The American Personal Ethic: Is there one, or are we abandoning it?
You have completed the work for an Associate of Arts Degree and for this you are to be congratulated. You have taken an important step toward personal fulfillment and you have, also, qualified yourselves to be of greater service to society.
As I was reflecting about what might be appropriate to say to you on this important occasion, I began thumbing through some of my old papers and speeches, looking for a relevant message. As I did so, I encountered an observation which I had written in the middle sixties, when I was reviewing the impact upon American society and culture of the ideas of such writers as Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ivan Pavlov, Vilfredo Pareto, and several others. Each of them had, of course, in some way contributed to the acceptance of a conclusion about the nature of human behavior which was contrary to the traditional conviction of American intellectuals that man is a rational being. As a result of their very challenging ideas, the twentieth century has become a period in American history during which the confidence in man's rationalism has been challenged. Many scholars, especially in the fields of psychology and philosophy, have significantly abandoned their faith in man's capacity for rational behavior. They do not confess to have accepted the idea that man is incapable of responding rationally to his environment or to personal challenge, but they contend that other forces, such as subconscious drives or the conditioning influence of the environment—economic and social institutions—can produce behavior which is not significantly directed by the reasoning powers of mankind.
My reflections on this transition in thought left me with the conclusion that American intellectuals had moved from a conviction of almost lofty idealism and hope to one of earthly realism and pessimism. And this, perhaps, is the dilemma of contemporary American society, and it prompted me, at that time, to draw some conclusions about the role of education and the expectations that one might have of it as it influences the lives of students. My reflections were not all-embracing, but they did provide some insight into what I perceived to be essential elements in the education and preparation of youth for constructive participation in an “open society,” which is defined by Karl Popper as that “society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”
I identified two such goals ,and I expressed them as follows: first, to develop the academic, vocational and technical skills, and the cognitive powers of the students so that the unique potential of each individual might be fully realized, and, second, to influence student behavior in a manner which would contribute to the development of a citizen capable of functioning within the rules and forms of the socioeconomic and cultural environment and in a manner which would encourage, through responsible behavior, the highest level of personal fulfillment.
Hopefully, the education which you have received and in which you have participated will enable you to respond to these two very significant responsibilities—one to yourself and the other to the “free and open society” into which you have been born and which Americans, I fear, tend to take so much for granted.
As I have pondered the implications of this observation and the nature of the democratic system of government, I have become somewhat discouraged, for I sense in contemporary America a tendency to emphasize the importance of a quality of human behavior which I regard as inimical to the well-being of the citizen and of society.
My reflections have caused me, therefore, to wonder about (I) the potential of the average person to achieve meaningful fulfillment or a worthy life and (2) the future of representative democratic government in the United States.
Democratic self-government, as conceived and developed in America, has been understood to contain two essential elements: the first is majority rule, or government by the people, and for the people, and the second is the obligation of the individual citizen to govern himself, or to act responsibly and observe in his life an ethical or moral code. In discussing the essential elements of this second principle or aspect of representative democratic government, I have, sometimes referred to them as constituting the “American Personal Ethic.”
I am not only strongly convinced of the historic existence of such an ethic as a fact of American history, but I am convinced that its presence has constituted a vital and constructive force in the history of this nation. Believing so, I have argued that public education must, if it is to fulfill its responsibility to the American people, encourage in each student a recognition of the need for and the importance of a personal ethic. In this role, education must serve to reinforce the character building influence of parents upon their children who obviously are to be the future citizens and rulers of this nation.
I have reasoned that the schools could accomplish this objective, in part at least, by providing meaningful instruction in the ethical and social values of such eminent men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others who have distinguished themselves in government, as well as literature, religion, philosophy, education and science, and who have helped to fashion the institutions of this nation, to direct its history, and to influence the lives of many generations of its citizens.
