I do not share the pessimistic view that humans are inescapably greedy, rapacious, and evil; nor do I believe that they are naturally altruistic and virtuous. Experience does not support a simplistic view of human possibilities. But it does, I believe, suggest that the only way to spare ourselves the worst in human nature is to call for the best. History offers ample evidence of the destructive power of humans; but it also records another side: it tells of a creature who is a stubborn seeker of meaning, a builder, maker, inventor, explorer -- and a regenerator of value systems. . . .
We are living through a period of transition that historians will mull over in the centuries ahead. We don't fully understand it, but we feel it. Here and now -- under the shadow of possible disaster -- patterns of human social organization may be emerging that will prevail for many generations to come. The consequences could be grim by our lights; or this could be a time of rebirth and regeneration in the history of the race. . . .
We value justice and the rule of law. Of course as fallible humans we want justice mainly for ourselves, but commitment to the value is to be measured by our efforts to ensure that justice is done to others -- not just to "our kind of people" but to other races and religions, even to those with whom we disagree. (Many years ago an oldtimer who grew up in the Southwest in the 1980s told me he once saw on a small-town courtroom wall a sign that read, "Justice for Strangers.") The value takes on meaning only as we build justice into social institutions.
Justice is probably the oldest and most universally professed value. Anthropologists and historians are hard put to name a healthy society that has not honored (or professed to honor) some variation of the idea. Nature is unjust, humans are often unjust, yet we refuse to live in a world without the idea of justice.
We value the dignity and worth of each person, without regard to wealth, status, race, or sex. To put it another way, human worth should be assessed only in terms of those qualities that are within the reach of every human being. In moral and spiritual terms, in the final matters of life an ddeath, each person is equally worthy of our care and concern; and we seek for each person equality before the law and equality of opportunity.
Why bother to meet any standards of behavior? Why strive to diminish human suffering? Why combat injustice? For some the answer may lie in being true to their religious convictions; for others, in expressing their allegiance to a moral order (however they may conceive it); for still others, simply in trying to be true to what humans can be at their best.
"Trying to be true to what humans can be at their best." The words are deceptively simple, but the idea has great power. Humans have shown themselves capable of degradation as well as nobility, of cruelty as well as kindness, of greed as well as generosity. To pretend that the darker side of human nature dissolves under the cleansing rays of idealism is to delude oneself. Yet even in those moments of history when corruption and degradation seemed wholly triumphant, there were some men and women who continued stubbornly to seek justice and liberty and a world that honored the worth and dignity of each person; there were those who tried to create a more humane environment for those around them. Some left their names in the history books, others were well known in their time and place but are unknown to us; and some were perhaps never heard of beyond their neighborhood.
An enduring basis for moral commitment is to affirm our allegiance to those men and women, to associate ourselves with the human spirit striving for the best. To remind ourselves that they existed, is a message of solidarity for every seriously striving person.
If the society is disintegrating, the responsibility of the individual is to join with othersm in the tasks of regeneration. the individual is a part of something larger -- a community, a cultural and spiritual heritage, humankind.
The community must protect our individuality; in turn we are the only ones who can shape communities that will ensure that result. We must criticize the community yet nurture it. The tension between individual and group is healthy, but the deepest threat to the integrity of any community is the incapacity of citizens to lend themselves to any worthy common purpose. Individualism that degenerates into anarchism, self-indulgence, or dog-eat-dog exploitation of others is individualism gone wrong. The end to be sought is developed, creative individuals who expend their talents in the service of shared values. . . .
Criticism is in plentiful supply today, but for many intelligent Americans the word "loving" as applied to one's attitude toward society is a little embarrassing. It's time to dispel that shadow of embarrassment.
It's not hard to see why the shadow was cast. There is an unattractive kind of group allegiance that is an extension of egotism, that rules out criticism, breeds arrogance, assumes superiority of one's own kind over others, and sanctions inhumane behavior toward others. The wars that have plagued humankind have all too often been associated with that kind of bigoted allegiance. It has given patriotism a bad name -- and that's a pity. In an interdependent world, a world capable of self-destruction, one must acknowledge broad allegiances -- to humankind, to the planet -- but this doesn't require the rejection of love of country, any more than love of country requires us to reject love of family.
For my part, I am skeptical of those who profess their love for humankind but can't bring themselves to love that particular portion of humankind that populates their own country. I am skeptical of those Americans who can't bring themselves to love their country because there are injustices in the American past. There are injustices in the history of any society. People who reject their own heritage and tradition on such grounds are creating a fatal separation between themselves and their kind. There isn't any way of being humane without accepting human fallibility as a part of one's heritage. To set oneself above and apart from our common heritage is an act of arrogance. . . we impose on society a heavier burden of expectation than human institutions can possibly carry -- and then we make it the target of our scorn and contempt when it fails to meet those exalted expectations.
It would be a maturing act for us to lift some of that burden of childlike expectation and place it back where it belongs -- on ourselves. If we are better citizens, we shall have a better government: not a repository for immature expectations, but an instrument for responsible adults who intend to hold that instrument accountable.