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From Jefferson's America to Clinton's

11:00 PM, Feb 28, 1999 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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These are disorienting times for social conservatives. It has been hard enough to rally Americans on such contentious issues as abortion. Now we can't even seem to agree on the moral status of perjury.

It appears to be a time to seek instruction from authors who promise to tell us about morality and virtue, as do Harry Clor in Public Morality and Liberal Society and Jean Yarbrough in American Virtues.

In some ways, these books are indeed refreshingly removed from Clinton scandal fever. Both reflect years of study, and both were bundled off to their respectable academic publishers before anyone heard the name of Monica Lewinsky. Both authors teach political philosophy at small liberal arts colleges (Clor at Kenyon, Yarbrough at Bowdoin), and neither seems to have any ambition to mobilize the multitudes.

Harry Clor's Public Morality and Liberal Society is a sustained effort to explain why curbs on pornography are not inconsistent with liberal principles. To defend the enforcement of pornography statutes, Clor offers a patient, carefully reasoned account of "public morality," by which he means not moral norms for the conduct of public affairs but a morality of private conduct that has "public status, recognized as an ethos of the community."

He starts with the point that, insofar as pornography is an incitement to lust, it is almost by definition an enemy of self-control. And the political community, he explains, has an interest in nurturing self-control:

Our kind of polity depends substantially upon mutual respect among citizens; persons who view each other pornographically, or as mere objects and opportunities for self-gratification, are unfit for any sustained cooperation in the conduct of civic affairs.

Clor is aware that criminal sanctions are not enough, but "the crucial object," he writes,

is not that all vice be stamped out but that the existence of communal standards of decency is to be publicly affirmed. What finally counts is people's confidence that we live in a moral community or at least that we ought to.

Lest it appear to be an arbitrary abridgment of private rights or an arbitrary extension of private preferences, public morality for Clor must be linked to fundamental truths about human life. So Clor devotes a chapter to the feminists who protest pornography as degrading to women but have difficulty acknowledging that it is degrading to human beings as such. Another chapter takes aim at such legal philosophers as Ronald Dworkin, who defend pornography on the ground that government must never impose a policy that lacks "respect" for any citizen's "choice" of lifestyle. As Dworkin sees it, this neutrality is required by respect for human dignity. Clor protests that it actually denies human dignity by treating impulses and compulsions as though they were reasoned choices.

Clor readily triumphs over such extreme positions. But his approach leaves him hostage to his own eagerness for political validation. Denying the law's power to enforce a morality that lacks widespread support, he offers marital fidelity as an example of a norm that has dissipated beyond the possibility of correction. He is willing, however, to defend laws against public nudity (a staple of public-morals regulation in most states) as still sustainable under the "ethic of public decency."

"Decency" in this precise sense is what's invoked by the polite inquiry, upon entering a dressing room, "Are you decent?" and it may still have broad support. But Clor is not very instructive about its significance. After all, Aristotle (whose account of the virtues is repeatedly invoked by Clor) didn't object to athletes' competing in the nude. Far from expressing universal human practices, our traditional notions of decency have roots specifically in Jewish and Christian scriptures, which take a dim view of human self-sufficiency and natural perfection.

Clor steers his argument far from such inquiries. He is so anxious to place his argument on abstract philosophical grounds that he even avoids the word "sin" (along with any discussion of gay rights, abortion, or other divisive issues).

This leaves him with an account of public morality that may not quite capture what those who care most deeply about it actually believe. And for those who don't care, it may be even less compelling. In seeking political status for moral standards, Clor retreats to those that are widely shared -- and he ends with something so thin that it makes no substantial demands and promises no great rewards.