The Good Life

Moral Freedomby By Alan WolfeW. W. Norton. 256p $24.95.

In preparation for his work, Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, helped design a public opinion poll about American views on sex, morality, work, children, God and money. The poll was conducted in March 2000 and published in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine. Additionally, Wolfe supervised in-depth interviews of more than 200 people coming from eight very diverse American neighborhoods: the Castro district of San Francisco; a wealthy Silicon Valley community in Atherton, Calif.; Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio; the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; an agricultural community in Tipton, Iowa; Oakwood, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton; Blue Hills, a black neighborhood in northeast Hartford; and Fall River, Mass., a city that attracts many newly arrived immigrants. He describes the result of these interviews as "a voluminous, and I hope, unique, body of material in which Americans from all walks of life talk about the conditions for leading good and virtuous lives, not only for themselves, but for others."

In explaining how they think the moral life is lived, Wolfe claims that Americans are reluctant to use terms like "virtue" and "vice," but they do not hesitate to speak about particular virtues. For instance, in "Til Circumstances Do Us Part," Wolf describes the commonplace American effort to determine what loyalty means. Differentiating the loyalties owed to persons from those owed to institutions, Americans are attentive to the claims of fidelity while at the same time considering other issues that might support or subordinate those claims.


In three other chapters, Wolfe looks at specific clumps of virtues. In "Eat Dessert First," he illustrates how creatively Americans treat both self-restraint and self-indulgence as goods when pursued in tandem. In "Honesty to a Point," he describes "zones of honesty," in which, as they do in their approach to loyalty, Americans demarcate where the claims of honesty have prima-facie force and where they are subject to simple consequentalist (and self-interested) logic. In "The Unappreciated Virtue," Wolfe explores forgiveness. While he notes "America’s unforgiving side" (using as an example the execution of the born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker) and faults America’s cultural commentators for overlooking the virtue of forgiveness, Wolfe presents evidence that Americans actually wrestle with this virtue as well.

Elsewhere he explores how American "nonjudgmentalism" is founded on the political ideals of respect for others and equality, and emphasizes that this virtue is not simply about the right that Americans have to pursue the good in a variety of ways. It is also about their belief that each pursuit of the good has its own moral integrity. He calls this a "moral equality" and quotes one interviewee as representative of this tolerant stance: "I don’t think anybody is better than anybody else. I really don’t." While Wolfe acknowledges that this moral equality does not apply for all choices, I wonder whether immigrants, gays and lesbians, people of color and people with disabilities find this particular claim of Wolfe’s as prevalent as he does. I think that Americans counterbalance their tolerance on many issues with a highly moralistic disposition to shame others for quite a number of other ways of acting: there is a lot of socially enforced conformity in America’s pluralistic culture.

In a manner of speaking, each of Wolfe’s chapters is about Americans’ prudence, the virtue for making a choice. Wolfe is more than confident about their prudence. Indeed, he proposes that Americans are poised at the dawn of a new moral framework, which he calls "moral freedom," which "means that individuals should determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life." Wolfe is careful, however, not to argue that Americans are solipsists or some other type of relativist. He writes:

"[T]he debate over the 1960s and its legacy confuses two different phenomena. One is the freedom to choose how to live. The other is the freedom to consider oneself unbound by moral rules. The Americans with whom we have spoken make a distinction between them. The former, they usually insist, is something worth having. The latter, most of them feel, is something worth avoiding."

Effectively, institutions—whether religious, social or moral—can no longer set (have they ever?) an agenda for Americans to follow. Rather, Americans select with personal discrimination the moral information, insights or claims from these institutions and elsewhere that they believe ought to be part of their moral universe. For Wolfe this is challenging but good news, and he is favorably inclined to this news because he is impressed with the seriousness of Americans’ moral logic.

I agree that basically the moral logic or prudence of the average American citizen is much more rigorous and reflective than pundits and prophets suggest, but I am much less confident about the future than Wolfe is. It is not how we reason, but what we allow to affect us that disturbs me, and Wolfe’s findings only further substantiate my concern.

For each virtue, Americans draw a line between the familiar and the foreign, the near and the distant. In each of his chapters, Wolfe shows how Americans were more inclined to examine seriously the claims of honesty, loyalty and forgiveness when they were talking about the zone of existing relationships. As Wolfe’s data and analysis show us, proximity is, for better or worse, a key American value.

So where is the virtue of justicea virtue noticeably absent from Wolfe’s Moral Freedom? Justice calls us to give to each person her or his due. But if the zone of ethical concern includes only the proximate or the familiar, then haven’t we truncated the claims of justice?

When I began reading this book, I was filled with considerable expectation, because I had never read anything that described and explained the depth and complexity of American moral logic. But the further I read, the more I realized that there was something terribly domesticated about Wolfe’s data and analysis, and that’s the problem.

Before I finished reading, the Bush administration responded with a measly $200 million dollars to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call for a seven-billion dollar AIDS fund. Likewise, that administration rejected the Kyoto accord on global warming. And it decided that it would not encourage the reconciling movement between the two Koreas. In an increasingly globalized world, America’s ethical zones are isolating and irresponsible, especially when our country both purports to be the world power and claims more of the world’s resources for itself than any other culture.

So what makes Wolfe’s freedom "moral"? The seriousness of its prudence? But morality requires prudence and justice. And what does Wolfe’s "search for virtue in a world of choice" have to say about the international choices America makes when its citizens’ moral concerns do not, generally speaking, go beyond their borders? I could find no answer to that question.


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