Posts Tagged civic culture

Reviving Character: Diversity, Conformity, and the Moral Life

The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil 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?

Hunter answers:

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 Read the rest of this entry »

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An Equality of Human Dignity: Charles Murray, Bill Maher and Materialism

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has been making waves. In the book, Murray argues that America has, over the past 50 years, experienced a new class divide between what he calls an “upper middle class” and “lower middle class.”

I have yet to finish the book (more reactions will surely come), but in observing Murray’s exchanges throughout the media, I’ve been struck by the left’s reactions to his thesis, particularly their rejection of his belief that social decay might just kinda sorta have social causes (as opposed to purely economic ones).

This week at Values & Capitalism, I examine this view, using Bill Maher’s recent interview with Murray as an example:

Maher aptly demonstrates the materialistic assumptions of his progressive worldview, assuming every social problem is linked to some kind of economic inequality.

Here’s an excerpt of my response:

Yet even if Maher were persuaded on this particular data, I trust he’d only get more creative with the numbers, for who can deny the unstoppable, exploitative power of bourgeois prosperity? For Maher and other progressives, this is not about data; it’s about an underlying faith in the evil of economic inequality and the transcendent power of material equilibrium.

Material. Material. Material.

Skyrocketing divorce rates? Follow the money. Absent fathers? Move that money around! Obesity epidemic? Give more funding to public schools. Widespread theft and burglary? Heck, have we tried more government coupons?

Such an outlook ignores what drives us as humans and what makes us prosper. If Maher really wants to repair our cultural divide, he should move beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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