Most of us, most of the time, try to take ethics seriously and are troubled when we fall short of what we think we ought to do. But, at the same time, our ideas and feelings are unfocused, and that, of course, increases our sense of discomfort. Morality just doesn’t seem to do the work it’s supposed to do when we need it most. Of course, this doesn’t stop us from naming villains and heroes and boasting of our own sense of virtue. In fact, our boasts grow louder just when their dependability becomes more questionable. In this setting, philosophers, preachers, and pundits only add to the moral noise around us. And, to be sure, denial in one form or another is always an available strategy. Dissonance then pervades the ordinary moral situation and not simply moments of crisis.
To be sure, we get by often enough to avoid moral insanity. But our anger at others and our increasing alienation from others betray a certain cynicism and reveal our insecurities. Moral discomfort grows. We are, as John Dewey reminded us some decades ago, still afflicted by a “quest for certainty,” and nowhere more than in the moral life. Disappointed in that search, as we must be, we scarcely know how to grasp, let alone decide between, conflicting and conflicted demands like “be successful” and “be cooperative,” be “loving” and “be competitive,” be “honest” and be popular. In our public lives, too, we reach moral dead ends, and with greater and greater frequency these days. The endless debates about “big” issues like abortion and affirmative action are a metaphor for what is happening.