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Restoring character: Moral communities as a path to common virtue

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“It is the evacuation of depth, stability, and substance of culture where we witness the death of character.” –James Davison Hunter

Christians and conservatives have long despaired over the “loss of American values,” decrying the erosion of public virtue and the disintegration of morals. As researchers like Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have duly confirmed, the fabric of community life and civil society is continuing to fray across America.

In Yuval Levin’s latest book, The Fractured Republic, he finds the solution in cultivating “cohesive and attractive subcultures, rather than struggling for dominance of the increasingly weakened institutions of the mainstream culture.” By pursuing such a path, he argues, restraining power at the top and unleashing it at the bottom, we can begin to rebuild that missing middle. “These institutions—from families to churches to civic and fraternal associations and labor and business groups—can help balance dynamism with cohesion and let citizens live out their freedom in practice,” Levin writes.

Yet the content and substance of that pursuit also matters, and here, we ought to think carefully how we leverage that freedom, both where it exists and when new opportunities come. In his book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, sociologist James Davison Hunter addresses this as it relates to education, noting that our character crisis is rooted in our cultural shift from a focus on virtues grounded in eternal truths to a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”

Given our current approach to moral education, we have plenty of struggles even within those existing “mediating institutions.” First and foremost, there lacks a deeper commitment to the sacred. Even in Christian communities, we’ve opted for an ambivalent embrace of “values,” which, as Hunter notes, are merely “truths that have been deprived of their commanding character.” As well intended as our values-speak has been, the effect has not been a restoration of character, but rather a reduction of “truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference.”

Which leads to Hunter’s grim diagnosis. “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,” he laments. “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.”

Those “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with the familiar Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, wherein our role is not to foster a distinct moral imagination and framework but to encourage individuals to “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Despite the claims of “diversity,” this serves to enable surface-level disparity while prohibiting any sort of meaningful particularity.

“Particularity is inherently exclusive,” Hunter reminds us. “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.” Thus, when we proceed with our cultural project of “inclusivity” and “tolerance,” any distinct lines or commitments or obligations soon become blurry. “When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious,” Hunter writes.

So if the inclusivist approach leads to vacuous conformity, and if, as Levin reminds us, the struggle for a different sort of dominance undermines the ways in which character and civil society are actually formed, how do we proceed?

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.

As for how we form and foster those “moral communities,” it begins with a basic commitment to freedom and diversity from top to bottom. From there, we proceed with faithfulness in those localized spheres. As Christians, we have the courage and confidence to step forward, boldly and confidently, elevating what we believe to be eternal truths about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

If we truly believe what we say we believe, we should have the confidence to put it to the test—to elevate truth alongside competing visions and philosophies of life. But even though this is likely to result in vibrant diversity, we should remember that those competing moral philosophies, while diverse in plenty of important ways, may actually help us reach a range of common virtues.

By stretching back to the sacred, we may, in fact, create a common, meaningful moral vocabulary that actually satisfies:

It is in this light we need to consider again the Enlightenment commitment to create a universal and inclusive moral vocabulary capable of satisfying everyone. Its consequences, as we have seen, are not salutary for moral education and they are dubious for democracy. Thus, if one is to create greater space in our public culture for differences in moral communities to exist, it is essential to abandon the high priority we give to this commitment.

To do so does not mean the sacrifice of a common public life defined by commonly held moral ideals. But instead of forcing commonality in our moral discourse at the expense of particularity, one discovers commonality through particularly. Certainly the humanist, the Jew, and the Christian who join in condemnation of racism will differ over whether humanist, Jewish and Christian conviction provide the most trustworthy reasons for their agreement, yet each provides thick moral arguments that preserve the most important commitments of the other. We will most certainly discover other moral agreements about integrity, fairness, altruism, responsibility, respect, valor—agreements too numerous to mention. But these agreements will be found within moral diversity not in spite of it. Where disagreements remain, they can be addressed through a substantive engagement that enhances rather than undermines democracy. [emphasis added]

Without this kind of fearless, substantive engagement, we will continue down our present path, regardless of the policies from on high.

As James Madison well understood, “the causes of faction cannot be removed.” Whether at a political or cultural level, we’d do well to control and balance the effects rather than “vexing” and “oppressing” competing belief systems through presumptuous, controlling monopolies on moral development.

It’s time to step boldly forth into what Hunter calls a “difficult pluralistic quagmire,” which may, if we’re lucky, pave a path to genuine civic commonality.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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