March 18, 2001
The Final Freedom
By ALAN WOLFE
Should I lie or tell the truth? Is my marriage vow binding? Ought I give in
when temptation calls? To whom are my obligations strongest? To answer such
questions, Americans have traditionally relied on time-tested moral rules,
usually handed down by a supreme being, that command obedience and punish
defiance. Now we live in an age of moral freedom, in which individuals are
expected to determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and
virtuous life. We decide what is right and wrong, not by bending our wills
to authority, but by considering who we are, what others require and what
consequences follow from acting one way rather than another.
This country has always experienced freedom, but only recently has it
discovered moral freedom. In the 19th century, principles of economic
liberty were instrumental in creating a society in which the right to own
property, to hire workers and to manufacture and dispose of goods was
accepted as the most productive way for a society to create and distribute
its wealth. This was followed, in the 20th century, by the spread of
political freedom. By century's end, the idea that people had a right to
vote and to run for office -- and that such a right could not be denied them
on the basis of ownership of property, race or gender -- had become so
widely accepted that no society could be considered good unless its
political system was organized along democratic lines.
Although political freedoms are enormously important, they are restricted to
one sphere of human activity: obtaining and exercising political power. The
same is true of economic freedom, which, by definition, is limited to such
essential, but also essentially mundane, matters like the buying and selling
of commodities. Moral freedom involves the sacred as well as the profane; it
is freedom over the things that matter most. The ultimate implication of the
idea of moral freedom is not that people are created in the image of a
higher authority. It is that any form of higher authority has to tailor its
commandments to the needs of real people. It cannot be surprising that
Americans made a best seller out of a book -- actually three books -- called
"Conversations With God."
Even the most traditional Americans have been touched by the spread of moral
freedom. Born-again Christians generally do not believe that people should
be free to live as they choose, especially when they choose what
evangelicals consider sinful: homosexuality, for example, or premarital sex.
Yet evangelicals are also people who often reject the religion of their
upbringing, opt for start-up churches and prefer to home-school their
children, giving them more in common than they realize with gays and
lesbians who have redefined marriage and family and founded houses of
worship that serve their own spiritual needs. Conservative millionaires may
vote Republican because they believe America lost its Christian standards
under Bill Clinton, but they probably obtained their millions living by
rules of corporate loyalty, equity and honesty that Christians generations
ago would have called sinful.
Moral freedom is so radical an idea, so disturbing in its implications, that
it has never had much currency among any but a few of the West's great moral
theorists. Even those who made passionate arguments in defense of freedom in
general did not extend their arguments to moral freedom. Indeed, the common
position among most Western thinkers has been to argue the necessity for
moral constraint as a precondition for freedom in all other aspects of life.
This was most true of conservatives who justified the received authority of
church, prince, law or nature. But it was also true of liberal thinkers like
John Locke and Immanuel Kant, for whom liberty made sense only when shaped
by pre-existing religious or ethical commandments. Timeless, transcendental,
absolute -- morality stood in the sharpest possible contrast to freedom,
which was transient, inconsistent and dependent on mere circumstance. Even
in America, despite the celebratory individualism of an Emerson or a
Whitman, the idea of moral freedom made little sense until very recent
times. When Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 announced the four freedoms -- of
speech, of worship, from want, from fear -- moral freedom was not among
them. When, in 1957, the United States Supreme Court finally got around to
talking about sexual freedom -- calling sex "a great and mysterious force in
human life," which was "a subject of absorbing interest" -- it did so in the
context of upholding a conviction for violating obscenity laws.
In the 1960's and 1970's, for the first time in American history, a number
of thinkers began to take the idea of moral freedom seriously, and enough
people paid them attention to mount a significant challenge against moral
authority. Reviewing the history of religion in America since the first
Spanish and French settlements, the historian Sidney Ahlstrom concluded that
"only in the 1960's would it become apparent that the Great Puritan Epoch in
American history had come to an end." If nothing is so powerful as an idea
whose time has come, the idea of moral freedom, when it finally came, was
powerful enough, at least for a time, to sweep all before it.
