On Public Morals – Two Sources

What kind of moral values are acceptable in the public square?

It’s an important question in the current political climate, already rife with discord between liberals and conservatives, and now thrown into a kind of perpetual chaos by an unpredictable president.

On the one hand President Trump seems willing to flout traditional public morality and moral norms in both behavior and speech, and on the other he derives power from a Christian evangelical base that would like to see their version of morality imposed upon the culture at large (and who see liberals as trying to do the same.)

So whose version of morality wins? By what standard are we going to determine which morals are acceptable in public life, i.e. as grounds for policy and legislation and the formation of a public shared understanding of our civic responsibility? Is there a way to talk about all of these values in a way that a majority of people (and not just a bare 51%) would support?

In conversations with conservative friends, I have had the strange sensation of ships passing in the night. We try to talk about the same subject but drift off into separate spheres quickly, because our value narratives are so different as to be almost alien.

For example, one person recently said the “values of human dignity found in the Bible” supported a capitalist, market-driven economy in the exchange of goods and fair accrual of money according to one’s work. I reacted with some sense of befuddlement, and only later realized why: I was confused because I see the value of “human dignity” as a universal value, not a capitalist, sectarian or an exclusively Christian one.

What my friend said in support of a Bible-based society, in other words, was actually not a statement about the Bible. It was a statement of ethics, a concept of Good. My friend spoke as though belief in the Bible entailed belief in an ethical concept of Good. 

The Bible does not always articulate a coherent moral philosophy, not does it always treat all people with inherent worth and dignity (I’m thinking in particular of the victims of genocide at the hands of God’s people in Joshua, the lack of condemnation of slavery in both Old and New Testament, and the language about unbelievers going to eternal suffering and damnation spoken by Jesus, to name three examples). But assuming “human dignity” is a value indeed found in the Bible, does that mean that our source concept “human dignity” is exclusively biblical or Christian?

I don’t think so. To the extent that we follow rules of fairness and dignity as a capitalist society it is not because those values are found in the Bible, but rather because they resonate as universal values that are accessible by everyone.

Such conversations with conservatives about values led me to compose the following premise, in an effort to clarify where some common ground might lie between liberals and conservatives:

PREMISE: Public moral values, i.e. values that can transcend the personal, private sphere and become an acceptable source of common discourse in the public square, must be a) secular, based on non-religious reasoning, or b) universalist, based on what is accepted by all religions.

In some cases such public values will overlap with both a) and b).

This premise, if accepted, would accomplish at least three things:

  1. Establishment of common ground on which to build arguments that can be heard by all sides, because they are based in values and language universally recognized.
  2. Prevention of publicly sectarian, divisive language that only seeks to judge those outside on the basis of narrow morals
  3. A re-alignment toward a vision of Good that includes a diversified religious and non-religious ethical and moral philosophy, one that is unified around common values.

Seeking consensus on secular and universalist values is not only a necessary step to any lasting and meaningful dialogue, it is a way to re-assert a rational process into a highly charged political environment and bring it to a healthier place. 

We need a more robust, universalist philosophy in the public square. It may be the only thing left standing as a bridge, after the devaluing of public morals takes its course. 


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On Prudence

Emphasis on prudence is characteristic of liberalism. It is connected with the rise of capitalism, for the prudent became rich while the imprudent became or remained poor. It is connected also with certain forms of Protestant piety: virtue with a view to heaven is psychologically very analogous to saving with a view to investment.  -Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Prudence is one of the classical virtues. It means to take care, with forethought, of one’s actions. It is associated with business and sound money management, as in, “Prudential.” Rational judgment, logic, and the harnessing of the will are all components of this virtue. Most of all, it means setting aside short-term pleasure for long-term gain.

In building my teaching business, I have to be very prudent. I carefully plan out every expenditure, to maximize and optimize the resources I have. Every item on my to-do list is carefully organized and executed. In running our household, my wife and I must be diligent about paying bills, populating each other’s calendars with important activities, and doing meal planning. None of these are especially pleasurable activities in themselves, but we are willing to put aside short-term fun and pleasure so that we can do the important things such as taking care of each other and our children.

