Friday, December 08, 2006

Values and America

Tibor R. Machan

A theme that comes up often in commentaries about contemporary American culture is the absence of firmly grounded and widely embraced basic values among the people. While Americans have a coherent and stable enough legal tradition—albeit in the process of gradual erosion now and always a bit flawed—they seem to lack a basic ethics by which their lives might be guided, given some in depth meaning. It is for this reason, it is often said, that people require religion in their lives, whether it be Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Hinduism.

And there is little doubt that human beings are just the kind of living creatures who cannot live without basic moral values. Even those who are totally skeptical about this do not manage to do without morals—they implicit embrace some ethical precepts, such as integrity or consistency or justice. For example, no skeptic accepts having his or her views distorted. No a-moralist believes it makes no difference how he or she is treated by critics. Total nihilism about values is impossible unless one is some kind of sociopath, seriously mentally deranged.

Why do we need values? Because we, humans, are just the sort of living beings that lack instincts. We are born with the instinct to suckle and that is about it—the rest is a matter of learning. And it isn't only the kind of learning that most higher animals need, namely, being trained in some skills. It is learning on one's own, to figure out ideas, to form principles about life and its innumerable facets. That is what all the fuss is about when we talk about the ethics of merchants, lawyers, doctors, politicians, parents, etc. And while some of this has become submerged in the discipline of psychology—so that for example such chintzy public forums as the Oprah show and The View will rarely talk about ethics and focus, instead, on psychological problems—it is still quite inescapable. Consider that however much we try to explain away ethical matters, even our psychologists are subject to moral criticism when they abuse their patients, for example.

So it seems clear enough that human beings cannot live by law alone. The law itself is open to be judged as ethical or unethical—just think how we treated the laws of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or South Africa. The same is true about the United States of America—its laws are open to moral scrutiny. We need, therefore, more than just laws for a coherent, civilized, and decent society.

But America is a highly pluralistic country—millions of people live here from extremely diverse cultures, traditions, religions, ethnic groups and the like. It seems, therefore, that just relying on these as sources of the common bond of ethics will not help. Instead, as elsewhere in the world, such sources often pit people against one another. Christians versus Jews or Moslems, Moslems against Infidels, agnostics against theists, atheists against agnostics, etc., etc.—there is no end of the varieties of conflict that can arise if we depend on these sources for moral guidance. Why? Because they lack a common base. They draw their principles of human behavior from diverse belief systems which are, themselves, not grounded in some common and accessible reality. When we depend upon the teachings of our culture we can be reasonably sure that some connection to reality must have infused what we believe. But a good deal of it is myth and fiction, made up by the human imagination and showing about as much diversity as that faculty can produce.

So what can Americans hope for in this matter of some set of common values? There is, first of all, no guarantee that we will come together on any possible answer as we search for a common ethics. That is because human beings are quite free to ignore even the best answers to questions they pose, say if they find it unpleasant, disturbing, scary, inconvenient or whatnot. But some answers probably offer a better chance at consensus than do others.

In ancient Greece it was Socrates, the first major Western philosopher, who proposed an answer to this question of how to come by an ethics that we can all agree on, even if we do not choose to. He proposed that reason must be employed to study human nature and when we learn what human nature is, we will also learn how to live right, how to live virtuously, justly. Because human nature is something we can all study. It is there before us every second of every minute of every hour of our lives. We have ample opportunity to examine what it is to be a human being. And this will give us a strong clue as to how to live a human life properly, ethically.

And the most important thing about human beings is that they are living creatures who must use their minds to navigate their lives. It is human intelligence, the activity of figuring things out and living accordingly, that seems to be the best guide to living well. As Socrates put it, "The unexamined life is not worth living." But only nature and, for our purposes, human nature, is available for common study and ultimate consensus.

In a diverse society such as America the people cannot hope to reach peace, harmony, and justice by finding principles from diverse traditions. That always runs the serious risk of conflict, since we interact among one another so frequently and pervasively. What we need to learn is to use, trust and be guided by our common reasoning capacity. There is a common world to be studied and our reasoning capacity is the best tool with which to study it. The results may get us what all else has failed to, namely, a set of ethical guidelines that will help us to come to agree on solutions to our problems.

There is no utopia in trusting reason. But as novelist Scott Turow put it in his best selling book, The Burden of Proof, "In human affairs, reason would never fully triumph; but there was no better cause to champion."

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