233. "Restoring our Moral Voice," The Public Interest No. 116, (Summer 1994), pp. 107-113. Also published: "On Restoring the Moral Voice, Virtue and Community Pressure,: Current, (September 1994), pp. 9-11.


Audiences who are quite enthusiastic about the Communitarian message, which I carry these days to all who will listen, cringe when I turn to discuss the moral voice. One of my best friends took me aside and gently advised me to speak of "concern" rather than morality, warning that otherwise I would "sound like the Moral Majority". During most call-in radio shows in which I participate, sooner or later some caller exclaims that "nobody should tell us what to do." Time magazine, in an otherwise highly favorable cover story on communitarian thinking, warned against busybodies "humorlessly imposing on others arbitrary (meaning their own) standards of behavior, health and thought." Studies of an American suburb by sociologist M.P. Baumgartner found a disturbing unwillingness of people to make moral claims on one another. Most people did not feel it was their place to express their convictions when someone did something that was wrong.

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Americans, public opinion polls show, recognize that our moral fabric has worn rather thin. A typical finding is that while school teachers in the Forties listed as their top problems talking out of turn, making noise, cutting line and littering, they now list drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy and suicide. Wanton taking of life, often for a few bucks to buy a vile of crack or to gain a pair of sneakers, is much more common than it is in other civilized societies or than it used to be in America. Countless teenagers bring infants into the world to satisfy their ego needs, with little attention to the long term consequences for the children, themselves or society.

How can people recognize the enormous moral deficit we face and at the same time be so reluctant to lay moral claims on one another? One reason is that they see immorality not in their friends and neighborhoods but practically every place else. (In the same vein that they find Congress members in general to be corrupt but often re-elect "their" representative because he or she is "ok", just as they complain frequently about physicians but find their doctor above reproach.) This phenomena may be referred to as moral myopia for which there seems to be no ready cure.

In addition, many Americans seem to have internalized the writings of Dale Carnegie on how to win friends and influence in society: you are supposed to work hard at flattering the other person and never chastise any one. Otherwise, generations of Americans have been told by their parents, you may lose a "friend" and set back your networking. A study found that when college co-eds were asked whether or not they would tell their best friend if, in their eyes, the person the friend had chosen to wed was utterly unsuitable, most said they would refrain. They feared losing the friend. They would rather she go ahead and in effect hurt herself rather than take the risk of endangering the friendship. This clearly indicates that they ranked their fear of losing a friend above the commitment to help that very friend. Also, Daniel Patrick Moynihan has argued convincingly in his recent article in The American Scholar, "Defining Deviance Down", that people have been so bombarded with evidence of social ills that they have developed moral callouses, which make them relatively inured to immorality

When Americans do turn to contemplate moral reform, many are rather a-sociological: they believe that our problem is primarily one of individual conscience. If youngsters would be taught again to tell right from wrong by their families and schools, if churches could reach them again, our moral/social order would be on the mend. They focus on what is only one, albeit important, component of the moral equation: the inner voice.

In the process many Americans disregard the crucial role of the community in reinforcing the individual's moral commitments. To document the importance of the community, I must turn to the question: what constitutes a moral person?

I build here on the writings of Harry Frankfurt, Albert Hirschman and others who argued that humans differ from animals in that, while both species experience impulses, humans have the capacity to pass judgments upon their impulses. I choose my words carefully: it is not suggested that humans can "control" their impulses, but that they can defer responding to them long enough to evaluate the behavior toward which they feel inclined. Once this evaluation takes place, sometimes the judgments win, sometime the impulses. If the judgements would always take precedence, we would be saintly; if the impulses would always win, we would be psychopaths or animals. The human fate is a constant struggle between the noble and the debased parts of human nature. (While I reach this conclusion from social science findings and observations, I am often challenged by those who exclaim "why, this is what religion taught us!" or as one heckler cried out "What about the rest of the catechism?". As I see it, while some may find it surprising that religions contain social truths, I see no reason to doubt that the distillation of centuries of human experience by those entrusted historically with moral education, resulted in some empirically solid, sociologically valid observations.

It is to the struggle between judgments and impulses that the moral voice of the community speaks. The never-ending struggle within the human soul over which course to follow is not limited to intra-individual dialogues between impulses that tempt us to disregard our marital vows, be deceitful, be selfish and -- the values we previously internalized, which warn us against yielding to these temptations. In making our moral choices (to be precise, our choices between moral and immoral conduct rather than among moral claims) we are influenced by the approbations and censure of others, especially of those with whom we have close relations -- family members, friends, neighbors; in short, our communities. It may not flatter our view of ourselves, but human nature is such that if these community voices speak in unison and with clarity (without being shrill), we are much more likely to follow our inner judgments than if these voices are silent, conflicted, or speak too softly. Hence, the pivotal import of the voice of communities in raising the moral level of their members.

