A Great Need of the '90s

The prevailing ideology in the US emphasizes self-interest and materialism, leaving little room for generosity and public service

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WHEN we consider what kind of a social philosophy we need for the 1990s, we have to ask ourselves not just what it will do for individual freedom, important as that is, and not just what it will do for the GNP. We also need to ask what effect it will have on the quality and vitality of our public life, on our ethical standards, our charitable impulses, our interest and involvement in public affairs, and our capacity to mobilize enough trust in one another to enable us to cope effectively with the common problems that face us.

We may not need a larger government. We may need a smaller government. But if we are to restore respect for government, we must accord it a truly respected place as an institution that has valuable functions to perform and deserves its fair share of our ablest people to serve in its ranks. We may not wish to legislate morality - surely not - but if we want to improve ethical standards, we should recognize that the kind of social environment we support and the kind of incentives and recognition we emphasi ze officially do have effects on the level of morality that our society is likely to achieve.

We certainly shouldn't force people to vote, or to be involved in their community. But we can at least attach as much importance to encouraging the duties of citizenship as we do to its rights and its liberties. It is a weakness of the prevailing ideology in this country that it does not address those issues, or even to regard them as tremendously important.

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The other weakness in the prevailing ideology is that it proceeds from an unnaturally pessimistic view of human nature. It tends to treat us all as basically self-interested creatures who put private material rewards above everything else. That is why financial incentives are emphasized as the key to motivating people. That is at least one reason why so much emphasis is placed on markets, because they promise to harness our natural avarice for constructive social ends. That is why government is feared - because it may empower majorities to invade individual freedoms for their own selfish ends.

In the last analysis, no system can rely so heavily on personal gain and private ambition and somehow have it all turn out for the good. No laws, no police, no regulations, no invisible hand will ever manage to keep all of these self-interested motives completely in check or mobilize them to meet all of the needs that must be met in our society. That is why, in my view, any viable ideology that we choose for the future must give a prominent place to strengthening those aspects of human nature that are mo re positive, more generous, more other-regarding, more civic minded than is the pursuit of private gain.

Not that government can do the whole job of building character and civic virtue. I know very well that this is primarily the task of parents and schools and universities and churches and professions and, I hope, the media as well.

But political leaders do have an essential role to play. More than anyone else, they help to define and to reinforce the ideologies that influence our priorities and our behavior. More than anyone else, they can give the subject of civic responsibility a prominent place on the nation's agenda. More than anyone else, they can provide the encouragement, the seed money, the opportunities, the incentives to strengthen our generous impulses, our ethical standards, our willingness to be involved in government and community affairs.

Until we look closely at those needs and give them the attention they deserve, I fear the quality of our public and professional life is not likely to improve, nor will our confidence in the government increase. But worse than that, if one persists in an ideology that assumes that human beings are basically materialistic and self-interested, and encourages and cultivates those motives for the sake of economic progress, there is a danger that we will end up behaving more and more in accordance with this v ision.

As a wise rabbi once remarked, "It behooves us to be careful of what we are worshiping, because what we are worshiping we are also becoming."

Rather than accept this prospect, I would end with a challenge eloquently expressed by a great contemporary writer, Octavio Paz, who said, "The time is coming for us to ask ourselves the eternal questions. Our answers almost certainly will be different, but they will be inspired by similar motives and must satisfy similar hopes. At the risk of over-simplifying them, they could be summarized by the three cardinal words of modern democracy - liberty, equality, fraternity. The relationship between those thr ee is unclear, or rather problematical. What is the bridge that links them?

"As I see it," he said, "the central word of the triad is fraternity. Its other word is solidarity, a modern version of the venerable word 'charity,' which was known to neither the Greeks nor the Romans, who were enamored of liberty but unaware of true compassion.... The other two words are intermeshed with it - liberty and isolation makes inequality more profound and ultimately provokes tyranny. Equality oppresses liberty, and in the end will destroy it. Fraternity is the nexus that connects the two, th e virtue that humanizes and harmonizes them. In the days to come, a new political philosophy could be founded on this simple, humble, evident truth." It is devoutly to be hoped.

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