A review of Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, by Alan Wolfe

The late professor Edward Westermarck cut his figure in the academy at the beginning of the last century, as an anthropologist arguing strenuously for the doctrine of "cultural relativism." He contended that there were no principles of right and wrong holding true in all places; that "moral" judgments will always be "relative" to the culture in which they are held. But Westermarck sought to restrain some of his overly zealous followers from giving even cultural relativism a bad name.

One of his apostles had argued that it was but a local prejudice to say that it was wrong to hold people blameworthy for acts they were powerless to affect. Westermarck came down on him severely. He insisted that moral judgments made sense only for those acts performed in the domain of freedom, where people were free to choose a course of action. Otherwise, it was hardly sensible to cast judgments on people — no more than it was plausible to blame the earth for revolving about the sun. Westermarck might have been a cultural relativist, but in order for cultural relativism to preserve its coherence as a doctrine, he thought it was utterly important to get clear on the properties that defined those acts stamped with a "moral" character. They might vary in their content from one place to another, but it was necessary to get clear in the first place on the "thing" that was varying in that way. 

Westermarck proceeded then to correct his followers: The first thing to understand about moral judgments is that they were binding. If we said that it was wrong to torture infants, we meant that people were obliged to refrain from doing it. Or as Aquinas put it, the good was that which we were obliged to do; the bad was that which we were obliged to refrain from doing. 

In the second place, said Westermarck, moral judgments were impersonal and universal. If we came to the judgment that it was wrong for human beings to own other humans as slaves, and we asked then, For whom was that wrong?, the answer, coming back in a moral voice, would be: It was wrong for anyone, for everyone to own humans as slaves. And then finally, Westermarck pointed out that moral judgments applied only to acts of volition, not events "determined" by the laws of nature or by accidents. Even a dog, said Westermarck, knew the difference between being tripped over and being kicked. Summing up these features, Westermarck could mark off the ingredients that defined acts of "moral" significance, wherever they may be found, even in the most exotic places. 

What seemed to elude this worldly man was that he had set in place the very logic of morals, as defined over the years by Aquinas, Kant, and others. And once those ingredients were in place, they formed the ground of moral truths that would indeed hold in all places, quite regardless of the cuisines or the local customs that differed from one so-called "culture" to another. Whether we were East or West, it was a necessary truth, bound up in the logic of morals itself, that "we do not hold people blameworthy for acts they were powerless to affect." If Smith had not been born at the time the crime was committed, we take that as powerful evidence for his "innocence" — powerful evidence, that is, that he is undeserving of punishment — whether he happens to be in Nairobi or Jersey City.

Now switch the scene: It is Amherst, Massachusetts, in the late 1980s. A young woman visits as a candidate for a job in the curious department called Women and Gender Studies. Reflecting, quite emphatically, the perspectives that come along with the field, this young woman denies that there is any such thing as an "essential human nature," holding true in all places. As a self-proclaimed feminist, interested in the wrongs done to women, one would have thought that she was capable of identifying "women" in all parts of the world, as distinguished, say, from female dogs and giraffes. And that with an interest in the "wrongs" suffered by women, one would assume that she could recognize things whose moral wrongness could be identified in all cultures. And yet, this young doctoral candidate insisted that she could do no such thing; that her project would depend instead on painstaking work in the field. Since she could not identify the "universal woman," she could speak only of the "American woman"; and if she could go, in her field work, to Sierra Leone, she could "negotiate" a conversation that would establish a nexus between American Woman and Sierra Leone Woman. It was only by broadening the axis — with ever more fieldwork, ever more trips to exotic places — that the notion of the American-Sierra Leone Woman could be broadened to establish, say, American-Sierra Leone-Brazilian Woman. 

It fell to some of us, not enthralled by the same theories, to deliver the news: She could mercifully spare herself the vast budget for travel, to say nothing of the trips, so taxing on the body, for her project was not, after all, an "empirical" project; it did not depend on collecting evidence in the field. In order to launch any such project, she would have to be able to tell the difference, in the first place, between a woman and a tree, or a woman and a rhinoceros. She would probably look first to the female of that species marked by Aristotle, those creatures who could not only emit sounds to indicate pleasure or pain, but give reasons over matters of right and wrong. If she could grasp those differences, she would have a decisive start in understanding the defining nature of "women" without the need to work for years, collecting data in improbable places, well outside the reach of her American Express card.

I bother to set these points in place, because they provide the telling background for receiving that most curious new book by Professor Alan Wolfe, Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice. Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and in a long string of books, getting even longer as we sit, he has written on questions of moral and political controversy in the style of a sociologist. On the jacket of his book he is described as a "social scientist and public intellectual." He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic, and his previous book, One Nation, After All, was hailed by the New York Times as "a sober and valuable contribution to the debate about American divisions and values."

In this new work, Wolfe sets himself against some prominent conservative writers, such as Gertrude Himmelfarb and William Bennett, who have written in different ways about the corrosive effects of moral relativism in our time. Himmelfarb has famously set our own age against the moral rectitude of the Victorians, and insisted on the possibilities for "remoralizing" our society, either with a revival of religious conviction or with the simple move to start taking seriously again the notion of moral truths. Bennett has argued in a similar vein and made a rather prominent attempt to teach again, to a new generation, the story of classic virtues.

Wolfe wants to resist and rebut the arguments of the conservatives, and he would do it mainly along two paths: Through surveys carried out with samples of people in different parts of the country, and from different slices of our moral universe, he seeks to show that the American people have not really drifted into a state of moral dishevelment. He tries to show that the American people still strain over moral questions, though with evidently thinner resources of reflection, in religion and philosophy, than our people were able to summon 100 years ago. But Wolfe suggests, too, that they are straining over these questions with a different, and newer, understanding of "morality." They no longer credit, in the same degree, moral truths pronounced from on high, in the voice of authority. 

Modern Americans have been thrown back on their own devices, in a moral world apparently far more complicated than the moral world of the past. Their moral constructions then are more "personal," in the sense that they have had to apply principles to their own circumstances. The result is what Wolfe calls "moral freedom," an emancipation from the principles that restrained people in the past, most dramatically on matters of sexuality. This new moral freedom is so buoying or so exhilarating that, in Wolfe's estimate, there is no going back. This "moral freedom" promises to endure; or as Machiavelli might say, it is part of a new order of things.

Exactly what this "moral freedom" means is not quite as clear as Professor Wolfe seems to suppose, for it seems to have gone hand-in-hand with massive restrictions on private liberties, in the form of the freedom to honor private codes of conduct, and engage then in private discriminations, in all manner of private businesses and private clubs. Viewed from another angle, we find massive restrictions on moral freedom, from the freedom to smoke, to the freedom to arrange relations with employees in small firms and large corporations. But we may put that niggling matter aside for a moment. The most urgent news that needs to be conveyed to Professor Wolfe rather resembles the news conveyed to that aspiring professor in Women and Gender Studies, or to those wayward followers of Edward Westermarck: It may be critical for Professor Wolfe to learn that he really has here no "empirical study," which required elaborate, expensive field work. The surveys brought forth, after all, absolutely nothing novel or different in the "logic of morals" itself. In the end, Wolfe, his interviewers, and his subjects, had to presuppose the same understanding of morality that has ever been in place. Wolfe's respondents are often quite thoughtful, and they confirm at times a moral understanding that runs beyond the caricatures that Wolfe himself offers as constructions of moral principles. But nothing in their response indicates even the slightest shift in the essential properties that have ever defined "moral reasoning." 

