The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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If the individual requires "remoralization," so does the state. It is often said that one cannot legislate morality. Yet we have done just that. Civil rights legislation has succeeded in illegitimizing racist conduct, morally as well as legally. Or a welfare system that subsidizes illegitimacy implicitly legitimizes it. Or a school that distributes condoms legitimizes promiscuity. Or a "no fault" divorce code, by de-stigmatizing divorce, legitimizes it. Or a court decision that disallows the posting of the Ten Commandments in a public school or prayer on a public occasion illegitimizes the public expression of religious beliefs and sentiments.

For good or bad, the state is as much the repository and transmitter of values as are the institutions of civil society. Legislation, judicial decisions, administrative regulations, educational requirements, the tax codes are all instruments of legitimization -- or illegitimization. The appeal to civil society is a salutary corrective to big government, but should not be taken as an invitation to demean government itself. Especially at this time, when so many traditional institutions are being undermined, we should be wary of the subversion of our political institutions. Moreover, it is just now that we have need of all the resources available to us -- public and private, secular and religious, governmental and civic. Edmund Burke's "little platoons" has become the slogan of civil society. But Burke also paid tribute to the state as "a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection." We often have good reason to deplore that partnership, but we cannot deny it or ignore it.

By all means, then, let us restore and reform civil society. But let it be a tougher civil society than that envisaged by many who speak in its name. The recent debate on welfare, suggesting that private charities assume a greater responsibility for relief, may have contributed to a softer view of civil society by identifying it with the "caring" or "nurturing" virtues: compassion, tolerance, generosity, benevolence. But there is another set of virtues traditionally promoted by civil society, the "vigorous" virtues, as Shirley Letwin, the biographer of Lady Thatcher, calls them: adventurousness, energy, independence, courage.

The two are not incompatible. It was Margaret Thatcher, herself a vigorous proponent of those virtues, who revived the idea of "Victorian virtues" (or "Victorian values," as the term was corrupted by reporters), recalling a period when both orders of virtues coexisted happily. The great entrepreneurs of the Victorian age were also the great philanthropists. Self-help and helping others were two sides of the same coin. "We have to use charity," said the secretary of the Charity Organisation Society, "to create the powers of self-help." Samuel Smiles, author of the bestseller Self-Help, also wrote a book entitled Duty extolling that other Victorian virtue, responsibility to others.

If civil society is to promote the vigorous as well as the nurturing virtues, it has to be vigorous in pursuit of both. That vigor is notably lacking among many of its present advocates, who think that by calling for a restoration of civil society, they are absolved of making those hard choices that will actually restrain the excesses of individualism and statism. For some, civil society has become little more than a surrogate for the state, charged with doing everything the state is currently doing; it is the welfare state "with a human face." Others (sometimes the same people) assure us that civil society need not infringe on individual rights and the freedom of choice; it can curb pornography without resorting to anything like censorship, or criminality without any diminution of civil liberties (or what has come to be regarded as such), or the breakdown of the family without any restrictions on divorce or any prejudice against alternative lifestyles. It is also remarkable how often civil society is invoked without any reference to one of its most important institutions, the churches; having driven religion out of the public square, many proponents of civil society would also like to see it removed from that semi- public square known as civil society.

Above all, what is generally lacking in the discussion of civil society is any reference to morality and moral sanctions; instead we are more likely to be warned against any display of " moralism" and "judgmentalism." We are permitted to acclaim charity, compassion, and neighborliness as virtues, but not to "stigmatize" illegitimacy, promiscuity, or chronic dependency as vices. And they may not be stigmatized either by word or deed -- by language suggesting that they are discreditable, or policies that deem them unworthy of public support.

Yet this is precisely the function of civil society: to encourage moral behavior and discourage -- which is to say, stigmatize -- immoral behavior. The mechanisms of approbation and disapprobation are all the more necessary in a liberal society, for the more effective the social sanctions, the less need there is for the legal and penal sanctions of the state. If the advocates of civil society are serious in their desire to mediate between the individual and the state, they have to endow civil society with the authority to do so. They have to be as candid in censuring vice as they are in applauding virtue. They have to restore not only the institutions of civil society but the force of social and moral suasion. Only then will civil society be what Tocqueville took it to be: the essential constituent of a liberal and democratic society.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most recently, of The De-Moralization of Society (Alfred A. Knopf).