Only Pillars of Moral Truth Can Shore Up Our Civil Society

Don Eberly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/16/1998

No nation on earth has so thoroughly staked its success on the functioning of free and voluntary civic associations. Ultimately, civil society is that communal sphere in which, together, we confront and answer the core questions: What makes a good person and a good society? With this call to civil society, we hope to throw down this gauntlet: From these essentially moral questions there is no escape

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Subjects: What is civil society?, Civil Society

More by: Don Eberly

Like smoking in restaurants, moral truth is decidedly out of fashion these days. Among scholars and opinion leaders, the proposition that moral truth exists is regarded with deep suspicion: at best, a sign of naivete; at worst, a sign of bigoted intolerance.

So it is all the more striking that a group of 24 scholars and leaders from across the political spectrum, including myself, recently issued A Call to Civil Society, a report that concludes: ``Our main challenge is to rediscover the existence of transmittable moral truth.''

Not only does moral truth exist, but the success of America depends on it, we contend: ``Our democracy is growing weaker because we are using up, but not replenishing, the moral resources that make our democracy possible.''

Civil society is the buzzword of the hour. Democrats and Republicans alike tout it as the new wonder drug for tackling social problems. Most Americans feel that society's key institutions - family, neighborhood, church and schools - are growing weaker. Many people say that if we would simply spend more time as citizens and neighbors, volunteer more and watch TV less, this decline could be reversed.

We see a deeper problem: America's civic institutions are declining because the moral ideas that fueled and formed them are losing their power to shape our behavior and unite us.

This weakening is closely connected to a range of social problems, from listless voting patterns to fragmenting families, from the coarsening popular culture to expanding economic inequality. America's civic crisis ``is primarily philosophical and hence also institutional,'' our council argues.

The ``qualities necessary for self-governance'' are the results ``of certain moral ideas about the human person and the nature of the good life.''

Why would anyone want to participate in civil life in the first place? Why work to relieve suffering or achieve justice? Why tolerate dissent, why seek to persuade rather than overpower and rule? Even the most elementary civic act, such as voting, cannot be explained merely in terms of rational self-interest. The very motive for democracy is fundamentally moral in nature.

So why is it that, for more than a generation, respectable intellectual voices have viewed morality more as a threat to freedom than its essential guarantor?

Partly it is the influence of mistaken ideas of human nature. Many Americans view human beings as autonomous units of desires and rights, what the philosopher John Rawls calls ``self-originating sources of valid claims.'' In this view, the sovereignty of the self becomes the modern democratic equivalent of the divine right of kings. To be truly at liberty, we must be free from even internal pressures to conform to social norms.

This understanding of the human person, and of the American nation, is deeply flawed. Deliberating, judging and choosing - having reasons for what we value and love - are characteristic human activities. What is reasonable is not merely private, it is something that all people have the potential to share. Our capacity to choose and to give reasons for choosing and loving allows us to participate in a shared moral life, an order common to us all.

Does affirming moral truth mean neglecting tolerance? No. Tolerance itself depends on a moral grounding; it is not what rushes into the void created by the absence of moral truth. For if moral truth does not exist, all that is left is power: Whatever we can do, we may do.

Whose morality? Our morality. Not mine and not yours, but the shared moral truths we work out together - over kitchen tables and in political debate - informed by the great moral inheritance bequeathed by our faiths and our forebears.

No nation on earth has so thoroughly staked its success on the functioning of free and voluntary civic associations. Ultimately, civil society is that communal sphere in which, together, we confront and answer the core questions: What makes a good person and a good society? With this call to civil society, we hope to throw down this gauntlet: From these essentially moral questions there is no escape.

This article originally appeared here.

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