When the matter is viewed through this lens, it should become clear that the findings in the study simply do not sustain the conclusions announced with such flourish by Professor Wolfe. And indeed, in an exquisite twist, his study rather confirms an understanding strikingly at odds with his own: for what is revealed here is an understanding of morality that remains essentially the same, even across changes in culture and time, for it is bound up with a human nature that has remained strikingly the same. What seems to have evaded Professor Wolfe, as it evaded some of the followers of Edward Westermarck, is that this "nature" of human beings, or that enduring logic of "morals," forms the ground then of moral judgments that will remain essentially the same in all places. The modern world will serve up different technologies and novel circumstances, but contrary to Professor Wolfe, nothing in the nature of moral judgment, or the principles of judging, has been altered in the modern world. The "moral freedom" he proclaims turns out then to be not especially novel, and not even so clearly good or desirable. 

In a gentle move to embarrass the conservatives, with their constant prattling over "virtues," Wolfe asks the people in his survey to define, if they can, the meaning of "virtues" and "vices." It should not be surprising that most people, when confronted with that question, become a bit sheepish. But even ordinary folk, unburdened by academic degrees, will find it hard to repress the inclination, founded in their natures, to cast moral judgments—to praise and blame, commend and condemn. They cannot avoid, then, the temptation to keep pointing out the attributes that are better and worse. And so even though they are a bit shy about setting forth, with a philosophic weightiness, the meaning of virtues, the people in this sample reveal some rather emphatic judgments about the traits of character they regard as better or worse: They seem to think, for example, that bravery is better than cowardice, that prudence is better than recklessness, that generosity is better than miserliness.

When the same people came to the judgment that something stood in the class of a “wrong,” then Aquinas’s logic kicked right in: If smoking was thought to be hurtful, then people tended to think, as Wolfe reports, that “smoking is something that people ought not do.” If they thought that Hitler, or serial murderers, were genuinely evil, they did not think that people of this kind ought to be rewarded, or celebrated, or held up to public esteem. As John Stuart Mill observed, drawing on the same logic, “we call any conduct wrong, or employ, instead, some other term of dislike or disparagement, according as we think that the person ought, or not, to be punished for it.” In other words, people in the study did not suffer the least doubt about the essential logic of morals, regardless of whether they were confident about speaking of “virtues.”

With the same moral sense, they resisted the notion that terms such as “lying” or “loyalty” or “forgiveness” could ever be translated into neutral formulas or rules, utterly cut off from substantive moral judgments. Every act of speaking falsely would not count as a “lie.” A “lie” involves the act of speaking falsely for the purpose of inflicting harm, perhaps by misleading or defrauding. No one would regard the Dutch householders as immoral when they refused to tell the Gestapo at the door of the Jews they were hiding. To tell the truth to the Nazis was to make oneself an accomplice in the killing of the innocent.

Wolfe’s respondents had that common-sense grasp of the thing: They seemed to know, without much strain, that it is not a moral wrong if one refuses to inform one's father of the surprise party being planned for his birthday. As Wolfe aptly remarks, good character at times “means knowing when not to be fully honest.” But surely Plato encompassed all of this in the Republic, when Socrates tests the question of whether justice inhered in always speaking the truth: Would we tell the truth to a friend we know to be deranged, or not in control of himself, when he asks us the whereabouts of a knife? Whether it is good or bad to tell the truth depends on the moral ends, which alone would establish whether the telling of truth, in the circumstances, is justified or unjustified. Wolfe reports on the reactions of his respondents as though they were exhibiting nuances, or complications, that bespoke a modern sensibility. In point of fact, they were simply reflecting the understanding that has ever come into play as soon as people reflect, in a morally demanding way, on whether it is always wrong to speak less than the truth.

The same thing could be said about every one of the other terms, or problems, that Wolfe takes up in the book. Wolfe offers a whole chapter, for example, on “forgiveness” as “the unappreciated virtue.” Once again, he finds some surprising variations or nuances among his respondents, and once again he seems not to notice that his respondents, as functional people, are simply guided by the distinctions that have always been embedded in the logic of morals itself.

And so, while some people in the survey find something therapeutic in forgiving certain offenses, and letting go of certain angers, there is also a firm sense among the respondents that, in certain cases, justice will not permit forgiveness. In the case of a rapist or a serial murderer, there is a strong current of opinion among the respondents that certain offense cannot simply be forgiven without making light of the offense and of the victims. In one instance, the recognition breaks thorough that forgiveness may not be warranted if a criminal has not repented or acknowledged the wrong of what he had done.

