From The Peaceable Kingdom
Our sense that we live in a morally chaotic, fragmented world accounts for two of the dominant characteristics of recent ethical theory: (1) the stress on freedom, autonomy, and choice as the essence of the moral life; and (2) the attempt to secure a foundation for the moral life unfettered by the contingencies of our histories and communities. As we will see, these are closely related insofar as it is assumed that freedom depends on finding the means to disentangle ourselves from our own engagements.
Caught between the competing interests, we increasingly feel compelled to create or choose our morality. This is variously reflected by moral theories such as emotivism, existentialism, and situationalism, which maintain that moral knowledge is not so much discovered as “created” through personal choice. Therefore the necessary basis of authentic morality is seen as the freedom to choose and willingness to take responsibility for choices.
Such a strong assertion of freedom seems a bit odd when we remember that one of our other dominant assumptions is that we are largely determined by our environment and biology. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modernity is that we feel ourselves at once both determined and free. Peter Berger suggests an explanation for this glaring incompatibility in his Heretical Imperative.
According to Berger, premodern people lived for the most part in a given world. They had little choice about where to live, what vocation to enter, or whom to marry. As a result, they were not hounded by our modern ambivalence. While premodern people may have struggled with the meaning of life, they did not need to question, as we seem required to do, whether their life was sufficiently coherent to legitimately ask its meaning.
Modern people, Berger contends, find themselves confronted not only by many possible courses of action, but also by many possible ways of thinking about the world. As a result all life has become consumer oriented. We choose not only between toothpastes, but between the very “plausibility” structures that give our lives coherence and meaning. Our need to choose even those basic beliefs about why things are as they are and not otherwise, suggests an arbitrariness about them which undermines truthfulness. Finally, the only thing we feel we can be sure of in such a world is the absolute necessity of our own autonomy. In fact, our deepest conviction, our surest “plausibility structure,” is that if our lives are to have meaning we must create it.
We have thus been condemned to freedom, or as Berger prefers, the “heretical imperative.” “For premodern man, heresy is a possibility – usually a rather remote one; for modern man, heresy typically becomes a necessity. Or again modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.” Thus our ethical theorizing has led to the notion that freedom is not only a necessity but a moral ideal. Freedom itself is at once the necessary and sufficient condition of being moral.
But is this situation so unique? Haven’t almost all moral theories held in different ways that people could only be responsible for what they have the power to do? Has not freedom always been thought crucial to moral behavior? Yet for philosophers such as Aristotle, freedom was not an end in itself; we became free only as we acquired the moral capability to guide our lives. To lack such capability was to be subject to the undisciplined desires and choices of the immature. Thus freedom did not reside in making choices but in being the kind of person for whom certain options simply were not open. For example, the courageous could not know the fears of the coward though they were required to know the fears appropriate to being courageous. Only the virtuous person could be free, insofar as freedom was not so much a status as a skill.
In contrast to our sense of “freedom of choice” the virtuous person was not confronted by “situations” about which he or she was to make a decision, rather the person determined the situation by insisting on understanding it not as a “situation” but as an event in a purposive narrative. Character determines circumstance, even when the circumstance may be forced upon us, by our very ability to interpret our actions in a story that accounts for moral activity.
In contrast, the modern conception has made freedom the content of the moral life itself. It matters not what we desire, but that we desire. Our task is to become free, not through the acquisition of virtue, but by preventing ourselves from being determined, so that we can always keep our “options open.” We have thus become the bureaucrats of our own history, seeking never to be held responsible for any decisions, even for those we ourselves have made.
This attempt to avoid our history, however, results in the lack of the self-sufficiency to claim our lives as our own. For as we look back on our lives, many of the decisions we thought we were making freely, seem now to have been more determined than we had realized. We say: “If I only knew then what I know now.” Using this as a means to claim nonresponsibility for our past, we imagine that next time we will really act “freely.” As a result we tend to think the moral life and ethical reflection are concerned with prospective decisions and the securing of the conditions necessary to insure that those “decisions” will be free. We ignore the fact that the more important moral stance is retrospective, because it is in remembering and accepting that we learn to claim our lives as our own – including those decisions that in retrospect were less than free. Ironically, my freedom turns out to depend on my ability to make my own that which I did not do with “free choice” but which I cannot do without. For what we are, our sense of ourselves, rests as much on what we have suffered as what we have done.
The modern assumption that freedom is the necessary and sufficient condition of morality is not easily changed, for it also determines how we govern our social relations. Our society seems generally to think that to be moral, to act in a responsible way, is to pursue our desires fairly – that is, in a manner that does not impinge on anyone else’s freedom. We assume we can do as we want so long as we do not harm or limit anyone else’s choices. A good society is one that provides the greatest amount of freedom for the greatest number of people. Although such an ethic appears to be highly committed to the common good, in fact its supporting theory is individualistic, since the good turns out to be the sum of our individual desires.
Even more troubling than this individualism is the price we pay in holding this view of ourselves and others; the price is nothing less than a systematic form of self-deception. Insofar as we are people who care about anything at all, we necessarily impinge on the “freedom” of others. But we act as if we do not, thus hiding from ourselves and others the truth that we are necessarily tied together in a manner that mutually limits our lives. We have taught ourselves to describe our moral convictions as our “personal desires,” implying thereby that they need not significantly affect others. In fact, however, there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments. But there is nothing wrong with asking others to share and sacrifice for what we believe to be worthy. A more appropriate concern is whether what we commit ourselves to is worthy or not.
As a result of our self-deception our relations have become unrelentingly manipulative. We see ourselves and others as but pawns engaged in elaborate games of power and self-interest. I do not mean to suggest that there has ever been a time or social order from which manipulation was absent. What is new about our present situation is that our best moral wisdom can conceive of no alternative. We seem able only to suggest ways to make the game more nearly fair. We are unable to provide an account of a morality worthy of requiring ourselves and others to suffer and thus releasing us from the prison of our own interests.
Our stress on freedom and its ethical expression renders us incapable of accounting for certain activities which seem central to the human project. Consider something as simple as the decision to have children. In an ethics of freedom how can we justify such a decision when it clearly involves an imposition of our will and desires on that new life. No amount of good care and/or love could be sufficient to redress the imbalance of freedom in this situation. We have forced this being into existence to satisfy our desires! In the ethos of freedom the relationship between parents and children cannot help but induce resentment and the resulting bargaining games. We resent the time our children require of us and they resent the burden of guilt they feel for what appears to be our begrudging care for them. We are thus caught in a web of manipulation from which we seem unable to escape.