I need to respond to various challenges to this line of argumentation, beyond the general unarticulated uneasiness it seems to evoke in a generation that has largely lost its moral course and voice. Some argue that the reliance on community points to conformism, to "other-directed" individuals who merely seek to satisfy whatever pleases their community. This is not the vision evoked here. The community voice as depicted here is not the only voice that lays claims on individuals as to the course they ought to follow, but rather is a voice that speaks in addition to their inner one. When the community's voice and the inner one are in harmony, this is not a case of conformism, of one "party" yielding to the other but one of two tributaries flowing into the same channel. (E.g., if I firmly believe that it is wrong to leave my children unattended and so do my neighbors -- and I stay home, this is hardly an instance of conformism). If these two voices conflict, I must pass judgment not only vis-a-vis my impulses (should I yield or follow the dictates of my conscience?) but also pass judgment on whether or not I shall heed my fellow community members, or follow my own lead. In short, the very existence of a community moral voice does not necessarily spell conformism. Conformism occurs only if and when one automatically or routinely sets aside personal judgements to grant supremacy to the community. That happens when personal voices are weak -- far from a necessary condition for the existence of a community voice. To put it differently, while conformism is a danger so is the absence of the reinforcing effects of the communal voice. The antidote to conformism is hence not to undermine the community's voice but to seek to ensure that the personal one is also firmly instilled.

Above all, it must be noted that while the moral voice urges and counsels us, it is congenitally unable to force us. Whatever friends, neighbors, ministers or community leaders say, the ultimate judgement call is up to the acting person. (True, under some limited situations, when a community excommunicates or hounds someone, the pressure can be quite intense, but this rarely happens in modern-day communities because individuals are able to move to other communities when they are unduly pressured, since they often are members of two or more communities -- say of residence and of work -- and hence are able psychologically to draw on one community to ward off excessive pressure from the other).

Others argue that the community voice is largely lost because of American pluralism. Individuals are subject to the voices of numerous communities, each pulling in a different direction and thus neutralizing one another. Or the cacophony is so high, no clear voice can be heard. The notion that no community is right and all claims have equal standing, especially championed by multiculturalists, further diminishes the claim of the moral voice. While all this is true, there is no way to return to the days of simple, homogenous communities. And those quite often were found to be rather oppressive. The contemporary solution if not salvation lies in seeking and developing an evolving framework of shared values, which all subcultures will be expected to endorse and support without losing their distinct identities and subcultures. Thus, Muslim-Americans can be free to follow the dictates of their religion, cherish their music and cuisine, and be proud of select parts of their history (no group should be encouraged to embrace all of its history). But at the same time they (and all other communities that make up the American society) need to accept the dignity of the individual, the basic value of liberty, the democratic form of government, and other such core values. On these matters we should expect and encourage all communities to speak in one voice.

Other critics argue that the essence of individual freedom is that every person follows his own course and that social institutions leave us alone. (More technically, economists write about the primacy of our preferences and scoff at intellectuals and ideologues who want to impose their "tastes" on others). In honoring this pivotal value of free society one must be careful not to confuse allusions to freedom from the state, its coercion and controls, with freedom from the moral urging of our fellow community members. One can be as opposed to state intervention and regulation as a diehard libertarian and still see a great deal of merit in people encouraging one another to do what is right. (Technically speaking, the reference here is not to frustrating people and preventing them from acting on their preferences, which is what the coercive state does, but rather appealing to their better self to change or re-order their preferences).

Indeed, a strong case can be made that it is precisely the bonding together of community members that enable us to remain independent of the state. The anchoring of individuals in viable families, webs of friendships, faith communities, and neighborhoods -- in short, in communities -- best sustains their ability to resist the pressures of the state. The absence of these social foundations opens isolated individuals to totalitarian pressures. (This, of course, is the point Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America.)

In my discussions with students and others about the moral voice, I have borrowed a leaf from Joel Feinberg's seminal work Offense to Others. In his book, Feinberg asks us to imagine we are riding on a full bus that we cannot readily leave. He then presents a series of hypothetical scenes which would cause offense, such as someone playing loud music, scratching a metallic surface, handling what looks like a real grenade, engaging in sexual behavior, and so on.

I am interested not so much in the question of what members of the community find tolerable versus unbearable, but what will make them speak up. I hence asked students and colleagues "imagine you are in a supermarket and a mother beats the daylights out of a three year old child -- would you speak up?". (I say "mother" because I learned that if I just say "someone" most of my respondents state that they would not react because they feared that the other person may clobber them). Practically everyone I asked responded that they would not speak up. They would at most try to "distract" the mother, "find out what the child really did" and so on. However, when I asked "imagine you are resting on the shore of a pristine lake; a picnicking family, about to depart, leaves behind a trail of trash -- would you suggest they clean up after themselves?" Here again, many demurred but a fair number were willing to consider saying something.

Possibly, my informal sample is skewed. However, it seems to me something else is at the work: we had a consensus-building grand dialogue about the environment. While there are still sharp disagreements about numerous details (for instance, about the relative standing of spotted owls vs. loggers), there is a basic consensus that we must be mindful of the environment and cannot trash it. However, we have had neither a grand dialogue nor a new consensus about the way to treat children. This would suggest one more reason our moral voice is so feeble and reluctant: too many of us, too often, are no longer sure what to state.

A return to a firm moral voice thus will require a major town hall meeting of sorts, the kind we have when Americans spend billions of hours in bowling alleys, next to water coolers, on call-in shows, to form a new consensus, the kind we had about the environment, civil rights, and excessive general regulation, and are now beginning to have about gay rights. This time we need to agree with one another that the common good requires that we speak up while also enunciating the values for which we speak. To reiterate, heeding such consensus should never be automatic; we need to examine the values the community urges upon us to determine whether or not they square with our conscience and the basic values we sense there is a compelling reason no person or community has a right to violate. However, here the focus is on the other side of the coin: it is not enough to individually be able to tell right from wrong, as crucial as this is. We must also be willing to encourage others to attend to values we as a community share and ought to actively seek to uphold.

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