Sunday, March 22nd, 2009...8:27 pm

What Might America’s Fathers Say Now?

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Imagine that the ideals and assumptions of the Founding Fathers could somehow take bodily form and visit America. How might this entity feel seeing the Republic collapsing from greed-driven special interest politics?

I doubt the entity would be shocked. After all, the Founding Fathers had anticipated (and tried to prevent) just such a thing. However, what would be shocking is that those responsible for the collapse are leading members of the upper class. And as the shock subsides, the entity would feel betrayed. The Founding Fathers had assumed a privileged and powerful upper class would be a bulwark against the corruption of the state, not the agents and emissaries of it.

The influence on the Founding Fathers of the 17th century British philosopher, John Locke, is well known. Less known is the influence of the 18th century French philosopher, Baron Montesquieu. In the Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu had written that each type of government—Tyranny, Aristocracy, or Republic—had a corresponding “spirit” that goes along with it—fear, honor, or virtue. In order for a government to be successful, therefore, there had to be a match between the “spirit” of the laws and the “spirit” of the people. Thus, in order for Tyranny to work, the people would have to live in “fear.” In order for Aristocracy to work, the people would have to live in “honor.” And in order for a Republic to work, the people would have to live in—“virtue.”

Today we think of “virtue” as a rare and especially praiseworthy personal accomplishment. To the Founding Fathers, however, “virtue” was not rare but necessary, the lifeblood and essential ingredient of a nation of laws. In this they were influenced by Montesquieu, who defined “virtue” as the ability to put aside private interests and act selflessly on behalf of the common good. The Founding Fathers knew every Republic in history had fallen from a lack of “virtue.” Specifically, those lacking “virtue” would gain access to the machinery of government, diverting it from its proper use as an instrument of the common good to use it instead as a tool of special interests.

Of course, the ideal situation would be to have only people with “virtue” to be in control of the levers of government. But where are these people found? Are they distributed randomly through the population, as Plato thought…or are they clustered in one social class, as was assumed in the Aristocratic social systems of the old world? It was precisely on this point that the Founding Fathers stumbled, failing to rise above the class-based prejudices of their day. As property-owning gentlemen of the upper class, they took it for granted that the only class of people that could be trusted to be consistently “virtuous” in high office would be property-owning gentlemen such as themselves. And they took the obverse for granted as well—that those historically lacking property and great wealth could NOT be trusted to be consistently “virtuous” in high office. In the political lexicon of their day, allowing people without wealth to exercise power directly was sneeringly referred to as “mob rule.”

As they crafted the Constitution, therefore, it seemed prudent to the Founding Fathers to entrust the actual power of governing to property-owning gentlemen while excluding the mass of ordinary citizens from the direct exercise of power. Accordingly, they created the new American nation as a Constitutional Republic and not as a Democracy. The difference is that where citizens in a Democracy set policy and make laws by means of direct voting, citizens in a Constitutional Republic lack direct power and vote only to select representatives to set policy and make laws. And as a last-gap protection from “mob-rule,” they created the Electoral College, establishing that citizens would not vote for the President directly but only for suitable “electors” who, later and behind closed doors, would actually select the next President.

Be that as it may, the worse has happened: people without “virtue”—albeit our upper class—now control the levers of power. Our situation is dire, and each day brings more bad news and less reason to hope. Given this, what can ordinary Americans now do to protect ourselves and our nation from the continuing predations of our upper class?

Interestingly, contemporary moral development theory brings some needed illumination to this problem. According to moral development theory, morality is not an either/or thing, something one has or has not. Rather, moral awareness is complex and evolving, developing along a specific sequence of stages. Although different theorists number the stages differently, there is consensus there are three fundamental levels—the egocentric (only I count in my moral universe), the ethnocentric (only my group counts), and the worldcentric (everyone counts).

Now when we look at contemporary America from the perspective of moral development theory, some interesting results become clear. First of all, rich people in America operate primarily on the egocentric level, using the power of their position to benefit themselves. Ironically, the “mob” that forms the base of support for their special interest politics—flag waving patriots and religiously oriented social conservatives—operate mostly on the ethnocentric level, the next higher step in the evolutionary sequence. They have been willing to sacrifice personal rights, material well-being, and legal integrity because they believed the upper class leaders who told them doing so was best for the nation. As misguided as their support was, it expressed “virtue.” And finally, most progressives operate on the worldcentric level. Indeed, what it means to be a progressive is to “be” worldcentric rather than ethnocentric.

