Virtue in Flush Times: A Bull Market in Moralities

Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice , by Alan Wolfe. W.W. Norton, 256 pages, $24.95.

“We were about halfway through another interview,” writes the Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe early in Moral Freedom, “before it became clear that the respondent did not know what the word ‘virtue’ meant and had been too polite to ask.” To find out how Americans think about right and wrong, Mr. Wolfe took a poll (recently published in The New York Times Magazine) and held focus groups in eight communities: from blue-collar Fall River, Mass., to the farms of Tipton, Iowa; from San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force base to San Francisco’s gay Castro district. Mr. Wolfe’s method has obvious drawbacks: It elicits banalities (60 percent of Americans agree that “lying is sometimes necessary, especially to protect someone’s feelings”); it’s captive to fads; and it asks you, the reader, to spend hours with people who, if they sat down at the next barstool, would prompt you to pay your tab and leave. But at its best, his method has its advantages, too, stripping away ulterior agendas to give us a look at the raw material of the American conscience.

At first glance, that conscience is a muddle. True, some people still have firm convictions about the virtues Mr. Wolfe is most interested in loyalty, self-discipline, honesty and forgiveness. These convictions can give rise to dramatic clashes: the teenage girl whose fundamentalist Christian father, when she began sleeping around, “would go to the drawer and pick out the biggest knife in the drawer and put it on the table in front of us and say, ‘Why don’t you just stick this in your mother’s heart?'” Or the gay man describing the moment he chose to come out to his parents: “He recalls coming home on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and finding his parents wealthy conservative Republicans celebrating.” (Bet they’ll never forget where they were when they found out their son was gay.) But what’s surprising shocking, even is that, nowadays, such moral showdowns are rare.

It’s not that morality has ceased to be a big deal, Mr. Wolfe says; it’s that no one can agree on who should impose it. So we’ve come up with a compromise: Today’s American carries into all walks of life a “distinction between personal and impersonal authority.” Personal always wins. The result is a free market of morality in which the moral consumer can choose for himself between competing moral codes and sources of authority. That, and not hedonism or impunity or the belief that anything goes, is what Mr. Wolfe means by “moral freedom,” and he is giddy with delight over its appearance. “The old adage that America is a free country has, at last, come true,” he writes, “for Americans have come to accept the relevance of individual freedom, not only in their economic and political life, but in their moral life as well.”

But there’s a problem that Mr. Wolfe recognizes only intermittently. Morally, Americans now expect to live in a world of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. “Both Victorian and contemporary moralists tend to think that self-discipline is a virtue and self-indulgence is a vice,” Mr. Wolfe writes. “Americans told us that they agreed with the first half of that sentiment but not the second.” This moral free market is one in which the customer is always right, and Americans have become alarmingly adept at rationalizing their misbehavior post facto. They defend their divorces by drawing parallels to the way their bosses treat them in an era of downsizing, and then cite (implausibly) the damage they’d do to their kids by not abandoning them. They engage in “fine-tuned moral accounting” to decide when loyalty is appropriate, rejecting “blind loyalty” in favor of “earned loyalty” forgetting that a loyalty based on a calculus of one’s own interest is no loyalty at all. Thus, an Iowan says: “If you’re in a bad marriage, you’re being loyal to yourself if you take steps to get out of it, and maybe that’s loyalty too.” No, it’s not.

This is a common pattern. Mr. Wolfe astutely sees that today’s morality owes much to the 1970’s. Many of his respondents, the born-again Christians very much included, “find themselves more comfortable with the language of psychology than they do with the language of sin.” And Mr. Wolfe himself sometimes gets trapped in the same shallows where his interviewees plash, as in San Francisco, where he opines: “Because one cannot be honest while living in the closet, coming out of the closet represents a painful affirmation of the truth. For all of the efforts of its residents to avoid the language of virtue (and vice), San Francisco is a zone of honesty.” No, it’s not! Or, at least, this is a very different kind of honesty than the kind that keeps people from, say, embezzlement or slander. This honesty, like the “rigorous honesty” espoused by 12-step addiction programs, aims instead at self-actualization, at identifying one’s own needs before building rules to live by. It’s the honesty espoused by André Gide in everything he wrote, a 20th-century Promethean, supplemental morality. It can be usually is, in fact admirable. But it’s not grounds for saying the gays of the Castro are any more “honest” than the parents back home in Podunk who disowned them.

