Virtue and Western Civilization

William H. Young

Allan Bloom titled the Introduction to The Closing of the American Mind (1987) “Our Virtue” and observed:

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative….Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue…. Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.

Tragically, a new report on the state of America’s youth by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and other collaborators, Lost in Transition (2011), finds that things have become even worse since Bloom expressed his views. Their quantitative survey and in-depth qualitative interviews explored moral reasoning among 18- to 23-year olds. The authors identify

five major problems facing very many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life….The trouble does not lie only with the emerging adults…but has much deeper roots in…a culture that emerging adults have largely inherited rather than created.

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me (2007), comments that “the results are shocking…revealing widespread moral relativism.” Columnist David Brooks observes in The New York Times that “Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism—of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.” In response to questions about right and wrong and moral dilemmas, interviewees did not have the categories or vocabulary to say anything sensible. They have not been given the resources—by schools, institutions, and families—to cultivate their moral intuitions. Another commenter remarked, ironically, “We Baby Boomers should be so very proud of breaking the hearts of our parents when we were young and now that we are old, destroying the future for our children.”

Brooks notes that Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb “warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values.” He also calls Smith’s interviewees “living, breathing examples of the trends” identified by James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character (2000). Since the 1960s, the disintegration of moral education and rise of relativism and therapeutic social science have led to the death of character venerating Greek common virtues, Roman gravitas, Renaissance erudition, Protestant conscience, and Scottish moral sense.

Postmodern multiculturalism values the freedom to say and do anything and to feel good about oneself rather than the internalization of positive ideals and the exercise of responsibility for the self. Lifestyle is the nonjudgmental word for what used to be called character, which is replaced by narcissism. Feelings rather than virtue are esteemed. Ethical behavior means having the politically correct position—diversity, social justice, sustainability—rather than possessing character and practicing virtue.

Western civilization provided very different ideals that formed the basis for American order. From the Greeks, the purpose of knowledge and culture was to mold character, to increase human potential and to overcome the flaws in human nature. Excellence was their highest ideal, along with moderation. “Know thyself” and “nothing in excess” were Apollo’s maxims at Delphi. The world of republican Rome—with its scorn of luxury, dedication to public service, and sense of dignity and obligation—was idealized by our Founders. Renaissance humanism advanced education in the virtues that enable participation in society. Protestantism instilled a mature self-mastery over impulses, fantasies, and wayward desires, inspiring duty and trust.

From Scottish moral philosophy, the Founders learned that all human beings have a moral sense and intuition to discern moral principles and distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice. From the Scots, the Founders also conceived of virtue as the restraint of selfish dispositions, leading to the exercise of prudence.

Today, confirming what the Scots taught America, modern evolutionary psychology is finding that one attribute of human nature, explained by neuroscience and evolutionary biology, is an innate moral sense, fundamental dispositions that shape human behavior and the judgments people make about the behavior of others and reciprocity. Culture influences the concepts and application of the moral sense, but the moral sphere embodies far more than our postmodern-elite-culture’s relativism.

But from the 1960s, academic cultural Marxism fostered self-centered expressive individualism—choice over commitment. Freedom from responsibility replaced acceptance of responsibility. Sexual liberation spread from the academy to society—and has visited a plague of single motherhood on lower-class families. The cult of self-esteem created a growing army of narcissists with an overvalued and empty self. The welfare state reinforced the most self-indulgent side of expressive individualism. Now, “openness and tolerance” have been superseded by “diversity and inclusion” as the reigning academic dogma of political correctness. Should we be surprised that our youth are “lost in transition?”

Shakespeare’s universal wisdom about human nature and affairs and the proper ideals of a noble life is one of the humanistic messages of Western civilization promoted by NAS as part of a liberal education. In the postmodern academy, our college-educated elites have, ironically, been admonished that his dramas are only a cultural construct reflecting the elitist and sexist power struggles of his society, a privileged cultural conspiracy. But in Shakespeare’s Philosophy (2006), Colin McGinn explains that:

Shakespeare brings morality into the heart of his dramas because morality is part of nature. It is part of what constitutes the thing we call human nature—our nature as   responsible and autonomous persons. For Shakespeare’s characters are, above all, ethical beings. They are defined by their moral qualities, their virtues and vices, their propensities toward good and bad….In witnessing a Shakespeare play our consciousness is engaged morally in an intense and unavoidable way….What makes Shakespeare a great moralist…is that he is expert at expressing and dramatizing moral questions—at exposing the workings of good and evil, in the individual soul and in social relationships (especially families). He is a great moral psychologist.

Our youth need to learn once again about virtue rather than political correctness from their college educations, as NAS has suggested.

What is the solution to our state of affairs? The academy’s answer—redistributing power and wealth to putatively oppressed groups to provide “social justice”—fails to address and cannot solve a root cause of our societal difficulties: misguided nurture of individuals. Our destructive cultural ethos must be changed, beginning with revision of the posture of—and moral suasion from—our upper-middle-class elites. This must be done by neither government nor the market, but by family, civil society, and religion.

The late sociologist Robert Nisbet, in “Still Questing,” Intercollegiate Review (Fall 1993), called for “reinforcing, nurturing, where necessary, the varied groups and associations which form the true building blocks of the social order.” In The New Promise of American Life (Hudson Institute, 1995), William Kristol calls strengthening the institutions of civil society that attend to the character of the citizenry a new “sociology of virtue,” which

implies a thinking through of the ways in which social institutions can be reinvented, restructured, or reformed to promote virtue and foster sound character….A good society also requires a resurgence of efforts within the private and voluntary spheres to grapple directly with our social problems, problems that are ultimately problems of character, problems of virtue.

Lost in Transition provides further evidence of our cultural decay. Western and American founding ideals for individual character and virtue— supported by latest scientific moral sense findings—need to be restored by our colleges and universities as the basis for higher education, as recommended by NAS, to produce elites who might begin to renew the foundations of civil society and our American order.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Ragnar Vorel, Public Domain 

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