Now this bizarre situation, in which our highest class has the lowest level of moral development, is the exact opposite of what the founding fathers assumed and anticipated. Again, they expected the upper class to be a bulwark against the corruption of the state, not its agent and prime beneficiary. So what now? How can moral development theory help us to respond effectively to the continuing damage being done to the American state, economy, and culture by the predations of our upper class?

Here is how.

Moral development theory tells us that moral understanding and awareness is a function of a person’s level of development and not of the particular views they happen to hold. For example, there is a developmental sequence of ways of believing in God—an egocentric way (God values me over others), an ethnocentric way (God values my nation over others), and a worldcentric way (God values everyone equally). Similarly, there are different ways to be an atheist—an egocentric way (there is no God, so I can do anything), an ethnocentric way (there is no God, so my nation determines what is right and wrong), and a worldcentric way (there is no God, so I must be good, kind, and compassionate).

Now one significant aspect of moral development theory that is especially germane to our purposes is that there is no single way to make an effective moral appeal. This is because what “appeals” to a person depends on that person’s level of moral development. People on the worldcentric level can be appealed to in terms of universal rights and moral ideals; people on the ethnocentric level can be appealed to on the level of patriotism, tribal religion, and national self-interest; but people on the egocentric level—that is, people who lack “virtue”—can only be appealed to on the level of force.

In other words, the only effective way to get people on the egocentric level—and this includes many of the leading members of our upper class—to stop looting the nation and damaging the common good is to punish them with a level of severity sufficient to cancel out the benefits of their wrongdoing. In fact, unless known wrongdoers on the egocentric level of moral development are prosecuted to the full extent of the law for their transgressions, they will continue to act without “virtue.”

This is why it is necessary to investigate, charge, and punish those who are responsible for the crimes of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, many Americans have difficulty seeing this because of their core belief that material success is both the evidence and result of moral superiority. However, until steps are taken to punish the wrongdoers, the powerful members of our upper class who lack “virtue” will continue to use their position to loot our nation, destroy our economy, and degrade our culture, all while strengthening the authoritarian security state apparatus.

Interestingly, one “silver lining” in the dark cloud of the current economic collapse is that this crisis marks the end of the core American belief in the moral superiority of rich people. Indeed, as the dust settles from the devastation of the Bush years, the lack of “virtue” of an upper class that lacks “class” is being revealed in exquisite detail. With a boy of their youth to serve the lust of their greed, the most privileged and powerful citizens in the most privileged and powerful nation managed in a surprisingly short time to foul the economy, to corrupt the state, and to degrade the culture of America. And the way the media was mobilized to “leverage” the eager willingness of working Americans to do what is best for the nation into a base of support for greed-driven special interest politics and a foreign policy consisting of profitable war crimes—this is not a pretty sight.

George Orwell once remarked that a rich person is only a dishwasher in a new suit. This ongoing and gathering collapse we are living through is proving both Orwell and the Founding Fathers wrong. We can now see that the difference between a rich man and a dishwasher goes much deeper than their clothes. For one, the dishwasher probably has some “virtue.”


  • This is a fascinating issue and one that strikes at the heart of not only contemporary culture but the history of organized humanity. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few years about the historical precedents of the Bush era. One good thing to come out of those eight troubling years was that it cleared my head of idealistic clouds and forced me to take a rigorous look at facts. At first, these facts stunned me. How could any sensible human beings compare the status of the country—on any criteria: economic, national security, environment, civil rights, health care, and so on—and not clearly see that every measurement of the efficiency and well-being of the country plummeted under Bush and the Republican dominated congress? (I have no interest here in chastising the term “republican”; merely the status of the party’s leadership at the time.) The statistics proved the case beyond any intelligent debate. For the first couple year, I even kept a list of all the ways the country had gotten worse under the past administration. Eventually, I simply could not keep up with the harm that had been done. The only people that I could at least understand supporting the last administration were extremely wealthy people who felt that it was a dog eat dog world and that whoever walked away from the table with all the chips was to winner. Whatever became of the losers was irrelevant. But this, as you indicate in your post, was a small minority. In order for this minority to succeed, they had to convince those whose chips they were taking away that it was a privilege to give away their comfort and assets to those in positions of economic supremacy.

    If I had kept my focus on the past 8-10 years, I would have wholeheartedly agreed that punishment was the only fair course of action.

    I still support the prosecution of those members of the last administration for their blatant abuse of power and the price that the citizenry paid and continues to pay for their self-interest, greed, and hypocrisy, but I’ve begun to believe that punishment will not solve the problem.

