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The Moralist's Gamble

Can character be based on self-interest?

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By JONATHAN MARKS
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The Death of Character

Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil

by James Davison Hunter

Basic Books, 352 pp., $ 20

Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville praised American moralists for adjusting to the hard fact that in the democratic future, "private interest will become the chief if not the only force behind all behavior." By accepting the doctrine of self-interest, the moralist accepted modern individualism, confident of controlling it and using it to shape "orderly, temperate, moderate, careful, and self-controlled citizens."

Today, too, many commentators on American civic morality believe that individualism can be directed onto a virtuous path, building out of our private choices a moral character for the nation. But the individualism of Tocqueville's time is nothing compared with the individualism of our own. And in The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, James Davison Hunter concludes that the moralist's gamble has failed: "Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed."

Hunter is a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia and directs the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is perhaps best known for making the phrase "culture wars" ubiquitous and even respectable with his 1992 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. That book's success owed much to Hunter's rare ability to engage our most heated controversies seriously and passionately but without rancor. He knows how to support bold and surprising conclusions with measured and fair-minded observations that few can dismiss.

The Death of Character addresses the question of how we can order our lives in late modernity, whose conditions are singularly inhospitable to moral certainties and the institutions that transmit them. Hunter uses the moral education of children as a window into the moral world of adults, and his claim that America is failing at character education will surprise almost no one.

It will come as a surprise, however, that Hunter does not round up the usual suspect, moral relativism, to explain this failure. He emphasizes instead the sincerity of our character education efforts. "About 85 percent of all public school parents want moral values taught in schools," and in response, state departments of education have earnestly set about defining the "core values" that schools should teach. Institutions devoted to character education proliferate on both the left and the right.

The problem, Hunter claims, is not moral relativism but moral fragmentation: "We Americans see all around us the fragmentation of our public life, our increasing inability to speak to each other through a common moral vocabulary." Our condition is, in large part, the product of "sociological and historical" causes: Any number of large, impersonal forces -- multinational capitalism, pluralism, social mobility, and popular culture -- have made it impossible to maintain moral meaning. Character has died, in spite of our best attempts to save it, because its cultural preconditions have disintegrated.

To help, we have called in the psychologists. "When it comes to the moral life of children, the vocabulary of the psychologist frames virtually all public discussion." In our fragmented moral culture, psychology is a natural authority because it appears to speak not for any one moral position but for science. Psychological pedagogy reflects and reinforces a series of changes in our moral culture that have been underway for a long time: from authority to autonomy, from appeals to God and the community to appeals to the needs of the self, and from talk of right and wrong to talk of what is useful for self-esteem.

The emergence of therapeutic culture and the shift from theistic and republican to the utilitarian and expressive are admittedly old, old tales. Hunter, however, offers a sometimes very amusing demonstration of the pervasiveness of what he calls the psychological regime. "Do a weekly inventory of positive traits you see in yourself" and "Become your best friend": The source of these suggestions is not Barney the purple dinosaur but Charles Gerber, the evangelical author of Christ-Centered Self-Esteem. Even the famously out-of-step Boy Scouts are not immune. Their "Learning for Life" curriculum offers this justification for making moral decisions: "We feel good about ourselves, others feel good about us, and we don't have to worry about negative consequences." There are many reasons to be critical of the psychological regime in character education, but Hunter offers the most devastating: It doesn't work.