Prudence is about maturity. As we grow up we all must come to terms with saving money, acting in ways that further our and other’s long term interests. We learn also to behave morally (however we might define that) and this often means sacrificing our own pleasure. Prudence is also a societal virtue. The more we think ahead as a polity (an organized group of people), the better off we are together, and that also requires sacrifices such as setting aside resources in the form of taxes.

However, there is a downside to Prudence. We sometimes have a narrow idea of “Prudence” and use that as a source of continued bias toward the underclasses, the underprivileged, minorities, the arts, and sexuality. We blame others’ misfortunes on their lack of good choices, we marginalize artistic expression because there is no way to measure its costs and benefits, and we repress and under-educate each other about sex because sex threatens our sense of rational control. (There is a reason why the words prudent and prude are connected.)

Bertrand Russell points out that “there is something revolting in a system that regards prudence as the only virtue.” His critique of Prudence, in A History of Western Philosophy, comes in the chapter about John Locke, whose political theories made a heavy mark on our Constitution. Locke’s views came at a time when philosophical liberalism was beginning to bloom. Characteristic of this philosophy were a few things that we would today call “conservative”: belief in commerce and business, general distrust of government, and an aim to encourage a rising middle class.

The fact that these prudent values are connected intrinsically to Protestant piety is important to understand: being frugal with money and frugal with ethics go hand in hand. Aiming at heaven is similar to aiming at a savings account. One pictures Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic: the faces are plain, stern, hard-working, but also unimaginative and unforgiving. 546kjh46kjh

In other words, the reason it is “revolting” to enthrone Prudence as the only virtue is that there are so many other virtues to speak of: forgiveness, empathy, nurture, creativity, courage (in taking risks), to start with a few. These other virtues are humanizing, and lead as much to long-term prosperity and wealth as does prudence.

Whenever I have made a decision that my parents did not agree with, particularly as regards either my artistic expression, or my sexual choices, it was usually because they thought it imprudent. Unwise, showing lack of judgment, especially about money, or about what God really wanted. “This was not God’s will,” my mother said on more than one occasion.

Well into middle-adulthood both my wife and I continue to perceive a very judgmental attitude from family members about our choices. It was not looked upon as prudent for us to have gotten our prior divorces, or be together, to move here or there, to pursue this or that activity, to join the Unitarian Universalist fellowship. The frowns could be seen through the phone.

How many unhappy marriages continue because the couple values prudence above all else? How many artists are now struggling to eat, because banks look at them as an imprudent investment? How many minorities are segregated in ghettos, because it would be imprudent for the rest of us to go live there, work there, or buy anything there? How many people are wasting away in a cubicle because that is the only rational choice they can see in front of them?

Since the time of Locke (late 1600s) we have needed a new ethics that is more generous, less rationalist, and views society through a more complex lens. We need to show why virtues such as Hospitality (opening our homes) and Edification (building up of people) are connected to our long-term interests. We will be a more prosperous and free people if our virtues are balanced, and our understanding of each other continually enriched by a more affective, empathetic approach.

I am not arguing for outright recklessness, anarchy, or destructively senseless behavior. Such things cause pain, violence, or misfortune, sometimes on a large scale. The Iraq war, for example, most people see as in imprudent war, with long-term costs we are still paying for. One wishes for more prudent politicians.

Imprudent political decisions, however, often are made because there are not enough other virtues at play. When we are more able to negotiate, to see the other side, to think in more communitarian ways, we are tapping Empathy. When we truly want everyone to win, we are tapping the virtues of Humility and Compassion. When we celebrate differences, we lift up Diversity.

True long-term reward comes when all of these other virtues are present. If we imagine a painter’s palette, perhaps Prudence is a brilliant hue achieved only by mixing many more primary colors together. This is at once more pleasurable and more wise, more sensual and more rational.

If fulfilling our needs in the short-term and creating a brighter, more hopeful future is possible, why not pursue it? Isn’t that the most Prudent course of action?