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.
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.