The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil

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Toggle navigation MENU. Email Address. Email address:. Moderates and liberals have claimed an equal stake in the effort. And this values industry is merely one part of a conglomerate of interests, activities, and institutions given to the moral development of children and the strengthening of the moral character of citizens more broadly. Character Matters Does character really matter? The collective wisdom of the ages would say it matters a great deal. Individual character was essential to decency, order, and justice within public life.

Without it, hardship was not far off. The matter of character and social welfare was especially consequential in the case of rulers in both biblical and classical civilizations. As the wisdom writer wrote, "when the righteous are in power, the people rejoice, but they groan when the wicked hold office. Yet when they were disobedient, as when they created and worshipped the golden calf God punished. When Israel reflected the justice and holiness of God's character in its collective life, it was blessed; when it rebelled, the nation was disciplined.

The association between individual character and collective well-being was equally clear to the ancient Greek philosophers. In the Republic , Plato held up character as the defining qualification of the ruling class. This was for the simple reason that rulers with character were "most likely to devote their lives to doing what they judged to be in the interest of the community. As Plato put it, "the community suffers nothing very terrible if its cobblers are bad and become degenerate and pretentious; but if the Guardians of the laws and state, who alone have the opportunity to bring it good government and prosperity become a mere sham, then clearly it is completely ruined.

The French philosopher Montesquieu, for example, reiterated the case to his generation and those that followed when he observed that "the corruption of each government almost always begins with that of its principles. In his monumental L'Esprit des Lois in , Montesquieu reasoned that "there need not be much integrity for a monarch or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself. However, in a popular state, power as raw as this was not enough. Rather, the essential ingredient for true justice and order was virtue.

Its absence in such regimes, he believed, would be catastrophic. They saw strength of character as essential to the vitality of their experiment in democracy. In his own words, "it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

To suppose that any form of Government will secure liberty or happiness without any form of virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.

Citizens should "be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, proportioned indeed, but irremissible. History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in elevated virtues is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy. The importance of character is a part of the moral imagination we Americans have inherited, a sensibility reinforced by the lessons of history.

It is this sensibility that continues to frame our understanding of character today. Commentators abound who catalog the wide range of public problems in the contemporary world "as arising out of a defect of character formation. Character and the Good Society However one may view the present state of America, the point on which nearly everyone agrees is that American culture is changing in profound and often unsettling ways and that morality and character have something to do with it.

How, then, are we to understand these changes? How does character fit in? This question is as old as social science itself and it remains central to its mission.

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The great French social philosopher of the late nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim, was one of many who made this his life's passion. Particularly under the conditions of the modern and now "postmodern" world, is a society that is merely decent, not to mention just, even possible?

If so, how and on what terms?

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In our time, Durkheim's passion has become everyone's passion. We are restless because the questions are not merely academic. The stakes are tangible, immediate, and consequential.

The Death of Character

This book stands in this tradition of inquiry: what are the terms by which American society will be ordered and sustained? The Demise of Character Within the Larger Dynamics of Society and History At one level, the passing of character in our day is a consequence of larger, impersonal forces of history within our particular society, in which any one individual is mostly a passive participant. The term "character," as Warren Sussman has argued, achieved its greatest currency in America in the nineteenth century.

It was frequently associated with words like "honor," "reputation," "integrity," "manners," "golden deeds," "duty," " citizenship," and, not least, "manhood. With growing abundance, more emphasis could be placed upon accumulation, leisure, and the cultivation of personal preferences. While the word "character" did not disappear, an alternative vision of the self emerged.

The concept of personality reflected a self no longer defined by austerity but by emancipation for the purposes of expression, fulfillment, and gratification. Here too the social role reflected in the word "personality" shifted from achievement to performance.

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In a culture of character, Sussman argued, the public demanded a correlation between achievement and fame; in the emerging culture of personality, that requirement was absent. In sum, changing ideas of the self reflect changing social structures, structures that impose different requirements upon the role and presentation of the self.

The older ideas of the self surrounding the character ideal suited the personal and social needs of an older political economy; the newer ideas reflected in the concept of personality emerged because they better fit the demands of a developing consumer society. Character and Moral Imagination But there is much more to be said about all of this. A discussion of character is not only about the kind of self produced in a particular kind of society but about the kind of moral understandings and moral commitments that are possible.

Under present historical circumstances, what are the frameworks of our moral imagination? What are the vistas of our moral horizon, and how have they changed? To seek a good society is first a matter of what can be morally envisioned. Only then is it a matter of what can be realized within social institutions and in the lives of real people.