Civil Thoughts on Uncivil Times: Stephen Carter

Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter ‘79 J.D. has taught law at Yale since 1982. His course subjects include law and religion, the ethics of war, contracts, evidence, and professional responsibility. He also writes widely on the interplay of culture, ethics, and religion, with books such as The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1994) and Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1999). His best-selling novel The Emperor of Ocean Park was released in 2002. His latest novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, was published by Knopf in July.

REFLECTIONS: Has the moral mood of the nation changed in recent decades?

STEPHEN CARTER: The late religious philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman coined the phrase “traffic society” to refer to a culture so steeped in generalized impersonal regulation that people are treated in effect like automobiles rather than human beings. That seems to me the direction in which we’re headed. It isn’t that any particular law or rule is particularly bad (although there are some clunkers out there), but that the sheer weight of rules displaces other goods.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Fifteen or twenty years ago, a college student in California decided to attend classes naked. When criticized, he insisted that he had the right to do it. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The point his critics made was that whether or not he had the right, what he was doing was wrong.

Nowadays, this sort of argument is quite difficult to make. Once a claim of right has been asserted, the asserter (often aided by the media) expects all critics to shut up. It is as though the establishment of legality ends questions of morality. A public conversation premised on that vacuous notion isn’t worthy of the name.

Edmund Burke, in an early essay, bemoaned the way that lawyers and theologians had divided up the world, so that nobody dared act without consulting both. Few people are very frightened any longer of the theologians. The lawyers of his day have morphed into the bureaucrats of ours; and the bureaucrats scare everybody.

One predictable result of a heavy reliance on rules is a decreased reliance on moral suasion – and as the need for moral suasion declines, so does our ability to engage in moral argument. That is why, for example, critics of the Bush Administration’s adventure in Iraq, or the Obama Administration’s drone war, have found themselves forced to rely on shaky arguments about legality. In both cases, they should have been making arguments about morality. Alas, we no longer do public moral argument particularly well. If we don’t recover the skill, we will cease to be in any recognizable sense a moral people.

REFLECTIONS: How do you assess the national conversation about American values during this election season? Do you hear resilience, self-doubt, confidence, confusion?

CARTER: I was unaware that any such conversation was taking place. I have noticed a great deal of silly shouting and sloganeering, applause lines, useful mythologies, and lists of people to hate – in short, all the usual accouterments of a reactionary politics. A reactionary politics is one designed to bypass the rational faculties of its targets, and that is the corrosive work in which both sides are engaged during this election season.

Emerson and Thoreau had a famous disagreement on which was superior, the spoken word or the written. Emerson believed that one had to listen to an argument to truly understand. Thoreau considered reading better, dismissing speech as a “brutal” alternative to writing. Whoever was right then, both forms of communication have become equally brutal in the current campaign. This is not so much the fault of the candidates as the fault of the voters – they are only giving us what they think we want, and they don’t think we want a serious, reflective conversation among competing visions.

But if I am mistaken – if there is, on the national stage, an actual conversation going on, on any subject – I would most certainly like to learn of it.

REFLECTIONS: In Civility, you said it was your prayerful hope for America that “we build a society in which we act with, rather than talk about genuine respect for others.” Has civility lost ground since 1999? What conditions are needed for it to flourish?

CARTER: In the book you mention, I define “civility” as the sum of the many sacrifices that we make for the sake of living our common life. Thus civility isn’t only good manners (although it is that) and it isn’t only how we think about and talk about others (although it is that, too). Civility resides, for example, in acts of charity, particularly when they are truly costly to us.

Are we being more sacrificial? It is difficult to say. Acting through government isn’t sacrifice – it’s the use of coercion to require sacrifices from others. Coercion isn’t always bad, and there are things government must coerce – but we should be careful to separate acts of state from acts of charity.

The distinction matters. Consider for example the substantial literature suggesting that when individual income tax rates rise, so do charitable donations, because the benefit to the giver (the charitable deduction) is worth more at a higher marginal rate. If this is so, however, we must recognize the implicit failure of civility: People are giving money to charity because they are being paid to do it! (The older view, that only the giving of the rich and not the giving of the middle class is influenced by tax rates, seems not to have stood empirical testing.)

REFLECTIONS: Is religion today a healthy part of the public conversation about values and behavior?

CARTER: One would of course want those who take God’s word seriously to be serious in applying that word to the problems of society. I cannot speak for other religions, but I am skeptical that many Christians are any longer well-positioned to bring the teaching of their traditions to bear on the problems of the world.

When Paul prays (Ephesians 3:17-19) “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” his purpose isn’t the creation of any community. He is trying to create Christian community as something distinct from the culture it inhabits. Here it seems to me that Stanley Hauerwas has matters right. We might dispute in places Stanley’s vision of what Christian community is, but a Christian is most certainly called to create it – not for the purpose of fixing the world but for the purpose of nurturing and discipling believers.

