An excerpt from

Real American Ethics

Taking Responsibility for Our Country

Albert Borgmann

The Scope and Coherence of American Ethics

How can anyone hope to set down ethics for so large and populous a country as the United States? Well, you have to remember that the great philosophers of the modern era meant to define ethical principles not just for this continent and our time but for all times and all places. Such universal principles, however, have got to be thin or false. An ethics that matters must have a more definite compass. How narrow should it be? Somewhere, presumably, in between the universe and Missoula, Montana.

A nation provides a fair scope for ethics. Of course, the notion of the nation has had a bad press lately. Nations are oppressive to regions and obsolete in a global era, we have been told. Here, as so often, we tend to be the spoiled beneficiaries of our ancestors. Building this nation took great resourcefulness, a combination of fortitude, ingenuity, and good judgment. It was built, to be sure, on the destruction of Native American culture and the subordination of African Americans and women. But in the end, it made for the inclusion of all and over the expanse of a continent.

The great virtue of a nation is that the people comprising it take responsibility for one another and for what they have in common. When people in Mississippi made it impossible for African Americans to vote, we did not write it off to the amusing or regrettable customs of Mississippians but rather saw to it that they changed their ways. When Alaskans want to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we do not let them go ahead in their state as they see fit but prevent them from disturbing land that is pristine and belongs to the entire nation. This is all to the good. But we have to do more. We have to take our mutual and inclusive responsibility more seriously and understand it more deeply.

"Taking responsibility" may sound meddlesome and intrusive. When a guest of yours begins to take responsibility for the appearance of your home, criticizing the arrangement of your furniture, lecturing you, and moving things around, you will say: "Please don't take responsibility." But if he absentmindedly lights up a cigar and scatters ashes all over your floor, you will say: "For heaven's sake, do take responsibility." Or if he starts to treat a Native American guest with condescension and contempt, you will take responsibility for his behavior and ask him to leave. "Taking responsibility" in a patronizing way is clearly unacceptable. But taking responsibility for what we obliviously and perhaps detrimentally do to one another is recognition or realization rather than intrusion.

Is it possible to say something coherent and substantial about the norms and values that people in this country observe or ought to follow? Isn't this one of the most diverse societies in the world? Consider the cleaning woman in New York City who makes $20,000 a year. The businessman whose office she cleans makes $20 million. She speaks Chinese; he speaks English. She has four children; he has one child. She honors Confucius; he is Episcopalian. Between these two distant points on the social map, there are many grades of income and prosperity, a diversity of religious beliefs and ethnic origins, countless languages—what do all these people have in common?

The cleaning woman and the Wall Street financier share a vision of the good life. She understands very well what he possesses in fame and fortune, and she is determined to help her children attain it. He knows how she lives, and he takes satisfaction in knowing he is better off. There is mobility in society, yet not as much as the rich like to claim to give their status the glow of hard-earned merit and less than the lower classes imagine so they can allow hope to prevail over realism. What social and economic mobility there is, at any rate, builds a highway of common understanding across the thickets of diversity, and hence the janitor could easily do in her leisure what the banker does if only the janitor had his money. She could climb into a private jet as easily as she now climbs onto the bus. She could enjoy the five courses at Le Cirque as well as she eats the hamburger she gets at McDonald's. It is no longer the case that to belong to the upper class a young woman has to be able to play the harpsichord, do needlework, and remember the steps and bows of the minuet; nor does a young man have to know how to fence, to ride, and to read Cicero in the original.

Obstacles in the Path of Excellence

This country has the right size, and its people share enough of their ways and wants so that we can say something coherent and substantial about their typical conduct and values. But how are we to judge all this? And more daunting still, who could presume to tell Americans how to change their ways if judging their ethics is possible and the judgment turns out to be damning? The answer that leaps to everyone's lips is: No way and no one.

The arguments in support of the answer are second nature to us. First off, in a democracy, it is the individual's right to decide how to conduct his or her life. The only limit on that right is the next person's right to self-determination. This consideration is not only a moral principle, it is a pragmatic necessity, so the argument continues. In a country of so many different convictions and pursuits, telling people how to live their lives would lead to friction and unrest. Finally, if somehow all of us agreed to search for a better moral life, where would we find it? What would it be? Is not the good life a matter of preference? And is it not true that there is no disputing of tastes?

