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Private Lives: It isn't true that Americans have lost their sense of right and wrong.  They just want to define the terms for themselves.

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Suppose that Americans were given the opportunity to speak publicly about issues that are central to the debate over America's moral condition. Would they insist that there are certain moral and religious truths so essential to the way we live that efforts to violate them can only cause moral chaos? Would they instead be so absorbed with their own needs that they emphasized rights at the cost of responsibility? Or would they be attracted to individual freedom in some areas of their lives yet persuaded of the need for authority in others?

In March 2000, the New York Times Magazine carried out a public opinion poll that I helped to design. The poll asked Americans about their views on sex, money, morality, work, children, identity, and God. It tried to probe what made them happy and what caused them anxiety. It asked them to talk about their fantasies as well as their opinions. To supplement the Times poll, which was based on a national sample, I assembled a team made up mostly of graduate students to conduct in-depth interviews with people from eight distinct communities, each representing a particular slice of American experience. These included the Castro district (and neighboring Noe Valley) in San Francisco, epicenter of gay America; Atherton, California, home of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the third-richest town in America, with an average housing price of more than $2 million; Lackland Air Force Base and neighboring San Antonio, Texas; the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, attended mostly by first-generation college students; Oakwood, Ohio, a well-off suburb of Dayton; Tipton, Iowa, a classic American small town, its people in one way or another connected to agriculture; the black neighborhood of Blue Hills, in Hartford, Connecticut; and Fall River, Massachusetts, a once thriving factory town that has fallen on hard times. Most interviews took place in people's homes and lasted about one hour. All participants were promised confidentiality, and I have changed their names.

If these interviews are any indication, there are indeed disagreements over the virtues in contemporary America. Some with whom we spoke were quicker to resort to divorce than others; some favored capital punishment more decidedly than others; and some were more likely to emphasize forgiveness while others insisted on the priority of justice. Yet we should not confuse differences over how and why virtues ought to be applied with differences over the underlying moral philosophy that guides people's understanding of the world. For when it comes to fundamental questions about human nature, the formation of character, good and evil, and the sources of moral authority, our respondents have roughly the same views. There is a common American moral philosophy, and it is broad and inclusive enough to incorporate people whose opinions on actual issues of the day are at loggerheads.

If there is anything as American as apple pie, it is the idea that human beings are not born stained with sin. Of the Americans surveyed by the New York Times, 73 percent agree that all people are born inherently good. Evangelical Christians are more likely to believe in the inherent sinfulness of people than are mainstream Protestants and Catholics. Yet this does not mean that most evangelicals do. As historian Randall Balmer observes, born-again Christians traditionally emphasize the role played by "human agency in the salvation process." Because they "choose their spiritual destinies," they are likely to turn away from gloomy determinism.

As alternatives to a dark view of human nature, our respondents, whether evangelical in their religious outlook or not, offered two possibilities. One was to find indispensable what the 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards found absurd: the cheerful idea that human beings are born innocent, with a predisposition to do good. But the more common alternative was to adopt philosopher John Locke's conception of the mind as a piece of "white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas," onto which experience prints the way we come to understand the world. At the conclusion of each interview, we administered a brief questionnaire in which we asked our respondents to indicate their agreement or disagreement with a few basic propositions. One was: "In my opinion, a person is born either good or bad and there is not much society can do to change that." Thirteen of our 209 respondents agreed with that statement, only three of them strongly. By contrast, 192 disagreed, 97 of them strongly.

Nevertheless, in the great debate between nature and nurture, most of our respondents seem actually to believe in both. At least three developments in American life have shaken the Lockean premise of the mind as a blank slate. One is the popularity of the language of addiction. As Greg Sauvage, a school administrator in Fall River, puts it, just as we are learning the degree to which alcohol is addictive, we are learning that sometimes people are born with "predispositions" that shape the rests of their lives. A second is the emerging notion that at least one aspect of human behavior, homosexuality, is not chosen but is a product of certain genetic or neurological features of the person. The third involves developments in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology that seem to offer insights into how we became the particular creatures we are. We found a significant number of people willing to accept a role for genetics in fashioning human destiny among our San Francisco respondents. Randy Sullivan, a computer programmer, believes that "you do have some genetic stuff and that there can be good and bad things there." Tom Ullman, bringing Locke up to date, asked us to imagine the human mind as an unformatted floppy disk before arguing that, when we are born, there already exists software instructing the disk what to do. "I'm not a scientist," he quickly adds, but it seems obvious to him that some people are just born manic-depressive or psychotic and others are not. Compared with the optimists in our sample who believe that all evil is learned and, because learned, can also be eradicated through good education, Ullman is something of a genetic pessimist. "I don't know that everyone can be rehabilitated," he says, citing the example of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski: "There are certainly lots of people that society at large would want to lock up because we would just as soon not try to figure out how to fix them."

