Friday, 24 May 2024
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    How Values Shape the Future By Herbert London

    President, Hudson Institute John M. Olin Professor of Humanities, NYU Author of the recently published book Decade of Denial, Lexington Books

    When considering the future, I am a tireless defender of “guarded optimism. I firmly believe that the world of the next century will offer more wealth, longer life expectancy, more security, and greater opportunity for the exercise of free will than people have ever known before. In fact, I would contend that the Hobbesian view of life as poor, nasty, brutish, and short will be turned on its head.

    That said, I turn to the word “guarded,” for I am not, after all, a Pollyannish optimist. The best-laid plans often turn sour, and material progress—notable as it is—should not be confused with moral progress, though the case can be made that moral progress is often a foundation for material success.

    America As Cultural Leader

    While my interest is global, there is little doubt that America has in a sense “been to the future” and is the locomotive driving change around the world.  What happens in the United States usually presages what happens elsewhere. This fact makes the course of American culture tremendously important.

    Liberalism has been one of America’s greatest gifts to the world—but it is a gift that comes with a cost. In contemplating the present American social and cultural scene, the contradiction within liberalism first noted by Alexis de Tocqueville becomes readily apparent.

    Modern liberalism, as defined by John Locke and Immanuel Kant, emphasizes the ideal of individual autonomy—the belief that individuals should be free to do as they choose as long as their actions do not harm others.  This has been a tremendous boon for humankind, as this revolution of personal freedom has led to similarly quantum leaps in economic prosperity and scientific progress. But, as Tocqueville knew, a healthy society requires more than simply individual freedom—indeed, an emphasis solely on personal autonomy will, over time, have a centrifugal effect, pulling society apart.

    To counteract this atomization, Tocqueville looked to “mediating institutions”—entities such as families, religious institutions, schools, and community associations that exist in the middle ground between the individual and the government, and which tie the individual to the larger community. Mediating institutions establish the restraints needed to balance liberty with community, personal autonomy with the common good. They accomplish this by instilling in individuals the principles needed for social order and cohesiveness, such as the Golden Rule, the idea that ends do not justify means, and those embodied in moral codes such as the Ten Commandments—a process known as “socialization.”

    Unfortunately, liberalism’s laudable concern for individual freedom often leads to the neglect of the socialization necessary to promote the common good. Indeed, unrestrained autonomy often undermines exactly those mediating institutions that make socialization possible.

    This tension has rarely been more apparent in America society than it is at the present moment. The receding of traditional sources of authority—which can be measured in terms of family breakup, declining faith in government officials, and the decaying of the mainline churches—has left a cultural vacuum, into which has rushed a skewed fixation on individual rights. Prevailing national sentiment is that public policy should be “neutral” on the question of the common good. The result is a range of numbing social pathologies, from high rates of violent crime to a startling number of illegitimate births. (Although recently there has been a leveling off in some of these problems, rates still remain unconscionably high, and the recent progress seems tenuous.)

    Higher education once provided a reliable cultural transmission belt for community values—such that colleges were a kind of mediating institution in themselves—but university professors of today are more likely to be avatars of the adversary culture than devotees of tradition. It is fashionable in today’s universities to challenge traditional loyalties, indeed to encourage a critical attitude toward authority of any kind. Wisdom and truth have been melted in the cauldron of contemporary relativism and are now regarded as mere myths or social dogmas.

    Americans’ skepticism toward government, healthy in many respects, reinforces this relativistic worldview. Liberals and the libertarian wing of conservatism typically assume that government must remain neutral on questions of the common good. John Stuart Mill’s dictum that the only purpose for the rightful exercise of government power over any member of the community is to prevent harm to others, is the prevailing orthodoxy. Americans correctly fear an intrusive government that will limit liberty through a demand for conformity, but emphasis on autonomy, to the exclusion of the notion of the common good, has served to undermine the moral truths and constraints that ultimately give meaning to life. If mediating institutions are seen as entirely voluntary, and able to be discarded on a whim, moral truths will come to be seen as alterable or revocable as well. Freedom quickly devolves into license, and social tragedies such as the disintegration of the nuclear family are written off as unavoidable byproducts of the inviolable quest for self-fulfillment. Ironically, however, the autonomous man who rebels against governmental authority becomes more reliant on government, as his rebellion and that of his neighbors weaken the society’s mediating institutions. This is the key cultural issue facing the modern state.

