Restoring Our Moral Voice

By Etzioni, Amitai | The Public Interest, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Restoring Our Moral Voice

Etzioni, Amitai, The Public Interest

AUDIENCES THAT are quite enthusiastic about the communitarian message, which I carry these days to all who will listen, cringe when I turn to discuss the moral voice. One of my best friends took me aside and gently advised me to speak of "concern" rather than morality, warning that otherwise I would "sound like the Moral Majority." During most call-in radio shows in which I participate, sooner or later some caller exclaims that "nobody should tell us what to do." Time magazine, in an otherwise highly favorable cover story on communitarian thinking, warned against busybodies "humorlessly imposing on others arbitrary (meaning their own) standards of behavior, health and thought." Studies of an American suburb by sociologist M. P. Baumgartner found a disturbing unwillingness of people to make moral claims on one another. Most people did not feel it was their place to express their convictions when someone did something that was wrong.

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Americans, public opinion polls show, recognize that our moral fabric has worn rather thin. A typical finding is that while school teachers in the forties listed as their top problems talking out of turn, making noise, cutting in line, and littering, they now list drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, and suicide. Wanton taking of life, often for a few bucks to buy a vial of crack or to gain a pair of sneakers, is much more common than it is in other civilized societies or than it used to be in America. Countless teenagers bring infants into the world to satisfy their ego needs, with little attention to the long term consequences for the children, themselves, or society.

How we lost our moral voice

How can people recognize the enormous moral deficit we face and at the same time be so reluctant to lay moral claims on one another? One reason is that they see immorality not in their friends and neighborhoods but practically everyplace else. (In the same vein, they find members of Congress in general to be corrupt but often re-elect "their" representative because he or she is "O.K.," just as they complain frequently about physicians but find their own doctor above reproach.) This phenomenon may be referred to as moral myopia; a phenomenon for which there seems to be no ready cure.

In addition, many Americans seem to have internalized the writings of Dale Carnegie on how to win friends and influence people: you are supposed to work hard at flattering the other person and never chastise anyone. Otherwise, generations of Americans have been told by their parents, you may lose a "friend" and set back your "networking." A study found that when college coeds were asked whether or not they would tell their best friend if, in their eyes, the person the friend had chosen to wed was utterly unsuitable, most said they would refrain. They would prefer that she go ahead and hurt herself rather than endanger the friendship. Also, Daniel Patrick Moynihan has argued convincingly in his recent article in the American Scholar, "Defining Deviancy Down," that people have been so bombarded with evidence of social ills that they have developed moral calluses, which make them relatively inured to immorality.

When Americans do contemplate moral reform, many are rather asociological: they believe that our problem is primarily one of individual conscience. If youngsters could be taught again to tell right from wrong by their families and schools, if churches could reach them again, our moral and social order would be on the mend. They focus on what is only one, albeit important, component of the moral equation: the inner voice.

In the process many Americans disregard the crucial role of the community in reinforcing the individual's moral commitments. To document the importance of the community, I must turn to the question: what constitutes a moral person?

I build here on the writings of Harry Frankfurt, Albert Hirschman, and others who have argued that humans differ from animals in that, while both species experience impulses, humans have the capacity to pass judgments on their impulses. …

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