Freedom and the Sources of Individuality

Personal autonomy is a precious thing.  How can we broaden and enrich this freedom?  Is it simply allowed, or constrained, by the society we live in?  Or does it rather depend on our mental attitude—and what we make of it? What translates independence and autonomy into character and purpose?

This can be a penetrating and thought-provoking question.  And the answer might be influenced by things we sometimes fail to consider—our family, our community, and our cultural heritage.

We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed and in control.  But there can be unrecognized influences at work in ourselves which have their origins in personal experience or cultural roots.

Ignoring this possibility does not make them go away.

I am interested in exploring this question as a white American because that’s what I am, and because of my roots.  The European heritage of white Americans is, for better or worse, the founding heritage of the United States.

And, yes, the question does draw us into complicated territory.  Certainly, the ethnic differences in the United States raise interesting questions.

It is apparent, for example, that indigenous American Indian and African-American cultures are far more community-based than is the dominant white American culture. Could it be they are closer to their historical indigenous roots than are white folk?

And we should remind ourselves that the breakdown of the institutions of family and community—fragmented by modernity—has had profound consequences across every cultural divide.

I want to explore another influence here, however: the cultural history of the European peoples who colonized and founded the United States.

The influence of this extraordinary past remains hidden in almost everything about America, and it colors the experience of every citizen. Understanding where America came from can reveal much about where we now find ourselves.

So, why are white Americans so concerned about freedom, rights, and autonomy?  These ideas do have a history.

Thinking people first began to question the institutional dogmas and restrictiveness of medieval European culture in the 15th century. The emergence of self-conscious individuality gradually freed human initiative and creativity from stifling constraints and overbearing conformity.

The realization of individuality led to growing resistance to the rigid fettering of patriarchal families, religious dogmatism, and the social and economic control of trade guilds. It also led to a lessening of family coherence and the weakening of community roots.  And this isolation from the social foundations of association and identity had consequences.

The shift away from family and community was slow at first.  But it intensified greatly with the industrial revolution and in the formless uniformity of mass society.

Why should this matter to us now? The slow fragmentation of family and community life has dominated American history. 

This is our story.  What shall we make of it? Freedom is not found in a wasteland.  Autonomy is meaningless in a vacuum.

Individuality and identity are grounded in context.  They take shape in childhood and early adulthood. They develop in a supportive environment—and with the diverse associative opportunities that are only available in functional communities.

We are human, intelligent and multi-dimensional.  And we need roots.

The destruction of authentic community by mass society, and the disintegration of family life that inevitably followed, disrupted the natural processes for developing identity and personhood.

This is among the heaviest burdens inflicted by modernity. But nothing forces us to accept it. Creating authentic communities will not be easy, but Americans are fully capable of learning how to do this.

First must come recognition that freedom depends on responsibility.

Second, we must understand that safety and dependability require trust—the gist of constructive working relationships.

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” Robert Nisbet wrote, “from the phenomena of individual insecurity… is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”

“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about November 22.

Dear readers:  An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage.  Please note “The Individual and Society”, which addresses the ideas introduced in this post.

Personal Integrity, Freedom of Thought

Most of us would consider any threat to our expression of opinion or belief to be a threat to our personal integrity.  Freedom of thought is a hallmark of the “American idea”.  We think of it as being fundamental to a free society.  However, the freedom and integrity with which we live our lives depends on accurate information.  And, the unconscious assumptions we make about other people can be especially problematic.

In a complex world, unconscious assumptions can have a lot more to do with freedom and integrity than we might think.  Our ability to engage effectively and safely with real people in the real world, both friend and foe, depends on accuracy.

Our assumptions are uninvestigated beliefs that may or may not be true.  My suggestion here is that unexamined assumptions can limit our knowledge of the reality we are dealing with, and thus the effectiveness of our actions. 

Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information.  Truthfulness becomes immaterial, and personal autonomy unachievable. And so I ask you: If we have not investigated and fully understood opposing points of view, how can we engage with and influence others?  How can we challenge their assumptions?

Do we think we can live with integrity isolated in a vacuum?

I do not suggest that agreement is necessary.  In fact. this will often be impossible.  But untested assumptions are plainly dangerous. Questions of judgment often involve complex circumstances and depend on information coming from multiple sources.

Sometimes complexity can be aggravating.  But, if we value the integrity of our beliefs and our role in the world, there is no alternative to pursuing accuracy.  After all, our personal views reflect our self-confidence as decent and intelligent people.

