Liberal Education

Public Values in a Divided World: A Mandate for Higher Education

Adapted from the Opening Plenary talk at AA&U's 2002 Annual Meeting. This is an excerpt from a manuscript under copyright. Do not quote without attribution.

For much of the last decade, the focus on values has been primarily on the microethics that guide individual behavior, the private virtues that build character. I want to argue that the recent turn to ethics in our public schools, in American higher education, and in public life must now include the macroethics of large systems and institutions, the public values that build community. When Socrates posed the question "What is a virtuous man?" he also went on to ask, "What is a virtuous society?" Of course, today we are more likely to ask "What is a virtuous man or woman, and is it possible to build a virtuous society?"

It is not my intention to try to answer that, but I want to suggest that one of the most significant challenges to moral and civic education in our time is how best to think about, and how best to apply, values to public life without getting caught up in the politics of virtue or the parochialism of dogma. While some initiatives, particularly those of religious traditions, tend to affirm absolutes, an important role of higher education is to identify and clarify ambiguities. I want, thus, to point to three changes in the role of ethics in public life that should inform our moral imagination and guide our intellectual inquiry: 1) a new moral consciousness is dawning in which many people who strive to live morally are now insisting that their institutions do the same; 2) while we have often used ethics to humanize and domesticate power, we now live in an era where ethics is power; and 3) the private virtues which gave us our moral strength at the dawning of independent nation states must now be transformed into public values appropriate for an interdependent world that is integrating and fragmenting at the same time.

Private Virtues and Public Values
Let me turn first to the idea that the focus on private virtues that saw the emergence of a small, but noisy group of virtuecrats near the end of the last century needs to be matched in the new millennium by a focus on the public values that drive our institutions and empower leaders.

For more than a decade now, we have been preoccupied with the microethics of individual behavior, the private virtues that build character. We must now give as much attention to the macroethics of large institutions and systems, the public values that build community. You may not agree with the tactics of some of the demonstrators who gather at meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but it should not deflect from the reality that more and more people are concerned about how large institutions of all sort impact on their cultures, their communities, and general well-being. They want to know whether or not these institutions have a moral center.

Our first task may be to help de-politicize the public discussion of values, to help make it less partisan. It is time for us to apply the concept of virtue in ways that uplift rather than downgrade, heal rather than hurt, build rather than destroy.

What then should the next generation of moral habits encompass? William Bennett found that writing about virtue could be lucrative when he identified ten virtues that he considered essential to good character: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. I can not quarrel with this list, but we should not permit the discussion of values to focus only on the microethics of individual behavior. We need to be equally concerned with the macroethics of large social institutions, including government, business, and the institutions of civil society now playing such a major role in shaping public policy and public priorities.

Since 9/11, there has been an upsurge of patriotism, nationalism, civility and what many describe as a sense of community. While many celebrate the new patriotism and the new nationalism, I am reminded of the comment by the noted psychiatrist and author Scott Peck that we build community out of crisis and we build community by accident, but we do not know how to build community by design. He went on to say that the problem with building community out of crisis is that once the crisis is over, so is the community. There seems to me to be no more urgent mandate for higher education than to raise the question in our research and in our teaching "How do we build community by design?"

Half a century after the framers of our constitution had pledged to form a more perfect union, Alexis de Tocqueville thought he had stumbled on to the unifying element, civic participation. He mused about everyone "taking an active part in the affairs of society." But those who now analyze civic engagement - voting, volunteering, and other forms of public action - tell us that America's social capital is on the decline. Another keen observer of American life was Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist and sociologist, who wrote An American Dilemma. He saw the unifying element as the American creed, that cluster of ideas, institutions, and habits that affirm the ideals of the essential dignity and equality of all human beings, of inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity. But the affirmation of these highly cherished public values has been largely subsumed by our preoccupation with private virtues.

Others have found the potential for common ground in what was called America's civil religion. But there are many prominent and powerful voices arguing that the ethics that once undergirded the civil religion is waning. We see instead an increasing conflict over fundamental conceptions of moral authority.

The idea of a unifying creed is obviously in trouble. The bonds of social cohesion are increasingly fragile. But it may be that we have been looking in the wrong place for the genesis of community. At a time when patriotism and nationalism are at an all time high, we are likely to find that the best way to sustain the spirit of community we now feel is by involving ourselves in the needs of the neighbor, what John Winthrop called making the condition of others our own. Getting involved in the needs of the neighbor provides a new perspective, a new way of seeing ourselves, a new understanding of the purpose of the human journey.

In other words, doing something for someone else - making the condition of others our own - is a powerful force in building community. When you experience the problem of the poor or troubled, when you help someone to find cultural meaning in a museum or creative expression in a painting, when you help someone to find housing or regain his health, you are far more likely to find common ground, and you are likely to find that in serving others you discover the genesis of community.

It is no wonder that the idea of civil society is gaining increasing credibility as a discipline worthy of study, but a good liberal education that provides students with an opportunity for refining their moral imagination and increasing their skills at moral reasoning through class room pedagogies can be significantly enhanced by experiential approaches like service learning. So we are now led to ask how would a lexicon of public values look.

