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Have it your way in the new moral order

August 6, 2001

Alan Wolfe thinks that the United States, like other Western nations, is undergoing a radical revolution in morals, and is now “morally speaking, a new society.”This is a familiar argument, made bitterly by conservatives such as William Bennett and Robert Bork. But Wolfe is no prophet of despair. He is a sociologist and an upbeat public intellectual who has spent many years examining the moral condition of middle-class Americans. Americans are as morally serious as ever, Wolfe says, but they are no longer willing to follow old rules. Besides, the revolution is irreversible. There’s no going back, so we might as well get used to it.”Americans are not going to lead 21st-century lives based on 18th- and 19th-century moral ideals,” he writes in his new book, “Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice.”

Wolfe thinks the traditional sources of moral authority (churches, families, neighborhoods, civic leaders) have lost the ability to influence people. In part, this is the result of appalling behavior by so many authority figures (lying presidents, pedophile priests, corrupt corporate executives, etc.) And as more and more areas of American life have become democratized and open to consumer “choice,” people have come to assume that they have the right to determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life.

Wolfe, a moderate and centrist by inclination, tends to see moderate behavior in the people he studies. In his previous book “One Nation After All,” he argued that the culture war is dead or dying, and that America has evolved a strong consensus on political and social issues. (This is a highly debatable thesis for all who remember the stark red-and-blue electoral map of Bush vs. Gore, but Wolfe is surely right that Americans today are reasonably well united.)

“Moral Freedom” continues this genial, middle-of-the-road analysis. Wolfe finds San Francisco gays and militant feminists who speak for self-restraint and Bible-Belt conservatives who argue for more self-expression. Americans, he says, are not caught up in the liberation vs. oppression battles left over from the 1960s. Based on a New York Times survey he helped design, Wolfe concludes that Americans don’t spend time pondering a culture war. Instead they are caught up in an effort to bridge the old and the new, holding on to traditional standards, but refusing to accept them as absolutes. “Any form of higher authority has to tailor its demands to the needs of real people,” Wolfe writes.

Hovering over the new moral universe is the great cloud of nonjudgmentalism. Wolfe has qualms, but true to his approach, he sees the nonjudgmental ethic in generally positive terms. Americans are now unwilling to tell others how to live. By refraining from judgment, Wolfe thinks, Americans express a sense of humility and respect for the moral freedom of others. Nonjudgmentalism pushes us to interpret immoral behavior as a result of medical or genetic problems. The perpetrator is not at fault; he is the helpless victim of bad genes or a medical-psychiatric problem. A lot of moral concern is smuggled into the national conversation disguised as a scientific discussion of public health or addiction.

Much of the book analyzes various virtues and argues that Americans uphold the old virtues in principle while in practice turning them into personal “options.” Americans prize loyalty, but in an age of easy divorce and mass corporate layoffs, loyalty is now seen as conditional. The same is true of honesty. Success today, Wolfe writes, often depends on managing the impressions of other people — a form of dissimulation. Honesty is no longer the best policy. It is a general mandate, strategically applied.

Wolfe offers the good news: Americans share a common moral philosophy “broad and inclusive enough to incorporate people whose views of the actual issues of the day are at loggerheads.” But he doesn’t spend much time lamenting the downside. Americans have strong principles, but they reserve the right not to apply them in difficult situations. Subscribers to the new moral order can have it both ways — strong principles with a built-in escape hatch.

This would explain much of the gap between polls on moral issues and actual behavior. Several polls, for instance, show that between 50 percent and 60 percent of Americans think abortion is a form of murder. An annual survey of college freshmen consistently shows that about half of those polled think abortion should be illegal. Yet the prevalence of abortion points to a more relaxed moral standard when the chips are down.

Is this the future — strong standards casually applied or simply ignored under stress? Could be. In his book “After Virtue,” philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre lamented that today “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitudes or feelings.” But moral codes are supposed to rein in many feelings and desires, not to offer them all free expression under cover of alleged moral seriousness.

Wolfe’s “moral freedom” seems to whisk away duty and obligation, relieving us all of the burden of doing anything costly. If this is the future, let’s have more of the past.

From → Religion

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