First Principles

If we wish to live in a just and well-ordered society, we will be concerned with the principles that should govern individual participation and responsibility.  Political philosophy is a paramount concern for many of us, but it is the ethical consensus embodied in human behavior and law that secures order and forms the character of a society.  Freedom and justice are profoundly significant principles in American life, yet with subjective meanings that often go unexamined.  Neither can be understood or sustained without the considered judgment and moral responsibility discussed in Chapter Nine.

In this chapter we will examine the significance of values and ethical principle in the well-being of society.  How can we live with the moral integrity that a civilized order depends upon?  I believe the thoughtful reader will recognize the role of ethics in securing safety and determining fairness, as well as in a personal life well-lived.  However, the issues raised in the details of ethical living are complex and personal.  We cannot afford to engage in serious relationships while unprepared for ethical considerations.

Readers will notice that I use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably.  Many of us attach different meanings to the two words.  Morality is often thought of as embodied in a system and associated with an institution or cultural practice.  Ethics tend to be thought of and rationalized as an individual concern.  In my view, these are the same word represented in two languages, Latin and Greek.  I understand they have their roots in two distinct ancient cultures, and that most of us have customary ways of thinking about them, but in the interest of communicating clearly I have chosen to sidestep systematic formulations.  I am in the practice of referring to the concepts of ‘moral integrity’ and ‘moral responsibility’ as such because they are engaged thoroughly and inextricably with the dynamic order implicit in human relationships.  However, you will generally find me referring to ethics and morality with their meanings provided by the context in which they are used.

Semantics aside, it is in our interest to identify the principles needed to bring us through the long crisis ahead.  The addictive nature of moral degradation is of particular concern, as it impacts both economic stability and social coherence.  We are all challenged personally as social and economic conditions deteriorate.

As the reader is surely now aware, I believe the role of community to be of essential significance in a free society.  I hope the reasons for this were outlined with sufficient clarity in the previous chapter.  In the dark days ahead, community will also become increasingly attractive as the sole source of safety in a disintegrating civil order.  For this reason, the purpose of community—authentic community—is central to the purpose of this book. 

If Americans are to create safe communities in our towns and neighborhoods, we must begin with recognition of the personal integrity upon which community depends.  When I use the word “integrity” to identify the character of our purpose, it is because true community is defined by trust and by the conditions that determine the quality of trust: truthfulness, active dialogue, and moral responsibility.  These are not things that can manifest themselves by way of wishful thinking.  They depend on committed personal intent and active engagement.  They cannot be turned on and off, but are best learned and lived in the context of community.  No authentic community is possible without them.

This may seem idealistic to some and to others simply out of reach.  It is my intention to clarify why we have no choice, and to outline the attitude, practical approach and learned skills this will require.  And, in considering the concept of ethical integrity we are immediately confronted with the problematic attitude toward virtues we experience in today’s world. 

“The word ‘virtue’,” Bernard Williams wrote in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, “has for the most part acquired comic or otherwise undesirable associations, and few now use it except philosophers, but there is no other word that serves as well, and it has to be used in moral philosophy.  One might hope that, with its proper meaning reestablished, it will come back into respectable use.  In that proper use, meaning an ethically admirable disposition of character, it covers a broad class of characteristics, and, as so often in these subjects, the boundary of that class is not sharp and does not need to be made sharp.”[i]

One has to wonder if there is any concern about virtue at all in today’s world.  Why should we be concerned?  The short answer to this question might be to suggest we consider the origins of our present circumstances.  In light of recent history the regeneration of respect for moral values would, I suggest, be the only responsible answer to a nation and society dominated by deception, distrust, and their inevitable consequences.

One might reasonably argue that this is a global problem and not limited to the United States.  As Americans, however, we have particular reason to take notice.  Please bear with me.  Many of you share my view that the future of this American Republic depends, first and foremost, on the bulwark of stability that is the United States Constitution.  The Constitution provides an unparalleled and extraordinarily unrestrictive governing structure.  And, it depends quite literally on the expectations the Founders had of the integrity and character of future Americans.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is not a theoretical interpretation of their motives.  The expectation was expressed with explicit clarity.

“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry – not gentility, but virtue.”  James Madison was explicit: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical [wildly fanciful] idea.”

Patrick Henry was equally forceful: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”  And, in his farewell address George Washington famously said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

These words of wisdom are quoted in Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart“In their various ways”, he comments, “the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”[ii]

These explicit warnings confront us as we lean over the potential abyss of a corrupt and duplicitous future.  Will we stop to consider why the founders knew that liberty depends on virtue, and, indeed, what liberty actually meant to them?