Problems often catch us by surprise as a consequence of assumptions we did not realize we were making.  This can happen in the workplace or the home, and with careless inattention to relationships. We have long accepted the assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature must submit to human control.

Today we face a multitude of interrelated crises that call many of our assumptions into question.  Social and economic disarray, the absence of civility, and a stifling inability to engage in dialog, leave us enmeshed in frustration.

These are challenging circumstances.  America needs us each to step forward.  I don’t believe we have a choice. The lessons of civility, trustworthiness and cooperative problem-solving may have to be learned by force of necessity.  Personal safety and survival might depend on them.

Teaming up with neighbors to meet shared needs will not be easy.  We will need diversity to confront unexpected needs.  This will require courage and initiative.

Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it lubricates and sustains working relationships.  The road to trust is paved with experience, not promises.  Dependability is lived and proved in relationships.

There will always be differences in our values.  Human beings have never agreed on values.

Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others might challenge our patience, but need not threaten trust.

Having dependable neighbors comes with genuine understanding, but we should not abandon the values that give us our identity.

I believe we will find more agreement than we expect, especially in the most important aspects of our common humanity.  But we cannot delay.

Each of us carries a personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole—as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about June 7.

Getting Real About Problem-solving

The commitment of politicians and others to the integrity of the United States Constitution has been questioned in recent years.  This is a serious concern.  Those who understand the significance of the Constitution will be concerned about the means for defending it.

This is an emotional issue for many Americans, and the recent proliferation of armed citizen militias across the country has drawn attention to it.

It makes sense to think practically about how to ensure the integrity of the Constitution.

[This post has been updated and re-published due to the timeliness of the topic.]

Here we have a question of means and ends.  Destructive forcefulness will easily cause precisely the opposite of its’ intended purpose.

It was Hayek who said, “the principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

In my view, Harry Emerson Fosdick stated this truth most clearly: “He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

Ayn Rand drove the point home emphatically in her own indomitable style: “An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”

Americans can understand this logic.  In the midst of conflict nothing is more important than a clear mind.  Yet, we human beings are emotional creatures, and the less disciplined have always been capable of emotion-driven violence.

So, let’s take a look at the way incivility and antagonism—and especially the threat of violence—will actually subvert our own interests and intentions.  I will suggest four reasons here, as follows.

First, force—or the threat of force—subverts the Constitution itself, immediately destroying its’ capacity to function as written and effectively nullifying its existence.

The Founders created a structure for governance that depends on civility, moral responsibility, and collaboration.  The Founders expected Americans to behave with ethical integrity in the service of their country, and several of them stated this expectation emphatically.

Second, hostile action by a few individuals would make it difficult, even impossible, for rational and disciplined strategies to be mounted effectively.  It could actually set back the cause of the perpetrators themselves—for years, even decades.

Why?  The use of force would harden the attitudes of most Americans toward the perceived purpose or philosophy of the instigators.  This would make it difficult to win a fair hearing from anyone who respects the rule of law.

Third, any rebellion by force of arms pits itself against the uniformed services—law-enforcement agencies and the National Guard.  These are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and sworn defenders of the Constitution.

Individual members of militias need to understand who exactly they intend to fight, and who they wish to attract and win over to their cause.

Fourth, the vast majority of Americans value the character of the United States deeply. They recognize the essential role of the Constitution in making America a safe, productive, and meaningful country to live in.

If we wish Americans to have a better understanding of how the Constitutional structure of governance should function, it will not be accomplished by beating them up.

Influencing hearts and minds requires the rational exchange of information—accurate information.  This means teaching our values, demonstrating basic virtues in our actions, and learning how to communicate effectively.

Not only do we depend on civil order for the safety of our families, for safe streets, jobs, schools and hospitals, but there is a fundamental principle involved: We cannot defend what we believe in by tearing it down.

To preserve the Constitution and renew the strength of the United States we will need to address our countrymen with clear reasoning presented compellingly, and in a composed and rational manner.

The Constitution will last far into the future if, and only if, Americans stand by it with steadfast adherence to the rule of law, and to the values (and virtues) the Founders expected of us.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about March 16.

Liberty and the Foundations of Order

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in a legislative order, the protections it provides, and the power to seek constructive change.

These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and a rational space to forge the future.

I have shared my observations with you concerning the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The Founders made conscious assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In past posts I have shared the words of several of the Founders, which are quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

Patrick Henry was insistent: “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, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

“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…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

The Founders had good reason to think in this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation.

