Multi-moral America

January 7, 2004 | 18 comments

I just read a review of Lord Patrick Devlin’s best-selling mega-thriller (I jest) The Enforcement of Morals. I’ve added it to my reading list.

Here’s a money quote:
“if men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental agreement about good and evil they will fail; if having based it upon a common set of core values, they surrender those values, it will disintegrate. For society is not something that can be kept together physically; it is held by the invisible but fragile bonds of common beliefs and values. … A common morality is part of the bondage of a good society, and that bondage is part of the price of society which mankind must pay.”

I see no reason to disagree with the good Baron. And, agreeing, I fear for my country.

I am not suggesting that American society is headed for dissolution. After all, one side or another could prevail. Perhaps the old moral consensus will be validated. Very possibly a new moral consensus will emerge, one that excludes us. On the pressing issue of they day, which I take to be gay marriage, I fear that our own debate on whether it’s right to legally enforce a definition of marriage that we know to be right will do us harm. Divided counsels are deadly in conflict. The new moral consensus will not be that gay marriage is wrong but should be permitted. It will be that gay marriage is OK or that marriage doesn’t matter. Our own views will become at best silly eccentricities with a vague tinge of discomfort and immorality. At worst, the immorality will become much less vague, and much more than a tinge.

Some will say that we’ve always had conflicts–divorce, abortion, indiscriminate sex, and sodomy all come to mind. Yet in many cases our views have failed–the plan of happiness has been rejected–with predictably bad results. In others the conflict has merely been postponed. But conflicts cannot be postponed forever when the sphere of conflict keeps widening, and the distance of America’s moral consensus departs farther and farther from the Way.

Let us consider what is at stake.


18 Responses to Multi-moral America

  1. clark goble on January 7, 2004 at 4:57 pm

    While this lack of common values is often belabored, I think to most outsiders American is surprising for the amount of homogenity it holds. Let’s be honest, for instance. The difference between the Republican and Democrats is not that big. Compare it with say the diversity of parties and views in European countries.

    Even controversial points, such as abortion, are typically a disagreement over libertarian rights. i.e. when do we allow someone to do something wrong. Listen to the rhetoric from the pro-choice side. Most are careful to qualify their position as “but I feel abortion is wrong.” We might critique how sincere this view is, but the mere fact they have to make it says a lot.

    The problem often is less a common view of morality than the fact that we don’t always live up to our morality.

  2. Nate Oman on January 7, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Adam, you might want to pick up LAW, LIBERTY, AND MORALS, which is H.L.A. Hart’s reply to Devlin.

  3. Adam Greenwood on January 7, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    I’m inclined to think that that sort of thing–’but I’m personally opposed’–is more a mealy-mouthed attempt to maintain the still numerous moderates than it is an expression of genuine moderation (this goes for both sides). In any case, such efforts only paper over conflict or else smooth the transition to the new moral consensus.

    There’s something to be said for papering over conflicts, but someday it ends.

  4. Adam Greenwood on January 7, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    Well, what if in lieu of reading it I merely add it to my lengthening reading list? In the unlikely event that I actually get around to reading Devlin, maybe I’ll get around to reading Hart.

  5. Jeremiah John on January 7, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    Moral heterogeneity is not new in America or in the West in general, nor is moral decline. Both are two of the biggest stories of the twentieth century. What is relatively new are two very odd notions: that the United States can have a unified, common morality, and that this can be bought with a certain kind of politics, which we must pony up and pay for as the price of a good society.

    As strange as these notions are in themselves, it is especially strange that conservatives are forwarding them. What has prompted them to put on the garb of ‘social engineers’ and the American left rather to tend to rule of law and good stewardship? This is a recent development, but one that speaks to an intellectual dry season for American conservatism.

    Moral systems are complex things. It’s not just a unity of outward behavior, or even of inward dispositions, but a system of social practice wherein the basic assumptions are understood and agreed upon. There is nothing like this in the United States. Look at the abortion debate–pro-lifers go on and on about rights, for the sake of our political culture, but privately have come to the pro-life position on very different moral grounds. For the same reason this debate often seems interminable. On this subject, put MacIntyre’s After Virtue on your reading list.

    Clark: While Americans are indeed unified on ‘values’ or political culture, this is not the same thing as having a unified moral culture. Tocqueville correctly predicted that Americans would all feel the need to agree with the majority, outwardly at least. But the moral language which we use to debate these issues is as disjointed as the world has ever known. Community leaders of civilizations past would probably marvel at how orderly our society is given the moral confusion (the secret is something called liberalism, IMO).

