Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice
by Alan Wolfe
Norton. 214 pp. $24.95

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College, wanted to know what his fellow Americans think and feel about a number of moral issues in a society that offers them a wide new variety of personal choices. First, he helped devise a nationwide poll on this subject, the results of which were published in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine. But the poll did not really get at what Wolfe wanted to find out. For, as he explains in the introduction to this book, nationwide polls seek to represent the distribution of opinion—that is, to express what is typical. Because America is so diverse, however, we should really be looking for people “whose views, we suspect, gravitate toward the extremes.” Such views, being so deeply felt, establish “the parameters . . . within which everyone else makes choices.”

With this reasoning to guide him, Wolfe set out to supplement the New York Times Magazine poll by means of lengthy, in-depth interviews conducted among residents of eight distinct communities: the two homosexual centers of San Francisco, namely, the Castro district for male homosexuals and Noe Valley for lesbians; Atherton, California, home of Silicon Valley multimillionaires; Lackland Air Force base and surrounding areas in San Antonio, Texas; the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where students tend to be the first in their families to have gone to college; Oakwood, a well-off suburb of Dayton, Ohio; Tipton, a small Iowa town surrounded by farmland; Blue Hills, a black neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut; and Fall River, Massachusetts, a no longer thriving factory town full of new immigrants.

In each of these places, 25 interviewees spent an hour apiece answering Mr. Wolfe’s questionnaire, yielding a voluminous body of material for him to go foraging in. This book records his attempt to digest and organize his findings, a task he addresses in a series of chapters devoted to what his interviewees have to say about, in order, loyalty, self-discipline, honesty, and forgiveness. The book then concludes with two chapters on the inferences Wolfe has been able to draw from his research about American morality in general.

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Whether or not they represent the “extremes,” Wolfe’s respondents seem by and large to be nice people, polite and helpful as Americans tend to be—especially to those who interview them. And this is hardly a surprise: individuals of so many different backgrounds and circumstances could not otherwise live together with the degree of comity that persists in American society. Nor are there any surprises in the views they express about Wolfe’s four chosen virtues.

Take loyalty. On the whole, the Americans sampled by Wolfe believe in it, even if not in each and every instance. Thus, many profess to feel little loyalty to their employers, except when they know it is reciprocated—something that seldom happens in large corporations that hire and fire employees as financial circumstances dictate. As for loyalty to one’s spouse, they all pretty much recognize that this cannot fully be counted on in these days of widespread divorce, but it nevertheless continues to be highly valued, especially by those who are themselves children of divorce.

Then there are those who were once loyal sports fans but find it increasingly difficult to remain so in an era in which teams seem to change their venue, and players their teams, from year to year. (If sports loyalty seems an odd case to have raised in connection with something that should lie as heavily on people’s chests as virtue, odder still is Wolfe’s scanting of what is surely among the highest forms of loyalty, namely, the feeling of people, especially men serving in the military, who have come to depend on one another for their survival.)

Self-discipline, the second item on Wolfe’s list, is also a great virtue in the eyes of his respondents, and a useful one as well. Still, they tend to be forgiving of its lapses in others, at least when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse, which they have some difficulty acknowledging as moral problems rather than psychological ones. Indeed, of all the questions taken up by this group of people, self-discipline seems to have elicited the shakiest response.

Honesty, by contrast, is a virtue no one has the slightest difficulty either endorsing in general or claiming to practice in person. But, except for the Iowans—for whom honesty, or so they claim, comes with no frills—most of Wolfe’s interviewees also believe that, as with loyalty, this virtue too is a conditional one. In a variety of circumstances—for instance, telling an acquaintance the truth about his less than attractive appearance, or his less than successful performance—unvarnished honesty can be hurtful to no purpose. There is also a relatively widespread feeling that one need not be honest with those who are not being honest with oneself or who attempt to take advantage of one’s good nature.

The last of the issues taken up in this study is forgiveness, a virtue Wolfe declares somewhat arbitrarily to be the opposite of strict justice. Why he chose it is not clear: indeed, although his respondents seem to feel strongly about justice, few of them appear much concerned with forgiveness. But perhaps there is a clue in the very fact that only 24 of the more than 200 interviewees emphasize forgiveness as something people need to feel in order to get over their personal pain at being badly treated, and of these 24, only four are men. Wolfe himself hastens to point out that this comports with what Carol Gilligan has famously said about the difference between male and female moral reasoning—namely, that men tend to emphasize abstract principles of justice while women are more likely to think in personal terms. In short, in including forgiveness among the virtues singled out for discussion, Wolfe may have been making a gentlemanly bow to the distaff side (though, just to complicate matters, it turns out that the more concerned his female correspondents are with women’s issues per se, the less likely they are to believe in forgiveness).

