What does it take to achieve the good life? Not the Budweiser “good life,” but a life of virtue?
Our Founding Fathers understood that this is a crucial question for any society, for virtue is essential to freedom. People who cannot restrain their own baser instincts, who cannot treat one another with civility, are not capable of self-government. “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people,” said John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Without virtue, a society can be ruled only by fear, a truth that tyrants understand all too well.
The same critical question, then, confronts us as we move beyond our families and neighborhoods to consider our common life together: How can we achieve the virtue necessary to maintain a good society and to preserve liberty? And how do the worldview categories of creation, fall, and redemption help us analyze the false views we confront in our culture today?
Sadly, in our relativistic age many people, even Christians, have lost the ethical categories of right and wrong. A few years ago, a young acquaintance of mine, who is a member of a good church, attended a four-week ethics course at Harvard Business School—a course that was started in response to the Savings and Loan scandals in the 1980s. On his return, he raved about the course.
“What kind of ethics are they teaching?” I asked.
“Well, the professor really summed it up the last day when he said, ‘Don’t do anything that will get you in the newspapers. It’s bad for business.’”
“But that’s pure pragmatism,” I replied in astonishment. “‘Don’t get caught.’ ‘Don’t get the company in trouble.’ What’s that got to do with ethics?”
“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” said the young man. “To stay out of trouble.”
Unfortunately, this perspective is quite common. Yet I have no grounds for self-righteousness, for when I was in politics, I practiced similar principles. I would not do anything I knew to be illegal, but I felt entitled to do to our opposition whatever they had done to us when they were in power (a sort of reverse Golden Rule). That’s why the Watergate scandal was so frequently defended with the excuse “Everyone does it.” Why was a little bugging of the Democratic headquarters so bad when we knew that President Johnson had bugged the Nixon campaign plane in 1968? And President Clinton resorted to exactly the same defense when challenged on campaign abuses in 1995.
Is it any wonder our country has been in an ethical free fall for the past three decades? A generation ago, the Watergate scandal rocked the nation; today, countless “gates” later, the public treats such scandals as routine.
The problem is that relativism provides no sure foundation for a safe and orderly society. If all people are free to choose for themselves what is right, how can a society agree on, and enforce, even minimal standards? And if there is no ultimate moral law, what motivation is there to be virtuous? The result is the loss of community. If you thought your neighbors had no clear definition of right and wrong, would you sleep well at night or let your children play in their yard?
Throughout most of Western history, the moral consensus was largely informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. But with the Enlightenment, intellectuals began to argue that since God was no longer needed to explain creation, he was no longer needed to establish moral laws. Reason alone would form the basis for morality. Since then, the great question that has faced Western society is the one posed by the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “Can man be good without God?”
Can reason alone come up with a viable moral system? The answer is no, and the failure of reason alone to generate moral norms was illustrated forcefully some years ago by the fate of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion. In the summer of 1939, with Nazi armies occupying Czechoslovakia and poised to strike at Poland, the last hopes for appeasing Hitler were finally shattered, and the world girded itself for the horrors of another world war. Realizing that the moral resolve of the Western world must somehow be reinforced, Louis Finkelstein, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, began planning for a grand conference where the greatest scholars from every discipline would draw on their collective wisdom to devise a universal code of ethics to provide the moral foundation for democracy. The conference was announced in June 1940 in a statement signed by seventy-nine leading intellectuals, including Albert Einstein. The New York Times printed the announcement in full on page one, breathlessly hailing it as an “intellectual declaration of independence.” A week later the Times published an editorial, “To Defend Democracy,” which concluded that “we need a new Social Contract, a new Declaration of the Rights of Man.”
When the group convened later that year, the goal was what Finkelstein called “corporate thinking”—that is, an effort to synthesize Judeo-Christian ethics with Enlightenment humanism and modern science, in order to create a new foundation for democratic societies. Yet even before the opening gun—during the organizing session—the battle lines were drawn between traditionalists and modernists. On the side of the traditionalists, Mortimer Adler, editor of the Great Books series, declared, “We have more to fear from our professors than from Hitler,” referring to those intellectuals who had abandoned historically accepted moral truths. His adversary, Sidney Hook, responded that Adler was promoting a “new medievalism.” “The only absolute is science,” Hook contended, and called for a pragmatic approach to morality. The modernists contended that all values are relative—except, of course, the value of tolerance.
Notwithstanding the difficulties of the first conference, hopes continued to run high for the second one. Surely the best minds of our nation could agree on universal norms of conduct so that out of the ashes of war would emerge a new world of hope. The press continued its effusive coverage. It was not until the third conference that the optimistic fervor began to subside as the debate came to a stalemate over which morality should be adopted. Around the country, editorialists began to reduce expectations slightly with headlines such as “Scholars Confess They Are Confused.”
The Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion continued to meet through the war years and after, debating issues such as the atom bomb, one-world government, and the end of Western colonialism. By the 1948 meeting, reports Fred Beuttler of the University of Illinois, “the biggest fear of most academic intellectuals was dogmatism and indoctrination.” In other words, the relativists had carried the day. “All absolutist thinking,” they said, “has totalitarian potential.” By the early 1960s the conference was disbanded. The original goal of defining “cultural universals” had proved impossible.
Think of it: For two decades some of the world’s greatest minds engaged in stimulating debate and produced . . . nothing. Why? Because they disagreed about the proper starting point of ethical knowledge. The traditionalists, like Adler, understood that in order to have objective, universal ethical principles, there must be an absolute source, a transcendent authority. The modernists started with the assumption that science is the only source of sure knowledge, that nature is all there is, and thus that morality is merely a human invention that can be changed to meet changing circumstances in an evolving world. The two sides started out with conflicting worldviews, and in their fruitless exchanges were merely playing out the logical consequences of their starting points.
The grandiose endeavor of Louis Finkelstein brings into focus the failure of efforts to derive ethical rules from reason alone. Today ethics has degenerated into relativism, with each individual carving out his or her own private truths to live by. In the words of Father Richard John Neuhaus, we are “herds of independent minds marching towards moral oblivion with Frank Sinatra’s witless boast on our lips, ‘I Did It My Way.’”
In this climate, it is considered offensive to assert in polite company that Western civilization, under the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, might enjoy any moral advantage or that its historic beliefs might be drawn on to arrest our moral free fall. When one of the Bass brothers of Texas gave $20 million to his alma mater, Yale University, stipulating that the grant be used for the study of Western civilization, the university hemmed and hawed. The faculty wanted a multicultural curriculum, not one that favored the Western tradition, so they dragged their feet until Lee Bass finally asked that his gift be returned.
In our public schools it has become nearly impossible to teach traditional precepts of right and wrong—which has led to disastrous consequences. “For generations,” writes theologian Michael Novak, “the primary task explicitly assigned public schools of the nation was character formation.” No longer. A few years ago, a New York Times reporter visited a New Jersey high school classroom in which students were discussing the case of a woman who had found $1000 and turned it in. All fifteen students said she was a fool. But the real shocker came after class, when the reporter asked the teacher why she had not told the students they were wrong. The teacher replied, “If I came from the position of what is right and wrong, then I’m not their counselor.”
Don’t educators understand where this kind of value-free teaching must lead? A nation without virtue cannot govern itself. “Our people are losing virtue,” Novak says bluntly. “That is why we have been losing self-government.”
And if we cannot govern ourselves, then we invite others to govern us. The death of virtue threatens our very liberty as a people. At root, this great struggle is between worldviews, and it poses the question: How now shall we live—by the Judeo-Christian tradition or by the moral nihilism of today’s relativistic, individualistic culture?
A Society Guarded by 250 Million Policemen
By examining these conflicting worldviews through the analytical grid of creation, fall, and redemption, we see clearly the cause of our ethical malaise. Creation tells us that we owe our existence to a holy God, whose character is the standard of all righteousness, the measure of all morality. “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The clear failing of the secular worldview is that it tells us we owe our existence to natural forces acting at random; therefore, there can be no ultimate source of moral norms.
The second category is just as crucial. The Fall tells us we are prone to evil and thus need moral restraints for society to function. “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’ ” (Mark 7:20). But secularism fails to understand the nature of our moral dilemma, leading to the false assumption that since people are basically good, a virtuous society can be formed by creating the right social, political, and economic structures.
But the truth is that a virtuous society can be created only by virtuous people, whose individual consciences guard their behavior and hold them accountable. Without conscience, a society can be held in check only through coercion. Yet even coercion ultimately fails, for there is no police force large enough to keep an eye on every individual. “This country ought to have, when it is healthy and when it is working as it is intended to work, 250 million policemen—called conscience,” says Michael Novak. “When there are 250 million consciences on guard, it is surprising how few police are needed on the streets.”
The emphasis on social justice at the expense of private virtue is not only mistaken but downright dangerous. People without personal morality inevitably fail in their efforts to create public morality. “There is no social sin without personal sin,” writes Georgetown University professor James Schall. “Our youth today are almost invariably taught they must change the world, not their souls. So they change the world, and it becomes worse.” Moral crusaders with zeal but no ethical understanding are likely to give us solutions that are worse than the problems.