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes.  But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But they are not instilled in us by nature.

Character is not formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging directly and meaningfully with family and community—people who need to depend on us.

Personal values can either mature or be degraded through interpersonal relationships.  It is here that we experience the necessity for trust—for truthfulness, dependability, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life quickly becomes intolerable, and security is beyond reach.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take time and patience, discipline and determination.

This begins with ourselves, and so also does our own self-respect.

We may not agree with the beliefs or behaviors of other people, but without truthfulness and a readiness to engage honestly and respectfully, we are lost.

Engaging with differences is not easy, especially in an age of extreme distrust.  We must counter destructiveness with integrity and moral responsibility, yet always with emotional restraint.

True liberty rests firmly on human dignity and respect for others.  Where these are not found, depravity flourishes and the mischief-maker is free to roam.

Tom

Note to readers: Please assist me with your comments; I value your feedback!  You may watch for the next post on or about February 2.

Dignity, Self-respect, and Ugliness

Public corruption and transparent dishonesty are very discouraging.  And when public discourse descends into ever more rancor and bitterness, it attests to deepening disarray.

As individuals we can choose not to live this way.  What can we do?  When useful debate has ceased, and purposeful dialog has degenerated into extremes of invective, ridicule, and slander—what are our options?

Personal dignity and self-respect depend on our values and our attitude.  And these only become real when translated into action.  Words are not enough.

Divisiveness reflects entrenched partisan views, but mean-spirited ugliness is degrading and accomplishes nothing.  Do we somehow imagine that such behavior supports our beliefs or advances our interests?

It is extraordinary that so much of this ugliness is unabashed and occurs in full view of the world.  Americans have always been a contentious people, but self-respect and a self-conscious sense of our national character have tended to constrain shameful extremes.

Given the unparalleled ease with which citizens can now participate in public debate, unthinking acts and lapses of judgement are made far easier and their consequences more enduring.

How does this reflect on us as Americans?  Who do we wish to be?  Where is the concern for self-respect and integrity that once mattered?  Are we no longer a society with values?

Morality and the ethics of responsibility are closely related to values.  And values are closely related to virtues.  Virtues?

Does anyone care about values and virtues in today’s world?

Let’s get real!  Truthfulness, dependability, trustworthiness—these are virtues that a civilized society depends upon.  They are the living substance of human values.

One way to think about these questions is to consider the value we place on the ends we seek.  What do we wish for in our future?  The ends we seek can only be reached by means that actually get us where we want to go.

As the means so the end.

In the present circumstances the future has become a vital concern for everyone.  Reason and conscience can only guide us to safety if we adhere to truthfulness.

Today in the United States ethics and values involve far more than a concern for ones’ self-image.  And, most Americans will never accept a moral system imposed from outside.

Rather, we are concerned here with something that is of vital importance to the future of our country.  Social order and trustworthy relationships are not only crucial for our personal lives, but for the security and well-being of the nation.

Developing personal virtues is not easy.  Consistent self-examination requires determination and acceptance of life’s tests.  But, without essential virtues there can be no values, either in our lives or in a future we can believe in.

In my view, the most fundamental of virtues is truthfulness.  All other virtues follow from truthfulness—honesty, reliability, credibility, trustworthiness.  These form the foundations of civilized life.

As I have noted previously, it will only be in community that we have the opportunity and freedom to live and learn civilized values, to build trust, and to experience the richness of genuine relationships.

This can’t wait.  We all have neighbors.  It is time to act.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people (August 23 post).  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot share our experience and offer guidance patiently, and if we fail to believe in the potential for people to change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Making this work will depend, ultimately, on firm values and self-confident generosity.  Of all people, Americans should know the importance of this.

I have argued that diversity of experience and perspective, knowledge and skills will facilitate physical survival.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom.

You may watch for the next post on or about October 7.

Note to new readers:  An introduction to the coming book and several chapters in draft are linked at the top of the homepage.

Integrity or Degradation: The Choice is Ours

We stand at a critical point in American history.  Our thinking, attitudes, and quarrels have collided with hard realities in the 21st century.  A multi-generational record of short-sightedness, ineptitude and irresponsibility, tells us of deepening societal degeneration at every level, social, economic, political.

Self-respect cannot wait for things to change that we have no control over.  We are each capable of responding to the world around us with dignity and creativity, and we must.

