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The Pursuit of Morality


By Jacob M. Schlesinger

The United States was "ill-founded," George F. Will asserted in his Godkin Lectures two weeks ago. In his discussion of the nature of government, the nationally syndicated columnist challenged the basic assumptions on which this nation is based. For the past two centuries, political argument has assumed freedom of individual choice as a given, and has proceeded from there. The debate, Will said, between the "Massachusetts liberalism" of Edward M. Kennedy '54 and Ronald Reagan's "Manchester liberalism," though politically significant, is philosophically meaningless. Both agree on the basics; they disagree merely on how to achieve the ends.

But in his talks here, Will mounted an attack on these basic premises. We have, he said, "too much freedom." In a society that allows such freedom it is assumed that government, by inaction, can and should stay neutral in forming its people's morals. "But the one thing government cannot do," Will contended, "is nothing"--by avoiding moral questions government actually accepts and encourages material self-interest and the desire for instant gratification.

The result, according to Will, has been an unprecedented social decadence: "Since 1945, the United States has been in the deepest descent since Spain a few centuries ago." Salvation lies in recognizing that the state does affect social behavior, and in channeling government efforts toward creating a "public spiritedness," a "national character." Will's eloquently delivered thesis seems at first convincing; who could support "material self-interest" over "public spiritedness"? But unlike the composer whom Mark Twain described as "better than he sounds," Will sounds better than he is.

While his arguments about American society and government contain a good measure of truth, ne was incorrect in saying that Americans always seek instant gratification. For a decaying, myopic nation, the United States has adopted some rather farsighted programs. Environmental regulations and automobile efficiency standards, whether or not they are effective, exemplify a willingness to forego instant economic gain for long-term benefit. Furthermore, while Will was correct in diagnosing a propensity in our society for working to achieve personal gain, he erred in asserting that such a tendency has became a dominant and destructive force. Will himself acknowledged that the people do want some form of public welfare program--a demonstration of the common desire to help others in need.

As Will suggested, there has been a certain decline in the nation's moral values--the proliferation of pornography, as Will notes, serves as evidence. But government is most often impotent in dealing with matters of personal conduct: the liquor business thrived under prohibition; marijuana dealers have no problems peddling the illegal wee. Will argued, however, that laws can affect people's ethics, citing two examples: the Civil War, and the Civil Rights legislation of a century later. In the case of the former, Will said Abraham Lincoln decided than an immoral act--the spread of slavery--had gone too far. Lincoln enforced his belief that the freedom of choice could no longer be allowed. In adopting the rights legislation of the 1960s, Congress decided it would be better for Blacks and whites to eat together, work together, and study together. In doing so, the government successfully legislated values, according to Will.

Although morality played a role in both government actions, the common underlying goal--as in most successful attempts to alter behavior--was to enhance personal freedom. Will argued that there can be "closed questions in an open society," meaning that some things are clearly immoral and therefore beyond debate. For Lincoln, the closed question was slavery; for Congress in the 60s, it was segregation. But Will's definition of what constitutes a "closed question" is wrong. In both instances, the primary issue was the excessive restriction of personal choice.

But Even If Government could affect personal behavior and channel private interests toward a public good, whether it should do so remains unclear. The Moral Majority, Will said, is justified in trying to inject moral issues into public debate, even if one disagrees with its positions and tactics. The way to respond to Jerry Falwell and his followers is not to discourage moral discussion, but rather to foster more intelligent debate--"not less moralizing, but better moralizing," as Will put it. But Will himself offered the best argument to counter his contention that government should impose moral standards. In discussing prayer in public schools, he said that while he found nothing wrong with it, he opposed it on the grounds that it was "too divisive." In a country as diverse culturally and religiously as the United States, any set code of morals would also be divisive.

Nations have in this century attempted to foster a "national character." Nazi Germany and Maoist China are two examples. But the price people have paid for such "public spiritedness" has always been authoritarianism. Will acknowledged that danger but argued that just because some countries had taken the route of authoritarianism, it did not mean all regimes necessarily would. But Will's objection notwithstanding, the fact remains that no democratic, capitalist system has ever been founded on the principles he espouses.

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