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In the end, as I say, nothing the subjects of this study think or believe should surprise anyone—unless one happens to be among those who inveterately view Americans with dark foreboding. Having been selected for living in what Wolfe regards as the extremes of society, they turn out to think entirely within the norm, going about their lives in a state of general decency toward their fellow creatures and exhibiting no greater degree of spiritual ignorance than many of the people who make a living devising theories about them.

But this mildly interesting and even mildly reassuring conclusion is not the end of the matter. For what Moral Freedom is really about is not the interviewees’ take on America, but Alan Wolfe’s. Throughout the book, his own views pepper his findings—now and then he even stops to argue with what his respondents profess to feel. Those views are crystallized in the book’s final two chapters, “The Moral Philosophy of the Americans” and “The Very Strange Idea of Moral Freedom.”

What Wolfe wishes us to understand is that Americans today are living with a historically unprecedented amount of personal freedom; that this freedom offers them choices people have not always had; and that being confronted with so many choices can lead to a fair amount of confusion both about what to think and about how to live. All of which is undeniably true. But it is only a small exaggeration to say that, to judge from this book, few of the confusions exhibited by his interviewees on this score are as great as Wolfe’s own.

It is difficult to give a full account of these confusions without reproducing the entire volume. But here, for example, is Wolfe himself on the question of loyalty. “America,” he writes,

has always had something of a peculiar relationship with loyalty, as manifested in our naïve belief that professing an oath of loyalty, upon which so many institutions insisted in the 1950’s, somehow settles the question of whether one is truly loyal.

One can only wonder from what ancient-historical grab bag this dusty rag of analysis was extracted. For one thing, the loyalty oaths of the 1950’s were over and done with in the 1950’s, and were anyway both opposed and despised at the time by the most vocal, and ultimately influential, members of American society. For another, these oaths had to do with an issue of loyalty not a word about which is even breathed in these pages—namely, loyalty to one’s country in wartime. To cite them as somehow thematic of a longstanding and “peculiar relationship with loyalty” is itself peculiar in the extreme.

And here is Wolfe, in the same mode, and banging on the same historical can, on his interviewees’ rather humane and also rather complex views of honesty:

One does not have to be a nostalgic conservative longing for a return to a more wholesome time to recognize that America has had a problem with honesty since at least the late 1950’s. It all seemed to begin with President Eisenhower’s lying about U-2 flights over the Soviet Union. Then, in rapid succession, the public discovered that quiz shows failed to reveal the fact that contestants were given answers in advance; that radio disc jockeys secretly accepted payments to push particular records. . . .

And so on. Is there not something a little suspect in this citing of a United States President who had—imagine—the gall to lie to the Soviet Union, of all regimes, about our having engaged in military surveillance of its territory? And as for those bad old quiz shows: one can just picture the millions of anguished American mothers who, contemplating them, despaired of the task of teaching their children to tell the truth.

Americans, Wolfe tells us, adopt a merely utilitarian approach to honesty. Well, perhaps—but that does not actually characterize the attitudes his hand-picked group of Americans are quoted as having expressed. Then he invokes Hannah Arendt, Immanuel Kant, and Saint Augustine, among others, to express disapproval of this putative utilitarianism. From quiz shows to Kant: this, such as it is, more or less sums up the arc of Alan Wolfe’s moral understanding.

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There is no question that today’s Americans are both blessed by once undreamed-of wealth and ease and cursed by having been sent off to sail in spiritually uncharted waters. We are living longer, more comfortably, and in better shape than people have ever lived before, and a wide, fascinating, bewildering world is open to us at the flick of a wrist. Each day brings news from the scientists at once promising and frightening: promising, because for all the alleviation of pain and suffering that we have already been granted, it seems that we may be granted even more; frightening, because with these gifts has come an ever greater power to bring down mischief upon our own heads—and more of this kind of power, too, is on the way.

Thus, in part, the burden of moral freedom. But what Alan Wolfe with his magpie observations has shown he fails to understand is that, in truth, moral freedom is something possessed by every human being, now and forever. Whether a person is a slave or a prisoner or a billionaire, a homeless vagabond or a king, his moral conduct remains his own. They can beat and starve and even kill him, but they cannot make him immoral; only he can do that. This kind of freedom is indeed a heavy burden, the burden laid by their Maker only on the shoulders of human beings.

Was it, as some now claim, easier to be a moral person in the past, when societies imposed stricter codes of proper behavior? Who can actually say? Certainly it must have been easier to order one’s life in a steady and proper manner in, say, Victorian England; but that is not, by a long shot, the same thing as being morally in charge of oneself. By the same token, there is no doubt that present-day American society provides too many incentives to go to the devil; but the Americans whom Alan Wolfe sought to learn about still give, on the whole, not such a bad account of themselves.

In any case, if a single message can be said to arise out of their responses, it is that, if he really does care about the prospects of moral freedom, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life would be better served by giving up the blur of big-think sociology and concentrating his intellectual energies on a project like bringing God back into the public square.

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