A nation's moral profile

Don't study it; get on with it. That's what we are tempted to say when the subject is as basic and necessary as morality. Don't we all really know the right thing to do if we would only do it?

Unfortunately, uncertainty arises. Around the world, village virtues are confronted by fledgling technology; sometimes city ways collide with calls to recapture naturalness and simplicity. Individuals can have something to gain by testing themselves against the findings of those who analyze the new/old moral scene in whatever society.

So it is hard to dismiss the prospect of a three-year investigation of shifts in American personal values that wins backing from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Indeed, we'd like to volunteer a few observations in advance -- and invite readers to think what they might say if a well-financed scholar were to knock on their door in pursuit of a moral profile of America.

This particular project's approach is summed up in its title, "The Moral Basis of Social Commitment in America." It seeks to survey the present status of those mores or "habits of the heart" -- ethical, religious, political -- which Alexis de Tocqueville considered so important to maintaining a democratic republic. A century and a half after Tocqueville made his celebrated study of democracy in America, the question is how or whether the American people are resisting alienation and selfishness -- and continuing to link private values and public participation.

Our eye lights on such familiar names as Rotary, Kiwanis, Jaycees, and YMCA as the kind of organizations to be explored in one section of the study. The fine work of such organizations is known, though not as well as it should be, but the scholars want to probe what motivates the members. As novelist Sinclair Lewis saw, old-fashioned boosterism may be part of it. But, from what we've seen, there is also the satisfaction realized in simple "doing good." This month happens to be the time for the annual convention at which Rotary will celebrate its 75th year. Rotary's outreach to aid refugees and third-world development is an example of how "civic virtue" has survived and adapted itself to contemporary needs.

Among other subjects of study will be new forms of community activism, something the Monitor could testify to in its coverage of neighborhoods helping themselves. Pervading the researches will be an effort to plumb individuals' moral convictions, their motives for joining or not joining in active citizenship, their definition of what is a good man or a good society.

Here we reach not only to habits of the heart but to the heart of the matter. One avenue of analysis is suggested by Ronald Dworkin, an American law professor who moved to Britain as University Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford. He discusses the instance of a citizen who votes against a candidate because he considers him immoral. Whether the candidate actually is immoral may be a matter of controversy. Yet the voter's decision can be respected by another citizen if the latter is convinced it was made on the basis of moral judgment rather than prejudice, rationalization, or personal taste.

Isn't this a scholarly approach to what most of us feel in our bones? That we want judgment to be made according to an individual's highest moral standards. But that we can respect it only if the one making the judgment practices what he preaches.

At the same time, we can test our own votes and daily decisions against what we most deeply believe -- not just what we think we believe but what we demonstrate we believe by our own acting in accordance with it.

To detect the true depth of moral convictions them will require something more than a true-or-false test by the scholars starting their study of the "moral basis of social commitment in America." Three years seems like a lot, but they may need every minute of it. Especially if they get down to what Americans believe shouldm be the basis of personal and public conduct, whether they adhere to it themselves or not.

Here we on this newspaper inevitably come back to something as simple as the Ten Commandments brought by Moses and the Sermon on the Mount delivered by Jesus. "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. . . ." Could Tocqueville or the Ford Foundation or anyone else suggest a more profound moral basis for social commitment?

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