e.g. the church—are encouraged to flourish and “compete,” not trumped by government control.
Yet because we all inherently fear various forms of particularity, this solution is difficult to achieve. Opening the floodgates to “atomic communitarianism,” as I’ve called it, involves plenty of risk, intense debate, and uncertainty, even, or especially, for us Christians. We, as particular moral communities, need to have the courage and confidence to step forward, boldly and confidently elevating what we believe to be eternal truths and superior moral philosophies. If we truly believe what we believe, we should have the guts to put it to the test—to elevate truth alongside competing visions and philosophies of life.
We also need to recognize that these competing moral philosophies, though diverse in plenty of important ways, will often help us reach a variety of common virtues, albeit via differing frameworks and understandings.
Echoing many sentiments from Kenneth Minogue’s recent book, Hunter hits the point home:
It is in this light we need to consider again the Enlightenment commitment to create a universal and inclusive moral vocabulary capable of satisfying everyone. Its consequences, as we have seen, are not salutary for moral education and they are dubious for democracy. Thus, if one is to create greater space in our public culture for differences in moral communities to exist, it is essential to abandon the high priority we give to this commitment. To do so does not mean the sacrifice of a common public life defined by commonly held moral ideals. But instead of forcing commonality in our moral discourse at the expense of particularity, one discovers commonality through particularly. Certainly the humanist, the Jew, and the Christian who join in condemnation of racism will differ over whether humanist, Jewish and Christian conviction provide the most trustworthy reasons for their agreement, yet each provides thick moral arguments that preserve the most important commitments of the other. We will most certainly discover other moral agreements about integrity, fairness, altruism, responsibility, respect, valor—agreements too numerous to mention. But these agreements will be found within moral diversity not in spite of it. Where disagreements remain, they can be addressed through a substantive engagement that enhances rather than undermines democracy.”
Without this kind of fearless, substantive engagement, we will surely fail. As Madison well understood, “the causes of faction cannot be removed.” We’d do well to control and balance the effects rather than “vexing” and “oppressing” competing belief systems through some presumptuous control-freak claim to universalistic moral development.
It’s time to step boldly forth into what Hunter calls a “difficult pluralistic quagmire” and stop pretending that blind inclusiveness is any path to genuine civic commonality.