But this concern, as I have already suggested, does not appear to be one shared by many contemporary writers, thinkers and intellectuals. They are focusing their literary and intellectual powers more dramatically upon two needs: (I) the development in this country of an adequate “social ethic,” for implementation in both domestic and foreign affairs, and (2) the obligation of society to protect the rights of the individual and to provide the fullest opportunity for the citizen to experience a complete expression of personal freedom. The emphasis is upon the obligations of society and the rights and freedom of the citizen. Both of these goals are worthy, and I would not disagree with them per se. It is the degree of emphasis which concerns me. The contemporary intellectual's determination to achieve social justice and personal freedom is so strong that there seems to be lacking, at least in my humble opinion, a genuine concern for, or recognition of the need for society to have an awareness of the importance of the existence among the citizenry of a “personal ethic.” The result is a growing exercise of almost absolute or total freedom among the populace. In many instances the exercise of the new freedom amounts to an expression of personal individualism in a context which is void of value, whether one of religious morality or a humanist ethic. It amounts in many instances to the exercise of an unrestrained expression of “egoism” and is not only destructive of the individual's sense of life's meaning, but it is, also, destructive of the basic personal values so necessary to the preservation of a free, democratic society.
The basic values which, in part, are reflected in what I regard as integral to an “American or Personal Ethic,” are as follows: acceptance of the concept of natural law, emphasis on man's spiritual as well as material interests, and a recognition of the uniqueness of man. In addition, it encompasses the conviction that the objective of the state is to promote an opportunity for the individual to achieve freedom, justice and happiness; that the implementation of the nation's ideals is dependent upon the enlightened self-interest of the individual, and that the citizen is regarded as responsible for his behavior, which must be rational and also reasonable.
It was such convictions that encouraged the founding fathers to struggle for independence from the mother country and then to draft and put into effect a constitutional form of government which contained many innovations—the concept of federalism, separation of church and state, the right of citizens to vote and to hold elective office, a constitutional guarantee of the rights of the citizen, the indirect election of the chief executive, and the separation of powers—all designed to avert the establishment of political tyranny or rule by a privileged class, and the destruction of the rights of the citizen and his personal freedom. No nation in the world at that time contemplated such a remarkable transfer of political power to the people. Perhaps, the faith and expectations that our colonial forebears had in the average man can best be illustrated by quotations from two eminent leaders of the l8th century, one in the area of religious self-government and the other in the area of political self-government.
The first statement was made early in the l8th century by the Reverend John Wise. His faith in the ability of individuals to act responsibly encouraged him to advocate the democratic concept of church governance and his thinking contributed significantly to the acceptance in colonial America of Congregationalism, or government of the church by the members of the church—the laymen.
In an essay entitled “A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches,” Reverend Wise commented:
Many 18th-century colonial thinkers were significantly influenced by the philosophy expressed by Reverend Wise, and they consistently affirmed their faith in the ability of the citizen to govern himself and the importance, therefore, of introducing government by popular rule into the colonies and of making that concept the basis for the establishment of the new American nation. In this connection an interesting statement by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers is worth noting. It was a part of his final appeal to the public for their approval of the Federal Constitution. He commented as follows:
“God has provided a rule for men in all their actions, obliging each one to the performance of that which is right, not only as to justice, but likewise as to all other moral virtues, the which is nothing but the dictate of right reason founded in the soul of man.”
And, finally, from the principles of sociableness it follows, as a fundamental law of nature, that man is not so wedded to his own interest but that he can make the common good the mark of his aim; and hence he becomes capacitated to enter into a civil state by the law of nature; for without this property in nature, namely, sociableness, which is for cementing of parts, every government would soon moulder and dissolve.
Since Alexander Hamilton wrote these words, the American government has significantly expanded the power of the citizen. The right to vote has been broadened to include both sexes and all restrictions based on the ownership of property or racial background have also been eliminated; slavery has been abolished; free public education has been granted to all citizens, and the civil rights of all citizens have been provided even greater protection from the abuse of power by the state. All of these accomplishments reflect the conviction that the average citizen can be trusted to govern himself and that he will be influenced in his decisions by an appropriate respect for the rights of others and by an acceptable code of moral and ethical values.
“Let us now pause and ask ourselves whether ... the proposed Constitution ... has been shown to be worthy of public approbation.... Every man is bound to answer these questions to be himself, according to the best of his genuine sober dictates of his judgment. This is a duty from which no other can give him a dispensation. 'Tis one that he is called upon, nay, constrained by all the obligations that form the bands of society, to discharge, sincerely and honestly. No particular interest, no pride of opinion...will justify to himself, to his country, or to his posterity, an improper election of the part he is to act.”
