Dec. 1-7, 2000
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Hunter performs autopsy on character in America

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Over the past century, moral education in America has shifted from teaching children to be good to encouraging them to feel good about themselves, argues James D. Hunter, William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies, in a newly published book.

The idea of character has been replaced by that of personality, a concept reflecting "a self no longer defined by austerity, but by emancipation for the purposes of expression, fulfillment and gratification," writes Hunter in The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, published by Basic Books.

As the American economy began to shift from a focus on industrial production to one on mass consumption in the early decades of the 20th century, the psychological and ethical expectations placed upon individuals began to change as well.

In the 19th century, the term "character" was "always related to an explicitly moral standard of conduct, oriented toward work, building, expanding, achieving and sacrifice on behalf of a larger good," says Hunter, who has taught at U.Va. since 1983 and is the author of the widely discussed Culture Wars.

But consumer culture, with its emphasis on accumulation, leisure and cultivation of personal preferences, gave rise to an alternative view of the self, one based less on achievement and more on performance (hence early 20th-century advice manuals emphasized poise, charm and appearance).

Besides emphasizing personal gratification, 20th-century American culture has come to stress inclusiveness at the expense of offering a clear moral code.

"We strive to be inclusive, taking great pains not to offend anyone by imposing beliefs and commitments that might make people Ćuncomfortable'," he writes. A defining feature of our national life is the tension created by such inclusiveness, a "tension between accommodating diversity in public life and establishing a working agreement in our moral life."

Hunter outlines three broad strategies we've adopted for addressing this tension.

A psychological strategy operates on the assumption that all of us possess an innate capacity for moral goodness, which only needs to be coaxed out and developed within the personality.

A neoclassical strategy stresses certain shared virtues that have been distilled through the generations and must be cultivated by individuals.

And a communitarian strategy emphasizes the formative character of strong civic institutions, such as schools, local government and philanthropic activity in generating an ethic of cooperation.

Of these three approaches, the psychological strategy is the dominant one within the educational establishment, whereas the other two represent a backlash against the first, Hunter says.

None of these strategies is wholly effective, because each tends to deny or downplay the particularity that is central to moral reflection and engagement, Hunter says.

"It is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animates character and makes it resilient," he argues.

With its emphasis on the therapeutic process, the psychological strategy "tends to dismiss ... the idea that there is any content-filled moral agenda we should pass on to succeeding generations, [envisioning] the moral individual [as one] who somehow transcends time, space, relationships and culture altogether but serves some thin notions of the common good when he or she freely chooses," Hunter writes.

The communitarian strategy, while emphasizing that concrete social experience frames our moral understanding, makes no place for shared ideals, sacred obligations and collective memories, rejecting these in favor of an ideal community that often resembles the welfare state.

The neoclassical strategy, though it does insist on moral content, often seems more like a vague partisan battle cry ("family values") than a set of convictions.

"Ours is a society no longer capable of generating creeds and the god-terms that make those creeds sacred," he says.

The ultimate solution, Hunter suggests, is to find agreements about integrity, fairness, altruism, respect, valor, and the like, within moral diversity, not in spite of it.

"Creating space ... for different moral communities to flourish in public and private life might very well lead to conditions that are conducive to the growth of people of good character...

"As immense a task as this may seem, an even bigger challenge will be simply overcoming our fear of each other."


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