In America accountability falls to ourselves.  And it is here that our discussion of first principles begins.

Living virtuous lives is not simply about loving what is good.  It protects us from violating order in the world of existence.  As I argued in Chapter Nine, this is order that cannot be reinvented or manipulated by human reason.  It is the fundamental order we are given in this world.  The virtues determine the maturity of human character when we are fully engaged with reality.  This is not something that can happen piecemeal.  As reality is essentially coherent and unified, so also the virtues are mutually dependent and inseparable. The practicality of this truth was articulated by Augustine nearly 1600 years ago.  And, like all immutable truth, it will not change in the future.[iii]

Personal accountability can be practiced in any relationship, yet it is only in the context of community that accountability can be fully tested over time.  It is here that the integrity of trustworthy relationships cannot be manipulated or escaped.  Truthfulness and dependability are immediately recognized in the sustained interpersonal engagement that make authentic community what it is.  Accountability is also important in the workplace, but there we often have room to stretch the truth or to seek personal advantage.  In community there is far less “wiggle-room” than in most organizations or places of employment, and no escape from the integrity expected of intimate, interdependent relationships.   Honest relationships can be hard work, but when the going gets tough relationships count.

I don’t just mean engaging with our next-door neighbors, as important as this is.  If we find ourselves under threat, directly or indirectly, the last thing we need are neighbors down the road or over the hill who are an unknown quantity.  And, we are not simply concerned about making acquaintances here.  This is not about borrowing a cup of sugar over the back fence.  To make our communities safe and to rebuild the nation we need dependability. And that means trust.

Building trust is not something that Americans know much about.  Many of us do not live or work in circumstances where it is a comprehensive concern.  I must remind you, however, that social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust. Without this assurance, liberty and justice will remain elusive and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.  Trust is the substance of integrity.  It is essential for building a future we can believe in.

It is not hard to see that the virtues identified by the American Founders are a necessary prerequisite to trust.  Without truthfulness and dependability trust is inconceivable—in our families, communities, or workplaces.  Without these essential virtues, values are meaningless.

Freedom’s Virtue

While the virtues emphasized by the American Founders can easily be recognized as essential in a free society, there is a special value in which all are joined and knit together.  This is the concept of responsibility.  The close relationship between freedom and responsibility has often been noted, but rarely discussed.  In fact, responsibility can be understood in two ways.  In law, as in the social sciences, responsibility usually concerns the perceived credit or blame to be placed on persons or institutions for something that has happened.  However, the responsibility required by the concept of freedom involves the future rather than the past.  In relation to freedom, civil order and social justice, we have responsibility for doing something.  One dictionary defines this responsibility as “a moral duty to behave in a particular way.”[iv]  And, it is this responsibility that determines the life we wish to live and seeks to create the kind of society we wish to live in.

Responsibility becomes a virtue when it takes form in the constructive action of the individual.  To be realized in action, responsibility requires knowledge, awareness, and a readiness to respond.  It might be helpful, then, to understand responsibility as a compound word: “response-ability”. 

Most of us understand what responsibility means in our personal lives, whether or not we make it real.  And, most Americans know that freedom cannot exist without responsibility.  But what does this mean for us—ultimately?  Nothing will change while we wait for other people to accept responsibility for something—anything.  Responsibility is personal and self-defining.  A “readiness to respond” is the commitment and ability to take initiative.  And so I call it “freedom’s virtue”.

However, taking responsibility for freedom is not as simple as it might seem.  There are two primary reasons for this.  First, our ability to recognize accurately the full reality of our circumstances will always be limited by our perceptions of both current and historical context.  Have we, for example, accepted responsibility for our own independent investigation of truth? How accurate are our perceptions, and how did things come to be as they are?  How are other people influencing our perceptions, and can we trust the truthfulness and motives of those sources?  How might our actions impact the needs or interests of other people—which is to say, innocent bystanders?  Responsibility for freedom is about far more than a single, ultimate goal.  Indeed, we are responsible for managing the means for creating it.  It is the means employed, the character of constructive action and the qualities of attitude and spirit that determine outcomes.

In Chapter Nine we considered the discipline required as we navigate the subtle boundaries of freedom and responsibility.  This is not easy.  The ethical questions and complexities we face when engaging with today’s world cannot be exaggerated.  It is for this reason that living in a trustworthy community, where constructive dialogue is supportive and respectful, is so very important.  To avoid the dangers of ‘group-think’, we need to open ourselves to ideas and perspectives that differ from our own.  It is by means of varied inputs that we allow ourselves the good judgment we are capable of.