What’s more, when we focus young people’s moral attention solely on public issues and causes, they fail to treat the personal realm as morally serious. Some years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, philosophy professor at Clark University, wrote an article entitled “Teaching the Virtues,” in which she attacked higher education for teaching ethics as social justice rather than as individual decency and honesty. One of Sommers’s colleagues chastised her, complaining that she was promoting bourgeois morality and ignoring the real issues, such as the oppression of women, the evils of multinational corporations, and the exploitation of the environment. But at the end of the semester, the same teacher came to Sommers’s office, horrified that more than half her students had plagiarized their take-home exam. They had cheated in an ethics course!
“What are you going to do?” Sommers asked. Sheepishly, the woman asked for a copy of Sommers’s article on the importance of individual virtue.
The myth of human goodness has led to a massive disconnect between the public and private realms, until many Americans are fractured and compartmentalized, glibly saying, “It doesn’t matter what the president does in private.” Or, worse, “It doesn’t matter what I do in private.” As we saw in an earlier chapter, Americans have embraced a dualism between the body and the “person,” which is most obvious in arguments defending abortion (the fetus may be biologically human but not a “person”).
The same dualism affords the perfect rationalization for libertinism. For if the body is merely a tool for getting us what we want—pleasure or emotional gratification—then its actions are judged by purely utilitarian considerations, not moral ones. Our actions do not reflect the “person,” which is a separate entity. Thus we rationalize that a person can behave as a rogue, a liar, or a cheat in private life but can still be trusted in public life.
This runs totally against the grain of the Christian view of human nature. A good tree will produce good fruit, Jesus taught. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). Integrity of character runs through large and small matters, through public and private actions.
I reflected on this principle a few years ago when I lectured on the subject of ethics at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the same place where I started out as an infantry platoon commander during the Korean War. With a touch of nostalgia, I returned to address two thousand marine officers and noncommissioned officers. They sat attentively in starched fatigues and spit-shined boots, but when the question-and-answer period began, no one stirred...until the general, a rugged, six-foot-six officer, turned around and said in a booming voice, “There will be questions.” Suddenly, hands popped up all across the auditorium. (Some things never change.)
The last question was the toughest by far. “Mr. Colson,” said a master sergeant, “which is more important—loyalty or integrity?”
Now, a marine lives by the creed semper fidelis—“always faithful”—and when I was a marine, I learned that loyalty meant unquestioning obedience. Yet I wish I had pondered the young sergeant’s question when I was in the Nixon White House. For now I know the answer.
“Integrity comes first,” I said. Loyalty, no matter how admirable, can be dangerous if it is invested in an unworthy cause. Integrity comes from the verb to integrate, which means to become united so as to form a complete or perfect whole. Scripture teaches that spirit, mind, and body all come from the hand of God, and thus they ought to be united, functioning together as a whole. Our actions must be consistent with our thoughts. We must be the same person in private and in public. Only the Christian worldview gives us the basis for this kind of integrity.
Moreover, Christianity gives an absolute moral law that allows us to judge between right and wrong. Try asking your secular friends how they decide what they ought to do, what ethical principles to follow. How do they know those principles are right? On what authority do they rely? Without moral absolutes, there is no real basis for ethics.
An absolute moral law doesn’t confine people in a straitjacket of Victorian prudery. People will always debate the boundaries of moral law and its varied applications. But the very idea of right and wrong makes sense only if there is a final standard, a measuring rod, by which we can make moral judgments.
Only the Christian worldview offers redemption from sin, giving power to overcome the single most powerful obstacle to becoming virtuous: the rebellious human will. Morality is not just about an intellectual acknowledgment of ultimate standards, of what ought to be; morality is also about developing virtue—that is, the full range of habits and dispositions that constitute good character. We must not merely assent mentally to certain principles; we must become people who are just, courageous, patient, kind, loyal, loving, persistent, and devoted to duty. And only the Christian worldview tells us how to develop virtuous character, to become moral persons.
In the movie adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the central character, Pierre, asks dolefully, “Why is it that I know what is right, but do what is wrong?” That is the human dilemma. We may know the right thing, but that is no guarantee that we will do it. As the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah laments, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” ( Jer. 17:9). Or, as the apostle Paul puts it: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19).
Even if Louis Finkelstein’s grand vision had succeeded and a universal code of morality had been agreed upon, would people have been able to live by it? Could they have become moral persons? The optimist says yes, but both Scripture and empirical evidence say otherwise. The secular view of ethics offers no salvation, no power to change the human heart.
