Seeing Things: The Way We Live Now

Morality and freedom are related terms. It is impossible to conceive of a being who lacks freedom but also wonders what is the right thing to do. And what would moral freedom mean without competing moral choices? A free being without a moral dimension would be a bizarre beast. That is why the Christian tradition, as well as the classical pagan thinkers and all genuine human civilizations, have exerted a great deal of energy in trying to understand how to use these two great human gifts.

Much hinges on how we conceive of moral freedom. The ancients’ way was to examine what ordinary people said about right and wrong. Plato wrote about disputes among the Athenians, and Aristotle famously investigated the meaning of everyday terms. Even St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas often began with commonplaces before moving on to higher thinking. All these philosophers came to the conclusion that freedom allows us to detect, but not to invent, the principles of good behavior—and to choose whether to follow them.

Alan Wolfe is not a philosopher but a sociologist who, although a non-Catholic, directs Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. In his 1998 book One Nation, After All (Viking Press), he purported to find a good deal of agreement among Americans on values, except on the issue of homosexuality, where gays and the majority of other Americans remained at loggerheads.

In his latest book, Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice (Norton, 2001), Wolfe digs deeper into the issue of what Americans say they think is right and what we are to make of it. (Oddly, the book’s cover and its title page have different subtitles, the latter reflecting more accurately its contents: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now.)

The “impossible idea” of moral freedom, he argues, stems from Arminianism, a Protestant theology that supplanted the stern Calvinism of early America during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. Arminians (and now, most Americans) believe in God’s sovereignty but not in the inherent wickedness of human beings (as do Calvinists). “Americans may be among the most religious people in the world,” Wolfe writes, “but they are also among the least theological, and the theology they particularly dislike is one that takes a dim view of human nature.”

Wolfe came to this conclusion after traveling to eight different parts of the country, all chosen to allow him to interview people who would provide a spectrum of views on morality: from the gay Castro district in San Francisco to ethnic Fall River, Massachusetts; from traditional communities in the South and Midwest to freewheeling Silicon Valley. His interviewees all confirm a public mood these days that is so nonjudgmental and so ad hoc in its morals that it is difficult to say whether we Americans have any common principles other than tolerance and niceness. Indeed, Paul Richard, a fisherman in Fall River, sounds a common note: “I don’t think anybody is better than anyone else. I really don’t.”

The usual objection to such sentiments, of course, is that they give you no way to distinguish between Hitler and Mother Teresa. Though Wolfe’s interviewees express ultra-toleration at one moment, they often contradict themselves the next. Richard, for example, believes in capital punishment for serious crimes, but he still does not want to judge how most people choose to live.

That nonjudgmental and self-contradictory stance plays out across many issues. Gays aside, Americans believe in sexual fidelity—but not to the point that it hampers personal growth. And we value loyalty, although Wolfe notes the rise of “post-loyalists” who have had bad experiences with politics and the marketplace. We waver between the recognition that self-control is necessary (again, as long as it does not hem in the self) and a belief that it’s OK to let yourself go. And honesty is also a good thing, as long as you don’t overdo it. Both Wolfe and his subjects tend to believe—mistakenly—that the old moralities were rigid and un-nuanced, and that the new ones are flexible and responsive to modern complexities.

Wolfe devotes an entire chapter of Moral Freedom to examining Americans’ beliefs about forgiveness, which, as he rightly points out, is one of the central contributions of Christianity to moral discourse but is now the “forgotten virtue.” But forgiveness, too, has been modified in recent years into a sort of therapeutic practice in which holding on to hurts is considered damaging to the self and therefore better abandoned—for reasons of self-interest, not charity.

Wolfe specifically pressed his respondents to answer questions about how they think forgiveness relates to such issues as capital punishment. Curiously, Wolfe, who was largely trained as a political scientist, fails to give full weight to the difference between personal forgiveness and political judgment. The family of one of Timothy McVeigh’s victims, for instance, might choose to forgive him, but it would be quite a different matter for a whole nation to short-circuit the judicial process that protects the social order and let someone like McVeigh escape all punishment.

Wolfe is familiar with various earlier moral theories, from the classics to Christianity to Kant and John Rawls. He tries to be fair in discussing the ethical currents from earlier eras that still jostle one another in the minds of modern Americans. But at the end of the day, he appears to succumb to the characteristic sociological weakness of mistaking what is for what ought to be. It is difficult not to detect a note of enthusiasm in certain assertions of his such as: “The old adage that America is a free country has, at last, come true, for Americans have come to accept the relevance of individual freedom, not only in their economic and political life, but in their moral life as well.”

Wolfe understands that the price to be paid for this sort of freedom is the moral chaos that we see around us daily, and he is troubled by it. At one point, he cites approvingly Princeton University professor Robert P. George’s statement that not taking others’ behavior seriously may be a form of condescension. Wolfe excuses this live-and-let-live attitude, however, as an attempt to negotiate between our principles and our belief in liberty and equality. We may demand too much moral freedom, he allows, but since institutions—of government, church, and community—are no longer regarded as authorities but simply as external limits on self fulfillment, they do not answer our current needs, which are somehow more complex than they were in the past. So we do have a moral majority in America, Wolfe concludes, but “it just happens to be one that wants to make up its own mind.”

Wolfe suggests, with some trepidation, that this sorry development may be a logical outgrowth of the economic freedom first posited by Adam Smith and the political freedom inherent in modern democracy. But the parallel does not really hold. Economics and politics have greatly benefited from today’s enlargement of freedom. Morality, by its very nature, does not seem to belong in the same category, since we have freedom to discover what should bind us. It is certainly true that many of our fellow citizens no longer want to accept moral bonds. For them, true moral freedom—the willing acceptance of moral limitations on action—may indeed be impossible.

But the no-holds-barred version of moral freedom that Wolfe describes and weakly admires is an experiment on which the American people seem determined to embark. Judging by the results so far, this particular experiment may present even more challenges to society than cloning or genetic engineering.

  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...