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The Loss of Virtue

Several years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial outlining the absence of moral direction in the public forum as a consequence of the current understanding of the separation of church and state. The author argued that it is as though the embrace of any moral standards implies the adoption of certain religious tenets or the dogma of a particular church.

The Founding Fathers were, of course, decidedly religious men; and it was precisely their desire to protect the free exercise of religion that led them to insist that the United States should never have a state church. It is regrettable that the modern interpretation of the separation of church and state, intended to protect religious liberty, should lead many today to the conclusion that religion and religious discourse should have no part to play in American life.

One of the courses I teach at Mount Saint Mary’s is on the Old Testament Wisdom literature, e.g. Proverbs, Sirach, etc. There is a decidedly moral direction in these writings, though not religious in the strictest sense. I encourage my students to impress upon their congregations how very appropriate, in fact, how necessary is the re-introduction of moral discourse into our national life.

The collection of essays assembled by Digby Anderson in The Loss of Virtue is to be highly recommended to all concerned with the moral direction of modern society. Anderson sees genuine morality as supplanted in the popular mind by a pseudo-morality which is no morality at all, thus all the more disruptive of the fabric of society since it attains a degree of respectability by assuming the name of morality and its language. Anderson writes:

“The new morality is not only comparatively marginal, it is pathetically unelaborated. The old moral understanding saw society sustained by an interplay of honesty, patriotism, service, self-control, respect, civility, perseverance and a host of other virtues. It was aware of the dangers of sloth, gluttony, pride, and a list of vices…The old vocabulary had precise and explicit meanings so that the virtues could be weighed against each other and ranked to analyze or judge any piece of behavior.”

He contrasts the “old morality” with the “new quasi-morality…[in] its endless demand for rights and its neglect of obligations. Modern political life consists largely in the discovery of new minority groups and their rights–women’s rights, homosexuals’ rights, non-smokers’ rights, smokers’ rights, Spanish or Bengali speakers’ rights, welfare rights, animals’ rights, and more generally citizens’ rights. Especially in Britain the idea of citizen has been re-discovered and used to create huge lists or charters of rights which, it is asserted, the state should recognize–and pay out for. Rarely is it remembered that the idea of citizenship historically was as much a source of obligations as rights, including obligations to the state.”

Anthony Flew criticizes the mainstream churches for failing to impress on their congregants their responsibility for self-improvement and instead demanding government action as the cure for all ills. He remarks, for example, that the standard exegesis of the parable of the Good Samaritan is “egregiously inept” in that churches typically use it as a justification of the welfare state, although the Samaritan tended the traveler with his own hands and paid the innkeeper out of his own purse. The very point of the parable is to demonstrate charity as a fulfillment of the covenantal demand for justice; this is performed by the individual, not the nation. Flew further observes: “There are two very different ways in which we may hope to make the world better. One is through collective action, which in our time is usually the action of the central or local state. The other is through the spontaneous improvement of ourselves and others as individuals.” This second way is clearly the way of charity, a virtue sadly absent from the welfare or socialist state and absent, Flew argues, from much of contemporary preaching.

In another essay, Adrian Furnham contrasts the loss of fortitude with the modern tendency to narcissism and blaming others for society’s ills. He writes, “The diverse troubles of our age–cancer, political persecution, bereavement, natural disasters, a deformed child, racial hatred–have it in common that they must be coped with and endured. Fortitude is the name of the virtue concerned. Fortitude, one of the cardinal virtues, means moral strength or courage, particularly unyielding courage in the endurance of pain or adversity.…It is a relatively widespread, classless, everyday phenomenon. It is not, like heroism, stoicism or martyrdom, the product of an ideological commitment.” As such, fortitude is not promoted by any state or civil polity.

Robert Grant discusses the loss of such virtues as honesty, honor, and trust resulting in the decline of self-policing in society. Richard Lynn analyzes urban rioting from the perspective, not of sociology, but of the religious virtue of self-control; Patrician Morgan treats fidelity, once inviolable and sacred, now reduced to just another choice. Christopher Dandeker and Jon Davies write on national service, obligations of citizenship, duty and self-sacrifice for one’s country in contrast with the current disparagement of public ideals:

Surely the most compelling essays are those of Digby Anderson and Christie Davies on the improvidence and irresponsibility of low-income families and the huge surge of crime and social disorder of the last fifty years in Britain. Christie Davies writes: “Its recent rise in disorder was preceded by a half-century or more in which crime and disorder fell dramatically. The experience of the last 150 years is thus of a U curve. The explanation for the subsequent rise in disorder cannot be sought in social conditions such as poverty or housing, which were worse in the low crime years than now. It lies in a change of national moral character, an increase in the number of aggressive, self-destructive people, the reduction of conscience and self-control, and the provision of moral excuses. This movement, promoted by ‘progressive’ intellectuals, has dismantled the workable moral order built up by previous generations. The example of Britain is a pointer to the centrality of morality in the preservation of social order.”

While the essays certainly give a comprehensive and, at times, chilling overview of the moral state of affairs in the world, there is little in the way of concrete proposals for providing a remedy to these ills. One can only hope that those who are in the position to be physicians of the moral order may read The Loss of Virtue and undertake the cure our society so sorely needs.