For this reason, I have proposed a challenging strategy for your consideration.  And it is an extremely difficult proposition.

Unfortunately, I do not believe we have a choice.

The wide-ranging needs we have as Americans—for resolving shared problems, for meeting local needs, for envisioning a decent future—all depend on a willingness to create genuine community.

Why is this?

If we are to reverse the slide toward chaos, we must first acknowledge a core responsibility upon which everything depends.  This is the imperative that we build and protect trust.

True community exemplifies the need for trust.  All constructive relationships depend on trust.

Social stability, justice, and effective governance all depend on trust.

Without the assurance of trust, liberty and justice will remain elusive, and the fabric of this nation will continue to disintegrate.

The integrity of trustworthiness will be essential for building a future we can believe in.

The American founders warned that this could be a problem. (See previous post, August 23).

Patrick Henry was among several quoted by Charles Murray in his important book, “Coming Apart”:  “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.”

“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…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

Clearly there can be no integrity where neither citizens or civil servants care for trustworthiness.

And, here we are today.

The strategy proposed here rests on the principle that trust can only be learned and lived in the active relationships of genuine community.

Community—true community—disciplines us to develop trustworthiness and dependability by necessity.  Human beings cannot gain virtues in a vacuum.  This can only be acquired in personal relationships—where dependability matters and each can see the integrity of the other.

And, there are additional reasons why a free society depends on community.  We can investigate these going forward.  We depend on community for much more than physical survival in a crisis.

Community is the seat of civilization.  It is the basic unit comprising human societies, the structure in which justice, social order, and cultural identity are grounded.

It is in family and community that the individual learns values, finds equilibrium, and gains a sense of belonging.  Community encourages members to express their unique identity, character, and creativity.

So it is that community, when endowed with the full engagement of its’ citizens, becomes the substructure for freedom and security.  No other institution is capable of serving this purpose.

Among the historic roles of community is to anchor the diversity of institutions, associations, and organized functions that we call civil society.

Why is this so important?

Without diverse opportunities and choices for meaningful involvement, the individual becomes disengaged and disoriented, set adrift, vulnerable to dishonest, despotic and predatory influences.

The absence of such mediating institutions thrusts the individual into a vulnerable reliance on an increasingly pervasive and autocratic central government.

Finally, in closing, (and as I said to you on July 26), please remember that integrity is the highest attainable value—a quality of moral soundness.  Trustworthiness is the substance of that value, and responsibility provides the constructive action with which we make it so.

This can only be learned as we mature in real human relationships, working to find safety and to build the future.

There is no middle ground.  Either integrity and responsibility are wholly present or they are compromised.  Without them no civilization is possible.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 22.

Note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft are linked at the top of the homepage.

If We Are to Remain Free

The United States Constitution is a legal document.  It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

It is important that we understand this because the Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is made real in a legislative order and in the protections it provides.

These are among the essential elements of a society that provides both stability and the creative space to forge a future.

I have been sharing my observations with you about the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.

The authors of the Constitution made deliberate assumptions about the character of the American people.  Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.

This is made clear in the Constitution itself.

In the previous post I shared views from several of the Founders quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”.  I will repeat two of them here:

Patrick Henry was insistent: “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, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

“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…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”

How do we feel about this idea?  It’s a little scary, wouldn’t you say?

There were reasons why the Founders thought this way.  A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation. 

“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.

“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”

Virtues are the substance of good character.  But this is not instilled in us by nature.

Good character cannot be formed in a vacuum.  We learn what matters in life by engaging meaningfully with other people.  Personal character matures by means of relationship.

Regular readers will not be surprised when I suggest that virtues can only be lived and learned in community—where constructive relationships call for trust and dependability.

In genuine community we experience the necessity for trust every day—for truthfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility.

Without such virtues, life in human society is intolerable and security is out of reach.

Need I say more?  Just look around you.

How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us?  Well, breaking down barriers will take honest determination.

Living in community requires certain virtues.  Adjusting to such disciplined conditions will take time, but the necessity must be confronted openly.

Dialog is the essence of genuine relationship.  Developing character starts here.

Without give-and-take a relationship does not exist and problem-solving is impossible.

We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people.  But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost.  This is how people change and grow.

If we cannot offer guidance patiently and believe in the potential for change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.

Our differences support problem-solving.  Diversity brings experience and perspective, knowledge and skills.

We need these things.  They are the instruments of safety and order.

However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things.  Ugliness exhausts and debilitates.  Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about September 8.