The Foundations of Community

If we seek a free society and a civilized future, it is in our interests as citizens to create the kind of environment where honest dialogue and trustworthy order can be encouraged and brought forth.  Values are invariably plural.  We must find the courage to negotiate acceptable—and responsible—working relationships.  It will be necessary for each local community to negotiate an agreeable system of ethical principles and behavioral expectations that support a safe, positive environment.  Yes, we are talking about consensual rules here.  This cannot be created overnight; but it must be initiated purposefully and sustained as a gradually maturing system acceptable to everyone.  Communities need to “own” these agreements; they cannot be imposed from outside or adapted from a book.

Negotiating this will be neither quick nor simple.  But it can be advanced in small steps when we are committed to building trust and laying a just foundation.  Where do we start?  We must be realistic: Agreement on a commonly accepted catalog of virtues in a world where generally accepted rules of behavior have ceased to exist, will not be possible.  Cultural integrity has degraded to the point where every tradition has collapsed and fragmented.  Needless to say, things have not always been this way.  The philosophical heritage of the western tradition in which the United States was founded, was influenced by two intertwined forces: the Greek philosophy of antiquity, especially that of Aristotle, and by the Christian tradition grounded in the theology of Augustine and Aquinas. This heritage came unglued during the intellectual ferment of the European Enlightenment—and what followed.

In stark contrast to the Greek view, Alasdair MacIntyre has observed, our lives are dominated today by an intransigent egoist attitude. He writes: “For what [an Aristotelian] education in the virtues teaches me is that my good as a man is one and the same as the good for those others with whom I am bound up in human community. There is no way of my pursuing my good which is necessarily antagonistic to you pursuing yours because the good is neither mine peculiarly nor yours peculiarly—goods are not private property.  Hence Aristotle’s definition of friendship, the fundamental form of human relationship, is in terms of shared goods.  The egoist is thus, in the ancient and medieval world, always someone who has made a fundamental mistake about where his own good lies and someone who has thus and to that extent excluded himself from human relationships.”[v]

Unfortunately, we have strayed far from this ideal.  By the 18th century, Enlightenment thinking assumed that each individual by nature seeks satisfaction of his or her own desires alone.  Consequently, we have inherited an ever-deepening fragmentation.  When egoistic motivations dominate in society, MacIntyre comments, “there are at least strong reasons for supposing that a mutually destructive anarchy will ensue, unless desires are limited by a more intelligent version of egoism.”[vi]

What is to be done?

A constructive attitude understands the need to be realistic.  It is my position that we can best pursue our own interests with an orientation focused on common felt-needs, including, for example, such things as neighborhood safety, clean water, and food security.  The extremes of approaching crises will threaten basic security and possibly threaten physical survival.  This will open the minds of most people to rethink their interests and priorities.  It will create opportunities to examine our assumptions about other people and clear our thinking about practical cooperation.  This will, in turn, encourage the shedding of habitual perceptions in favor of a truth we can only experience in active working relationships.

While the expectations of the American Founders send us a principled warning, the reality we face in America today is vastly more complex and fraught with anxiety than earlier generations could have imagined.   However, the challenges that confront us today invite mature thinking and a responsible attitude.  Morality and order are not the products of abstract rules.  They must be appropriate, practical, and fully understood.  Likewise, values cannot be exemplified by society as a whole, except to the extent communities and institutions reflect the implicit standards of moral integrity embodied in the expectations of citizens.  Values live and mature in the human heart.  Moral integrity requires personal judgment, commitment and responsibility.

How does this happen in a civilized society?  The answer is not mysterious.  Active working relationships create mutual bonds and encourage commitment to principles that support individual interests.  Fellowship among fully engaged people leads to such understanding and communication as is needed to promote comfort and the maintenance of order.  In the next chapter I will address the nature of authentic interpersonal relationships in more detail, but here we will focus on value pluralism and virtue ethics, which must be integrated in a satisfactory manner of a community is to create its own moral order.

A coherent social order is found where there is a commitment to ethical precepts in which action is its own reward.  When we are living in authentic community, endeavoring to ensure safety and to meet local needs in a dangerous world, this will matter.  It will be necessary to manage our differences with patient equanimity.  While perhaps avoiding insistence on too rigid a list of strict moral values, we are never-the-less challenged to facilitate comfortable working relationships and avoid interpersonal offense.  Understanding and mutual acceptance will need to gradually mature.  This means respecting the values and moral sensibilities of our neighbors, which, in turn, requires open and honest communication—and a generous attitude. 