Short of this, as Hauerwas points out, it is difficult to know how Christians can possibly witness to the world. If Christians don’t have any idea what we ourselves believe, or why, we can hardly expect the world to listen to our disordered musings.

Of course, as we know, people by and large don’t want to listen anyway. They are skeptical that the religions have much to teach them about how to meet the challenges of today. No doubt some of the blame for this rests with the cultural assault on religion. But much of the blame also rests with religion itself, not only because of the “legalistic” face the public often perceives, but also because of the way the faiths have become distracted by internal battles that are simply irrelevant to the lives and needs of most believers.

REFLECTIONS: What sort of wisdom can faith traditions inject into turbulent times?

CARTER: Our modern word wisdom comes from an Old High German word meaning, roughly, judicial precedent. The idea was that wisdom was the guidance that the experience of the past could offer to the present – and that the guidance of wisdom, absent exceptional circumstance, should be binding.   I have never thought that we should somehow be ruled by the wisdom of the ancients. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t consult it and, at times, defer to it. The ancients can be wrong, but so can we. Here it is useful to follow the example of Socrates in Plato’s Apology, and be as acutely sensitive to what we don’t know as to what we do.

When a moral teaching has been held for generations, that at least suggests that a lot of people over the centuries have thought it might actually be true.

A lot of traditional teachings are, by our present lights, morally reprehensible, and have quite properly been rejected. But we shouldn’t turn this around and suppose that they must be morally reprehensible because they’re ancient. When a moral teaching has been held for generations, that at least suggests that a lot of people over the centuries have thought it might actually be true. That fact does not make a traditional answer true, but it does suggest that we should embrace a certain humility when deciding whether to reject what tradition teaches. On the other hand, many religionists are nowadays in retreat from their own traditions – or else cowering in bunkers, trying to protect what tatters of tradition they can from the strengthening cultural and legal assault.

REFLECTIONS: If American history can be characterized as a long debate between individualism and community, who’s winning?

CARTER: If the question is about sex, individualism is winning. If the question is about just about anything else, community is winning. If you doubt this proposition, just consider where we feel comfortable regulating, and where we don’t.

As more and more corners of life are regulated for the sake of the common good, the tricky question is who’s in charge. Come to think of it, the same question applies to sex. Odd how our culture seems most individualistic in the one sphere where the intellect is least involved in the taking of decisions.

REFLECTIONS: There’s talk of a “narrative of decline” taking hold in this country. Is that overstated?

CARTER: Oh, we’re in a decline. No question. Not because the economy is retrenching – that’ll work itself out eventually, and people will fight viciously over credit the way they now fight about blame – and not because American influence abroad is receding, either – although that, too, presents problems. No, the reason we’re in a decline is that we no longer are capable of being serious about public argument. Election campaigns have become opportunities for entertainment, each side declaring a jeremiad against the other, but mainly pointing to silly gaffes, and lying happily about what the opponent is up to.

Supporters of this or that candidate, when pressed about why the campaigns are so vicious, will routinely answer that their side is just matching the other, doing what’s necessary to win. As a Christian, I find this response terrifying. Christianity seeks to build a morality of means that is every bit as important as the morality of ends, and often more so. And not just Christianity. The late Gore Vidal used to argue that the American idea rests on the proposition that the end doesn’t justify the means, and I think he was right. Our goals obviously matter, but so do our chosen strategies for attaining them. There is nothing admirable in doing whatever is necessary to win, because victory is not a virtue. (John Courtney Murray’s clever mot – “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” – is often quoted in response, but usually out of context.)

It’s not that politics wasn’t nasty before. In America, politics has always been nasty. But we used to spend a good deal less time on it than we do now. People paid attention for a few weeks and then went on with their actual lives.

Democracy cannot flourish when electoral politics is exalted above all things. The entire point of the concern for civil society is that a successful nation needs its people to be focused on matters more important than transitory partisan advantage.

Democracy cannot flourish when electoral politics is exalted above all things. The entire point of the concern for civil society is that a successful nation needs its people to be focused on matters more important than transitory partisan advantage. A nation where friends can no longer hold political discussions, for no other reason than that they disagree, is a nation not only in decline but, in the Weberian sense of nationhood-as-common-interest, on the verge of collapse.

And our decline matters. I am naive enough, in the innocence of late middle age, to believe that America should still be a beacon to the world, a nation worth imitating. Plenty of countries around the globe have learned to imitate our self-seeking, our obsessions with wealth and celebrity, and our growing incivility. Before selecting our public behaviors, we should perhaps think a bit harder about what it is that we want to export.