Personal Integrity and the American Future

We each have a sense of self, an understanding of ourselves in our own minds.  This sense of self is challenged by all the conflicts and incongruities we are forced to contend with as individuals – between freedom and responsibility, the material and the moral, and among all the concerns in our lives.

Consciously or otherwise, each of us adopts a moral / ethical system upon which to base decisions and guide our way in the world.  We can choose religious guidance or a philosophy assumed or devised by ourselves.

This can be highly refined or only rudimentary.  Either way, it is all we have to moderate conflicting interests and desires.

The moral philosopher Mary Midgley describes the problem in an interesting way:

“I am suggesting,” she writes, “…that human freedom centers on being a creature able, in some degree, to act as a whole in dealing with… conflicting desires.  This may sound odd, because freedom sounds like an advantage, and having conflicting desires certainly does not.

“But it is not a new thought that freedom has a cost.  And the conflicting desires themselves are of course not the whole story.  They must belong to a being which in some way owns both of them, is aware of both, and can therefore make some attempt to reconcile them.

“…The endeavor must be to act as a whole, rather than as a peculiar, isolated component coming in to control the rest of the person.  Though it is only an endeavor – though the wholeness is certainly not given ready-made and can never be fully achieved, yet the integrative struggle to heal conflicts and to reach towards this wholeness is surely the core of what we mean by human freedom.”

Whether it is weak or strong, sloppy or consistent, or we even think about it very much, our personal morality serves as the grounding for both our sense of identity and our actions.  It is impossible to function without it.

It is our integrity as “whole persons” that resists the onslaught of disintegrating forces in our lives.

We lose control of our independence when we succumb to the fragmentation imposed by the incoherent impact of advertising and mass media that constantly bombards us.

This is particularly challenging I think for those who choose to disregard the major religious traditions, all of which offer rich and textured guidance.  For the reader who is religiously inclined and grounded in the original texts, the way forward is generally well-lit – at least in principle.

If the reader is not religious, the task will be to ground oneself in common decency, to focus on the highest good, to discipline oneself to abide by an ethical code, and to bring healing and encouragement to those around us.

Let’s be clear: This is very difficult, and especially when we rely solely on our own limited knowledge and perspective.

Each of us is called to participate in the affairs of the community we have chosen as our home, to engage with our neighbors respectfully and to encourage and empower those around us.

Whatever our personal vision or intent, it is important that we think carefully about our means in relation to the ends we wish to seek.  We can only ensure the integrity of our purpose by means that are in harmony with our purpose.

Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “They say ‘means are after all means’.  I would say ‘means are after all everything’.  As the means so the end.”

This assertion was stated somewhat differently, but just as explicitly by the economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek, when he wrote: “The principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.”

These are not theoretical statements.  They express a profound truth.  The integrity of means must always provide the standard of reference in every endeavor.

If each of us holds our personal integrity clearly in focus, attends to moral responsibility, and respects our neighbor as we ourselves would wish to be respected, we should not find ourselves at odds with justice.

In the end, the way we respond to interpersonal differences will determine who we are and the freedom we are capable of fostering.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about June 2.

The Freedom Within

Our freedom to make choices, however limited, gives us the ability to determine who we are.  Without freedom of choice there can be no morality and no capacity for personal integrity.  Yet many of our choices in life restrict later opportunities.

The choice of career, of a love-mate, and the decisions to have a family, to stand by a friend, or to embrace a religious faith, all limit future choices.  And if we are caring human beings, we find our choices further constrained by our sense of responsibility as members of family and community.

Most of us are mature enough to recognize that freedom is impossible if we abandon responsibility.  So, where do we find freedom?  What is freedom, really?

The integrity of political, economic, and religious freedoms should always be a concern, and particularly so in times of crisis.  However, the difficulties confronting the individual are paramount.  We each find ourselves facing our own tests, and each must respond on the basis of our own sense of integrity.

In the blog and forthcoming book I will explore the difficulties we experience when seeking personal integrity in the face of civil disorder or political repression.  In a time of hardship and distrust this is a vital matter.

We could try to walk away from the human crisis, but even then we would be confronted by the immediate necessities of material circumstances.

Any attempt to walk away comes at great cost, limiting our personal opportunity to grow and mature through the challenges and vitality of human relationships.  Indeed, most of us find meaning in our commitments to family and friends.

