When morals bend to personal choice

Americans have been telling pollsters in recent years that they see a worrying moral decline in the United States. But when one sits down in their living rooms and talks at length about their concerns, they aren't necessarily hankering for a return to the "good old days" of firm rules and certitudes.

Or so finds Alan Wolfe, a prominent sociologist who shares the results of more than 200 conversations in communities across the country in his new book, "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice."

Americans are as serious as ever about moral questions, but they feel that "individuals should determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life," says Dr. Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "There is a moral majority in America. It just happens to be one that wants to make up its own mind."

This frame of mind - which he discovers among individuals of varying social stripes, from religious conservatives to gay liberals - is not just American individualism run amok. It comes across rather as a kind of American pragmatism, reacting to disillusionment with traditional institutional sources of moral authority, the experience of freedom in other aspects of life, and the bombardments of a media-saturated culture of multiplying choices, mixed messages, and unsettling change.

The idea of moral freedom is anathema to many Americans who worry about a further deterioration in social well-being, and particularly to conservatives seeking to restore a firm set of moral standards in the US. How, they ask, can a society survive without consensus on moral norms?

But despite the obvious dangers, Wolfe opted for optimism in a recent interview. "If I had found a kind of anarchy that some very conservative writers find true of America, I'd be enormously disturbed," he says. "But moral freedom is not moral anarchy."

It's not "doing whatever one wants," but "the right to work out one's own moral choices, and be responsible for the consequences." The 19th century was about economic freedom, he says, the 20th century about political freedom, and this century will be about moral freedom.

Nonjudgmentalism is prevailing norm

What disturbs some social critics is that, while Americans say they want a strengthened moral climate, they are not about to tell others what they should do. Nonjudgmentalism is the order of the day, Wolfe confirms.

Many have lost touch with the traditional religious language of morality. A surprising number of interviewees could not define "virtue," though they found "vice" a more familiar term, even if it only sparked the thought of "Miami Vice."

Instead, the vocabulary of the sciences - particularly psychology and genetics - slips easily into the discussion. The language of "addictions" and "genetic predispositions" replaces that of self-destructive behavior and lack of self discipline in many aspects of daily life, Wolfe says.

"Quick to apply medical concepts as explanations for behaviors that would once have been held up as examples of virtue or vice, have Americans become increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of individual responsibility?" he asks in the book. Is science becoming a substitute for conscience? Or is it, again, a way to be nonjudgmental?

Through a national survey conducted with The New York Times, as well as lengthy interviews with people in eight communities, Wolfe explored attitudes toward everyday morality and, particularly, the virtues of loyalty, honesty, self-discipline, and forgiveness.

Conversations in such diverse places as Tipton, Iowa; Fall River, Mass.; San Francisco; Greensboro, N.C.; Atherton, Calif.; and San Antonio, Texas, revealed that for many Americans, strong cultural influences have helped turn the idea of established virtues such as loyalty and honesty into conditional options.

One familiar example is the way concepts of loyalty have changed in the workplace in the wake of the innumerable layoffs of people with years of service to their companies. "People often say they would prefer a situation where you were loyal to your employer and your employer was loyal to you," Wolfe says. "Instead, they are called upon to determine for themselves what loyalty means, and precisely at a time when some of their major institutions act as if it means nothing."

And Wolfe finds that the impact of "the disloyal corporation" has spilled into other aspects of people's lives. "Americans started divorcing long before the current wave of corporate downsizing, but there is nonetheless a relationship between workplace disloyalty and marital disloyalty that runs throughout the comments of our respondents," he says.

It's clear, the book points out, that many people no longer turn to traditional sources of moral authority because those institutions have let them down: Duplicity and immorality in government, churches, and the business world, and permissiveness in the schools, have made consistent moral examples hard to come by.

In politics, the personal moral lapses of politicians like President Clinton and Congressman Gary Condit are fodder for public debate, but they pale beside the persistent duplicity of political discourse, which has led Americans to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is little hope for improving the quality of political life. Churches have covered over and failed to curtail instances of sexual abuse. And corporations refusing to acknowledge defective products while spending billions on misleading advertising hardly encourage a culture of honesty, he says.

So perhaps it's not surprising to hear Americans hedging bets on when honesty and loyalty make sense and when they don't. Similarly, Wolfe found an odd mix of self-discipline and self-indulgence in the people interviewed, which may flow, he suggests, from the way capitalism simultaneously promotes self-restraint to provide for investment and hedonism to ensure consumption. What this book does not address is a broader consideration of the mass media's impact on the shaping of moral choices.

Just what is afoot here? Is it, as some have suggested, that instead of morality, what we have today are preferences and attitudes? Wolfe, who also interviewed ordinary Americans for his previous book on middle-class morality, "One Nation, After All," takes a more middling view. He finds an encouraging moral seriousness.

The demand is for a common sense approach

People look for help to many sources, including religious and other serious books, he says. "These are issues that preoccupy everyone - lying, cheating, loyalty; they are at the heart of our lives." At the same time, people tend to be pragmatic rather than principled about their choices, he adds: "Their views are not always consistent and their ideas often contradict each other." Yet he says Americans think a lot about character education in the schools and feel it is a necessity. Despite all the controversy, people want the clamor to stop and character education to go ahead with a common sense approach.

In making his case that moral freedom is now the moral philosophy of Americans, Wolfe points to an underlying belief held by 73 percent of US adults - that all people are born inherently good. A far cry from Calvinist theology, this belief allows them to trust people to make their own choices. Does he see this as a prescription for further moral decline? Possibly. After all, political freedom has led to voter apathy. What it does suggest is that "the challenge facing people whose job it is to encourage moral reflection is enormous," he says. It's not preaching morality that will carry the day, but the kind of moral leadership by example that hasn't been very visible of late.

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