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Spring 1996
 
City Journal Spring 1996.
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In  P rospect

 

What a challenge to our prevailing notions of human motivation is the news that Japanese women don't have out-of wedlock children, simply because there is a social stigma against it. Yes, they can get generous welfare benefits for illegitimate kids, but they are not tempted by this "incentive," as U.S. policy analysts might call it—not even if they are poor. Their behavior arises not from economics but from shared beliefs about right and wrong.

If you ask what beliefs about right and wrong Americans share—and how they know what's right and why they do it—you step into one of our hottest national debates. Two extraordinary articles in this issue take opposed positions on these matters. Their disagreement is fruitful and suggestive, for it clarifies these fundamental questions—and what is at stake in how we resolve them.

Surveying the dispiriting data on lawlessness among black Americans, John J. DiIulio Jr., in “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours,” asks what can be done to curb this epidemic of law-breaking, whose principal victims are other black Americans. His answer: religion, as embodied by the black churches.

You don't have to be religious to see the force of this argument. After all, DiIulio observes, crime is a moral problem that requires a moral solution. It isn't the result of bad social conditions, of “root causes” like poverty, but of a spiritual vacuum within the criminal. It is a social problem that is really a personal problem: its solution isn't social change but a change of heart, a deep conviction that lawless behavior is wrong. What's needed is to awaken a conscience in each criminal, and what is better suited to the task than religion, long practiced in matters of sin and redemption?

As the French Revolution unfolded, Edmund Burke foresaw that the Jacobins, in systematically destroying religion, were laying waste to a key agency of social control: the majority of men do right because they believe in the absolute authority of God. Take away this inner belief, and only the power of the state, a much weaker authority, will enforce right doing.

In time, who will even know what right doing is? For without God, Nietzsche famously observed, everything is permitted. The moral sense vanishes along with moral authority. Without an Absolute, everything is relative and unfixed.

So one answer many Americans now give to the question of moral authority is a religious one. They've turned in revulsion from a sordid world without a moral beacon and chosen a religious certitude that banishes puzzlement about what the good is and why we must do it.

But what about the rest of us? In “Decencies for Skeptics,” Roger Scruton addresses that question: for secular people in a secular age, on what foundation does morality rest? On reason, an Enlightenment optimist would reply; but Scruton knows that the same reason that dissolved religious faith will eat through anything that tries to contain it. The relativism of today's political correctness is reason's way of dealing with moral absolutes. So, taking a tip from Burke, Scruton asks why should we not take Enlightenment reason on faith, as a belief we've inherited from our ancestors, along with all the other Enlightenment virtues we so value, the tolerant virtues of liberal democracy? When nihilistic political correctness tries to turn reason against these virtues, why not reject the very terms of the attack and say that we believe these things because they are an inheritance from our ancestors, who found that they worked, and we are thus loath to part with them?

Today’s effort to keep the great works of Western literature and philosophy in the university curriculum rests on this same faith-though it's an uphill battle, as Kay S. Hymowitz's “J. Crew U.” makes clear. For in a secular age, what better guide do we have to what's right and wrong than the reflection of 3,000 years of thinkers on human experience-what works for mankind and what doesn't, what seems to make human life free and happy and noble and what leads to tyranny or degradation? We are not the first people to ask such questions, perhaps even not the wisest.

 

 


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