Self-determination or autonomy is definitely a moral landmark of contemporary ethics. It gives our lives spaciousness. We would find life without it oppressive and unbearable. But self-determination is always more narrowly constrained by factors other than equality—the recognition that my self-determination ends where yours begins. Among others, it is constrained by Churchill's principle. In 1943, when the House of Commons had to be rebuilt due to Nazi bombing, Winston Churchill reminded the Members of Parliament: "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

The individual does not shape buildings. We do it together, after disagreements, discussions, compromises, and decisions. We, the citizens of this country, through the federal government, were of different minds about interstate roads. We discussed this issue, compromised on the legislation, and in 1956 finally decided that we would build the Interstate Highway System. Once it was built, individuals, so we thought, would decide whether or how to use it. But as we can now see, the possibilities that the system opened up induced people to behave in certain ways. They bought more cars, abandoned public transportation, moved to the suburbs, forgot about sidewalks, blighted the inner cities, drove to Disney World on their vacation, gained weight, and spent a lot of time alone in their cars.

The ways we are shaped by what we have built are neither neutral nor forcible, and since we have always assumed that public and common structures have to be one or the other, the intermediate force of our building has remained invisible to us, and that has allowed us to ignore the crucial point: We are always and already engaged in drawing the outlines of a common way of life, and we have to take responsibility for this fact and ask whether it is a good life, a decent life, or a lamentable life that we have outlined for ourselves.

Inevitably, our common building also forces us to overcome dissent and limit diversity. The way we have done this has led to regrettable losses of cultural variety. The multicultural complexion of American life is more subject to danger than a source of it, and it is not only the constraints from without that imperil ethnic traditions but also as much the withering from within that they suffer when faced with the glamours of mainstream prosperity. That internal weakening often leads to terminal subversion where a minority grievance is no longer a plea for the preservation of a tradition or for the right to a distinctive way of life but a brief for a larger share in the standard kind of affluence that is the death of profound cultural diversity.

We have to be fair when it comes to judging the kind of life that has been the result of our shared building and common desiring. Ours is a decent society. But it has troubling features. The common lack of knowledge of physics, biology, geography, history, and politics is embarrassing. Average health is declining and physical fitness is poor. Civic engagement and personal relations are ailing. Knowledge and command of music and the arts, whether popular or elite, are stunted. Awareness of Churchill's principle is dim. Public support of the poor in this country and around the world is the most miserly among the industrialized countries. Our stewardship of the environment is indifferent. The public realm of this country is busy and messy, and most of the public places of recreation and celebration we owe to our great-great-grandparents.

Some of these failings are of a private and personal kind, problems an individual's resolve could deal with, beginning tonight. But a person would do so in the teeth of the larger shape of society. To take the problem of health and physical fitness, there is helpful information, wholesome food, playing fields, running tracks, and enough time for people to eat well and exercise and even become good at tennis or softball. But all these promptings of the good life are swamped by the superabundance of fast and convenient food, by the easy affordability of television and the availability of alluring electronic entertainment right within one's four walls. It was not my decision to build a Hamburger King five minutes from my house or to establish an automobile industry that makes a fine car for half of my year's wages. I did not sponsor research on plasma screens, nor did I organize the writing and staging of witty and captivating television programs. But here I am, surrounded by a cornucopia of tempting food and ready entertainment. Rousing myself to cook dinner, calling my beloved to the table, putting on my coat after dinner to take them on a walk, all this seems forbidding and pointless, given the convenient alternatives.

The troubling features we share in the public realm are simply the lamentable outside of the deplorable inside. In order to put all the consumable treasures of my home within easy reach, the public realm favors utility—transportation links and shopping facilities along with the utilities to support them. The trend to push production, consumption, and affluence, in turn, makes us forget the poor and neglect the environment.

Is there a common root to these issues? Are they symptoms of an underlying malady? Is there a loss of meaning, a decline of values, an end to humanity and history? These are plausible questions, and it makes sense to look for coherence in the welter of troubling features. They are as a matter of fact connected with one another and converge on a central issue. But the center is more tangible and prosaic than the questions suggest, and it is best disclosed by following the everyday leads that point to it.

Not that all is bleakness in this country. American society is not only decent, it can also boast of cultural achievements that are second to none. But they are not our common possessions. If you drive south from Chicago's Loop, you quickly leave the splendors of the Art Institute, the Symphony Center, Soldiers Field, and the University of Chicago and enter an endless expanse of mediocrity and misery. Resignation is the ready reaction, and when challenged and called to account for this sorrowful state of affairs, we are likely to defend ourselves with reminders that the pursuit of excellence is elitist, or oppressive, or a wild goose chase.