Whatever our decisions, when we think about what is most important to us – in addition to our loved ones – many of us would place value on self-respect and the freedom “to be ourselves”.  We prefer to explore opportunities for ourselves without interference, to have autonomy in making our own decisions, and to seek goals that we have chosen for ourselves.

Let us reflect then on what freedom means when we seek it as self-possessed individuals, and on the attitude with which we can best respond to the social fragmentation and dysfunction that confront us daily.

It may sound strange at first, but economic hardship and social disruption can actually open the way to personal honor and self-esteem, inviting us to rise to the best that we can be.

Strength of character is not delivered in a recliner.  It is in meeting tests and difficulties that our identity as human beings comes more sharply into focus.

Some of you are not committed to a religious tradition.  But all of us are surely able to understand this reasoning.  The received guidance of religious teachings, while concerned with personal and social development and our need to hold steady in the face of crises, also sets limits to appropriate behavior and constraints on free choice.

I expect those of you who are principled but not religious will, if you value self-respect, find yourselves similarly constrained by ethical principles and your sense of dignity.

Religious or otherwise, I think it fair to say that our responses are influenced by our attitude toward life: our sense of belonging, our capacity to appreciate others, and our efforts to remain balanced and unperturbed amid the confusion and negativity that life often brings our way.

We may care about human suffering; we may wish to avoid negativity and calamity; yet our personal freedom depends upon our ability to think clearly and function effectively when the going gets tough.

This can be a daunting task.

To be free we must seek to be autonomous individuals first, whole and complete in ourselves, and then to actualize our responsibility as caring people in the real world.

We may not like the reality in which we find ourselves.  Indeed, life can sometimes be nightmarish.  But, free will necessitates the commitment to be free in oneself, and to respond actively, morally, rationally.

Tom

Please look for the next post on or about May 19.

First Steps to Self-Reliance

The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history.  The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority.  Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.

It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.

This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.

If we require that elected officials should identify directly with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself.  A democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself, right?

As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.

Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another.  Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.

Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure.  It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.

After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.

“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.

The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power.  As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.

Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.

This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice.  It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.

Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.

Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character.  This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.

To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience.  The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors.  And, this will be hard work.

When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.

Let’s start by doing first things first:

1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.

2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done.  Survival might depend on it.

3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action.  Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.

We should not wait.  All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough.  And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.

It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude.  Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about May 5:  The resilience of inner freedom.

Civil Society and American History

We find ourselves now at a turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present.  Yet, this is an opportunity – a time that calls for clarity of purpose, and for coming to terms with the history that brought us here.

It is not political change that I speak of, but a far more profound transition.  We are confronted with questions of principle, of values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.

Such concerns often come into sharper focus amidst disruption and conflict.

Answers do not come easily, but history leaves silent lessons etched in our national experience.

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We have indulged ourselves increasingly over time in our attraction to meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism – a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson provides a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

In my own words these are: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.  There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.  Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and a sense of community.

Today inaction has replaced action.  A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we recreate what we once did so well?  Shall we rebuild the American spirit and character to meet the challenges ahead?

Tom

A Note to Readers: A project description and a draft introduction to the book can be found on this page.  Please look for the next post on or about March 10.

America: Identity, Direction, Ultimate Purpose

Americans have been watching change accelerate.  These are not normal times.  I have been thinking about what has changed and why.  I’m especially interested in the ways our identity and character as a people have unfolded over time.

Is the change we have been experiencing in recent years all bad?  Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to events that force us to focus our minds and rethink our vision, direction, and values?

The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests character.  While it is natural for values to be influenced by social conditions or challenged by events, it is when we stop paying attention that we are caught by surprise.

Living in a pluralistic society is a challenge and a responsibility.

It is with this concern that I wish to review some historical viewpoints.  I have no intention of passing judgment in this forum.  But, I think it is important to consider how we came to be where we are, and this is one dimension of my forthcoming book.

The American story is one of visionary hopefulness, realized in fits and starts over the course of more than two centuries.  It has been part courageous and inspiring, and in other aspects both baffling and troubling.  It is a work in progress.

Two concerns that I think are pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include our understanding of the vision and principles of the Founders, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who respect that vision.

Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences are concerns of great significance to Americans.

Yet, there has been a clear divergence between the vibrant and spontaneous civic life that characterized much of early American history, and during the same period a record of violence and brutality revealing an arrogance that defied accountability.

Who are we, really?  Who do we want to be?

Anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us.  But, historically the dark side of individualistic egotism has been socially acceptable, even conspicuous, in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians, African-Americans and other minorities.  We have an painful legacy of violence, accentuated by the degradation of slavery, drugs and prostitution.

And, the destruction we are seeing today is very great.  We have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades.

We live in a time of extremes.  Consider: Mass murder and sexual violence are escalating at an appalling rate.  Prior to 1960 mass murder in the United States was rare, with no more than several incidences per decade.  This has changed steadily since then.

In 2015 there were 333 mass shootings in the United States and 13,485 deaths by gunshot, with 697 children and 2,694 teens killed or injured.  In 2016 there were 385 mass shootings and 15,054 deaths by gunshot, with 670 children and 3,114 teens killed or injured. (Source: shootertracker.com)

This is but one example among many of the social degradation and abasement we can see all around us.

The current break down of social order has been complicated process.  The economic abandonment of working Americans and the destruction of the middle class has been taking place over several decades with little notice.  I believe parenting is also a factor.

A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among our political leadership and financial professionals has undermined social and economic stability on a broad scale.  Institutions we have depended upon are facing financial bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.

How is it that we have so completely lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world?

We now find ourselves confronted by the practical consequences of material loss, fear and anger.  Most importantly, we have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose – and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.

The spirit is wounded.

If we wish to regain a civil society in which we join one another to resolve problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences – to face the complex dangers that now confront us.

Tom

Note to readers:  In the coming weeks we will consider implications suggested by our national past through the eyes of historian Niall Ferguson, political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver.  Please look for the next post on or about February 24.

Freedom and Limitation

Questions about the meaning of liberty and freedom have been with us for centuries. Even now, we are confronted by contradictions and constraints.

In the coming months we will ponder the challenges of transcending our limitations – and keeping a positive attitude in difficult circumstances.

As we proceed, I will refer the implications of religious faith to individual judgment. Certainly belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior.  It can also liberate the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.

Here we will focus instead on the spirit of freedom as it can be experienced by thoughtful people of every stripe, religious and non-religious alike, as we engage and prevail over the obstacles and strictures that present themselves in our personal, social, and material lives.

Of particular significance in our present circumstances, our relationship with nature looms large. Many Americans have a great love for the extraordinary beauty of this land.  And, our future depends on it.  This is our home and source of sustenance, yet we sometimes seem to forget our dependence on it.

Two hundred years ago scientists, philosophers, and politicians all expected that nature would ultimately come under human control.  Human beings certainly do have a unique capacity to manipulate nature.  But, as science has begun to understand the complexity of natural systems, it has become clear that the balanced order of nature must be sustained to ensure the survival of life on earth.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding climate change for the moment, the idea that nature has limits when it is sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet.  Now, having recently reached retirement age, I understand the number is seven billion and growing rapidly.  This has taken place in a single lifetime.  My lifetime.

I cannot see how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, can fail to impose a strain on the capacity of nature to provide the clean air and water we all depend on.

I believe this question is worth thinking about.  Yet, any suggestion that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the real world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.

What is this about?

If freedom appears to be threatened by science, this would be no small matter.  And so a disagreement that appeared at first to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason, and dishonor.

Am I wrong to think that this reaction is about more than climate change?  The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself must be under attack.

There are many aspects of our lives that impose on our freedom.  Physical reality is just one.

Today we find ourselves colliding with limitations on many levels, personal, social, economic: the loss of privacy and economic freedom, violence on our streets, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments.

Shall I go on?  It gets to be crazy-making, you know?

Emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who may have effectively driven us off a cliff.  Who is responsible for all this, we ask?  Bankers?  Politicians?  Corporate executives?  Are these not people who are supposed to understand what they are doing?

Whether it is the limits to nature that are in question or a deteriorating social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity are no longer assured.

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

We are confronted by crises that appear to be approaching from every direction.  It is a time for each of us to begin adjusting to new conditions, new questions, and new ways of thinking. We owe it to our children to keep our wits about us.

We are Americans.  We are capable, imaginative, constructive.  Coming to understand freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.

We each have the capacity to think for ourselves.  We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not allow ourselves to be overly influenced by others.

The future and the responsibility are ours to claim.

Tom

Next post: The Loss of Ultimate Purpose

Note to regular readers: I have been rewriting the draft introduction for the book and would appreciate your feedback.  You can find it on this page.  Please watch for the next post on or about January 27.