280. "Erasing Our Moral Deficit," Philanthropy, Vol. X, No. 2 (Spring 1996), pp. 8-9, 35.

Three out of four Americans believe the country is in a moral crisis. I am one of them. I believe we are facing a deep and encompassing crisis of values, a loss of virtue that compels our attention. In effect, we have a moral deficit, one of greater magnitude than the budget deficit. The fiscal deficit itself is partly a moral issue, because through that deficit we are robbing our heritage and cheating our children.

Just as we have a transportation infrastructure of bridges and ports and railroads that requires maintenance, we also have a moral infrastructure of families, churches, schools, and neighborhoods. It has been neglected and stifled as a result of the same government intervention that stifles the private sector. We need to rebuild the virtues that underlie a strong and free society, but we will not succeed in this task without a stronger moral infrastructure.

An old term has reemerged in our discussion of this issue: civil society. You find regularly in the press the notion that we should be civil, that we should not demonize one another, but instead we should talk to one another in a constructive manner. The President often says, "We should come to common ground."

I have nothing against civility. As we discuss difficult issues, we have to talk to each other without shouting back and forth. But there is a deeper meaning to the notion of civil society. It refers to the critically important mediating institutions that stand between the state and the person. Greater civility in our discourse would be helpful, but not enough to restore civil society in the fuller and more important sense.

When we talk about common ground, we have to ask what that common ground is. In particular, we need to talk about values that Americans share. That would be both a deeper and a broader discussion than the one we have about civility. We have to ask: "What values will we carry into our future? Which ones have we neglected and why? Do we need to pay greater attention to some of them again?"

Rights And Responsibilities

A few years ago, when I was paying for my sins by teaching ethics at Harvard Business School, I read a study that showed young Americans overwhelmingly believe that, if charged with a crime, they have a right to a trial before a jury. Of course, they are right. It is one of our fundamental rights. But the same study showed that, when asked if they would serve on a jury, most of our young people said, "Find somebody else."

That disjunction between the sense of entitlement and the unwillingness to contribute to the common good characterizes our society today. Once my colleagues and I framed the problem in this way, everywhere we turned we found additional symptoms of the same disjunction. Study upon study shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans feels very strongly that we should have less government, but the same overwhelming majority demands more government services of every conceivable kind. During the Gulf War, Americans were very proud of our victory and the way we conducted ourselves. But at the same time, the vast majority of us did not want to serve and did not want our children to serve. Most of us did not even want to pay for our involvement in the Gulf.

Countless examples follow this basic pattern. On the one hand, we want to enjoy public benefits. We want things to be done for us or given to us. On the other hand, we are unwilling to serve or contribute to public endeavors. Let's return to the jury example: Americans have a constitutional right to a jury trial if they are accused of a crime, but that right entails the responsibility to serve on a jury when summoned. That basic principle represents half of the communitarian agenda. Strong rights presume strong responsibilities.

At stake here is our underlying conception of human nature. If we assume that people are good by nature and they are going to take to virtue like ducks to water, then we are going to develop one type of policies and institutions. If we assume that people are evil by nature and beyond redemption, we will go another way. I would like to suggest that people by nature have an inner struggle between the base part and a nobler part. We need to talk about the social arrangements that would make people nobler than they would be otherwise.

I may sound like a preacher, but my contentions are supported by social science. When children are born, they have no values. In effect--and I mean this seriously--they are little animals. If left to their own devices, they will crawl on the floor and bark. We have a human potential for walking erect, but we do not realize this potential unless somebody teaches us. We have no language in isolation. We have a potential for language, but we only learn to communicate when some adult sets an example for us.

This is not just a fancy theory. A few years ago in Tampa City, California, there was a couple who had a little girl they did not want. They wanted to avoid doing anything that seemed too harsh, so they kept her in the back of the house in something like a doghouse. They fed her and gave her water, but otherwise paid no mind to her. When she was found years later by some social workers, she was indistinguishable from an animal. She was crawling on the floor. She was snarling and aggressive and unable to speak. It took years to bring her back to any semblance of normal humanity.

