Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice by Alan Wolfe, W. W. Norton, 224 pp., $24.95.
April 23, 2001        

As every parent knows, sometimes the only answer to “Why?” is “Because I say so.” For a long time that was, at least in form, the most common answer to every society’s ultimate “why” question: “Why be moral?” And of course, for an even longer time that question rarely arose, which (as parents, again, will readily agree) greatly simplified matters.

From the moral point of view, modernity may be defined as the unwillingness of the many, and no longer only a privileged or heroic few, to take “Because I (we) say so” for an answer. This fateful recalcitrance had many sources. One was a lightening of the burdens of daily life, thanks to the agricultural innovations of the high and late middle ages and the trickle-down effect of growing trade. Another was the evolution and differentiation of nation-states and national churches. Another was the success of natural philosophy, later called “science,” which made asking “why” seem in general a more promising thing to do. Perhaps most significant was the creation of a labor market, which eventually forced at least one urgent “why” question on everyone: “Why get my daily bread in this way rather than some other?” The result of these various but related historical developments was (here a slight flourish of trumpets) the birth of the individual.

This has not been an unmixed blessing. It’s hard being an individual. It entails many more choices than we had on the savannah two million years ago, where our genetic endowment mostly took shape. Since, from the physiological point of view, every choice is a stress, it is possible, at least in theory, to have too many choices. At a certain point, “Because I say so” begins to look like an adaptive strategy.

Nevertheless, the Pandora’s box of modernity is wide open. The historical changes mentioned above are irreversible. Individuality may yet evaporate in the postmodern electronic cybercollective, but it will not sink back into the premodern organic mass. Individuality is our condition, and freedom is therefore our moral fate, especially here in America, where the four horsemen of modernity – abundance, pluralism, technology, and mobility – are most firmly in the saddle.

As Alan Wolfe puts it: “Americans have come to accept the relevance of individual freedom, not only in their economic life, but in their moral life as well. The defining characteristic of the moral philosophy of Americans can therefore be described as the principle of moral freedom. Moral freedom means that individuals should determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life. Contemporary Americans find answers to the perennial questions asked by theologians and moral philosophers, not by conforming to strictures handed down by God or nature, but by considering who they are, what others require, and what consequences follow from acting in one way rather than another.”

What this means in practice is the subject of Wolfe’s short but fascinating new book, Moral Freedom. As in his last book, One Nation, After All, Wolfe and his associates interviewed approximately two hundred people in eight communities around the country; and once again he has fashioned the results into a seamless weave of narrative and interpretation, deftly alternating quotes and commentary. As before, he finds that by and large Americans are just trying to get by, good-humoredly but a little worriedly, in a world that’s moving a bit too fast; eclectic, improvising, sometimes glancing wistfully at tradition and authority but always wary of them as well.

The organizing theme of the interviews was the meaning of virtue. Unsurprisingly, few of Wolfe’s respondents had much to say about it in the abstract. Like most Americans on most subjects, they are uncomfortable with categorical statements. But they were more forthcoming – positively chatty, it appears – when asked for their attitudes and feelings about individual virtues like loyalty, honesty, self-discipline, and forgiveness. The resulting slightly artificial intimacy and occasionally banal earnestness lends Moral Freedom some of the flavor of soap opera and talk radio, which are perhaps where many of those attitudes and feelings came from.

If Americans have a moral meta-principle, it is flexibility. “No absolutes” is our watchword. One might say (with apologies to Barry Goldwater): Extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no virtue; moderation in the practice of virtue is no vice. One owes loyalty to an employer or a spouse, but also to one’s career and even one’s own happiness. Honesty is the best policy, as long as it’s reciprocated; and big institutions (especially the IRS) don’t really count. Self-discipline is essential to success, though pleasure is no less essential to emotional health. And so on, the rule being: Adapt every rule to the circumstances. “Americans,” Wolfe observes, “are consequentialists.”