The Reality of Moral Standards

The landmarks of decency and the virtues of excellence that are the remedies for the sores on the body politic and the private person are not really in question. The landmarks have been articulated by modern theories of ethics, and they prominently include equality, dignity, and self-determination. While the last of these can be abused to ward off the claims of excellence, the first is at the heart of democracy, and no one can doubt that democracy today is the only viable and vital form of government. The notion of dignity gives equality substance. It tells us what equality minimally requires—everyone's dignity is to be respected and secured. Dignity here is not the distinction that deserves honor and acclaim. That kind of dignity cannot be universal. Dignity as a moral landmark is inalienable dignity, the kind that need not be acquired and cannot be lost though it can be violated. It is the reason why we do not tolerate the torture, starvation, or abuse of even the worst criminal. Equality and dignity circumscribe justice in its least requirements—that everyone in this country be fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, and given medical care, and that we make every effort to extend this kind of justice to everyone on the planet.

Regard for the environment is one of the moral successes of the past century. Nothing less than a revolution occurred between 1950 and 2000 when conquest and domination lost their ruling position as the normal approach to nature and environmental concern took their place. We still pollute water and air, we push roads into untouched forests, we drill and mine in pristine areas. But those who initiate such enterprises today can no longer count on popular applause. They now carry the burden of proof that development and exploitation are economically necessary and environmentally tolerable.

When it comes to the individual pursuit of excellence, uniform mediocrity rather than unruly diversity is the problem. Knowing what the norms of personal excellence are is not the problem. There are three reasonable ways that converge on the same three virtues. To recognize the first approach, we have to overcome the vague resentment we feel when challenged to excel. We have been bruised and defeated in our attempts to do better, and yet we know that others have succeeded and that, though often tripped up, we should soldier on. But there is a way of transporting ourselves into a high-minded and generous position. Imagine you are rocking your one-year-old in your arms and the child's fairy godmother appears before you, and she says: "Would it be all right if I were to arrange the course of your child's life so she would become knowledgeable and insightful, well educated in the sciences and letters, and well schooled in judging the character of persons and the circumstances of life? And so she would acquire a courageous heart and become skilled in athletics and brave in facing trouble? And, finally, so she would become devoted to friendship and value her friends and her spouse above all?"

Would anyone reply, No, I want her to be ignorant, timid, and a loner? The three moral skills are the ones that have traditionally been called the virtues of wisdom, courage, and friendship. There is then a second way to excellence, one that began in antiquity and is being followed to this day. Although philosophers today are as reluctant as the next person to tell people what to do (beyond being fair), they do, when musing about the good life, think of it as knowledgeable and insightful and as supported by steady and rewarding personal relations. They are less concerned with physical engagement and prowess, a testament, perhaps, to the nerdy nature of mainstream philosophy.

The third way is that of the social scientist. Much research has been done on happiness, whether it can be validly established and reliably measured, who has it, how it changes, and, important for our purposes, what is conducive to it. As it turns out, being well educated, curious, and informed, being well practiced in meeting adversity and obstacles, and having a warm and reliable marriage or friendship all rank high among the factors of happiness.

Practices of moral excellence flesh out the framework of equality, dignity, and self-determination. They tell us what lies beyond the minimal norms of decency. They begin to give us a portrait of the good person and a picture of the good life, at least in outline, for there are blank and blurry areas. Two are especially notable. Most sketches of excellence show that a life that is blind and deaf to beauty and the arts would fail to be full. So to the three traditional virtues we should add the skill and practice of being engaged in the arts, whether popular or high, as a connoisseur or a practitioner. There is no good name for this virtue, though in the shadows of Aristotle's ethics we find the figure of the "gracious" person, the one who possesses taste, refinement, and beauty and, so I will add, reflects in his or her demeanor the splendor and radiance of the arts and perhaps of religion. Grace, then, would be a name for the virtue of the arts or religion.

The most glaring blank on the moral canvas, however, is the unconcern with Churchill's principle. If we are unaware of how the shaping of our household typically shapes our practices, we can tell our children to do their homework, to stay away from soda pop and snacks, to talk to us, and to practice their instruments till we are blue in the face—it will only create frustration and resentment unless our home is so arranged that doing the right thing comes naturally or at least does not require heroic self-discipline. Here too a tradition and a term for the appropriate virtue are lacking, but again we can wrest them from Aristotle, who was keenly aware of how important the shaping of the household is. He held his nose while talking about this, but he did have a name for the ordering of the household. It is economy, and it can serve as the term for being savvy and practiced when it comes to Churchill's principle in the domestic sphere.

