By Dr. Joseph Chuman
It’s about visions. What kind of America do we want to have? The noted presidential historian Jon Meacham recently asked, “Do we want the America of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln or the America of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis? Do we want the America of John Lewis or Bull Connor?” The America we envision suggests a constellation of values that we affirm or reject.
With the election upon us, politics feels all-consuming. We think foremost of policies and platforms, laws and regulations, economic programs, and winners and losers. But behind it all our society rests on visions and values.
While we seldom think about it, it is the moral values we hold that at the deepest levels bind our society together. Laws and markets cannot do this; the moral values and dispositions that reside in the hearts and minds of women and men, though unseen, are what do this.
If things eventuate as they must on Election Day, then I submit that America must begin the task of moral reconstruction, of rebuilding society guided by ethical ideals that speak to renewal.
Resentment and hate come far too easily today
American society has become fretfully characterized by division, torn asunder most stridently along the differences of competing political positions and ideologies. But also along the lines of ethnicity, race, and nationality. Resentment and hate come far too easily today. Whereas a fellow American who differed would be considered an opponent or an adversary, too often today he or she is construed as an enemy whose views or humanity are unworthy of respect or even a hearing. Needless to say, this ugly state of affairs has been exponentially and deliberately exacerbated by the occupant of the White House, but in my view, its roots extend far deeper.
Moral renewal will require a shift in how Americans see themselves and others within the context of society. It has long been my view that our society has suffered from a surplus of what I would term “hyper-individualism.” People’s response to the pandemic is reflective of these differing values. Those who abide by the common-sense strictures of masking and personal distancing, I believe, are expressing a responsible communitarian ethic, recognizing their commitment to the health of others and society as a whole. By contrast, those who refuse in the name of “freedom” are manifesting a libertarian individualism that in my view is morally reprobate and inexcusable. A further consequence of this excessive individualism is that our social fabric is becoming increasingly frayed and an epidemic of loneliness pervades American life.
By contrast, what we need is an ethics and social vision that is guided by a commitment to the “common good.” Another way to state this is that we need to move from personal values primarily focused on “I” to values directed toward “we,” and then strive to live our lives in accordance with those values.
Freedom cannot flourish without responsibility
I need to be clear. Our fundamental rights, freedoms, and liberties reside in us as individuals, and we must ever be vigilant to safeguard these rights. We must forever preserve the right to dissent when society perpetrates injustice and be prepared to stand alone. My point is that there cannot be freedom and people cannot flourish without a concomitant sense of responsibility to others and toward society as a whole. It is this sense of obligation, which is a basic cornerstone of ethics, that I fear has atrophied for too long. This impoverishment is manifested in the extraordinary wealth gap that plagues our society, dividing the super-rich from the rest of us. It is evident in the growing phenomenon of privatization, which, again, segregates those who can buy their way out of the conditions the rest of us inhabit. And it is manifest in the materialism and acquisition that have long been promoted as comprising the aims and substance of a good life.
But the good life, in my view, is a life that is lived with and for others, and is committed to the realization of non-market values—love, friendship, compassion, and service to dedications that extend beyond the self. My understanding of the person is that we are social creatures and we grow into ourselves and develop our characters through active engagement with others. It is through committing ourselves to the welfare of others and society that we realize our full humanity.
It is such values that serve as the basis of democracy, and it is a recommitment to democracy and the democratic spirit that needs to inspire an American renewal.
Individual and common welfare are interwoven
Such is a transformation that needs to take place on all levels from the highest echelons of government to the level of neighborhoods and community organizations. We need robust federal programs that will ensure that all Americans can live a life of dignity: universal health care, family support, paid sick leave, affordable college and job training, support for unions, job stimulation, environmental protection, and much, much more. We need to build a renewed trust in government and put an end to the insidious notion that government is our enemy. In a democracy, government, after all, is us and not the imposition of a malign oppressor. We need trust in government that is responsive to the needs of people and by so doing reinforces the notion that we are are all members of the same society, that we are all in this together. We need to sense that my welfare and destiny is interwoven with the welfare of all those who comprise a common society.
Perhaps most important is active engagement at the level of civil society, that space between government and family life. Here a devotion to others, to “we” above “I,” is most intimately experienced. We must find ways to rebuild local institutions, become involved in civic associations and those groups in which we can both give and receive the support of others.
In this regard I see our Ethical Society as an admirable model of this type of democracy in action. We recognize the importance of human relations, and while we respect the uniqueness and rights of each of us as individuals, no less we recognize our responsibility to one another, perhaps in these difficult times like none other.
As small as we are, I think that Ethical Culture has something very important to offer our wider society as we embark on the project of national renewal, as I sense we will.
I have entitled my talk for Nov. 1 “An Ethical Blueprint for America.” I look forward to being with you then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.