Navigating Value Pluralism

“The view that there exist objective moral or social values, eternal and universal, untouched by historical change, and accessible to the mind of any rational man if only he chooses to direct his gaze at them, is,” in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “open to every sort of question.  Yet the possibility of understanding men in one’s own or any other time, indeed of communication between human beings, depends upon the existence of some common values, and not on a common ‘factual’ world alone.  The latter is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of social intercourse.  Those who are out of touch with the external world are described as abnormal or, in extreme cases, insane.  But so also—and this is the point—are those who wander too far from the common public world of values.”[vii]

Needless to say, finding an acceptable common ground will be essential for every community.  Values determine how people relate to each other.  Values take form in ethical principles or assumptions that can sometimes be so ingrained in personality that we don’t think much about them.  It may not be apparent that we live in a world where value pluralism is an inevitable reality.  None of us share one another’s values fully, and often we fail to realize this.  Values support belief systems and our way of understanding the world, and they can easily come into conflict, even within families or close friendships.  In fact, it is quite possible for two of our own personal values to conflict with each other.  These are among the ethical dilemmas that force us to think, grow and mature as individuals.  And, this is another reason why open communication will always be important. 

Normally, values provide guidance and stability, and a lens through which we understand our place in the world.  They are not free-floating, self-generating illusions.  Values gain reality only in being actively lived.  And human beings can only live, grow, and be creative in relationships with other human beings.  Surely, wisdom suggests we allow one another the freedom to live and work with values that differ from our own.  And just as surely, we would do well to avoid inflicting our values on one another.  To seek common ground is first to grant one another acceptance as autonomous, self-governing individuals.

In a future where most of us are empowered and productive, we will have learned to accept and benefit from a natural diversity of values.  Such differences might appear minor, but the contribution of diverse perspectives is essential in maximizing the effectiveness of problem-solving (see Chapter 3, Finding Our Strength).  However, most of us have little or no experience in which the diversity of values is recognized or appreciated.  With the world in crisis, we are now experiencing social and economic dislocation and anxiety in which personal values can be challenged and assumptions disrupted.

Our circumstances, our society, our ways of engaging with other people, have all been changing rapidly.  For nearly two centuries our friends, our interests, our way of thinking, were determined to a significant extent by our ethnicity (race) or our financial means or nature of employment.  We understood and felt most at home with those we worked with.  Society has been organized along the lines of what came to be known as “the division of labor”, which influenced social consciousness and perspective perhaps more than many Americans realized.  This consciousness has been breaking down for quite some time, exacerbated by the domination of major corporations, the incoherence of mass media, and the rapidly growing number of citizens with a secondary or post-secondary education.  The fragmentation first felt by earlier generations is now clearly apparent in the alienation and defensiveness felt by groups that perceive themselves as abandoned or left behind.

When massive numbers of jobs suddenly vanished overseas, the sudden destruction of the manufacturing economy dropped millions of stunned Americans unceremoniously from the middle class.  Large numbers of Americans have found themselves dislocated or set-apart by numerous practical disparities.  Large numbers feel left behind, alienated, defensive and suspicious. 

Whatever the details of personal politics and perceptions, a substantial portion of the American people are quite aware of the destruction brought to their lives by a financial elite that knowingly abandoned them.  They are equally aware—every day—of the degraded emptiness of low-paying and meaningless jobs bequeathed upon them by economic myopia.  It is a crisis that promises to spread and deepen with the ascendancy of automation and robotics in the coming decades. 

Another factor should not be ignored.  Millions of lives have been effectively dominated by social isolation since the advent of television.  It did not begin with a pandemic in 2020.  Several generations of Americans had been spending long hours in front of the television every day.  Social media added a rudimentary interactive element, but also the opportunity for manipulation and dishonesty.  We need to understand how we are seduced by such influences when we feel depressed or degraded.  But, let’s be perfectly clear:  As a way of life this is mentally, culturally, and morally deadening.  And, we are doing it to ourselves.

This is what we are living with today, and a reality in which authentic community must be created.  How will we remake and rebuild productive lives, economically and otherwise, where there are deeply felt grievances and severely limited horizons?  How can we build truly sensitive and supportive relationships to create productive communities?  We are unique individuals with differing views, personalities, experience, and wishes.  Recognizing inevitable differences and feelings of inadequacy, we will have to engage in a learning process with curiosity, sensitivity, and, most of all, courage.

