Ethical Individualism and Moral Collectivism in America

By Stivers, Richard | Humanitas, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Ethical Individualism and Moral Collectivism in America


Stivers, Richard, Humanitas


From Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and Alan Wolfe, the many observers of the United States invariably call attention to its emphasis on individualism. In the popular culture of American television and movies, the autonomous individual stands out, whether as rebel against the system or as self-centered consumer of endless products, services, and other people. Then there are the advertisements that tell us how important we are as individuals, "you are worth it." Over against these seemingly positive images are those of individuals worried about their personal relationships--lonely, depressed, and forlorn. But everywhere we find individuals thinking about and acting for themselves.

The way ethics is taught in the public schools in the United States does little to dispel this idea that individualism is the hallmark of American culture. James Davison Hunter's recent study of moral education confirms this. (1) He identifies three approaches to moral education in American public schools: neo-classical, communitarian, and psychological.

The neo-classical position is similar to that of natural law theories in earlier centuries. It maintains the existence of universal moral values or virtues, whether that universality as ascertained by reason derives from nature or history. The communitarian approach emphasizes the consensus in the community about what is moral and what is immoral. This consensus should come from democratic participation rather than be imposed from above by an elite. The needs of the community should take precedence over those of the individual.

The psychological approach to moral education is dominant. It is loosely tied to the "self-esteem" movement, which stresses the therapeutic function of education. The purpose of education is as much to make the student feel good about himself as to educate him. In one version of the psychological approach, moral judgments become "value preferences" and values hardly more than individual emotions. The hope is that through self-expression and interaction with others the student will clarify what his values are. In a sense the values are already inside the student and simply need to be teased out. Another version of the approach emphasizes reason and turns morality into a means for individual success or happiness. (2)

In perhaps his most important finding, Hunter observes that despite their manifest differences all three approaches share the same "assumptions, concepts, and ideals." (3) The reason is that each of the approaches takes morality out of its cultural context and thus renders it abstract. Moreover, morality is presented to the students as subjective. With the triumph of the scientific worldview, objectivity became identified with scientific inquiry; religion and morality in turn became subjective. (4) As Louis Dumont (5) observes, the modern ideology turns morality and virtue into personal values that individuals are free to accept or reject. Emotivism as a moral philosophy is the academic recognition of morality having become a consumer choice. (6)

In the long run, however, moral education programs are not successful, not even those that occur in religious schools. They are not able to counter what Christina Sommers calls the basic assumptions of students entering college: psychological egoism (motivation is invariably selfish), moral relativism, radical tolerance, and moral responsibility centered in organizations not individuals. This final assumption is telling. As Sommers demonstrates, the main thrust of moral education beyond self expression is to become interested in the social policy of private and public organizations so that one chooses the right organization to solve the problem. (7) Students become at worst "moral spectators" and at best activists, but without a sense of personal moral responsibility. Morality is either emotional preference or political preference or both. The widespread idea that moral responsibility resides in society and society only is a sign that the individualistic approach to morality in the United States may not be what it first appears to be.

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