Thursday, November 29, 2012

Virtue and the Founders

We're looking at Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, starting here.

Murray argues that mainstream America is seeing crucial social institutions erode. He gives a fascinating account of how the founders of the United States were convinced that the bedrock of the Republic was the virtue of the people. Naturally, I found this illuminating because of my continued interest in virtue ethics, like this post the other day. According to Murray,

Everyone involved in the creation of the United States knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry—not gentility, but virtue. “No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,” James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

For Benjamin Franklin, this meant that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” On the other hand, virtue makes government easy to sustain: “The expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed.”

Washington emphasized the point too:

George Washington said much the same thing in the undelivered version of his first inaugural address, asserting that “no Wall of words, no mound of parchment can be formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.” Or as he put it most simply in his Farewell Address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” In their various ways, the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.

This shows, of course, how natural and widespread and unexceptional a belief in the virtues was before the utilitarian 19th century.

Now Murray believes virtue is eroding.

The success of America depended on virtue in the people when the country began and it still does in the twenty-first century. America will remain exceptional only to the extent that its people embody the same qualities that made it work for the first two centuries of its existence. The founding virtues are central to that kind of citizenry.


Four key institutions

He spends much of the rest of the book distingushing between the mores of an upper class suburb, which he calls Belmont, and a lower class one, Fishtown. The four core institutions of society - marriage, work, religion, and social trust - have all eroded markedly in Fishtown, he says. Marriage has declined:

For the first time in human history, we now have societies in which a group consisting of a lone woman and her offspring is not considered to be sociologically incomplete—not considered to be illegitimate—and so I will adapt and call them nonmarital births.

So too has the work ethic. One interesting thing is he emphasises work as a vocation, a calling, rather than just a means to pay the bills. He thinks that even low-paying work can give meaning if it helps support others.

Yes, you can overdo it. There is more to life than work, and a life without ample space for family and friends is incomplete. But this much should not be controversial: Vocation—one’s calling in life—plays a large role in defining the meaning of that life. For some, the nurturing of children is the vocation. For some, an avocation or a cause can become an all-absorbing source of satisfaction, with the job a means of paying the bills and nothing more. But for many others, vocation takes the form of the work one does for a living.

The data shows lower-class neighnborhoods have changed much more than upper-class ones.

In 1960, 81 percent of Fishtown households had someone working at least forty hours a week, with Belmont at 90 percent. By 2008, Belmont had barely changed at all, at 87 percent, while Fishtown had dropped to 60 percent. And that was before the 2008 recession began. As of March 2010, Belmont was still at 87 percent. Fishtown was down to 53 percent.

Religious adherence - Catholicism in the case of Fishtown, which is based on an actual inner suburb in Philadelphia - has declined sharply.

The jury is still out on the metaquestion of whether secular democracies can long survive. But the last few decades have brought forth a large technical literature about the role of religion in maintaining civic life and the effects of religion on human functioning.

Social trust has also plunged.

The scariest message from the GSS [survey] does not consist of declines in specific activities that make up social capital, but this: The raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much in Fishtown that the situation may be beyond retrieval. That raw material is social trust—not trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that the people around you will do the right thing. As Francis Fukuyama documented in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, the existence of social trust is a core explanation of why some cultures create wealth and other cultures are mired in poverty.

Diversity, for all its positive qualities, also erodes social trust.

Another problem regarding social trust, and one that may help explain the decline, has surfaced more recently: The key ingredient of social capital, social trust, is eroded by ethnic diversity. In the years after Bowling Alone appeared, Robert Putnam’s research led him to a disturbing finding: Ethnic diversity works against social trust within a community—not only against trusting people of the other ethnicity, but against trusting even neighbors of one’s own ethnic group. In addition, Putnam’s research found that in areas of greater ethnic diversity, there was lower confidence in local government, a lower sense of political efficacy, less likelihood of working on a community project, less likelihood of giving to charity, fewer close friends, and lower perceived quality of life.

The erosion of these institutions diminishes happiness. And there is a common notion of what happiness means, says Murray.

... the core nature of human happiness is widely agreed upon in the West. It goes all the way back to Aristotle’s views about happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics. Distilling his discussion of happiness into a short definition leaves out a lot, but this captures the sense of Aristotle’s argument well enough for our purposes: Happiness consists of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole. The definition in effect says that when you decide how happy you are, you are thinking of aspects of your life that tend to define your life (not just bits and pieces of it); that you base your assessment of your happiness on deep satisfactions with the way things have gone, not passing pleasures; and that you believe in your heart of hearts that those satisfactions have been worth achieving. It is not really a controversial definition—try to imagine a definition of happiness you could apply to your own life that is much different.

There seems to be a strong connection in survey evidence between the strength of Murray's four core institutions and happiness.

At baseline—unmarried, dissatisfied with one’s work, professing no religion, and with very low social trust—the probability that a white person aged 30–49 responded “very happy” to the question about his life in general was only 10 percent. Having either a very satisfying job or a very happy marriage raised that percentage by almost equal amounts, to about 19 percent, with the effect of a very satisfying job being fractionally greater. Then came the big interaction effect: having a very satisfying job and a very happy marriage jumped the probability to 55 percent. Having high social trust pushed the percentage to 69 percent, and adding strong religious involvement raised the probability to 76 percent.

I'll conclude looking at the book tomorrow.


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