Public Values in a Divided World: A Mandate for Higher Education

By Joseph, James A. | Liberal Education, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Public Values in a Divided World: A Mandate for Higher Education


Joseph, James A., Liberal Education


FOR MUCH of the last decade, the focus on values has been primarily on the microethics that guide individual behavior, the private virtues that build character. I want to argue that the recent turn to ethics in our public schools, in American higher education, and in public life must now include the macroethics of large systems and institutions, the public values that build community. When Socrates posed the question "What is a virtuous man?" he also went on to ask, "What is a virtuous society?" Of course, today we are more likely to ask "What is a virtuous man or woman, and is it possible to build a virtuous society?"

It is not my intention to try to answer that, but I want to suggest that one of the most significant challenges to moral and civic education in our time is how best to think about, and how best to apply, values to public life without getting caught up in the politics of virtue or the parochialism of dogma. While some initiatives, particularly those of religious traditions, tend to affirm absolutes, an important role of higher education is to identify and clarify ambiguities. I want, thus, to point to three changes in the role of ethics in public life that should inform our moral imagination and guide our intellectual inquiry: 1) a new moral consciousness is dawning in which many people who strive to live morally are now insisting that their institutions do the same; 2) while we have often used ethics to humanize and domesticate power, we now live in an era where ethics is power; and 3) the private virtues which gave us our moral strength at the dawning of independent nation states must now be transformed into public values appropriate for an interdependent world that is integrating and fragmenting at the same time.

Private Virtues and Public Values

Let me turn first to the idea that the focus on private virtues that saw the emergence of a small, but noisy group of virtuecrats near the end of the last century needs to be matched in the new millennium by a focus on the public values that drive our institutions and empower leaders.

For more than a decade now, we have been preoccupied with the microethics of individual behavior, the private virtues that build character. We must now give as much attention to the macroethics of large institutions and systems, the public values that build community. You may not agree with the tactics of some of the demonstrators who gather at meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but it should not deflect from the reality that more and more people are concerned about how large institutions of all sorts impact on their cultures, their communities, and general well-being. They want to know whether or not these institutions have a moral center.

Our first task may be to help de-politicize the public discussion of values, to help make it less partisan. It is time for us to apply the concept of virtue in ways that uplift rather than downgrade, heal rather than hurt, build rather than destroy.

What then should the next generation of moral habits encompass? William Bennett found that writing about virtue could be lucrative when he identified ten virtues that he considered essential to good character: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. I can not quarrel with this list, but we should not permit the discussion of values to focus only on the microethics of individual behavior. We need to be equally concerned with the macroethics of large social institutions, including government, business, and the institutions of civil society now playing such a major role in shaping public policy and public priorities

Since 9/11, there has been an upsurge of patriotism, nationalism, civility and what many describe as a sense of community. While many celebrate the new patriotism and the new nationalism, I am reminded of the comment by the noted psychiatrist and author Scott Peck that we build community out of crisis and we build community by accident, but we do not know how to build community by design. …

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