Because moral freedom is so new an idea, it inevitably arouses opposition.
There is a widespread feeling that the legacy of the 1960's has been
corrosive to the American social fabric. Disrespectful of established
authority, cut off from tradition, unattached to family or faith, Americans,
we have been repeatedly told, embraced moral freedom only to experience
painful results. To discover whether such charges resonate among Americans
themselves, I assembled a research team and spent the last couple of years
talking with people from all walks of life about what it means to lead a
good and virtuous life. We concentrated on four virtues that have been
praised by theologians and philosophers for their moral seriousness:
honesty, loyalty, forgiveness and self-discipline. Are critics of our
condition right to worry that we no longer believe in the old-fashioned
virtues that once made us great? Or should we celebrate the arrival of moral
freedom for the same reasons we have come to accept economic and political
freedom: society is better off when people decide for themselves the right
thing to do rather than have it decided for them by others?
We need not, and should not, take the thoughts of ordinary Americans as the
final word on our condition. But, as the reaction to recent events ranging
from the school shootings in Santee, Calif., to the presidential pardons
demonstrate, there is moral talk aplenty in America; if talk about morality
were only a measure of morality, we would be hearing about a moral surplus,
not a moral deficit. The least we can do, before we stand up to preach, is
to listen to what Americans have to say.
"There's nothing like loading a few coffins," a retired Air Force officer
told us of his service in Vietnam. "It turned my life around." Now working
as a substitute teacher and occasional lecturer outside Dayton, Ohio, he
worries that his country recently has become too soft and self-indulgent.
"The wonderful thing about democracy and capitalism is that they lead to the
good life, as Aristotle would want us to have it," he says. But the problem
"is that we tend to lose focus on the virtues," the most important of which
are "hard work, dedication and sacrifice."
As much as this man's views resonate with ideas of America's decline from a
more virtuous age, his defense of self-discipline was decidedly uncommon
among our respondents. "You can be disciplined in a bad way," said one woman
in Tipton, Iowa. "You work 70, 80 hours a week, ignoring your family. I
don't think that is good self-discipline." Good self-discipline makes room
for obligations to others. In a paradoxical way, it also involves
obligations to the self. Many people told us that the person who indulges
from time to time is more likely to be productive than the obsessive
St. Augustine wrote that it is always wrong to lie. But the people with whom
we spoke believe that you are under a greater obligation to be honest to a
friend than to a stranger -- and that you are under no obligation at all to
be honest to someone who is dishonest to you. Honesty is not a
one-size-fits-all virtue. Many of the gay men with whom we spoke in San
Francisco did not believe in loyalty to their sexual partners, but,
determined not to hide their sexual orientation, were among the most
passionate believers in honesty. Other respondents felt that there are times
when honesty can be a vice. "You know," said a San Francisco therapist,
"people say terrible things and then they go, 'Well, I was just being
honest."' In her view, a person of good character would rank sensitivity to
others higher than honesty to them.
Whatever the virtue, Americans will be more practical than principled. An
engineer in Silicon Valley talked about the problem of marital loyalty as if
he were tinkering with a stubborn software program: "Is it irretrievably
broken or can you patch it up? Was there a basis for the marriage in the
first place? Is there a basis for working together as part of a team to move
ahead from where you are and ignore the past?" A divorced woman in Hartford
believes in forgiveness, not out of a recognition that even sinners may
nonetheless be good in the eyes of God, but "because when we don't forgive,
it holds us back, it eats away at us."
As they decide for themselves the best way to live, people can and do
consult traditional sources of moral wisdom. Our respondents mentioned not
only popular television programs and self-help books but also the example of
Jesus Christ, philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and William
James, novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and Alexander
Solzhenitsyn and theologians including Teilhard de Chardin and Rabbi Hillel.
