Reviving American constitutionalism and reconstructing society require people to shoulder concrete responsibility locally. (Tweet This)
It is crucial to understanding the written and unwritten constitutions to recognize the ethical import of the old American affinity for groups and associations. (Tweet This)
Christianity gave succinct expression to what would become the heart of the moral ethos of the Western world when it stressed “love of neighbor.” (Tweet This)
In intimate associations virtue is concrete and personal. The individual is continually encouraged to consider the needs and wishes of others. (Tweet This)
Having gotten its start in the family and other relationships at fairly close range, moral responsibility can be applied to wider social and political concerns. (Tweet This)
Traditional Western moral virtue is a matter of character that shows itself in responsible conduct. It means making the best of self and acting responsibly toward real people. (Tweet This)
Abstract moralism is less interested in improving self than in improving others. And the need to take concrete action is somehow always transferred elsewhere, typically to government.
Those have the chief responsibility for acting on problems and opportunities who are most directly affected by them.
Federalism and decentralization in the American tradition can be adequately understood only in the context of the old Western moral heritage.
The central need of all civilized life is the shaping of moral character by attending to real obligations that are near and personal.
It is crucial to understanding the written and unwritten constitutions to recognize the ethical import of the old American affinity for groups and associations. The Framers, their class, and the American people in general were steeped in a Western tradition whose conception of virtue gave precedence to the responsibility of the individual in personal relationships and associations. Aristotle had explained the centrality of the household in fostering sound habits. The Romans had also viewed family as preparing the individual for wider duties. Christianity gave succinct expression to what would become the heart of the moral ethos of the Western world when it stressed “love of neighbor.” It is primarily in one’s daily contacts with people that one should show goodness and charity. The person’s chief obligation is to limit his own selfishness and generally to improve character so that he can do right by others.
By “neighbor” is meant not people in the abstract and in the distance, but people of flesh and blood with names and faces. In his more intimate associations the individual gets practice in “loving neighbors.” There virtue is concrete and personal. The individual is continually encouraged to consider the needs and wishes of others. In the family especially, the person learns both what it means to be loved and cared for and what it means to love and care for others. Taking others into account becomes a habit. It is not possible to get away with mere moral posturing. People who present themselves as better than they are are mercilessly exposed when their actions fall short of their words. Over time, life in groups and associations tempers the selfish ego. It fosters character traits conducive to a larger good. Having gotten its start in the family and other relationships at fairly close range, moral responsibility can be applied to wider social and political concerns.
Note carefully that traditional Western moral virtue is not a sweet sentiment or a generalized concern for mankind in the abstract. Virtue is a matter of character. It means making the best of self and acting responsibly toward real people, which means that morality is hard. To make love of neighbor particularly difficult, real people are frequently less than pleasant, and they may be our competitors. Behaving charitably may require strength of will. Virtue shows itself, thus, not in high-sounding phrases or teary-eyed “compassion” but in responsible conduct.
Compare this older Western and American ethos to the common modern notion of virtue. The latter can be described as morality in the abstract. Unlike the older virtue, it does not presuppose improvement of self. It can be espoused by the worst of human beings, by people who are very difficult to live and work with. These same individuals can ooze benevolence for people in the abstract and talk incessantly about “justice,” “human rights,” and “the common good.” They can advocate schemes for sweeping social and political change. In fact, the wider the scope of their virtuous project, the more compelling is supposed to be the evidence of a superior morality.
But this abstract and self-congratulatory virtue cares about nobody in particular. It is morality made easy. Anybody can do it. You can remain the same odious person as before while professing noble principles and feelings. From the point of view of the older Western ethic, the new virtue actually looks like a moral hoax. It is a more or less subtle escape from man’s primary moral responsibility: to make the best of self and do right by neighbors. Abstract moralism is less interested in improving self than in improving others. And the need to take concrete action is somehow always transferred elsewhere, typically to government, which acquires ever new responsibilities and becomes ever more centralized.
The importance of this contrast between different notions of virtue cannot be exaggerated. The two kinds of virtue foster different human beings and build entirely different societies. From the old virtue of character springs a decentralized, group-oriented society. Those have the chief responsibility for acting on problems and opportunities who are most directly affected by them. Help is sought beyond the people most involved only to the extent that they cannot satisfactorily manage their own affairs. De Tocqueville found among Americans in the early decades of the 1800’s a pronounced disinclination to hand over responsibilities to authorities further away.
The traditional moral ethos of the West shows its own substantive meaning only in the kind of concrete social and political patterns that have been described. Man is thought to express his essential nature and find his greatest satisfaction in associations, starting with the family. Rousseau knew what he was doing when he turned against “sectional associations.” Only by destroying the socio-political structures in which the older ethos manifested itself could you effectively destroy it.
Federalism and decentralization in the American tradition can be adequately understood only in the context of the old Western moral heritage. If regional, local, and private initiative and independence are eroding today, it is because a new ethos is replacing the older one. The new moralism is undermining the virtue of character and undermining the corresponding exercise of up-close responsibility. The new virtue generates a centralized and expansionist government which ceaselessly meddles in the life of the citizens.
No amount of abstract principle can restore decentralized constitutional government and a vital federalism. The political system envisioned by the Framers assumed the preponderance of a particular type of human being, what has here been called the constitutional personality. Without that personality of character a decentralized society is not possible. To revive American constitutionalism, if it can still be done, would require, not more people who talk all the time about “justice,” “the common good,” and “the best regime,” but people who are able to shoulder concrete responsibilities, so that the reconstruction of society could begin where it matters most, in the personal lives of the citizens.
Trying to restore the intent and the work of the Framers by advocating abstract principle avoids the heart of the matter. It bypasses the central need of all civilized life, the shaping of moral character. Character, let it be underlined, is not the same as keeping nice-sounding “principles” in your head. In fact, talking about virtue in the abstract easily becomes an escape from what is much more difficult and needed, the actual improvement of self and the actual exercise of responsibility. To that extent, endless theorizing about “the good” aggravates the erosion of a free and decentralized society. One of the dangers of philosophical abstractionism is that it discourages attention to the concrete texture of responsibility and distracts the individual from obligations that are near and personal.
Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His books include Democracy and the Ethical Life, Will, Imagination and Reason, A Common Human Ground, America the Virtuous, and A Desperate Man. He is chairman of the National Humanities Institute, editor of Humanitas, and president of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters.