JOHN EDWARDS AND AMERICA'S PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY
Newspapers and other media outlets have recently been filled with scandal. "Well, what's new about that?" you ask. Nothing really except the names. John Edwards, who is pictured on the right, and is a former United States Senator from North Carolina, a Vice Presidential nominee in 2004, and a contender for the Presidency in 2008, has admitted carrying on an extra-marital affair with a woman named Rielle Hunter, while his wife Elizabeth was home caring for their children and suffering from terminal cancer. It has been reported that Edwards may have even fathered a child by Hunter.
As pundits have scrutinized this disgraceful situation, some of them have seized upon the opportunity to make monstrously mean-spirited comments about both Edwards and his wife. It is as if no one wants to miss the opportunity to throw a stone.
As much as I dislike admitting it, the fact of a public figure's betrayal of his marital vows is newsworthy. His lying about it afterward also deserves attention. But there is a lurid, voyeuristic, and pharisaical aspect of the coverage that is despicable and disgusting and, actually, constitutes a bigger blight upon American society than the one about Edwards and his family emblazoned in news headlines.
The story hidden in this moral morass – and the story that is most significant – concerns the state of American political and social life, which includes of course the corrupt media. Will anyone dare to ask what has happened to us as a people? Betrayal of one's spouse, business associates, and friends is commonplace. Self-gratification is the only recognized "final cause" or purpose for being. A sad corollary to this reality is that the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, sexual and otherwise, is now accepted as a natural right and ratcheted to a place of utmost importance. Money and how to obtain it have, not surprisingly, become the essential cornerstones of the good life. Self-interest is the unquestioned object of thought, sense, and action. The fictional character of J. R. Ewing continues to loom large and not only in Dallas, but also throughout America.
It is easy, all too easy, to criticize Edwards's lamentable behavior. But most of those who do so succeed only in unwittingly pointing a thumb and three fingers back at themselves. The aspect of this story that will never be explored by radio and television personalities is about our nation's public philosophy; it is morally bankrupt. The Edwards episode, as well as the aristocratic worldview of American leaders and cultural elites in general, is about one thing alone: "getting all the gusto you can while you can." The virtue of loyalty to partnerships and associations that transcend the self never seems to enter into public awareness until the shame of betrayal is captured on the media's radar screen.
A public philosophy establishes the principles by which we as a people conduct ourselves in relation to one another on issues of common concern. Our prevailing, first-tier public philosophy is none other than "liberalism." By that, I am referring to an attitude and understanding favoring maximal liberty for the individual. Liberalism accents personal autonomy and underscores the "right" of a person to conduct his life however he wishes so long as he does not interfere with another's "right" to do the same. As John Stuart Mill put it, "the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection." If a person's beliefs and actions, especially those of a private nature, do not harm another, then there is no reason to impede them.
You may ask, "What's wrong with that? Sounds reasonable to me." It does, I agree, seem plausible, at least until it is analyzed. Consider this: That which one does in private shapes his character, and his public relations with others are invariably a product of his character. Public and private spheres are, therefore, not two watertight compartments, but they bleed into and influence each other at multiple junctures. One's private identity has profound public consequences. So instead of being indifferent to citizens' private proclivities, why not take an interest in them? A person, who spends four hours every night watching hard-core pornography, still votes! He may also be teaching your children in school or standing in line at a supermarket next to your wife or daughter. The idea does not trouble me one iota that a combination of legal restriction and social stigma might have a chilling effect upon such a person's ability to obtain pornography in this country. It makes no sense to compromise the welfare of our society for the gratification of degenerate interests.
Some will certainly argue that my position encourages censorship and that those who support it cannot be drawn, as Joseph Wood Krutch once maintained, from "the class of decent and intelligent men." In response to this criticism, may I point out that restraint is not always an evil. Art, beauty, and civilization itself are studies in restraint. It is barbarism and the jungle-mentality that know no restraint.
What ails America is the spirit of moral anarchy resulting from the pursuit of unrestrained self-interest. The antidote for the ailment is a healthy moral and communitarian attitude. Instead of a corporate executive, physician, attorney, politician, or journalist being concerned, first and foremost, with "what's in it for me," the question should be "how can I contribute to that which advances the good of my country and of its civil society?"
No state is ever morally neutral. That argument amounts to so much liberal nonsense. The state always has a purposive agenda. Why then should America not consciously seek to perpetuate its traditional public faith, which emphasizes values such as a beneficent deity, hard work, concern for one's neighbor, accountability, and national solidarity? Some abbreviation of this question might well be the byline of every news story about greed, betrayal, dishonesty, and self-seeking. Search as diligently as you wish, but you will not hear or read anything concerning the Edwards story that questions, or even raises the issue of, America's public philosophy.
I look forward to the dawning of a new age when America is no longer merely about "doing your own thing." A country in which the expression of loyalties beyond the immediate gratification of oneself should be our primary goal. Individualism? Yes, certainly, but within the context of a tightly-knit national community, in which all citizens work together for common good.
August 18, 2008