    As I see it, the future of this country depends on the restoration of a philosophical balance, a reassertion of the importance of public virtue, once seen as implicit in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, as a constraint on individual autonomy. Government cannot promote these principles itself, but it can promote the institutions that give voice to these principles, recognizing as it does so that the implicit constraints imposed by moral law are far more effective than government coercion at cultivating justice and social order. A democratic republic cannot compel citizens to lead a virtuous life. Nevertheless, a pluralistic society such as ours can promote a public philosophy that defines civic purposes based on a shared national tradition. The American tradition recognizes the value of liberty while also reinforcing

    virtue and public order as a reasonable restraint on the pursuit of happiness. National leaders should not be reluctant to define the common good and consider how it might be pursued.

     

    The Uncommon Importance of Common Sense

    Americans should be grateful for their liberty but equally thankful for the traditions that keep that liberty in check. When considering those traditions, it is imperative to give thought to the idea of common sense.

    The term common sense, properly understood, refers to common—meaning generally held—customs, traditions, and manners. These provide the backbone of society.

    Attachment to common sense is like belief in common law—the unwritten, customary norms that evolve over centuries—a countervailing force against political and social convulsions, society’s balance wheel. In this society, common sense refers in particular to a way of thinking and acting that is grounded in sound judgment, free of emotion and ideological passion. It is eminently reasonable. For most of American history, political ideas, however lofty, were invariably tested against common sense. It is, therefore, not surprising that common sense has served as a magnificent bulwark against revolution, and that until very recently revolutionary zeal of the kind that periodically afflicts France has not been a factor in American politics. But widespread adherence to common sense is not inevitable.

    In thinking about the future, we should realize that the common sense embodying the American national tradition must be maintained as a guidepost for generations to come. Common sense is an instrument for preserving and promoting the moral principles on which the nation is founded, a connection to our past without which there is only moral confusion.

    That said, the preservation of common sense is not a goal in its own right. Common sense is the North Star of social intercourse; to provide direction, it needs to be viewed within the constellation of moral sentiment and religious tradition. Common sense, then, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for social order, a point made by George Washington in his Farewell Address:“. . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

    A problem endemic to our democratic republic is that citizens often believe that freedom of choice can be interpreted as complete freedom of action, in which any act not specifically condemned is thereby sanctioned.  Society must combine common sense with moral beliefs rooted in religion to create a sufficient counterweight to the natural temptation toward expansive freedom, which can quickly become license. In this effort, individual reason is not all-sufficient. Like it or not, the edifice of social order can only be built on a foundation of commonly accepted moral principles.

    History provides more than ample evidence that human nature tends toward evil. To counter this natural tendency, societies use customs, accepted rules, traditions, and the family as moderating influences to create social equilibrium and establish the boundaries between good and evil. The ability to distinguish between good and evil—which Thomas Jefferson called the hallmark of education—assumes an ability to apply both common sense and moral judgment.

    The book of Proverbs maintains, “when there is no vision, the people perish.” That vision must be framed by morality, common sense, and valid traditional norms—the wisdom handed down from parent to child, from teacher to student, across the generations. The existentialists in our midst often fail to appreciate the wisdom available in the experience of the past. They search in vain for a tabula rasa on which to imprint utopian goals. For them, history is merely a dream from which we will one day gratefully awaken. Fortunately for the nation, this position is largely restricted to universities and other warrens of dubiously received wisdom.

    The Importance of Social Capital and the Dangers of “Presentism”

    In examining why some nations are capable of innovation and resourcefulness and others are not, it seems that an overlooked characteristic is social capital. Social capital includes personal qualities such as trust, diligence, determination, hard work, frugality, sobriety, punctuality, and delayed gratification.

