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When My Virtue Doesn’t Match Your Virtue

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict. This article is adopted from an address sponsored by the Planning Council of Norfolk and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public policy. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 30, 1988, p. 1094. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

The recent change in the cultural climate, one that everyone from fundamentalists to People for the American Way helped produce and to which each responded, has occasioned fresh talk about civic responsibility. The grand shift in experience and thought throughout the West, as it loses its center, makes such reflection and talk urgent.

In the United States, given its earnest Puritan, Enlightenment, Catholic and Jewish heritages, it is natural that the focus is on morals. The language about morality has reintroduced a term congenial to the founders and framers of the republic: virtue. It is hard to think of a world more "out" 20 years ago and more "in" now.

In traditional Western thinking, people derived the virtue to obey the law because God, the Supreme Lawgiver, issued it through the king, who ruled by divine right. The American colonists in 1776 figuratively killed the king and practically removed thought about divine right from above. Therefore, basic virtue along with its corollaries had to come from below, as it were -- from the citizens themselves. They had to be or become virtuous, through whatever means. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights do not talk about virtue, obedience or justice. Instead they provide a framework that both allows for and assumes their development.

Some scholars contend that the constitutionalists paid little attention to virtues. Others find a moral preoccupation, almost obsession, in most of them, when they were not busy drafting a constitution. For instance, James Madison, as "Publius" in The Federalist papers, wrote that "justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It has ever been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." The founders considered justice one of the chief virtues.

The problem in a republic, however, was not simply that individuals argued about what the virtues were or how they were to be formed and expressed. The constitutionalists and federalists were much aware that people exist in factions, interest groups and sects that differ with one another over the most profound aspects of virtue. The First Amendment’s religion clause helped assure that these factions had freedom to emerge and persist. Hence, legally, we have the basis for pluralism.

Pluralism was further realized as competitive interest groups and factions kept arriving with each immigrant cohort. New "agencies of the mind and spirit," as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called them in 1940, kept being invented, changing, prospering and fighting with others.

John Courtney Murray posed the issue of pluralism well: "As we discourse on public affairs, on the affairs of the commonwealth, and particularly on the problem of consensus, we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality -- into metaphysics, ethics, theology." But confusion results because there exists among us a "plurality of universes of discourse. These universes are incommensurable." More profoundly, we "do not share the histories that lie behind many of [our] fellow citizens." Therefore, "we are aware that we not only hold different views but have become different kinds of men as we have lived our several histories.’’

One current example illustrates Murray’s point. In America we do not have an abortion debate; we have what Murray calls a confusion, because the antiabortion and pro-choice factions, interests and sects express incommensurable universes of discourse, and they both result from and produce several histories and different views and kinds of people.

So what do we do in a republic when my virtue does not match your virtue, when my discourse, metaphysics, ethics, theology, history, views and kind are or seem incommensurate with yours? One can ignore the issue. Or a person or group can try simply to overwhelm the larger community: get 51 percent of the voters to impose laws based on their factional understandings. That is all, or at least a big part, of what politics is about. Or people can invent an apparently common universe of discourse for the 80 percent or so who find themselves at home in "the Judeo-Christian tradition." Then let minorities and dissenters watch out.

The founders and framers anticipated these problems and proposed solutions. Some like John Jay tried all at once the strategies of ignoring, overwhelming and inventing when he claimed that the emerging republic was "one connected country" and "one united people -- a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs." But that generalization did not allow for what Jefferson called ‘the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination" already in America. It cannot encompass the wild and growing pluralism of our own day. Nor did it notice how within a people "professing the same religion" incommensurate universes of discourse participate in bloody factionalism. For instance, when was the U.S. more Protestant, or biblicist, or evangelical than around 1861-1865, the time of the Civil War?

When my virtues do not match your virtues, we do not have to resort to strategies of ignoring present realities, overwhelming minorities, or inventing fictional homogeneous pasts. There are other strategies. Some of these strategies -- also apparent in the founders’ times -- are negative. Bruce A. Ackerman, in Social Justice in the Liberal State (Yale University Press, 1980) , arguing for an astringently secular, rational model, is faithful to the framers at least in the proposition that "nobody has the right to vindicate political authority by asserting a privileged insight into the moral universe which is denied to the rest of us." So one’s revelation, one’s scriptures, one’s bible, one’s magisterial teaching may give one a privileged insight; but those outside the fold cannot -- unless hypocritical -- share the insight based on that revelation.

Thus we cannot resolve the abortion confusion because "the Bible says. . ." In their contentions during the 1984 presidential campaign, New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Cardinal John O’Connor came to this point. The governor said that while he agreed with Catholic magisterial teaching on abortion, it was based on a privileged insight others did not share. The cardinal replied that Catholics wanted U.S. law to criminalize abortion not because of the revelation or magisterial teaching but because, to paraphrase, the prolife position accorded with natural law; it belonged to the structure of things, and was accessible to all reasonable people.

Neither Cuomo nor O’Connor gave a comprehensive or fully satisfying address to the issue. But they both were more than half right in their basic contention against the "privileged insight" view. If a cardinal tells us that Catholic teaching on a particular subject is a simple deduction from the nature of things and natural law, then others can counter that their natural law and reason take them to a different conclusion.

Today in these postmodern, post-Enlightenment times, many secular philosophers also see secular rationality as an expression of a time-bound, metaphysically unstable, uncritical faith. One need not go so far as to say that all reasoning begins in privileged insights, as some analysts do. It is enough to observe that few university philosophy departments today teach Enlightenment rationality as the truth about life. Most history departments teach about the way it emerged, developed, was assaulted and transformed, and sounded very different when its heirs, people like John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, gave voice to it scores of years later.

An eloquent critique of secular rationality as the only basis for a discussion of a republic’s virtues is Kent Greenawalt’s Religious Convictions and Political Choice (Oxford University Press, 1987) , an appraisal of Bruce Ackerman, John Rawls and other philosophers. Greenawalt proposes that we include religious communities in public discourse. He says, however, that they cannot enter the discussion using revelation-based or ecclesiastically engendered insights. He stipulates that the Rawlsians and the religious communities use neither "secular rationality" nor "revelation" as their base. Instead they .should proceed from "publicly accessible" bases and arguments.

Greenawalt would say, and I would say more loudly, that religionists who do not invoke the privileged insights of their revelation or magisterium can enhance and qualify rationality with community experience, intuition, attention to symbol, ritual and narrative. Of course, these communities and their spokespersons argue with one another. But so do philosophical rationalists. Argument, after all, contributes to the search for virtues and for ways to express them.

Through reason, experience, intuition, symbol, myth, ritual and narrative, the subcommunities do make up a larger, if always contentious, community. Their histories intersect, connect and overlap.

They form diverse coalitions across ever-varying boundaries. The Moral Majoritarians who entered a profound covenant with Catholics against abortion went on to oppose the bishops’ program on, for example, nuclear weapons and the economy. On these issues, Catholics enter covenants and have shared experiences and intuitions with Jews, secular rationalists and liberal Protestants who do not find the case for outlawing abortion to be part of their reading of natural law.

My virtue and your virtue do not match because of our participation in separate histories and experiences. Yet after two centuries it is clear that common stories have also developed, stories that antecede the Puritans and go beyond Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dorothy Day. Justice Frankfurter spoke of the "agencies of mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of the people," and said that these concerned a "continuity of a treasured common life," and that the "ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment." Such a common life has provided and can provide a base for at least some matching of virtues, toward the promotion of the "permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

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