The Absence, and Problem, of Good Behavior

Hester Prynne standing atop the scaffolding, bearing both her child and the embroidered scarlet A is a pitiable image.   Through the certain anguish of her public admonition we can feel her defiance, and so, she becomes something of a hero in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of group judgment, and individual consequences.

Puritanical America, at least as envisioned by Hawthorne, is happily gone.  It is right to replace societal norms with individual conscience, leaving each to his or her path.  The entire American experiment in self-government was designed to protect the rights of a minority from the whims of the majority.  For that reason the Constitution created a republic, and not a democracy.

Yet it seems as if we have passed some tipping point, and thus lost an important ingredient of republican liberty.

Self-government begins with self-control.  That is, liberty can only be exercised by a population that has some sense of responsibility.  Therein lay the distinction between freedom and chaos.  Liberty is inextricably linked to obligations, the converse path leads to a Hobbesian free-for-all.

Hawthorne rejected the mob-imposed shame of the seventeenth century, but remained an ardent defender for the need of each person to live in accordance with some code.  But what can be done when the code has eroded and societal norms seemingly protect only the race to the lowest common denominator?

It is a problem described brilliantly by Charles Murray in the closing section of Coming Apart.  Murray writes that for most of its history, “in keeping with its democratic tradition, America did not have different codes for socioeconomic classes.”  A shared code existed for all, but, he chronicles, it has come undone.

America today places an extreme value on niceness, on generalized tolerance.  We take great pains to avoid being judgmental.  Most of us understand that we have no right to tell anyone else how to live, or to criticize them for their choices.  Thus, we accept some vulgarity and lewdness, we are patient with exhibited sloth and dependence.   Young men do not hold doors open for old ladies, adults freely swear in front of children, and we seek advantage and gain at the expense of fairness.

The prototypical American code (and it should not be just an American code), essentially mirrors the values of the Boy Scouts.  We should all be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, thrifty, and brave.  A code transcends, or at least should, the political divide between Left and Right.

So what to do about an Amanda Clayton?  The 24-year old Clayton recently won $1 million in the Michigan lottery.  She now owns two homes and a luxury car – and continues to collect food stamps.  When asked if she feels entitled to the public largesse she replied, “I kinda do.”

In 2008 Viacom lost half its value, prompting executives Philippe Dauman and Thomas E. Dooley to lay off 7 percent of its workforce.   For the terrible corporate performance, and for sending nearly 900 people to the unemployment lines, Dauman and Dooley rewarded themselves with a combined $165 million over nine months.

Neither Clayton, nor Dauman and Dooley, did anything illegal.  But they certainly did something wrong.  The three should be ashamed of themselves.  How a code of conduct can be enforced without a return to Puritanical New England is, however, something of a problem.

Cadets of the United State Military Academy at West Point must abide by a code that says they “will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”  A testament to the success of the code can be found in the scores of Medal of Honor winners who once wore the cadet grey. Despite its apparent success, we understand that military practices can not be enforced in civilian life.

America must confront a cultural rot nonetheless.  Sadly many imaginable remedies risk being worse than the disease.

We must encourage courtesy, bravery, honesty, and self-discipline without succumbing to malice, bias, or favor seeking.  We must not tolerate vice, but remain patient and generous to those still seeking virtue.  When Paris Hilton has “earned” in excess of $100 million, and Tim Tebow is roundly mocked by media pontificators, our national course seems fixed


2 thoughts on “The Absence, and Problem, of Good Behavior

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I also appreciate that you did not suggest that this code of conduct be Christian, or even religious. (The commonly held belief that you can’t be ethical/moral without being Christian/believing in God baffles me.)

    The relationship between multiculturalism and (tolerance of) bad behavior is thought-provoking. One doesn’t want to argue that multiculturalism is bad per se (as these arguments are sometimes made by the xenophobic). However, I am reminded of an article I read after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami last year, discussing why there was so little looting and crime after (and really in general). Besides the institutionalization of this “honest” behavior (for example, it is regular practice to be rewarded if you turn a wallet into the police), the role of a population that’s relatively homogeneous in being community-oriented cannot be overlooked.

  2. This is a tough subject. I spent five days thinking about a good way to approach it, and still am not satisfied.

    I try to teach my son things like “women and children first,” whether it is to the lifeboats or through the door. He instinctively gets that this is not fair. Teaching about respect and courtesy helps, but is a little lacking. Feebly, I explain that there are certain things we must all simply accept.

    Swearing is an interesting one for me. Though not proud of it, I will on occasion let fly a four-letter word. But never in front of children, mine or not. Too, I am comfortable asking someone to mind their language if they are cursing in a public place with children present. Of course they have a right to, and I would oppose efforts to legislate otherwise, but I maintain they should not do it. Having a right does not mean it is always proper to exercise it.

    I see this everywhere, and not just in music and television. Grown men who do not offer their seat to a woman, young girls dressed, well, “immodestly,” and so forth. I am archaic enough to think that a grown man should not wear a hat or shorts into a nice restaurant. Some of this seems trivial, but I agree with Murray that it adds up.

    I am not so interested in blame, as I would like to see a return to civility and manners. Have you seen any footage from Black Friday morning stampedes?

    Murray argued that elites need to set the tone. I don’t know. It seems that in a democratic society, the manners of the masses are inevitably adopted by all.

    Regardless, honesty and self-control are sorely lacking.

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