Alan Wolfe is deeply interested in sexual freedom more interested, in fact, than practically any of his interview subjects, two-thirds of whom consider sex overrated. (His Castro gays are the exception.) He takes feminism as a wellspring for the new morality and sex as the central moral battleground of our time, and hails Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse as prophets. “All questions of moral freedom,” he writes, “finally come down to questions of sex.” If he’s saying that sexual freedom has become so important to your average American that no moral code which fails to guarantee that freedom will go far, then he may be right.

He’s also playing with fire. If Mr. Wolfe’s vision is a mere system of sexual freedom, it will leave you liable to follow your libido which is fine, and nobody’s business. But as a system of morals, it will leave you liable to follow an evil government, say, or a peer group of violent high-school sickos, or a few friends planning a securities fraud. Like all moralities, this one is organized around minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure only here the pain to be minimized and the pleasure to be maximized are, as often as not, one’s own. “Morality defines our duties to self and others,” Mr. Wolfe writes. Again, that’s fine but his interview subjects keep failing to see that duties to self and duties to others are different. Considering the self merely another “other” turns virtue inside-out and leaves us with the Golden Rule reversed: Do unto yourself as Christianity used to enjoin you to do unto others. It’s an ad hoc morality, a path-of-least-resistance morality, even when it’s accompanied by phony moral anguish. As it often is, since a defining and ominous attribute of Mr. Wolfe’s interviewees is that every moral principle they espouse comes equipped with its own built-in escape hatch.

Take the case of Karla Faye Tucker, much argued in the press during Mr. Wolfe’s interviewing and vexing to his subjects. Tucker was the Texas woman executed three years ago for murders committed a decade and a half before. In the interim, she had become a born-again Christian and reformed her life. Mr. Wolfe’s subjects argue the importance of forgiveness till they’re blue in the face, but they have none to offer Tucker. Fry the bitch! is the general consensus. And that’s fine, too. But when asked to justify it, practically all of them go scampering back to the codes of moral dependence they profess to have outgrown: It’s God’s will; it’s the government’s will; Tucker has to be held responsible for her acts. Mr. Wolfe understands this hypocrisy perfectly, and is troubled by it. (“If people are to be held responsible for their acts,” he asks, “then shouldn’t those who think that Karla Faye Tucker’s life can be taken by the state be held responsible for their beliefs?”) He sees it, however, only as an isolated, well-meaning confusion, not as something that undermines his whole thesis.

But it does. As surely as the (rapidly evaporating) sentiment that the New Economy has abolished the business cycle, Alan Wolfe’s idea of “moral freedom” is boom-time wishful thinking. Note that when Mr. Wolfe describes the moral order we’re in the process of replacing, he repeatedly resorts to the adjective “Victorian,” which suggests to us a comic and arbitrary list of injunctions against everything from whacking off to wearing a hat indoors. Had he been looking for an argument rather than a straw man, he would have confronted the firm but flexible, commonsensical side of the same moral tradition like that of Macaulay (if one requires a Victorian), who held that the measure of a man’s morals was best taken when nobody was watching. The Victorian implication is that virtue kicks in when push comes to shove; if we’re deaf to that kind of reasoning, it’s because push hasn’t come to shove for a while. Moral negotiability, rather than moral freedom, is the proper description of the American moral system that Mr. Wolfe extols. And maybe he’s right to extol it. For now.

Christopher Caldwell is senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Press.