A Foundation of Truthfulness

Which values and virtues need we agree on?  Human beings have never agreed on a common catalog of essential virtues.  These underpinnings of social integrity have differed among cultures, faith traditions, and periods of history.  So, the question of what matters today is a significant one.  If we are to construct a stable, prosperous, and self-respecting future—what will we need to agree on?  This is your call, but I will offer my recommendations here.

First and foremost, I believe it self-evident that all ethical values depend on truthfulness.  This is the foundation of all other virtues.  Without truthfulness there can be no assurance, no dependability, no trust.

I submit further that we accept the values and virtues identified by the Founders, as reported above.  And I propose that the following be accepted as non-negotiable:  Truthfulness, trustworthiness, dependability, fairness, patience, tolerance, public decency, and respect for personal dignity, privacy, and the inviolable integrity of marital unions.

None of us will ever be perfect, and yet all these depend on relative consistency.  Unfortunately, consistency can sometimes be influenced by circumstances that are beyond our control.  Which is one of the reasons why flexibility, forgiveness, and dialogue are important.

What is the bottom line?  Virtues reflect the nature and structure of justice.  And justice, as defined in Chapter Nine, is the ground in which all virtues are rooted.  Communities may choose to add others if they can meet this test.

General recognition that moral responsibility and a just ethical order are the primary requirements of a free and civilized future, will ultimately determine whether there is hope for the United States and, indeed, for human civilization.  The details will mature gradually, but this truth must be recognized in principle—and it is the first order of business.  There is no alternative.

All forms of corruption lead to disintegration and decay, in nature, in societies, and in the human soul.  This truth has been recognized and taught by wisdom traditions for thousands of years.  It can also be recognized naturally, intuitively, if we clear our minds of the claptrap and illusory assumptions that a materialist, self-centered culture has filled them with.

Many of us will encounter resistance in ourselves as we endeavor to define, understand, and apply specific virtues in practical life.  This is natural and to be expected.  It implies no fault on the part of anyone.  And yet, each of us is responsible for moving beyond the discomfort—rationally, intelligently.  The distinction between knowledge and belief is often unclear.  We each have to work these things out.  What is important is that we consciously seek to develop those qualities of character we wish to assimilate and internalize.  This cannot happen in isolation, as I have said.  It is only with active interpersonal engagement that understanding can grow and self-discipline be applied.  We depend on feedback from our friends and the community around us.  And we must make every effort to be gentle with one another as we learn these challenging lessons.

Americans are taking on a monumental task.  And as responsible adults we cannot afford to delay.  Integrity is as important today as it is for the future.  It is fundamental to the well-being of our families, of our communities and of the world.

I have left politicized issues off the table because Americans will necessarily, in the end, resolve issues with compassion and commit to a future we can believe in. Throughout human history community has been the foundation of civil order, an institution that overcomes crises and transcends politics—the means for security and well-being throughout centuries of crises, cataclysms and suffering.  Whatever the causes of destruction, we can always turn to community by learning the necessary skills and determining to make it work.  If we need to begin again, let it be from a position of strength in local trustworthiness and self-sufficiency.

Building strength for America will not be possible with half-hearted effort or conflicted emotions.  Nor will it find success with abandoned values and compromised virtues.

Once we accept the idea that local community can be the foundation of civilized future, that it provides the necessary basis for civil order and moral integrity, we will gradually come to understand the principles, responsibilities, and steadfast patience, this requires.  To seek a door in every wall—with creative vision, determination, and unity in constructive action—all this is integral to the American idea.

Knowing that we have responsibility for the consequences of our actions,” writes Charles Murray, “is a major part of what makes life worth living.”[viii]

[i]     Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Harvard Univ. Press (1985), p. 9.

[ii]    Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum, Random House (2012), pp. 132-133.

[iii]   See Étienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, Random House (1960), Cluny Media edition (2020), pp. 193-194.

[iv]   Macmillan Dictionary Online, Macmillan Education Limited (2009–2021).

[v]    Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (3rd edition), Univ. of Notre Dame Press (1981, 2007), p. 229.

[vi]    Ibid.

[vii]   Isaiah Berlin, Liberty: Four Essays (Introduction), Oxford Univ. Press (1969), p. 24.

[viii]   Charles Murray, op. cit., p. 285.