Throughout human history, on all five continents, without exception in all the variety of cultures we have seen throughout the total human experience, the duty of the family was to start the process of civilizing these little animals and teaching them values. Our society, in effect, decided about 25 years ago to conduct a grand experiment to bring up millions of children largely by hired hands, in institutions known as child-care centers. The attempt had the total weight of human experience against it, and 25 years later we have all the evidence we need to judge it. If we take infants away from their natural parents, especially in the first years of life, they do not grow up right by any measure known to social science. They have behavior problems. They have academic problems. They have police records.

Three Steps to Take

The first step in rebuilding the moral infrastructure is shoring up the family. There are some very good programs in place. To give one type as an example, many churches have programs for premarital counseling. They do not wait until there is a separation or divorce to start counseling couples; on the contrary, they counsel couples even before marriage. It is also helpful to teach kids in high school how to communicate better and how to resolve conflicts better. There are couples who are content together and couples who split up. Research shows that both groups fight about as often, but the couples who stay together fight better. The partners attack the issue instead of the other person, they allow for cooling off periods, and so on. Conflict resolution is a teachable skill that makes for better citizens, better neighbors, and better families. We need a whole agenda to save the family, and this is just one item in it.

The second element of the moral infrastructure that we need to rebuild is the schools. The schools are in the character-formation business, and there is no way on earth to get them out of it. Whether you like it or not, whether they try to be or not, schools affect the character of their students. Let's take sports. We all know sports influence people's character. The British have the right slogan. They say, "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." Another school of thought says, "Winning is not just important, it's the only thing." What is the difference here? If you use sports as a character-building, educational tool, you teach people to control their impulses. Knowing how to take a loss and how to play by the rules is an essential part of being a moral human being. If you teach kids to pull face masks, to elbow their opponents when the referee is not looking, you affect their character. If the teachers teach relativism, they affect character, just as they do if they teach religion. There is no way to prevent school from having a great impact on the character of the young. The emphasis here should be on behavior. What we need to do is restructure the total school experience so rewards would be given for achievements and not for social status. This forms the second part of our agenda--restoring a proper sense of schools as institutions that build character.

The third and last building block of the moral infrastructure is the community. When people talk about communities and the importance of community, it warms the cockles of my heart. People usually talk about communities first as fuzzy, warm places in which everybody knows everybody else's first name, and where when somebody asks, "How do you do?," they really want to hear the answer. That is a wonderful part of community, but it overlooks a more important aspect of the community that is essential for our purposes. Communities have traditions, values, and a moral voice.

Here is another sad proposition proven by social science: Even when families are intact and strong, even when the school is doing as well as it can, these are not enough. Once people acquire a conscience, they do not simply follow it. It is tragic but true that our morality tends to degenerate.

When the fabric of community is shredded, when people live anonymously on their own, they are much more likely to engage in antisocial behavior than when they are in a viable community. The only way to keep us on the right course is to make us part of a community. I do not mean under the agents of government, but part of a genuine community.

Not only is our social fabric shredded, but in some parts of the country the notion that we should be non-judgmental is compounding the problem. A whole batch of ideologies have been spun off from psychotherapy, from burned-out Marxism, from the counterculture, from relativism, and from post-modernists who in one way or the other say: "It's not your fault, you're not responsible. It's your father, your mother, the system. There's no truth anyhow."

If being judgmental means being mean-spirited and self-righteous, then of course, we should not be judgmental. If it means that we are never going to say to another person, "Wait a moment, that's not the way we do things here," then it is a mistake not to be judgmental.

Let me close by simply saying yes, there are truths, there are virtues. We all agree that when Aldrich Ames betrayed his country and let our representatives be tortured and put to death in the Soviet Union, he was wrong. When we have a trial and we allow a double murderer to walk, that is wrong. When we have fathers walk out on their children, that is wrong. We have to reacquire that kind of language. It is meaningless to talk about living according to our values if we are unwilling to defend them when they are under attack.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor at The George Washington University, author of The Spirit of Community (1994), and editor of the Responsive Community, a communitarian quarterly.

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