In all of these instances, then, what has the survey revealed? People of ordinary wit, asked to give their moral reactions to cases and persons, bring forth a richness of response that rather confirms the sense that humans are indeed constituted, in their natures, as moral beings, who can give and understand reasons concerning matters of right and wrong. But their responses reveal nothing the least new about the meaning, or the logic, of morality itself. Nor do they reveal anything novel in the range of considerations that come into play as people seek to apply principles of judgment to concrete cases. To deal with fraud in a newspaper or on the Internet, to deal with racial discrimination in a tennis court or a dating service, would require an inquiry into many different features of the different techniques or activities. But they would require nothing much new in the understanding of “fraud” or “racial discrimination.”  In all strictness, then, Professor Wolfe did not have to seek grants to support all of this work in the field, if the purpose of that work was to illuminate something more about the nature of “morality” and moral judgment. What comes through in the study was amply known already to people who had been tutored in the classics of moral philosophy or had reflected on the problem in a faintly demanding way. But if Professor Wolfe is commiteed, in his grants, to persist in this work, I would offer a wager to him if he added another question to his survey: With questions rather simple and direct, he can ask whether people understand certain wrongs whose wrongness is utterly contingent on matters of degree and circumstance. Most people, I would wage, would readily say that an alcoholic drink, taken in moderation, need not always be harmful. But the same people, I would also wager, would not say that genocide, taken in modest measures, would be harmless or inoffensive. My own bet is that most people will understand that difference, and insist on it themselves – even though they have no awareness of any specialized vocabulary of philosophy. They would not speak of things merely “contingently” wrong, as opposed to things that are “categorically” wrong or wrong in principle. And yet , my wager is that they would make a distinction between wrongs that involve matters of degree, and certain things whose wrongness will not be effaced by matters of degree and circumstance. We can virtually foretell what the survey would report on that head. But if Professor Wolfe performs in his standard groove, he is likely to bring back to us, as “news,” this striking report on the sophistication, in moral reasoning, shown by people in these modern times. And once again, I fear, the real news that will elude him is that there is no news at all: that nothing novel has been disclosed about the logic of morals, or the nature of that creature who conjugates verbs and seems inclined, irrepressibly, to give reasons and judge excuses.

Yet, it should go without saying that none of this made much sense if there were in fact no moral truths, no standards of judgment about the things that were indeed right or wrong. For what would “moral reasoning” be if there were nothing of moral significance that reason may come to “know”? And what of that “moral freedom” that Professor Wolfe takes it as his mission to celebrate and promote? On what grounds would we claim to know that it is “good,” for others as well as ourselves, if there were no truths that confirmed its goodness or rightness? But Professor Wolfe is an academic who has evidently absorbed the intellectual currents at work in social science, and so he casually endorses, as a matter of course, the premises that would render his whole enterprise vacuous. For what he sets down, in the end, is simply the doctrine of moral relativism. He does it with some slight embellishment, or a bit of stylish detraction, but his teaching finally reduces to the claim that we can have no rational knowledge of the things that are right or wrong:

[O]ur arguments about the right and proper way to live are ‘interminable’ and there is no rational way by which people will ever see eye to eye over such issues as abortion, the provision of health care, or the necessity to prepare for war. …[But] the fact that a wide variety of moral experience exists is, for [liberals], an indication of health. A pluralistic liberal democracy committed to equality and respect for difference ought to appreciate the fact that no one conception of the right and proper way to lives has the power to drive out all others.

Is Wolfe merely reporting that no one conception has the power to “drive out” all others, or is this lapse into the language of reporting really a way of slipping in the covert premise: that there is in fact no standard of judgment that can claim to be right, and governing, on matters of moral consequence when the society is divided? Put another way, he seems to be offering the familiar bromide that “the presence of disagreement on any matter of moral consequence indicates the absence of truth.” I would be obliged, of course, to register my disagreement with that proposition, and that should be enough, on its own terms, to establish its falsity. It is simply another version of what philosophers would call a retorsive or self-refuting proposition. But even apart from that, Wolfe surely knows that the country was deeply divided over slavery in the 19th century, and over the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Would he have concluded that there was no ground on which to reach moral judgments on these matters – and impose those judgments through the law?