Just as personal conduct is shaped and channeled by either the exercise or the neglect of economy, so economy is constrained by the kind of world we have put together collectively. We have a term for the political virtue of caring for equality—it is justice; and there is something of a term for the virtue of caring for the environment—it is stewardship. But what is the term for political rather than private economy? There is in fact a thing called "political economy." Today it refers to the scholarly concern with the connections between politics and the economy. So it is unavailable for our purposes. Again we have to conscript a term that is helpful if not perfect, and design has the right connotations. That it refers as least as much to the quality of the things designed as to the virtue of the designers is congenial to Churchill's principle.

Ethics is being equal to the claims of persons and things, particularly to the claims that make us lesser people if we ignore them. The moral landmarks that the modern theories of ethics have discovered and the traditional virtues that set norms for practices of excellence work well in telling us how to treat one another and how to conduct ourselves. But there is this assumption in theoretical and practical ethics that life unfolds on an empty stage, or at least the belief that, when it comes to doing the right thing, the props on the stage of life don't matter much.

That was a reasonable assumption when the material culture changed slowly and its moral significance came to no more than being fair in distributing things and moderate in enjoying things. Justice and temperance are in fact two of Plato's cardinal virtues (the other two being wisdom and courage). But the Industrial Revolution changed the stage of life from the ground up, and now the technological devices that surround us channel the typical ways we behave. Ethics has to become real as well as theoretical and practical. It has to become a making as well as a doing. Real means tangible; real ethics is taking responsibility for the tangible setting of life. Real also means relevant, and real ethics is grounding theoretical and practical ethics in contemporary culture and making them thrive again.

American Ethics

All right then, we need real ethics. But why American ethics? Haven't we had enough grief from the global community for being self-absorbed and overbearing? There are two good reasons why limiting ourselves to the United States is reasonable. First, for an ethics to be relevant to people, it has to address their particular circumstances. Global ethics would have to be thin, or it would be endless if it tried to be concrete and detailed (though the requirement of global justice is as urgent as it is general). Second, though the United States is a young country compared with China and Japan, or France and England, it is culturally the oldest sibling of the global family. It has been the first since the late nineteenth century to move through the stages of technological development and to experience their blessings and burdens. This country was the first to have an automotive economy, an inclusive telephone system, a television culture, and cyberlife, and it may again be the first to live in a genetically modified world.

American culture is spreading around the globe. But is American ethics traveling with it? Ethics is sometimes used descriptively. In that sense, it describes the typical conduct of a person or a people. So understood, a certain amount of American ethics goes along with American culture. But ethics can also be taken normatively, as a statement of norms of moral excellence. Is there something like American ethics in the normative sense? Are there virtues that we and the people in other nations take to be characteristically American?

Yes, there are two such virtues, generosity and resourcefulness. They have distinguished us, at any rate, when we, as individuals and as a nation, have been at our best. As individuals we are extraordinarily generous in providing time and money for good causes. As a nation, we were generous in helping Europe to rebuild after the Second World War and in coming to the aid of Kosovars when they were raped and murdered. There is a more informal and pervasive sense of generosity in this country. You see it in the way we accept immigrants, open our doors to strangers, welcome diversity, and cherish freedom of expression.

Resourcefulness too is a many-sided virtue. Part of it is the persistence our predecessors showed in building a society from scratch (though on the ruins of earlier communities) and in the kind of adversity that is hard to fathom today. Resourcefulness is the ingenuity that was provoked by new circumstances and the convergence of different cultures. It is the refusal to take no for an answer and the readiness to take on daunting projects.

Generosity is the characteristic way in which we have fused the virtues of friendship, grace, justice, and stewardship. Resourcefulness is the American fusion of the virtues of wisdom, courage, economy, and design. To the benevolent observers of this country it has often seemed that what largeness the American soul possesses is due in part to the largeness of this continent. If there is this correspondence, then, to the way technology as a form of culture has shrunk this country, there is a corresponding tendency to let generosity and resourcefulness shrink as well. Of course, the virtues of this country have always been imperiled, and sometimes they have crashed and burned, but the danger that now besets them is unusually subtle and difficult to counter.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 3-12 of Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country by Albert Borgmanno, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Albert Borgmann
Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country
©2006, 232 pages
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 0-226-06634-7

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