Another reason that some of our Californians are reluctant to endorse the Lockean notion of the mind as a blank slate is that a number of them work in the computer industry, and people who do so often take the development of information science as a metaphor for the nature of life. Some of them devour books dealing with new findings in biology and the information sciences and find in them ways of thinking about human nature that influence their outlook on the world. Atherton's Tim Crowe is one who believes that "a survival-of-the-species argument probably promotes, after many generations, a positive type of human nature." He also thinks that it is possible that "a divine intervention from God" helps the process along. Doug Reed, a San Francisco medical library manager, tries to keep up as best he can with the burgeoning literature in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, from which he has gathered that character is not something a person learns but is given at birth as a result of the way human beings have evolved over time. Unlike Crowe, Reed does not assign a role for divine intervention in the process, but he is taken with the idea that as we push toward the outer reaches of scientific understanding, we begin to approach the insights of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. There is a wholeness to the world, he believes, a state of perfection that can be achieved, once we realize the miracles of selection that have led us to evolve as we have.

What does it mean for a person to be evil, then? "Evil"--that's a strong word, we were told by one respondent, and then another, and then another. Tipton's Elaine York came close to arguing that evil is an impossibility, for even the nastiest of people cannot "be nasty all the time. Sometimes they slip." Our respondents were prepared to name historical figures they considered evil. Adolf Hitler was mentioned often, as were Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the Greensboro students mentioned rock star Marilyn Manson. Rupert Murdoch was cited by a self-described radical lesbian in San Francisco; and one Tipton resident mentioned Newt Gingrich. In fact, as long as they did not know the individuals personally, our respondents could find plenty of examples of people who they thought embodied evil. But the concept seemed to exist as an abstraction. Most found it unlikely that an evil person might exist in their immediate neighborhood, family, or workplace. Among people they knew personally, they tended to deny finding anyone evil.

Most respondents thought of saintliness as a not-in- my-backyard phenomenon. "Would I like to live next door to somebody who is so 'saintly' that they take in every stray dog and cat, or start a soup kitchen out of their own house? No, I wouldn't."

At the same time, our respondents were not sure that they wanted to find much good either. Like evil, saintliness seemed something of an abstraction to them, applicable to heroic figures of the historical or religious imagination. (Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Pope John Paul II, and, to my surprise, Sammy Sosa were people often referred to as saintly.) To be sure, some of our respondents were in awe of parents who take care of children with Down's syndrome or people who work altruistically to help the disadvantaged. But most thought of saintliness as something of a not-in-my-backyard phenomenon. "If you mean would I like to live next door to somebody who is so 'saintly' that they take in every stray dog and cat, or start a soup kitchen out of their own house, no, I wouldn't," said Atherton's Sophie Botzos. "I like living where I can be peaceful."

Seeing good in people can turn out to be a bad thing to do. For a conservative critic like the political philosopher Allan Bloom, a people who live beyond good and evil are a people who talk about values rather than virtues. "The term 'value'," he wrote, "meaning the radical subjectivity of all belief about good and evil, serves the easygoing quest for comfortable self-preservation." Indeed, most of those with whom we spoke could be considered comfortable, if not always economically, then at least in their outlook on the world, and self-preservation was very much at the center of their concerns. Bloom also writes that the use of a nonnegotiable term like "evil"--for example, in Ronald Reagan's speech calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire"--closes off discussion, making those who want to see the good in people uneasy. When you pronounce someone evil, you are in fact ostracizing that person from your community, and Americans, with some exceptions, are reluctant to engage in dramatic stigmatization.

