Scholars and other thinkers ponder whether people know right
from wrong and can reshape a shared moral center.
Early in the last century a young man’s letter home showed his priorities. “Father,” he wrote, “you suggest that the greatest benefit from college is to be found in . . . habits of intellectual diligence and application. I am nonetheless putting my chief emphasis on the study of right and wrong.”
A lot of people might say that a letter like this, by a Princeton University freshman in 1928 and quoted last spring at the 10th anniversary of the school’s Center for Human Values, would never be written today. But the fact is, it just might. Over the last five years, at least 10 centers with a focus on values and public life have sprung up at university campuses across the country, many of them including the study of religion as an inseparable root of moral decision making. Moral life, both public and private, seems to be at the top of the list of concerns we all share. And as a rush of books by ethicists, religion sociologists and philosophers surfaces in stores, it’s clear that one worrisome question dominates: Can we tell the difference between right and wrong anymore?
A lot of people don’t seem to think so.
They may trust themselves, but not the idea that their values will be reflected in the public arena. “Something is seriously wrong in the country today,” said 75% of the nation in a Gallup-organized poll released in March after a rash of school shootings. “The country’s moral climate is on the wrong track,” said 55% of those asked by the Princeton Survey Research Associates at the end of the Clinton administration. Should the execution of Timothy McVeigh be televised? No, said 78% of those asked in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll in February. But it will be televised on closed circuit television for survivors and relatives of the victims. Just about everybody expects some hacker to get a tape of it into the public’s hands.
The remedy seems clear to most people. Forty-nine percent told Gallup pollsters in March that they believe government and society can help mend the moral environment. That in itself is a shift in attitude–away from the “me” generation toward the start of one that begins with “we.” As scholars and thinkers track the trend from a variety of perspectives, the question they’re asking is: How can we learn from where we’ve been and reshape the moral climate? “I see a lot of groping,” said Wade Clark Roof, a religion sociologist at UC Santa Barbara. ”
We’re not even sure what is public and what is private.” Roof has tracked the baby boomers’ religious and spiritual practices for 20 years. Two years ago he picked up on their wish for a shared moral code in his book, Spiritual Marketplace” (Princeton University Press). They saw it as something the country lacked. Roof found that boomers, many of them now in their 50s, are reconsidering their famed insistence on personal freedom and the right to privacy. Those priorities don’t fit well in debates about assisted suicide, gay partnerships and Internet ethics, for example. “People are starting to look beyond a simple public-private split,” Roof says. “We see that moral life involves both, and they are linked. People are looking for public manifestations of a private commitment to morality.
The problem is, we don’t exactly know how to do this.” To him, the president’s Faith Based Initiative is an example of the sort of issue that needs to be objectively aired. “We can’t any longer say, ‘Here is government and over there is religion,’ ” he says. “We need to come together in a public forum. The initiative asks, ‘How can government and religion work together in a pluralist society?’ ” Roof says that boomers are ready for a change. “We have to recognize the need for limits to our individual freedom.” At UCSB, where Roof is chairman of the religious studies program, he is currently raising funds for a center for religion and public life. One main purpose of the center will be to address the ethical issues of the day.
“So much of the past has been formed around freedom and rights,” he says. “Now the concern is with shared life. We need to consider the rules about getting along, about holding up moral ideals to young people. Can we have a conversation about this?” Philosopher Jonathan Glover looks at contemporary morality in the context of the past hundred years. As he sees it, the decline of religion and universal moral laws played a major part in a global collapse into violence, and only a return to personal responsibility and respect for the rights of others will bring relief. “Humanity, a Moral History of the Twentieth Century” (Yale University Press) is his harrowing vision of war, genocide and unresolved rage. Sounding weary and shaken, he picks through the rubble looking for shards of useful refuse with which to rebuild.
“What are the moral resources?” asks Glover, who directs the Center for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London. In other words, what do we have going for us? His answer is cool and analytic. We are repulsed by acts of cruelty, admiring of generosity, respectful of courage. These tendencies lead people to display self-restraint and to care for others, he writes, and they are the best we have to work with if we are to change the course of history.
Robert Coles, a psychiatrist and ethicist who has published 50 books on aspects of moral character and public life, zeros in on courage as a starting point for restoring our moral center. In “Lives of Moral Leadership” (Random House), a response to the Clinton presidency, Coles writes about individuals who set goals more lasting than their own personal gain. “Even as I began working on this book,” Coles writes, “the news was filled with reports of an American president’s . . . vulnerability to wrongdoing.”
In order to hold up contrasting role models, Coles went back to tape-recorded interviews he made for previous books, from the ’60s civil rights movement through the ’70s school-busing program to desegregate Boston public schools. He selected moments and bits of conversation that showed a man or woman making the choice for moral courage. The names are as familiar as Sen. Robert Kennedy, whom Coles admired for the way he worked to call attention to the plight of the American poor, or as unknown as Albert Jones, a volunteer bus driver during the Boston busing program. Coles also consulted children for their simple wisdom, as he does in many of his books. He admires Charles Dickens for his commitment to social causes, and Danilo Dolci, a social activist and writer who died in 1997, whose passion for the rights of the poor led to death threats from Sicily’s Mafia.
By Coles’ definition, a moral leader is someone who listens attentively before moving into action. It is a person who chooses good even at the cost of personal comfort, perhaps even personal safety. The role is available to anyone, but it requires that a person accept the responsibilities that go with it: “leadership as it affirms the faith of followers, leadership as the recipient of moral passion, a home of sorts for the seekers who have to do the fighting in this or that struggle.”
While Coles looks backward, to old-fashioned personal responsibility, religion sociologist Alan Wolfe measures the distance Americans have moved from the values of the past. “The day of shared moral standards is gone,” he says, in part, because of the lack of leadership Coles notes in modern society. “Never in history has there been more a sense that people can’t rely on traditions and institutions to guide them, morally,” Wolfe says. Wolfe’s book, “Moral Freedom, the Search for Virtue in a World of Choice” (W.W. Norton), is built on his interviews with people in eight niches–among them small-town Iowa, a wealthy Ohio suburb, an African American neighborhood in Hartford, Conn., a factory town in Massachusetts, and a gay district in San Francisco.
The eclectic moral standard he found there combines the Ten Commandments, 12-step recovery programs, personal experience and common sense. It makes for a society that is more forgiving than not and open to finding a commonly agreed on code of values, rather than one that is tightly drawn. He finds Americans to be moral moderates–and realists–willing to live with a certain amount of imperfection in themselves and others. Tolerance of others’ rights is more important than perfection.
It is clear to Wolfe how this vision was formed. “If you have a liberal economy, you’ll get a liberal morality,” he says. “Consumerism, credit cards, erotic ads. They’re all part of the secular message. Economic freedom has had some negative consequences. We’re finding that with moral freedom, there are problems, too.”
Why would a society that is so ready to allow for human imperfection approve the death penalty for McVeigh? Wolfe asked those who had lost family members in McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. “To be nonjudgmental seems in contradiction with capital punishment,” Wolfe says. “The state should take revenge for that worst of crimes,” people told him. “That logic escapes me,” Wolfe says. Eclectic morality does not always add up. “In the 20th century, the natural sciences ruled,” says Wolfe, who directs the 2-year-old Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “Morality and religion dropped out of the conversation. They were considered soft subjects in a world of hard data. By ignoring religion on college campuses, a vacuum formed,” Wolfe says. But a growing public hunger for open conversation about values and morality has spurred the growth of university centers such as the 5-year-old Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC and the center Wolfe directs. And the gap, says Wolfe, is quickly being filled up.
– Mary Rourke – Times Staff Writer