Is Radical Individualism Destroying our Moral Compass?

We seem to have retreated into a kind of private morality.  But a private morality is a contradiction in terms.

Individual rights are the bedrock of a free society.  In a liberal democracy, individuals have the moral right to make their own choices free from arbitrary intrusion – subject to the constraint that they do not interfere with the same freedoms in others.  However, although rights are essential for the functioning of a free state, they are insufficient as guides to guides to moral action. Beyond the idea that we should respect the rights of others, a rights-based morality tells us little about how we ought to act toward others or who we ought to be.  In a liberal democracy, such questions – that is, questions about the nature of the good — are properly left to the people.

At the time of the founding of the republic, Americans experienced a rich moral life.  The desire to promote liberty and personal autonomy took place within the context of religion, shared (and contested) conceptions of public virtue, commitments to moral character and duty, and even to moral standards of good taste.  However, over time, American values have come to privilege a morality of autonomy and individual rights over standards related to public virtue, goodness or community.  That is, against the backdrop of diverse and even conflicting belief systems, many of us have reserved the right to choose our own personal standards to live by.  We seem to have retreated into a kind of private morality.

These changes have brought us to the point of a moral contradiction: On the one hand, individuals are granted the right to choose their moral beliefs free from arbitrary intrusion; on the other hand, moral considerations necessarily extend beyond the realm of individual choice. Moral standards arise from processes that occur between people.  They arise as communities seek solutions to the problem of determining how people ought to relate to one other.  If this is so, then individual rights provide only the starting point of moral deliberation and action.

As free citizens, we must look beyond the concept of rights alone – to conceptions of virtue, goodness, care and so forth – to elucidate, negotiate and justify the values that define how we should act, who we should be, and how we should live.

Questions about the values we should live by inevitably invite moral conflict.  People do not naturally agree about the values and virtues that define a good and moral life.  Liberalism’s solution to this problem has been to call for tolerance and respect for diverging viewpoints.  However, while these values acknowledge the limits of single claim to moral certainty, they nonetheless fail as ways of reconciling moral conflict. Tolerance does not seek to address moral conflict; it simply stipulates a need to live with it. The desire to respect difference – while born of a desire to acknowledge the dignity of others — fails to acknowledge that not all differences can be embraced.  Some sources of difference can be self-abnegating.  As a result, when tolerance is strained, conflict tends to produce hostility.

So, how can be reinvigorate virtue, values, moral goodness, care as important principles of everyday social life?  How can we do invite a discussion about these issues that does not alienate people?  That does not make people feel as if they are being asked to conform to some external authority?   How can we foster a conversation about the importance of moral character in everyday life?  About how businesses not only have an obligation to their shareholders but also to the people whom they serve?  That the values of capitalism cannot operate independent of social and moral values of care, decency, concern for others?

These are the goals of the Human Values Project.

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