performs autopsy on character in America
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.
idea of character has been replaced by that of personality, a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
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.
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.
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
emphasizing personal gratification, 20th-century American culture
has come to stress inclusiveness at the expense of offering a
clear moral code.
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."
outlines three broad strategies we've adopted for addressing this
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.
neoclassical strategy stresses certain shared virtues that have
been distilled through the generations and must be cultivated
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.
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.
is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that
finally animates character and makes it resilient," he argues.
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
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
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.
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.
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...
immense a task as this may seem, an even bigger challenge will
be simply overcoming our fear of each other."