    Most polls about political values ask about policy issues, not moral foundations, mostly because most people inventing polls don’t know anything about how morality works. Beyond the well-known religious/ secular divide, there are many other moral cleavages in our society, for example between utilitarian grounds and rule/ rights/ or other more deontological grounds.

  6. Nate Oman on January 7, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    If we are compiling a relevent reading list, one might also want to include the works of the liberal tradition that MacIntyre and Devlin attack. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice and Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia come to mind…

  7. clark goble on January 7, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    I guess I just don’t understand what you mean by “moral culture” then. It sounds to me like the theoretical foundations for ethics or politics. In that I agree there is diversity. But I’m not convinced there is more of that now than say in the 19th century. I’ve been reading a biography of Ben Franklin and was once again amazed at the *huge* diversity in theory at the time. It seems far greater to me than now.

  8. Adam Greenwood on January 7, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    If your case for an American multi-moral majority is the 20th Century, especially the latter half, I guess I partly agree, Jeremy. I just disagree that the amalgam is stable. Some view or other will prevail. It may be liberalism, as you suggest, with its view that moral views are a sort of distasteful preference, like CSA reenacting, and its insistence on keeping religion from the public square.

    But I do not agree that such a view has already prevailed. It has won notable victories, to be sure, but if the polls are to be believed fighting back on the gay marriage front is still possible. Summon up the blood.

    As for the suggestion that trying to reach ( or defend) a moral consensus, partly through political means, is a sign of intellectual exhaustion, I simply don’t know what to say. I would appreciate some elaboration before I commit myself to an opinion.

  9. Jeremiah John on January 8, 2004 at 1:06 am

    Clark: “Diversity of theory” is nothing new. The Greeks probably had as much or more than we do. But the moral discourse of everyday life is very disjointed. Sure most people say they like God, the Constitution, freedom of speech, etc. But the foundations for these things are very confused. And it’s not a big social divide, either–many people operate on a very confused grab bag of moral concepts. To investigate this issue, one has to go beyond moral philosophy and use a philosophically informed empirical social science.

    The biggest evidence that we have a confused moral culture, a disjointed moral order, is the fact that basically decent people are frequently found to say: “There is no right answer to moral problems”, or to think that “everyone has their own opinion” is supreme foundation of morals. It’s not a quesiton of moral ambiguity–this exists and has existed for most people. But when this ambiguity is viewed as *the* fundamental moral truth, I think this shows we are in disarray.

    Adam: I think that the amalgam is very stable indeed, as long as we live in a society which encourages us or forces us to develop our moral systems privately and away from public view. Liberalism does precisely this. The beauty of it is that liberal culture seems to allow us to be friendly and very sociable with people who we believe are going to hell, and vice versa (to put it crudely). Or at least it works like this for a while.

    On one of your other points: While I may be in favor of some kind of “fighting back” on gay marriage, I don’t know that legislative or judicial remedies will do what we really want. I am not that conservative, but I think it is a great insight of modern conservatism that the main flow of civilized life provides most of the right answers to social problems which may be available to us. As DP Moynihan put (simplistically), conservatives believe that culture determines policy, not vice versa. This is the conservatism of Burke, Chesterton, Russell Kirk and George Will, but unforunately not most of the Christian Right. I don’t fault them too much for being naive–they’ve only been participating in politics for 25 years or so.

    While I don’t recommend giving up, “fighting back” is thus a complicated thing. For one thing, we could begin by trying to distinguish, in the public sphere, the difference between a rational critique of gay marriage, and the violent prejudice than most of the country has rightly rejected. But doing this entails making the critique anew. When reasonable, non-belligerent people can forward a rational critique of gay life, and be listened to by people of typical American sensibilities, then we will have “fought back”.

  10. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 10:18 am

    Totally unrelated note: Was Devlin a Baron? I thought that he was a “Lord” because he eventually became one of the Law Lords in the House of Lords. For the non-law geeks, the English legal system is a bit messy, the Law Lords function much like the Justices of the Supreme Court, but they are formally a standing committee of the House of Lords, which is kind of like the upper house of the legislature (and kind of not). I just wondering if anyone with more knowledge of the intricasies of the British aristocracy than me knows.

    Sorry, just a republican’s (small r) facination with titles…

    BTW, if you want another book for the reading list, check out Devlin’s _Landmarks in the Law_, a fun collection of vinettes about famous English cases. When I was in London last year, I made the required pilgrimage to the Inns of Court, the Royal Courts of Justice, and Fleet Street. Right next to the Royal Courts of Justice, in the basement of the old Bank of England building, there is a truely fabulous legal book shop. FYI.

