John Leo

"Moral Freedom" continues this genial, middle-of-the-road analysis. Wolfe finds San Francisco gays and militant feminists who speak for self-restraint and Bible-Belt conservatives who argue for more self-expression. Americans, he says, are not caught up in the liberation vs. oppression battles left over from the 1960s. Based on a New York Times survey he helped design, Wolfe concludes that Americans don't spend time pondering a culture war. Instead they are caught up in an effort to bridge the old and the new, holding on to traditional standards, but refusing to accept them as absolutes. "Any form of higher authority has to tailor its demands to the needs of real people," Wolfe writes.

Hovering over the new moral universe is the great cloud of nonjudgmentalism. Wolfe has qualms, but true to his approach, he sees the nonjudgmental ethic in generally positive terms. Americans are now unwilling to tell others how to live. By refraining from judgment, Wolfe thinks, Americans express a sense of humility and respect for the moral freedom of others. Nonjudgmentalism pushes us to interpret immoral behavior as a result of medical or genetic problems. The perpetrator is not at fault; he is the helpless victim of bad genes or a medical-psychiatric problem. A lot of moral concern is smuggled into the national conversation disguised as a scientific discussion of public health or addiction.

Much of the book analyzes various virtues and argues that Americans uphold the old virtues in principle while in practice turning them into personal "options." Americans prize loyalty, but in an age of easy divorce and mass corporate layoffs, loyalty is now seen as conditional. The same is true of honesty. Success today, Wolfe writes, often depends on managing the impressions of other people -- a form of dissimulation. Honesty is no longer the best policy. It is a general mandate, strategically applied.

Wolfe offers the good news: Americans share a common moral philosophy "broad and inclusive enough to incorporate people whose views of the actual issues of the day are at loggerheads." But he doesn't spend much time lamenting the downside. Americans have strong principles, but they reserve the right not to apply them in difficult situations. Subscribers to the new moral order can have it both ways -- strong principles with a built-in escape hatch.

This would explain much of the gap between polls on moral issues and actual behavior. Several polls, for instance, show that between 50 percent and 60 percent of Americans think abortion is a form of murder. An annual survey of college freshmen consistently shows that about half of those polled think abortion should be illegal. Yet the prevalence of abortion points to a more relaxed moral standard when the chips are down.

Is this the future -- strong standards casually applied or simply ignored under stress? Could be. In his book "After Virtue," philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre lamented that today "all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitudes or feelings." But moral codes are supposed to rein in many feelings and desires, not to offer them all free expression under cover of alleged moral seriousness.

Wolfe's "moral freedom" seems to whisk away duty and obligation, relieving us all of the burden of doing anything costly. If this is the future, let's have more of the past.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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