The Wolfe at the Door

Posted: May 15, 2001 12:00 AM
Back, for the briefest of glances, to Timothy McVeigh; one moment he's a goner, the next, a revived symbol of our present moral/intellectual agitation. People actually are debating whether a mass murderer marginally mishandled by FBI sub-underlings merits execution. You know, when such a question becomes askable, these aren't normal times. And they aren't, as the Boston College social scientist Alan Wolfe keeps claiming most recently in the book "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice." Wolfe is becoming the national guru of moral freedom through his studies and writings. Moral freedom, says he, is what the 21st century is poised to establish. It's not amorality but, rather, choice in morality, "a conversation with God, or with any other source of moral authority, in which (Americans) will not just listen but also be free to express their own views.'' A "second opinion'' is what they want, rather than "hot tablets from the mountaintop" (as my friend M. E. Bradford used to say). The "good society is one that allows each individual maximum scope for making his or her own moral choices.'' How does Br'er Wolfe know all this? He dispatched interviewers to supposedly representative venues (e.g., San Francisco, Calif.; San Antonio, Texas; Fall River, Mass.; and tiny Tilton, Iowa ) for in-depth conversations on loyalty, self-discipline, honesty and forgiveness. It seems from the results that Americans are out shopping, looking for whatever seems good to them, instead of meekly bowing to authority. "Once people are free,'' summarizes Wolfe, "to choose their cars and their candidates, they will not for long be satisfied with letting others determine for them the best way to live.'' They feel entitled to affirm or oppose gay rights, serial marriage, drug use, exhibitionism and death for Tim McVeigh. Alan Wolfe processes some tape recordings and posits the overthrow of morality as understood since Moses' time? You suspect some overthink here. At the same time, the intonations sound familiar. We don't, as a society, believe the way we believed 35 years ago: to some a great relief, to others great shame, to all a cause of coming tumult. I think -- whatever authority one is ready to ascribe to Wolfe's declarations -- we should get ready for a time of disputation. It should be invigorating. There's nothing inherently wrong with opening up fundamental questions. It's easier not to, but when the lid flies off, well, you have to look. What I think will, over time, astonish moral-freedom fans is the objective character of Truth. Some things, in other words, are. And it makes not one cotton-picking bit of difference whether or not you think they are. Go ahead. Argue the red light really is green; step into the intersection. Made your will out yet? Western morality is premised on an objective order of things; a top-down order, if you please. God at the top, all of us farther down the totem pole. Western morality, which makes freedom possible, accords one the right not to believe any such thing. Go ahead. Argue (against the Western tradition) that no ill consequences accrue to disregard of marriage vows, same-sex relationships, Ayn Randian egotism and so on. Be prepared to learn that the positing of beautiful consequences is not the same as the production of such consequences. No authoritative God guiding the world? Er ... what if there is, after all? And what if he has strong views as to how his dinky little creations should live? One isn't compelled to believe such things, I say -- just to anticipate the consequences of being mistaken. The late Federal Reserve Board Chairman William McChesney Martin said it was the Fed's job to take away the punch bowl just when the party got good. Likewise, gray-haired old fuds whose consciousness was formed prior to the '60s have a similar duty. Too feeble, doubtless, for punch bowl-snatching, we feel compelled to caution: Careful what you take at face value from the Wolfe at your door.