  11. Brent on January 8, 2004 at 10:20 am

    “When reasonable, non-belligerent people can forward a rational critique of gay life, and be listened to by people of typical American sensibilities, then we will have ‘fought back’”

    This presupposes that the other side will accept even “non-belligerent people” and/or “rational critique.” My experience has been that because the “everyone can come up with their own morality” view is so prevalent, critiquing “gay life” or abortion, or any other “progressive” cause in a non-belligerent manner with rational, well reasoned arguments is often met with anger and intense criticism. In the “gay life” arena many would not even accept the notion that are rational critiques that can be made.

    The root of the problem is the belief that morality is strictly a private affair, that there are no absolute moral principles and that one’s actions, even “private” actions, do not affect society. This is the problem with liberalism. It assumes that each man is an island and can establish moral principles independent of everyone else in society. But that is just it–we live together in society, and one person’s view of morality invariable impacts others. The husband who determines that there is “nothing wrong” with fooling around with the secretary harms his wife, his kids, and contributes to the overall breakdown of marriage as an institution.

    Let me also comment on the political parties. I think Adam is basically correct that there is little difference between the parties, but I woudl suggest that this is only evidenced in governance. The parties differ widely on various issues, and at their fringes they could not be more different. However, our government structure and voting system encourages a two party system. This forces the two parties to have to fight for the middle ground and thus resemble eachother to some extent. Other nations systems encourage multi-party systems. Such parties can then form around much fewer policy positions. Thus, you get what appears to be more diversity. The Democrat and Republican parties, however, are simply large coalitions of smaller political factions, which under a different system would likely be their own parties. I think our system is better, but ideally, in my view, there would be no political parties.

  12. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    I understand what you mean, Jeremiah, about politics not being the answer. Problematically, however, gay marriage is inherently a political question. It is about societal recognition of gay marriage, which in this society is inherently political, and it is about defending ourselves from having gay marriage forced upon us.

    The fact is that this country already has a moral consensus about gay marriage in many respects, and that this moral consensus is being overridden by the elites in the courts. I’ll get out of politics when my enemies do.

  13. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    At, they list his name as Patrick Baron Devlin.

    I don’t know much about titles either, but my impression is that there is no such title as ‘Lord.’ Being a Lord means you have some other title such as ‘Baron’, although if memory serves ‘Baronet’ may not be enough. You may have to be a Baron or and Earl or something like that.

    Take this for what it’s worth. I got most of it from reading Wodehouse.

  14. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    The editor’s of National Review make the same point today.

  15. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2004 at 12:35 pm
  16. Clark Goble on January 8, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    Jerimiah, I guess I fit in with those groups. Indeed while I ascribe to the moral beliefs of the church, I do so out of a more “empirical” basis. I have no clue what makes anything right or wrong. I don’t think there is any way of really discerning it nor most political matters beyond a sort of pragmatic expedience. That’s why I’m so woefully ignorant of political or ethical philosophy. Even my knowledge of aesthetics isn’t as much as it ought to be. (Although I did read up there after hanging out with artists for a few years)

    This isn’t to say that I don’t believe there is some real answer. I just don’t think there is some univocal determinate answer we can know independent of experience. And I definitely reject the views that hold to some universal that is helpful in these regards. I think there some general rules, but once again those are often not true. Further, as I said, I’m not sure one can arrive at such without the spirit beyond simple platitudes or aphorisms that end up contradicting each other.

    I suppose, if I understand you right (and I’m not sure I do) that I see this “confused moral culture” as a good thing. Not necessarily a bad thing.

  17. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2004 at 12:55 pm

    Maggie Gallagher thinks that the new moral consensus validating gay marriage is one that believes in the fungibility of parenting and therefore is indifferent to fathers.

  18. clark goble on January 9, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    Just to add to this old thread (I’m waiting for code)

    The reason I think that this foundational confusion is a good thing is that if everyone agree upon foundations I’d suspect they agreed out of dogmatism rather than seeing some actual reality to which they agree. I recognize some might disagree with this. However if we accept that we know the “good” empirically (out of expedience or from the light of Christ) then there is no way to really agree upon *why* the good is the good. Instead we all see a common value but will explain and describe it differently. When we don’t, then I tend to suspect that the “good” isn’t the good but the result of some imposed system of thought.


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