Still, listening to their reasoning gives a certain credibility to those who
argue that contemporary Americans have too much freedom for their own good.
Our respondents are guided by subjective feelings more than they are by
appeals to rational, intellectual and objective conceptions of right and
wrong. They do not think that virtue consists in subsuming their needs and
desires to the authority of tradition. Indeed, some of them are not even
sure that virtuous is what they want to be. Without firm moral instruction,
Americans approach the virtues gingerly. They recognize their importance but
reinvent their meaning to make sense of the situations in which they find
Just because Americans may be living "after virtue" -- to use the evocative
words of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre -- does not, however, mean
that they are living before vice. Both conservatives and liberals see a
direct link between the 1960's and now. From the point of view of those
aghast at what the 1960's have bequeathed us, one mistake -- the wrong drug
or, later, the wrong sex partner -- and life itself could be threatened.
>From the point of view of those who embraced the social changes of that
time, one too many concessions to established institutions of authority, and
freedom itself could be sacrificed. Yet for the people with whom we spoke,
the 1960's -- understood as a political movement designed to challenge the
status quo in favor of revolutionary transformations in lifestyle -- barely
exist. Even in San Francisco, despite the fact that we asked people
questions about the most morally contentious issues of the day, only a
couple of our respondents reflected on what the tumultuous events of those
years meant for them and for their country.
The debate over the 1960's confuses two different phenomena. One is the
freedom to choose how to live. The other is the freedom to consider oneself
unbound by moral rules. The Americans with whom we have spoken make a pretty
clear distinction between choice and unboundedness. The former, they usually
insist, is something worth having. And the latter, most of them feel, is
something worth avoiding. When Americans think of the kind of moral anarchy
and irresponsibility that conservatives associate with the excesses of the
1960's, they do not think about their own lives but about the wild lives of
Hollywood celebrities, the self-centered actions of corporations and the
dishonesty exhibited by politicians.
Moderate in economics and politics, our respondents are, for the most part,
moderate in morality. The great bulk of them no longer adhere to traditional
ideas about virtue and vice, but neither do they live as moral libertines.
They do not take their marriage vows as binding under all circumstances and
for all time, but they often approach the question of divorce in a morally
serious way, reserving it as an option when the price of excessive loyalty
is unwanted cruelty toward spouse or child. They are not as loyal as they
once were in the workplace, but only after being provoked into that position
by extensive, and often ruthless, disloyalty on the part of their employers.
In their effort to find balance in all things, they forgive to get on with
life but do not forget wrongs done to them and do not relativize away acts
they consider evil.
The concept of moral freedom corresponds to a deeply held populist suspicion
of authority and a corresponding belief that people know their own best
interest. Historically, populist impulses expressed themselves in politics;
Americans distrusted elites, especially those whose power appeared to rest
on breeding and connections, in favor of appeals to the common man. Now that
same populist sensibility extends to all kinds of institutions; if Americans
have learned to obtain a second opinion concerning their medical condition,
they are also likely to seek additional opinions concerning their moral
condition. As radical an idea as this may seem to those once issued commands
and expected to obey them, second-opinion morality seeks to work with, not
against, the institutions that make social life possible.
In an age of moral freedom, moral authority has to justify its claims to
special insight. Religion offers the best window into the ways such
justifications are likely to take place. More and more Americans are
redefining God to suit their own tastes and inclinations: Christian
ministers who draw upon the Jewish tradition, Reform Jews seeking
gender-inclusive language and Americans of all faiths who borrow from every
religion and none simultaneously. Whatever emerges from the efforts on the
parts of so many Americans to redefine their faith, it is unlikely to
resemble Jonathan Edwards's Northampton, the urban parishes of 1950's
Catholicism, the revival meetings of Billy Sunday or synagogue life on the
Lower East Side.