I regard myself, I must admit, as a “chastened rationalist”; I doubt the validity of the earlier unsophisticated American image of the average man as a reasonable and rational being. But I do believe and constantly affirm the conviction that man definitely has a capability, though a limited one, for making reasonable and rational decisions, if he has the will, and that in so doing, he can observe a personal ethic, which will reflect such values as those of philosophical stoicism or of a religious theology and belief. Despite the fact that much human behavior clearly reflects the conditioning influences of the environment or the unconscious drives of the “Freudian libido,” there is, I believe, an area of human life in which men and women have the capability of exercising freedom of will.
Absent such a conviction one must have doubts about the capacity of the people to govern themselves. I wonder what the convictions or thoughts of those of you in the graduating class are with reference to the freedom of the citizen and the expectation that such freedom will be exercised within the metes and bounds of a value system which transcends the personal ego—its selfish drives, its psychological needs and its prejudices.
A word of caution is in order. The acceptance of such a basic assumption about self-government must not be interpreted to mean that one must expect that representative government or government by the people will achieve an utopian social order and the elimination of all social injustice—a clean house swept free of all that is not defined as good. That end can never be the hope for this or any country if it is to remain an “open society” and grant the citizen personal freedom. One must be realistic about the ability of people to govern themselves through involvement in politics and, thus, determining how the power of the state be exercised.
Politics, by its nature, I must warn you, can only exist in a free and open society—that is politics as we know and experience it. In countries in which forms of totalitarianism exist, whether to the left or to the right, there is no politics. There is the exercise of political power by the army, a dictator, or a political party, but that is not politics—the sharing of political power. So keep that fact in mind when you are disposed to argue, as many citizens do, that our system of government is inadequate, corrupt, controlled by the special interests, inefficient and intrusive into their private lives. The acceptance of that attitude can lead to non-commitment, non-involvement, and even alienation. It can become the rationale for one to become “otherwise engaged” and to refuse to accept the responsibility that one has as a citizen in a democratic and free society. May I admonish you, therefore, even though I am merely a politician and humble about the prospects for the future, that despite the fact that politics is a grubby business and that it will always be a grubby business, it is the most important business in the country as it relates to your personal freedom and the exercise of your prerogatives and rights as a citizen.
J.D.B. Miller, a contemporary Australian scholar and author of The Nature of Politics, analyzed the political process very thoughtfully and realistically, and his observations are very relevant to the contemporary political scene and are, therefore, worthy of note. The essence of his thought, simply stated, is that the establishment among rival groups and interests of political order—of agreed upon rules for the game—marks the birth of freedoms and that the compromises, deals, half-measures and bargains, which prompt impatient idealists to regard politicians as the “untouchables” and politics as an unworthy profession, are, in actuality, essential to the negotiating process of politics and remain, as history amply demonstrates, the only tested alternative to government by “outright coercion.”
In the last paragraph of his very scholarly work, Miller made the following significant observation:
Such individuals are “political gnostics”—so convinced of their possession of absolute truth that they have little or no capacity to accept other perspectives or expectations. The self endowed perfection of their goals tends ultimately to force them to vitiate or abandon due process; they possess almost a compulsive urge, therefore, to rebel against the unforgivable status quo. Ultimately, the sanctity of their ideas can become a justification for the use of force, terror, and even assassination.l History clearly instructs one that in philosophical idealism not infrequently lies the seed of authoritarianism.
“Politics does not carry values with it—on the whole, the values used in politics are those of the society in which it is being practiced, and do not derive directly from political operations—but it (politics) may be said to constitute a value in itself, because the alternative to politics is compulsory agreement, in which everything that is not forbidden is compulsory. Interests which inveigh against 'politics' are often those which wish to make a whole society conform to a pattern which they lay down for it.”
And as one should not look upon the democratic system as utopian, or try to make it so; one should certainly not, because of its obvious flaws and imperfections, allow oneself to-become alienated from it and to deny it a personal commitment. To adopt either perspective, is to abandon reason and to reject the lessons of history. One should heed the admonition of Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, when he observed in words having a timeless quality:
Or, one might recall the words of President John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address of 1961, when he observed:
“With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds and to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But should we heed the words and counsel of such men? They were politicians, and politicians have no integrity, nor does politics. That being the case, one may rationalize one's involvement as a citizen and become “otherwise engaged”—committed to one's personal thing—one's personal freedom and fulfillment.
“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. But knowing that here on earth God's will must truly be our own, with a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth and lead the land we love asking his love and blessing.”