    In his book The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Francis Fukuyama argues that the depletion of social capital runs against human nature. “Our only reason for hope is the very powerful innate human capacity for reconstituting social order,” he writes. Empirical evidence seems to

    support this claim, as the growing pains of countries such as Russia, China, and

    India reflect the consequences of taking shortcuts to economic success.

    Nonetheless, even if there are vast, hidden, natural imperatives leading society out of darkness and into the light of dignity and liberty, the question of how much darkness a society can tolerate remains unanswered. Much fanfare has been made over the reduction in crime and the other indices of social pathology in the United States, but the crime reduction is due in no small part to the incarceration of 1.6 million criminals—hardly an ideal turn of events—and illegitimacy has leveled off at a still staggering rate of almost one out of every three births in the nation.

    The depletion of social capital has implications in the economic sphere as well. For capitalism to thrive worldwide, more nations will have to embrace the personal qualities of social capital. These values, the building bocks of social capital, undergird free markets. There was a time when these qualities were part of a religious sensibility that surrounded economic exchange; although these characteristics are still in evidence, the religious sensibility that encouraged their development has largely evanesced. In fact, it is appropriate to ask, as many contemporary thinkers from James Q. Wilson to Francis Fukuyama have, whether religious virtues are a necessary component for successful operation of a free society and market economy. Economic freedom is only healthy when constrained by moral reason, as Adam Smith himself noted.

    Can hedonism coexist with capitalism, or are there cultural contradictions in capitalism, as Daniel Bell has argued, or seeds of destruction in it, as Joseph Schumpeter maintained? Fukuyama contends that the collected wisdom of human evolution will serve as a natural corrective for the unfortunate side effects of technical advance and unparalleled affluence. Which of these two views is correct will determine our economic, social, and cultural future.  Even if Fukuyama is right, it seems an open question whether societies can rely on social determinism as their basic future building block. The national evolution Fukuyama points to is not a given—there are too many examples of civilizational decline, exhaustion, and irrationality.

    It would appear that the stock of social virtue on which American society has depended is virtually depleted. Moreover, basic ethics have fallen into the swamp of relativistic judgment: right and wrong, good and evil have become mere terms representing someone’s opinion, wholly without commonly accepted foundations. Once the religious and moral traditions inculcating certain rules, such as treating others as one would wish to be treated, and doing one’s duty towards one’s parents, are overturned, an existentialist view of the world emerges, with many asking “Why not?” Why not embrace nihilism; why not assume that the “I” is the center of the universe?           There is the omnipresent danger that in a society where personal sacrifice is not demanded, what will emerge is a tyranny of “presentism”—the pursuit of everything for the here and now. Our consumer-driven society is one manifestation of this phenomenon, with the desire for instantaneous material gratification increasing and the sense of duty decreasing. Psychology, to cite one nonmaterial example, is often sold as an instant cure for ailments of the mind.

    How can any society that puts so great an emphasis on the present have any serious interest in the future? How can a sensate society—to use Pitirim Sorokin’s expression—expect people to act responsibly when all the public desires is expansive personal rights?

    Hedonistic societies invariably lose interest not only in the past but also in the future, because they are oriented toward immediate ego satisfaction. If there is a future to be derived from hedonism, it is one of novel consumer items and endless innovation—developments that are welcome but which do not by themselves lead to human betterment. Hedonism dismisses as empty posturing any discussion of the wisdom of past traditions or the development of future virtues.

    The British mathematician and coauthor of Principa Mathematica, Alfred North Whitehead, argued that there cannot be a great future without great ideas to inspire it. Is there an idea on the horizon to challenge and inspire future generations? Or will we be relegated to the tyranny of self-absorption?

    As I frame these questions, I am hopeful, but wary, about the future.  While I am confident that technology will introduce wonders scarcely imagined at the moment, I doubt that it can also usher in moral progress. And if not, will people be materially sated yet spiritually malnourished?

    Man does not live by bread alone, nor is he merely a reflection of what he collects. He is judged by his character and what contributions he confers to future generations. In a sense rarely considered, the present foreshadows the future—which explains my apprehension.

    I would prefer to be an optimist without adjectival reservations, but there are too many warning signs for me to be anything but guarded.

    HISTORICAL WORDS OF WISDOM