(Reprinted with permission from Commonweal, written by David McCabe.)
According to some, recent American history has led disastrously to a rejection of the notion that there exist either identifiable virtues that all citizens should possess or a universal set of moral values that all cultures ought to respect. Against this supposed sixties-inspired relativism, however, a counter-revolution has clearly begun, and the book reviewed here is to some degree motivated by a desire to restore a degree of moral ballast to our discussion about values.
Seedbeds of Virtue, the collection of essays edited by Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard, and David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, is yet another sign that there may be no more popular activity in this country than talking about its deficiencies. All the essays here (written chiefly by political philosophers, sociologists, theologians, and law professors) take off from the premise that the level of virtue in most Americans is dismayingly low; and all offer some analysis of how to address this problem.
Given the skeptical zeitgeist that characterizes our culture, readers will no doubt find much to cavil with in these earnest and well-intentioned essays. But skeptical critics will do better not ignore the genuine spirit of constructive criticism in which most of the essays are offered. The authors here are chiefly concerned not with finding fault and apportioning blame, but with figuring out ways to improve our condition.
More troubling than the occasional nostalgia wafting through these essays is their general unwillingness to connect the decline of the virtues to those social forces that have made so many Americans feel deeply alienated from the life of the polity. In this regard, questions of political and economic marginalization seem to me crucial to understanding our current malaise—I mean the kind of marginalization accelerated by things like the Republican party’s depiction of welfare recipients as parasites, the utterly pernicious and stultifying effect that money has on the democratic process, and the schism between the rising profits of corporations and their increasingly vulnerable and dispensable employees—and one wishes this side of the story had received more attention. This omission is especially problematic in a book dedicated to renewing the virtues, for a sense of full membership in the polity must rank as one of the chief prerequisites for developing the virtues, and the essays here offer too little guidance for healing our divisions. Still, the generally thoughtful level of its essays makes Seedbeds a valuable contribution to a crucial area of public debate.