The dominant trend among religious believers in America is toward more individualized forms of faith in which personal autonomy--switching congregations, deciding when and how to pray, emphasizing individual piety or social involvement--plays a significant role.

"I wanted to do it because I wanted you to know that there are still some people out there who have morals." Michaela Summers, an 18-year-old Southern Baptist who is majoring in elementary education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, is speaking about the reasons she agreed to participate in our study. Summers is an active member of the university's Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. She does not have a boyfriend, at least in part because she is against divorce and is therefore a bit scared of the kinds of commitment a lasting marriage would entail. She thinks that smoking is sinful and drinking immoral, and nothing, in her view, justifies narcissistic, self-indulgent behavior. For her, the Bible furnishes a set of rules by which people ought to live.

I am also glad that Summers agreed to be interviewed, because what stands out is how unusual her comments are. This is not because of her religiosity; many of our respondents are Christian and take their faith in Jesus as devoutly as she does. But the dominant trend among religious believers in America is toward more individualized forms of faith in which personal autonomy--switching congregations, deciding when and how to pray, emphasizing individual piety or social involvement--plays a significant role. One can see aspects of that autonomy among the strongest religious believers in our sample, for when they spoke to us, they stressed either the importance of individual choice or the way their faith worked miracles in their own lives. In contrast, Michaela Summers's beliefs evoke images of a time when Americans thought of themselves as born into a particular religion that gave them firm instruction in how to live and to which they would remain committed the rest of their lives.

When people believe--as most Americans now appear to--that individuals are born without sin, it is a short step to believing that the best place to turn for moral guidance is to themselves. "Somebody can't make you do something you don't want to do,' San Antonio's Lucy Martin, tells us. "You know, you draw your own guidelines." Whitney Carter, another University of North Carolina student, puts the point as simply as possible: "I hate to be told what to do." Tipton's Dominique Mottau is a 26-year-old single mother who works with victims of substance abuse and violence. The only way to change another person's behavior, she insists, is to find out what is on his or her mind, because "the answer really is in each individual." The adage that America is a free country has, at last, come true, for Americans have come to accept the relevance of individual freedom, not only in their economic and political life, but in their moral life as well.

The defining characteristic of the moral philosophy of Americans can be described as the principle of moral freedom. Contemporary Americans find answers to the perennial questions asked by theologians and moral philosophers by considering who they themselves are, what others require, and what consequences follow from acting one way rather than another. Some of our respondents adopt moral freedom as a creative challenge. For them the collapse of traditional institutions of moral authority is something worth celebrating. Schooled in the language of self-fulfillment and convinced that words like "maturity" and "growth" are preferable to words like "sin," they are quite comfortable with the idea that a good society is one that allows each individual maximum scope for making his or her own moral choices.

Even those who lament the passing of a more traditional moral order have been touched by moral freedom's appeals. The way the born-again Christians among our respondents, for instance, describe how they were once sinners but now have come to see the light of Jesus suggests a voyage of personal discovery. Indeed, there is no necessary opposition between moral freedom and moral authority. Under some circumstances, moral freedom can even be the latter's friend, for when a traditional way of life is the product of a person's own decision, it is likely to be held on to with greater tenacity and appreciation than when it is inherited unthinkingly. The strongest ties are sometimes those we bind ourselves.

Moral freedom is anything but an all-or-nothing affair. As Americans decide for themselves the best way to live, they can and do consult traditional sources of moral wisdom. Our respondents mentioned in passing not only popular television programs and self-help books, but also the example of Jesus Christ; philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and William James; novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn; theologians including Teilhard de Chardin and the Rabbi Hillel; historical figures from Winston Churchill to Dorothy Day; and films such as Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Blue Line. Some of them seek pastoral guidance from ministers, priests, and rabbis, while others rely on counselors and therapists. Many told of being inspired by great teachers. But for nearly all of them, when a moral decision has to be made, they look into themselves--at their own interests, desires, needs, sensibilities, identities, and inclinations--before they choose the right course of action. There is a moral majority in America. It just happens to be one that wants to make up its own mind.

Professor of Political Science Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at BC. This article is drawn from his new book, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2001 by Alan Wolfe.

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Private Lives
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Divided we stand: Alan Wolfe on Loyalty

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  »  A 1998 interview with Alan Wolfe
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