Yet the desire of so many Americans to have a greater say in the moral
choices they make is anything but a bitter renunciation of religion. It is
more likely to take the form of a prayer that someone in a position of
religious authority will take them seriously as individuals with minds and
desires of their own. Far from being secular humanists, Americans want faith
and freedom simultaneously. That would seem like an odd combination to
Europeans, for whom faith has often meant dogma and freedom has often meant
dissent. But it suggests that in America, religious institutions will not
break under the weight of moral freedom but bend, as many of them have bent
already, to accommodate themselves to the freedom of moral choice to which
Americans have increasingly grown accustomed.
What is true of religious institutions applies to other institutions like
schools, if from the opposite direction. In the spirit of the 1960's,
educational reformers began to advocate radical changes in education,
proposing that schools should stop disciplining students, encourage
free-form expression and individual creativity, de-emphasize honors classes
and tracking and find new ways to teach such subjects as math and history.
In extreme versions of educational reform, moral anarchy rather than moral
freedom seemed to be the operating principle, as if schooling itself ought
to be abolished. So powerful were the forces behind educational reform that
in most established school districts, one version or another of educational
reform produced schools that no longer resembled the strict, segregated,
vocational and prayer-infused institutions of the 1950's.
Americans today want second opinions about both what and how their children
learn in schools. Resisting the influence of liberal school administrators
with as much determination as they resist the messages of conservative
religious moralists, those who support greater school choice through
vouchers and charter schools see freedom of choice as a way of encouraging
greater institutional responsibility. Those who continue to support public
schooling often express a desire for higher standards and an insistence on
the value of teaching character. If American schools move in a more
"conservative" direction toward discipline, it will be for the same reasons
that churches move in a more "liberal" direction of therapeutic inclusion.
After anarchy, moral freedom can be a requirement for re-establishing
In a time of moral freedom, no institution will be able to stick its head in
the sand and pretend that the people who approach it for advice and guidance
can be treated as supplicants. Morality has long been treated as if it were
a fixed star, sitting there far removed from the earthly concerns of real
people, meant to guide them to the true and the beautiful. In the
contemporary world, however, people experience in their own lives many
situations for which traditional conceptions of morality offer little
guidance: what do you do when the pursuit of one virtue conflicts with
another? How do you apply moral precepts to situations unforeseen by those
religious and philosophical traditions developed for another time and place?
Can seemingly unambiguous moral principles be capable of multifaceted
interpretations? Faced with such real-world conflicts, many Americans will
say, as did one of our respondents in San Antonio: "Somebody can't make you
do something you don't want to do. You know, you draw your own guidelines."
No matter how strong their religious and moral beliefs, nearly all people
will encounter situations in which they will feel such a need to participate
in interpreting, applying and sometimes redefining the rules meant to guide
them. Are they somehow less moral if they do? Telling them that they are
will cut no ice with a gay couple determined to legalize their union in an
era of widespread heterosexual divorce, with women who find that a too-early
marriage stultifies their desire to become more autonomous later in life or
with religious believers who find that the best way to express one's faith
in God is to reject traditional denominations.
Because we can never know what freedom will bring in its wake, defenders of
social order have never been all that comfortable with any of the forms
taken by freedom in the modern world. Economic freedom did not create a
hoped-for society of independent yeomen but a regime of mass consumption.
Political freedom did not result in active and enlightened civic
participation but in voter apathy. In a similar way, moral freedom is highly
unlikely to produce a nation of individuals exercising their autonomy with
the serious and dispassionate judgment of Immanuel Kant. Yet moral freedom
is as inevitable as it is impossible. Critics of America's condition insist
on the need to return to the morality of yesterday, but it may be better,
given its inevitability, to think of moral freedom as a challenge to be met
rather than as a condition to be cured.
Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American
Public Life at Boston College. His new book, "Moral Freedom," from which
this essay is adapted, will be published next month by W.W. Norton.
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