Virtue in America

     It may seem that America actually has too much freedom, undermining morality and virtue. Muslim enemies in particular denounce the US as a licentious society. But this reflects too narrow a view of what virtue means. Some Muslim societies obsess over codes of supposed virtue that tell the father of a girl who is raped that he must kill her. In contrast, it is the genius of modern America to see people as individuals whose virtue is premised on finding their own way, being guided from within, rather than obeying some rule book. That was the lesson of Huckleberry Finn: he helped a slave escape, which contravened the rules of his society. But following his heart, instead of a societal code, freed him to be moral in a truer, deeper way.

            Americans thusly realize we have the responsibility to figure things out for ourselves. That is harder than just doing what you’re told, but it’s also better. Only where there is real choice can there be authentic virtue; and that’s why, even if America’s freedom means people are free to be bad, and some do act badly, such a society is ultimately more virtuous than one in which everyone just knuckles under to authority.

            And what, after all, is the point of virtue? Again, it isn’t because certain rules were handed down from somewhere. It’s to give us good lives. When people are left free to find their own paths, mostly they act well toward each other. And so, among Americans, for all our moral lapses, the bigger picture is one of great decency toward one another. Ours is a society of good lives, and very great virtue indeed.   

3 Responses to “Virtue in America”

  1. Barbara Garro Says:

    Our America of the 1950, yes, was basically virtuous, God-loving and taught morals and values. Our America of 2008 fueled by American television, American radio, American movies is more and more nearly devoid of virtue and teaches our adults and children self-gratifying morals, no positive character traits and a instant gratification, what have you done for me today mindset..

  2. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Right on. One should recognize that the more licentious elements of American society are often a matter of debate here, and are not considered acceptable by many. Pornography, homosexuality, abortion, etc. are all areas of contention in this country. We’re working through these moral disagreements in a democratic manner, and we can hope that eventually, we will arrive at a place where the rights of all are respected, and where everyone has the possibility of living their life in a way most fulfilling to them while still respecting the needs of our society as a whole.

  3. james at Temple Says:

    Examine the history…the idea of sovereign individual you praise goes back to the Protestant /Republican reformation of Europe that begin almost 500yrs ago; brought to America via Cato’s Letters during the 1700’s. Going back even further, we see that virtue was an integral element of Roman citizenship, and signified power. Stoic rule of the self was integral to holding the reigns, and Protestantism adopted this idea and developed even further. See Cotton Mather’s Essays To do Good and Franklin’s Autobiography because they are testaments to American virtue that clearly shows its ancient roots in European statecraft. So many people on the rights and left just don’t know their history, and use American exceptionalism as a shield of righteousness.

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