    When you mentioned the founding fathers and their ideals, I agree with your assessment; yet I am reminded of the well-spring of democracy—the Greek city state. Democracy in ancient Greek culture was not democracy for all people. Women were excluded. Slaves were excluded. Sparta was not interested in the rights of Athens, and so on. It was justice only for the elite. And this was a minority of the people. When the founding fathers fashioned the country, slavery was rampant. Misogyny was commonplace. Class systems and religious piety were just as rigid then as they are now.

    My point is this: people have been seeking personal advantage at the expense of others throughout recorded history. This must indicate some internal motivation in human beings as a whole that drives them to exercise advantage whenever the opportunity arises. There are exceptions to this, of course, but in general I think this is accurate. Just about anyone put in a position to increase their personal power will tend in that direction and rationalize the cost of that increase to others. Nietzsche was right in Will to Power. And this battle has raged for millennia in an artificial team-sport where one group beats back the other for its own gain.

    Punishment doesn’t stop it. If flaying someone alive in the Dark Ages didn’t stop theft, then nothing would. Punishing women for having abortions doesn’t stop abortion—it merely hurts women. Punishing people for same-sex love doesn’t stop same-sex love—it merely hurts people. Punishing people for being addicted to drugs doesn’t stop people from becoming addicted to drugs—it merely hurts people. Furthermore, having these systems of uniform punishment in place can (and does) facilitate those with less noble ambitions than justice. Many times oppositional forces were officially condemned, so that their executions would seem legitimate. The law cuts both ways. It not only punishes those who have done wrong, it often silences those who challenge the status quo. I have written that law is written by those occupying the center of a culture (for America, white, Christian, heterosexual men) in order to force those who are marginal to conform.

    Furthermore, when you apply force, people tend to rebel. It is by its nature adversarial. So when one group attacks another, the other group is fortified in its own defense, regardless of whether they are right are not.

    My suggestion is that maybe there is a more sophisticated, reasonable way to curb greed, self-interest, and oppressive class systems. Maybe there is a way we can enlighten people to the values of reason and virtue without force or threat of punishment.

    The problems on the extreme right stem from the belief that there is an extreme right, rather than a country of people working toward the overall good of the people. This illusion of cohesiveness on the right is, I would argue, the result of several factors: 1) capitalist propaganda that posits the idea that the value of everything can be reduced to a dollar amount, 2) the idea that loyalty is a virtue, thus you stick by your ideas and your group no matter what they say or do, 3) the notion that faith trumps reason, and that if you believe something hard enough, or enough people believe it with you, it automatically becomes true (consider O’Reilly, who frequently claims he’s right because his ratings are higher than other people’s ratings), 4) the condemnation of intellect, which allows people to dismiss information acquired from intelligent, educated, well-reasoned people when they discuss their areas of specialty (thus allowing people to ignore Nobel scientists and blinded journals and double-blind research and continue believing that the world is 5,000 years old, or that global warming is a liberal bias), and 5) the belief that all ideas carry the same weight, so if I believe that gravity causes planetary perturbations, that idea carries the same weight as the belief that angels are controlling the movement of the planets.

    None of these five factors can be changed by force. They can all be changed through education and inclusion. If we perceive everyone as being on the same team, then understanding ceases to be oppositional and becomes a matter of intelligent discourse. I recall an extreme right-wing student I had a few semesters ago who only watched Fox “News” and believed everything she heard. Instead of punishing her for these beliefs, I joined with her in the examination of these ideas. As a result, she went to a website that asked for her opinions about issues before matching those interests to a presidential candidate. Instead of coming out on the far-right, she was divided equally between positions held by McCain and positions held by Obama. She was a centrist and didn’t know it. Had I attacked her, she would have become defensive and would have never realized this. I recall also talking with my niece, who was a “born-again” Christian who had attending one of the Christian training camps/schools. She claimed that the Old Testament predicted the New Testament. Rather than attack her, we opened the bible together and research what was actually there. She quickly realized that the book did not in fact predict anything.

    What I’m saying is that maybe there is a way to join together in a way that facilitates genuine solutions to the difficulties that social systems face. That might be more productive than pursing revenge for the unquestionable atrocities of Bush-era politics. If we can come to the same table, we might be able to alter our objectives so that rather than personal material wealth, we value character and compassion; rather than blind faith, we value reason; rather than ignorance, we value knowledge; rather than right and wrong, we focus on those actions which are humane and beneficial to all people; rather than privilege, we value fair and balanced treatment; rather than anger and outrage, we promote cooperation and understanding; rather than exclusion, we promote inclusion.

    Just a thought.

  •   Chris Willman
    October 22nd, 2009 at 1:32 pm    

    Hey Doc! Chris from Gospel Choir! Interesting article! Never thought about it in this way! Your blogs and ideas are opening my eyes man! I really enjoyed reading this! I will pass the word along!

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