The Death of Character. Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil

reviewed by Robert T. Sandin

The Death of Character. Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil by James Davison Hunter, New York, Basic Books, 2000. 362 pp. $26.00 paperback

Character is dead, its time has passed, writes James Davison Hunter, after his wide-ranging examination of the condition of moral education in this country. It is a serious and earnest judgment. Hunter does not think it proper to speak of a "crisis" in moral education. For two centuries, he notes, it has been said that we are in a moral crisis, so there is nothing special about our time. The fact is, however, that the unfolding of our moral culture resists all human efforts to change it, oppose it, or manage it. What we can say is that "America in the twentieth century witnessed a profound transformation in its moral culture, and this transformation has significant consequences for the moral socialization of the young."

The vast majority of Americans want a renewal of personal, social, and political morality and strongly favor strengthening of programs of values education in schools. A significant growth has occurred in such programs in the last half of the century, and a very substantial literature has been produced. After examining the various strategies, Hunter classifies them under three types: The psychological strategy, grounded in the insights of developmental and educational psychology; The neoclassical strategy, focusing on moral virtues and ideals which have been established through the experience and reflection of the generations; and The communitarian strategy, based on recognition of the moral basis of social and political life and the universal ideal of democratic life and civic cooperation.

He treats each strategy with a certain respect, but his judgment of each is adverse. He finds, that moral education in all its forms is surprisingly ineffective in cultivating character in our children. Rather than restoring character and moral ideals, these strategies are complicit in destroying them.

The death of character, says Hunter, is the outcome of the fading of the moral distinctiveness of particular communities and traditions. It was an inevitable death under present historical circumstances. Character is rooted in particular normative terms and principles—Hunter speaks of God-terms—which are transcendent over personal preferences and desires. The death of character should come as no surprise to those who know that God is dead. The death of character is not the product of the moral failures of individuals, much less the moral failure of our national leaders. It is the outcome of social and cultural changes that are quite beyond individual control. Even the best efforts of the new moral educators will not bring about the moral and spiritual renewal they seek. We are a culture that has moved beyond good and evil.

Character, and the moral qualities of which it is made, can still be found, according to Hunter, in many individuals and "Here and there in pockets of social life." And there are things that might be done to foster moral understanding in the new sociocultural paradigm of our time. But while moral education attempts to deepen moral sympathies and awareness and to build moral character, it is tempted by our democratic impulse toward inclusiveness to banish the particularity of moral conviction which is the basis of moral authority. Education thus renders itself incapable of accomplishing the very purpose it has set for itself.

Hunter writes as a sociologist. He is the William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at The University of Virginia and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His research is extensive, but his use of the recent literature (which has become immense) is selective. He views morality primarily from a phenomenological and empirical perspective and fails to do justice to recent efforts to address the issues of cognitive/moral development through a dialectical process of moral thinking.

He may be right in finding that most practitioners revert too readily to therapeutic and affective strategies in teaching for fear that an examination of the rational basis of moral judgment will be taken as indoctrination. But the root of moral freedom is always a capacity for moral thinking and judgment reflectively and responsibly drawn. If such a strategy is in too little evidence among the values education programs Hunter has found ineffective, the remedy may be a strengthening of the philosophical foundations of those endeavors.

Hunter edges toward recognition of the need for a new approach in a brief postscript, written in a somewhat more optimistic tone. He does not completely despair, he says, over the possibility of cultivating strong character in children—or, we might add, in adults, even in retirees. What he thinks is in vain is to try to work for a revolutionary restructuring of the habitus within which we work and live. So maybe we have to create more spaces in which diverse moral communities might be renewed in their own particularities. This may be difficult to accomplish in the schools, influenced as they are by the inclusive culture of a democracy. But it might be more possible, Hunter suggests, in the private realm of family, of independent education, and of churches and other voluntary organizations. That is an interesting strategy for radical change.

Instead of forcing commonality on our public moral discourse at the expense of the particularity, the foundation of all moral decision, we might find ways to discover a dynamic and dialectical commonality through particularity. Moral agreement concerning the basic ideals of justice, respect, freedom, responsibility, courage, and altruism might be nurtured within moral diversity, not in spite of it. Our democracy might create communities that exhibit differences in moral culture and commitment while pursuing the essential values of human fulfillment and social unity. Had Hunter written a book on this idea, instead of dwelling on the death of character in our kind of democracy, it would have been exciting to read.