I can testify to this from personal experience. I was raised in a good family with almost puritanical standards. My father, whom I idolized, drilled into me the principles of duty, honor, and honesty. I can still remember sitting with him on the back steps of our home on Sunday afternoons, listening to him lecture on the evils of cheating or stealing.
In 1969, when President Nixon asked me to leave my lucrative law practice to serve as his special counsel, I saw it as my duty to do so, even though it meant a drastic pay cut. To guard against temptation, or even the appearance of impropriety, I put my law firm investments and all other assets into a blind trust and vowed never even to see former law partners or clients (who might seek government favors). Any gifts I received, even boxes of candy at Christmas, were immediately turned over to the drivers of my limousine or the operators at the White House switchboard. I was determined: No one would corrupt me.
Yet I went to prison for obstruction of justice.
My problem was that I didn’t understand the deceptiveness of the human heart. In college, I had studied the best of the world’s moral philosophy, including Immanuel Kant’s famous “categorical imperative,” which is really a modified version of the Golden Rule, a near universal moral principle. So I knew well enough what was right. The problem was that I lacked the will to do it. For we humans have an infinite capacity for self-rationalization; we can justify anything. Which is exactly what I did.
C. S. Lewis explains the dilemma in my favorite of his essays, “Men without Chests.” For a person to be moral, the “head,” the seat of reason, must rule the “stomach,” or the passions. But it can do this only through the “chest,” which in Lewis’s analogy represents the will, the moral imagination. The problem today, Lewis writes, is that modern rationalism has reduced morality to cognition; it has focused on moral reasoning while ignoring the role of the will and moral imagination; it has robbed us of our “chests.” And then we wonder why morality is declining. In Lewis’s unforgettable words, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Moral reasoning and intellectual knowledge are not enough. A fallen human being can fulfill the moral law only if the will is transformed. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering,” writes the apostle Paul. “And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). When we turn to God, the Holy Spirit empowers us to do what we cannot do on our own. This is the essence of the term conversion: The will is turned around; it is transformed. At the heart of Christianity is a supernatural transforming power that enables us not only to know what is right but also to do it—to become virtuous.
Although only a converted will is capable of virtue in a consistent manner, there is also a natural virtue spoken of in Romans 2 (conscience), which is a consequence of our creation in the image of God. And while Christians must work for the conversion of individuals, we also have a duty to help build a good society by cultivating ethical knowledge even among the unconverted.
Our most intractable social problems cannot be solved by public policies but only by the practice of virtuous behavior. Take crime, for example. Sociologists and policy experts endlessly debate the question, What causes crime? But as Michael Novak notes, even if we uncovered the answer to that question, how would it help us? It would merely enable us to produce more crime. What we really need to know is how to produce virtue. Society ought to concentrate on finding ways to encourage virtuous behavior, and then crime will begin to fall.
Historically, societies have encouraged virtuous behavior positively through custom and convention, and negatively through social stigmas, taboos, and shame. Admittedly, the latter are difficult to exert in a culture where no moral stigma is permitted for fear of damaging someone’s self-esteem. But Christians can cut through this fog and argue for the right of a healthy society to express moral disapproval of socially harmful behavior.
We cannot rely on the law alone, for not all immoral actions should be made illegal. In many instances, right behavior is better enforced by an informal social consensus that defines certain behavior as unacceptable or worthy of contempt. That’s why campaigns against drunk driving or drug abuse are often more effective than any law against them. In fact, if we fail to impose social conventions, we invite the imposition of more and more laws, which, in the absence of popular support, have to be enforced with ever increasing severity.
What does it take to create the good life? A firm sense of right and wrong and a determination to order one’s life accordingly. Not out of a grim sense of duty, but because it is what fits with our created nature and makes us happiest and most fulfilled. When men and women act in accord with their true nature, they feel a sense of harmony, contentment, and joy. This is happiness, the fruit of virtue. In fact, the ancient philosophers defined happiness as something one achieves only at the end of life, after spending a whole lifetime in character training.
It was this definition that the American Founders had in mind when they declared that we have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The last phrase did not mean a right to hedonistic pleasure, as many people believe today, but the pursuit of virtue, a life spent ordering our appetites and desires to the truth of who we are, which produces happy individuals and a harmonious society.
When we know the secret to true happiness, we will seek virtue in every area of life, even those that are typically thought to be purely technical or utilitarian, such as economics. And when that happens, we will make the astonishing discovery that the Christian worldview enhances our economic well-being and gives genuine meaning even to our work.
Excerpted from How Now Shall We Live? by Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey. Used with permission. Copyright © 1999 Chuck Colson. All Rights Reserved.