“Moral freedom,” says Wolfe, “means that individuals should determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life.” But I assume it goes without saying that nothing in this passage would lead Wolfe to suspend the laws on homicide and rape, even though those laws could offer the most serious inhibitions on people who are trying to act out their lives in manner that accords with their own sense of the fitness of things. And yet, even apart from those obvious cases, we have seen, over the past 35 years, the most dramatic extension of the laws, cutting back the spheres of “privacy” or “moral freedom” at every level. Private businesses, large and small, private colleges, and even private clubs, have lost the “moral freedom” to arrange their affairs according to their own private criteria. Freedom in these domains has been dramatically curtailed or constricted as a result of the most strenuous attempt to vindicate the interests of justice on a broad front. But for reasons that must remain inexplicable, none of this seems to count for Wolfe, and none of this seems to come into view as Wolfe scans the experience of the country in recent years and finds in the record a vast expansion of “moral freedom.” What he appears to have in mind is the liberation that has come from the moral restraints that used to bear on sex. Sexual freedom has become the hallmark of personal freedom, and for many people it has become the “first freedom,” replacing freedom of religion or freedom of the press.

For Wolfe, this celebration of sexual freedom is not to be marred by anything as rude or unsettling as the recognition of the deaths, on a vast scale, that have come along with that freedom. That thousands of young men have died of AIDS is not to be reckoned as a cost to be weighed in judging the goodness of a sexuality released from a framework of moral and legal restraints. And if one happens to acknowledge the fact recorded in every textbook on embryology and obstetrics – the beings killed in abortions can be nothing less than human beings – the body count would be rather staggering. With 1.3-1.5 million abortions each year, carried out over 30 years, the box score would come out to about 40-50 million deaths. That kind of figure would make an impression even on the dimmest sensibility, and it should be quite as plain that, for the 40-50 million humans killed in this way, the “moral freedom” to order abortions has not exactly been “liberating.” Evidently, Wolfe has screened those deaths from view. For he can preserve the celebration of “moral freedom” unimpaired only if he has settled himself in the judgment that those lives simply do not “count.”

But how has Wolfe reached that judgment? Has he sought to counter the evidence of embryology, or the force of principled reasoning or has he fallen back, rather, on the assumption that this vexing question is governed solely by emotions and “beliefs?” Wolfe can neatly avoid the need to justify his judgments, on this and other matters, simply by invoking the slogan, passing into cliché, that on matters moral, argument is unavailing because reason, finally, has nothing to say. When he insists that there is no rational ground on which to settle the argument over abortion, he is merely doing a shuffle to cover the anchoring premise of moral relativism: that we can have no rational knowledge of the things that are right or wrong, just or unjust.

And yet, that ruling premise, joined here to the issue of abortion, finally discloses what should be regarded as the ruling embarrassment of the book. If Wolfe contends that people will not be convinced or converted by reason on the matter of abortion, he clearly cannot speak in that vein as a social scientist, because the claim is patently, massively false. I know that it is false from the precise and sufficient example of my own case, or from that of countless other “converts” I have come to know over the years. We were not affected by appeals to faith or revelation; we were moved most decisively by the wonders of embryology and by the kind of principled reasoning that many of us found, in our clearest model, in Lincoln. In a notable fragment Lincoln had written for himself, he imagined himself in a conversation with an owner of black slaves, putting the question of how we justified making a slave of the black man:

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

At no point in the chain of reasoning was there an appeal to revelation. Lincoln’s fragment simply offered a model of principled reasoning. The upshot was that there was nothing one could cite to disqualify the black man as a human being, with a claim to his natural rights that could not be applied to many whites as well. And with the same logic, some of us simply carried over the same reasoning to the problem of abortion. Why was that child in the womb less than human? It did not speak? Neither did dead mutes. It had no arms or legs? Well, many people lost limbs in the course of their lives, without losing attributes that were necessary, in any way, to their standing as human beings to receive the protections of the law.