We have to be, he explains. For one thing, the old rule-givers no long command automatic deference. Even the Christians in his sample (a minority, and most of them apparently born-again rather than never-strayed) seem to rely on their own readings of Scripture, not authoritative institutional ones. And the stakes involved in moral judgment are different now. Traditional morality was “narrow but deep; the individual had few choices to make, but all those choices were serious.” Present-day morality, by contrast, is “shallow but broad; we have many more moral issues to consider, even if few of them will result in eternal damnation, social ostracism, or the poorhouse.”

Does this make for a certain moral squishiness? Wolfe, admirably but perhaps a tad excessively loyal to his respondents, denies it. It is true, he acknowledges, that Americans no longer “subject themselves to the severe and demanding tests of character imposed … by one version or another of the Protestant ethic.” This does not mean, however, “that the morality by which people live now makes them soft. It means only that the new morality is different, making up in the bewildering array of temptations it must face what it lacks in vigor and unswerving self-confidence.”

Sorry, but I’m afraid it sounds to me like we’re soft. Certainly the extra-moral evidence points that way. Americans gobble junk food, watch TV, and guzzle gas without much restraint, as our waistlines and smog levels testify. We can’t say no to entitlements or yes to taxes. We want military superiority but no casualties. Once a self-reliant nation of tinkerers and inventors, we now have little idea what makes our fancy gadgets tick. A man’s word may once have been his bond in these here parts, but now we lead the world in lawyers per capita. Aren’t these character flaws? Wouldn’t more “rigor” and less flexibility serve us well?

Until now, America’s fabulous prosperity has blunted the force of such questions, and indeed made the whole issue of character somewhat moot. In our post-industrial (if that’s what it is) capitalist society, most people’s economic well-being does not seem dependent on other people’s virtuous behavior. (Or on one’s own, for the fortunate minority enriched by the stock market.) Residential and commercial mobility make the behavior of individuals and businesses hard to monitor or sanction. Most of us are content to leave that to the experts anyway: the professional regulators, litigators, journalists, educators, and therapists who, in effect, administer our public morality – and who do so, for the most part, without reference to “virtue” or “character.”

Two other recent developments seem particularly to cut against the psychic stability and coherence that are the foundation of character. The first, mentioned by Wolfe but more fully explored by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character, is the altered shape and rhythm of careers. We change jobs and even livelihoods today with unprecedented frequency; and companies, too, disappear or metamorphose rapidly. In these circumstances, adaptability and detachment are at a premium, strong ties and long-term commitments at a discount.

More subtly but perhaps more fundamentally, television and the Internet erode our capacity for inwardness. The sheer volume of stimuli, their velocity and decibel level, our passivity (except for an index finger on the mouse or the remote) – psychologically, these and other features of the “electronic millennium” (Sven Birkerts’ phrase) add up to a new evolutionary niche. Our attention, or at any rate our grandchildren’s, can only become more diffuse, shallow, and restless. Continuity is part of the very definition of character; and continuity is gradually but inexorably fraying, within us and without.

Wolfe’s respondents are aware, at least peripherally, of these environmental changes, but are on the whole resigned to them. “The world is an incredibly dynamic place. Nothing stays the same,” a Silicon Valley entrepreneur asserts in a tone of finality. They are, however, uneasy about the decline of religious belief. This is, apparently, not because Christian or non-Christian religious beliefs are true, but because they’re useful. Like most conservative social critics, these ordinary people praise religion but decline to argue it. They want the socializing effects of authoritative worldviews for their children, provided the kids grow out of those views at the appropriate time, and not too painfully. As Wolfe puts it, cogently: “It is as if they want some of the practice of old-time character formation – especially a greater respect for order and discipline – without the rest of old-time character formation, especially theological instruction and an emphasis on religious obedience.”

How entirely reasonable! But is it possible? Wolfe, impressed by his subjects’ cheerful, humane pragmatism, seems to think so. But some of his readers will feel that the notion of “moral freedom” harbors, if not a contradiction, then at least a tension that might, and perhaps ought, to have made Moral Freedom a darker, more pessimistic book.