Actually there seems to be less and less of an interest in this country in the shaping of one's life; there is much more emphasis placed upon doing one's thing through the exercise of total personal freedom and autonomy. The assumptions of the founding fathers are denied in word and deed; the admonishings of the nation's great leaders, some of whom gave their lives in its service, are blithely ignored; education in traditional subjects which are designed to teach the meaning of history, the traditions and values of the nation are often defined as irrelevant and significantly ignored or de-emphasized. These trends, which I believe exist, are a result of the unusual emphasis of contemporary society upon the view that life is absurd, that it has no ultimate value and that one must, therefore, find satisfaction in life by being completely one's self—now in this moment in time.
Lionel Trilling in an article in The American Scholar, in the winter 1974-75 issue, commented upon the contemporary scene as it related to higher education and personal values as follows:
I wonder what the younger generation of citizens will determine. Will they be willing to shape their lives and govern themselves and perform the obligations of citizenship? Will they be willing to make commitments to their loved ones, to ethical values, to other persons, or will they be “otherwise engaged,” engaged in the pursuit of the freedom and joy of the moment—the life of the butterfly—the shapeless self.
“... if you set yourself to shaping a self, a life, you limit yourself to that self and that life. You preclude any other kind of selfhood remaining available to you. You close out other options, other possibilities which might have been yours. Such limitation, once acceptable, now goes against the cultural grain—it is almost as if the fluidity of the contemporary world demands an analogous limitlessness in our personal perspective. Any doctrine, that of the family, religion, the school, that does not sustain this increasingly felt need for a multiplicity of options and instead offers an ideal of a shaped self, a formed life, has the sign on it of a retrograde and depriving authority which, it is felt, must be resisted.”
The fact that one may seriously ask this question suggests that America is confronted with a crisis. Joseph Wood Krutch in his thoughtful work, The Measure of Man, commented upon that crisis, the lack of faith in man as an ethical or moral being, as follows:
“It made comparatively little difference whether it was God or Nature, in the eighteenth-century use of the term, on whose permanent, accessible criteria he could rely. In either case he could know what he ought to choose or do, and it rested with himself to decide whether or not he would do it. He was not, as the modern man has come to believe, merely the product of the forces that have operated upon him.”
Albert Camus in The Rebel commented that “Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition.”
Edmund Burke, an l8th-century statesman, observed:
He also commented:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Jean Grenier, paraphrased by Albert Camus in The Rebel, described the dilemma of the utopian as follows:
“For what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
“Absolute freedom is the destruction of all values; absolute value suppresses all freedom.”
Robespierre equates virtue and terror
From the Declaration of the Rights of Man to the Reign of Terror seems a long road, but the distance was traversed very quickly by the radicals of the French Revolution. Their pursuit of the virtuous society led inevitably to identification of their own opinions with virtue itself, and then to bloody suppression of all those who did not conform. This crusading aspect of radicalism is perfectly expressed in a speech given by Robespierre on February 5, 1794. (Text reference, p. 505)
“It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution and the end toward which we wish to move; it is time to take stock of ourselves, of the obstacles which we still face, and of the means which we ought to adopt to attain our objectives...
What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men.
We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings aroused; where ambition is the desire to merit glory and to serve one's fatherland; where distinctions are born only of equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate; the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the national safeguards the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his fatherland; where all spirits are enlarged by the constant exchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where the arts are the adornment of liberty, which ennobles them; and where commerce is the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous opulence for a few families...
What kind of government can realize these marvels? Only a democratic government...But to found and to consolidate among us this democracy, to realize the peaceable rule of constitutional laws, it is necessary to conclude the war of liberty against tyranny and to pass successfully through the storms of revolution. Such is the aim of the revolutionary system which you have set up... Now what is the fundamental principle of democratic, or popular government—that is to say, the essential mainspring upon which it depends and which makes it function? It is virtue: I mean public virtue...that virtue which is nothing else but love of fatherland and its laws...
The splendor of the goal of the French Revolution is simultaneously the source of our strength and of our weakness; our strength, because it gives us an ascendancy of truth over falsehood, and of public rights over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies against us all vicious men, all those who in their hearts seek to despoil the people It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror.
If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.”
From Pageant of Europe by Raymond P. Stearns, copyright, 1947, ©1961, by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., and reprinted with their permission, pp. 404-405.