If Wolfe were writing as a social scientist, speaking from surveys, he would do a survey to explore the first question of just how many people out there formed their judgments about abortion in this way, and indeed underwent a conversion. But plainly, when Wolfe announced that people could not be swayed, by reason, in their judgments on abortion, he was not writing as a social scientist. He was doing nothing less than pronouncing a truth that governed our treatment of a moral question. He was pronouncing a moral truth, which would not hinge on anything as uncouth, or as contingent and problematic, as a survey of opinion.

What Wolfe was “doing” then was moral philosophy, but without really doing it. He was offering judgments to the public on matters of moral import, while affecting do only sociology, in merely describing the moral views held by the public. From his opening page he was brandishing moral conclusions, but without doing the work, or the heavy lifting, of moral philosophy. On the matter of abortion, writers on either side have marshaled evidence and reasons in an attempt to show the rightness of their judgments. If Wolfe really contends that there are no rational grounds to hold to the wrongness of abortion, he should have been obliged to make even a faintly strenuous effort to show why this vast body of work has been founded on a mistake; why it amounts to virtual nonsense. But that effort to justify the ground of his own judgments, or rebut the reasoning of the others, is persistently missing in the book.

We could even put aside that vexing argument over abortion, which moves in so many ways and unsettles old alliances. Wolfe has not even explained the judgment he would cast on the laws on civil rights. After all, very few things have brought about a more dramatic change in the character of American life over the past 35 years, and at the same time, those laws would have to represent the most massive interference in “moral freedom” by Wolfe’s own definition. In vast domains, public and private, people were faced with the terrible swift sword of the law if they held to their ancient moral fashions and sought to “determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life.”

We would have to suppose that Wolfe, a man of the tenderest feelings, and the widest liberal sympathies, would regard the laws on civil rights as landmarks of justice, even though the constituted the most extensive denial of “moral freedom.” Unless, of course, we understand, with Lincoln and Aquinas, that we cannot coherently claim a “right to do a wrong.” If the laws on Civil Rights forbade things that were truly wrong, when they marked no restriction of freedom, for the laws would have barred people from doing things they never really had a right to do. But that is a recognition that springs from moral philosophy. And if that perspective is applied to the measurement of “moral freedom,” it means that we cannot celebrate the expansion of freedom merely by noting the gradual disappearance of moral and legal restraints. The trend can be celebrated only if we could judge that the freedom, in any case, was directed to a good or rightful end. If it is a new freedom, say, to withhold medical care from newborns with Down’s syndrome, it could hardly be chalked up, with other such liberties, as a gain for the cause of freedom. But that is to say, the task here is not the mapping of trends. It is the task, rather, of the philosopher, who puts, insistently, at the center of the problem, the discipline of justifying his judgments on the things that are right or wrong.

The moral philosopher understands then that we cannot carry out a survey on the moral condition of Americans without getting clear in the first place on the meaning of morality itself. And we cannot judge whether Americans are sensible or thoughtless in their moral sentiments without facing again the grounds on which we judge things that are truly rightful or wrongful.

But Professor Wolfe has now made it plain, in a series of books, that the project of moral judgment, described in this way, is not what he does. Nor does he really do sociology, for his judgments on the main questions do not hinge on empirical research. It is truer to say that he uses the language and the arts of sociology to carry out a kind of stylish evasion of the demands, or the discipline, of moral philosophy. And liberated in that way from the burdens of moral philosophy, he has produced a grand enterprise, which promises to roll on, from one town to the next, and in a train of books stretching into the vast future.

One thing we might safely say, though, is this: When the last book is finished, we will know no more about the logic of morals or the properties of a moral judgment than we know today. And instructed by Professor Wolfe, we will know considerably less about the moral condition of the American people.