Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History

Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History

Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History

Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History

Synopsis

American history is filled with moments of grave moral doubt and institutional crisis, with conflicts over fundamental values, with ethical dilemmas and paradoxes. This volume surveys the moral landscape of the American past from slavery to the Vietnam War. Bringing together fourteen of the most original historians practicing today, the book illuminates a critical dimension of American history, even as it shows how historical study contributes to present-day debates about values and the moral life. These essays examine a wide range of questions that have engaged past generations of Americans and persist into the present-questions about the composition of a moral community and the case for civil disobedience, about the appropriate responses to injustices and inequalities, and about the ethical implications of artistic expression, school curricula, sexual behaviors, and popular media. Focusing on the impact of moral problems on everyday experience, the authors consider these questions in light of reform movements and religious practices; changing social institutions such as marriage, public schools, labor unions, and penitentiaries; and enduring moral forces from the Bible to the U. S. Constitution. Together their essays give historical context to a wide variety of American practices and beliefs and, in doing so, provide a new framework for understanding cultural life.

Excerpt

Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry

This volume surveys the moral landscape of the American past, from the early-eighteenth-century emergence of Anglo-American moral reform societies through the response of military chaplains serving in Vietnam to the antiwar movement.Its purpose is to illuminate the moral dimensions of the American historical experience and to demonstrate what can be achieved through a historically informed moral inquiry.The fourteen essays included here examine a wide range of difficult moral questions that have engaged past generations of Americans and persist into the present. What constitutes a moral community, and how is it to be shaped under modern conditions of a pluralistic, mass society? What role should religion, public education, and the family play in making the moral community? What is the impact of economic, racial, and sexual inequalities on the vision of a virtuous nation? How should a moral community respond to social viciousness, crime, and mental disorders? What are the moral implications of artistic expression, school curricula, sexual behaviors, and the popular media? At what point does obedience to a higher moral law mandate civil disobedience, and what are the proper limits to such disobedience within a democracy? When is a society morally justified in waging war, whether within its own boundaries or in the territories of other peoples?

The primary concern in all these essays is less with moral abstractions and manifestos than with how moral problems have been defined and addressed within the stream of everyday experience. We thus approach the subject of moral problems in American life primarily through close attention to a range of cultural practices that link private experience with public commitment.The essays that follow include studies of moral reform . . .

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