January 2, 2005

Dipping Into Moral Capital

I've long observed the hard work and success of immigrant families who go into small businesses in this country. The Korean greengrocers in New York City, the Gujarati motel keepers, and restaurants of almost every ethnic description all fit this bill.
They succeed, in part, because they bring with them values of familial loyalty and trust. The chances of a family member skimming from the till are less than that of a $ 7 and hour unrelated employee doing so.

It's also clear that most native-born minorities don't succeed in this kind of business, and as the immigrant first generation is replaced by the American-born and Americanized generation, the extended family thing, as a business proposition, begins to founder as the value of family loyalty gets replaced by individual ambition and an orientation toward consumption of one kind or another.

Thus, just as the U.S. imports "educational capital" from abroad, a phenomenon that plays out abroad as a "brain drain," with certain kinds of immigrants we import "cultural capital" that promotes social mobility and economic success, but dissipates over a generation or two. This phenomenon must be considered in evaluating immigration policies, but that's not my purpose in this piece.

I've been thinking about the "war on Christmas" meme, which I discussed here and here as well as shorter posts in the December 2004 archive.

A summary of my comments then is the following:

One of the points in my previous post is that our culture is historically Christian and still professedly Christian in its majority, and those of us who are not believers should accept and even rejoice that this is so, for this largely Christian country is a wonderful if flawed creation, in which even dissenters and skeptics can flourish. Moreover, a mere "absence" of faith in the culture would leave all of us bereft in some sense, because an "absence" is not a "presence." I would add that secular society has not provided an alternative that can satisfy most people, but rather lives off the diminishing capital provided by a culture that was once largely Christian (and in a minority sense, religiously Jewish). Where the disintegration of the religious tradition is further along, as in Europe, the culture and society become literally and figuratively sterile, so that its very survival is in question.

We see comments by thoughtful people such as John Derbyshire have pointed to the erosion of Christian faith in Europe as an explanation for signs of cultural degeneration, such as the rise in popularity of drunkenness in England.

So I went back to Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue. McIntyre begins the book by providing several examples of contemporary moral issues to which there is no clear answer. Each answer is logical given certain premises, but there is not only no agreement on the premises, but no accepted, principled way to examine the premises in order to obtain consensus.

McIntyre examines the Enlightenment project, insofar as it touched upon moral philosophy, and concludes that even the wisest of these thinkers failed in deriving moral guidelines through reasoning.

For McIntyre, then, no matter how secular our outlook, we derive our moral ideas from shreds and patches of more traditional religious morality. The abandonment of both Classical and Christian thinking has left us without clear moral guidelines.

As a cultural anthropologist by training, I would skew the argument a bit. For the non-philosopher and the non-lawyer, the ethos of a culture is embodied not merely in a written code or scripture, but in symbols, ritual and institutions organized to transmit the moral and spiritual vision of the culture. Hence the emotion engendered, for example, by the controversy over the two little words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, over crèches and tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

It is these systems of moral teaching embodied in symbolic practice that create the morality of a people, along with the formal scriptures. It is the expression of the ethos in public symbols and rituals that militant secularism attacks.

In Europe the Christian tradition and its rituals and symbols is close to being abandoned and although there are many more believers and churchgoers in the US than in Europe, Christian and Classical thought are no longer hegemonic, especially in universities and the wordsmithing professions. We are where Matthew Arnold foresaw:

...the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This phenomenon has gone further among the historically Jewish minority than among historical Christians. American Jews are much more secularized than the Christian majority.

I myself am a skeptic, as I suggested briefly here:

So I don't fault those who believe in a Creator. I can't refute them, and their belief may buttress the social order better than does my skepticism. I'm not, however, persuaded that religionists can prove what I can't refute, or that applying Occam's Razor (do not multiply entities needlessly), a Creator is required to prove any known process or set of facts, or adds anything to any scientific theory.

I'm not necessarily personally happy with this view of things, any more than I am with presbyopia, hearing loss, or my mortality. That we still live on Dover Beach and haven't figured out how to live morally or meaningfully in world of weakened or absent religious faith is an unfortunate reality, but our unhappiness and loneliness in the universe neither brings a Supreme Being into existence nor proves Him a creature of human imagination.

For our civilization, however, the problem is serious. Except to the extent that the Great Traditions (in our part of the world, Classicism and Christianity) remain some vigor, we are making do with patchy remnants of past glory. No matter how powerful our technology, our how avant-garde our artists and writers, the moral compass is whirling and we cannot trust the direction in which it is pointing.

In short, to revive the investment metaphor, we are dipping into our moral capital, and it’s not clear how much there is left, nor am I persuaded that any of the post-religious nostrums such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, existentialism or the stuff bookstores peddle as “New Age,” is a suitable substitute. If those who cease to believe in God end up believing not in nothing, but in anything, none of the “anythings” seems to be up to the task.

It is, therefore, not a matter just of “Frosty” vs. “Silent Night,” or whether the Republic will founder if someone puts a crêche in front of City Hall, but a cultural and historic question of enormous significance. (I have to admit it’s a troubling personal issue, too. That’s a subject for self-examination, and if can muster up the candor and the time, another essay.)

I have no answer.

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