The only public dialogue we have had about values has really centered on William Bennett's Book of Virtues. While these private virtues constitute a good starting point for identifying rudimentary forms of private morality, far more is needed for a complex community or an interdependent society to thrive.

If a decision affects the welfare of people, it is likely to require moral judgment and can not be neatly separated from moral choices. Like Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations, I would begin my own list of public values with empathy, a prerequisite for compassion and fundamental to building community. When Adam Smith set out to develop a basic theory about how human beings could transact business with each other in an orderly and predictable fashion, he set forth the principle of empathy, the ability to feel what another person is feeling. Knowing what gives others joy because we know what gives ourselves joy and pain became the unstated basis for his economic theory in The Wealth of Nations.

It may be useful to remember that in Plato's inquiry into virtue he came to associate it with goodness. The emphasis is not simply on knowing the good, but doing the good. It is, thus, not surprising that in the Republic, the concern with virtue comes to focus on justice and kindness. Without a commitment to the promise of justice and the practice of kindness, virtue remains a concept with little context. Yet, today's virtuecrats rarely mention justice. Like the "L" word love, the "J" word justice seems to be missing in action. Love thy neighbor as one loves thyself is still good advice. But an abstract value void of committed action does little to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, or promote the general welfare. The most often repeated example of compassion is the story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. A traveler comes upon a man on the side of the road who had been badly beaten. He stops and provides aid and comfort. But suppose this same man traveled the same road for a week and each day he discovered in the same spot someone badly beaten. Wouldn't he be compelled to ask who has responsibility for policing the road? His initial act of compassion must inevitably lead to public policy. It is this progression from private compassion to public action that is often missing in our discussion of private virtue. Genuine compassion requires that we not only ameliorate consequences, but we also seek to eliminate causes.

Ethics as Power
We come next to my second point about public values in a divided world. It is the assertion that while ethics has been used to domesticate and humanize power; we live increasingly in a world where ethics is power. Many speak of the United States as a marriage of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. They argue, quite correctly, that the strength of America has been its moral strength. We cannot long preserve the public ethos of America's founding without the simple understanding that while we used ethics in much of the twentieth century to domesticate and humanize power, in the twenty-first century, ethics is power.

We hear much these days about American military strength and American economic power, but until recently there was very little discussion of the many ways the international system is changing and the implications for American power and influence. For some years now, foreign policy analysts have been appalled by the lack of realism in the allocation of our national budget and the lack of emphasis in our national security strategy on what is increasingly called soft power. In a July 1999 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, Professor Joseph Nye, who heads the Kennedy School at Harvard, made an important distinction between "hard power" and "soft power." Hard power refers to the use of military might or economic muscle to influence and even coerce. Soft power refers to the ability to attract and influence through the flow of information and the appeal of social, cultural and moral messages. Hard power is the ability to get others to do what we want. Soft power is the ability to get others to want what we do. The former is based on coercion while the latter is based on attraction.

Military power in the world is unipolar, with the United States outstripping all others states. Economic power is multipolar, with the United States, Japan, and Europe accounting for two-thirds of the world's production. Soft power is more widely dispersed. It crosses borders and is not dependent on military or economic power. A compelling message from a disaster area, a gross human rights violation, a military conflict or a story of hope and healing conveyed by the Internet or television can easily catapult new priorities into a nation's foreign policy. And that is why values may be the most fundamental and the most significant source of soft power.

The power that comes from being a "city on the hill" does not provide the coercive capability with which most Americans identify, but in the new age of national security it can sometimes be the most influential. While greater pluralism in the mobilization and use of soft power may diminish the ability of the United States to impose its will through the use of hard power, the attractiveness of our institutions, the openness of our society and the values we espouse should continue to give us an edge in the new world of soft power, providing our people and our leaders recognize that while American military and economic advantages are great, they are neither unqualified nor permanent.

I saw the impact of soft power firsthand during my tenure as United Sates Ambassador to South Africa, for Nelson Mandela represented the epitome of soft power. His moral standing and political stature in the world went far beyond that suggested by the size of the military or the Gross Domestic Product of South Africa. His influence came from the power of his humanity and the elegance of his spirit. His influence came from his message of reconciliation and the moral instinct embodied in his spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. He is the prototype of the leader whose influence comes not from military or economic might, but from the power of ideals and the ability to capture the minds and hearts of people in all corners and colors of the universe. Among the many lessons we should have learned from the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela is the fact that diplomacy increasingly depends on a moral ecology that can not be found in military or economic power.

It is not only governments that must come to understand that ethics is power. The same is true of multinational business. The Reverend Leon Sullivan, who authored the principles used in South Africa by those American corporations operating under the apartheid system, was, before his death last year, conferring with international organizations and businesses to come up with a global set of principles. He had been in conversation with multinational corporations from three continents, business associations, non-governmental organizations, and national governments.

While several hundred companies have signed on, there are those who reject this exercise as fruitless or an attempt at self-aggrandizement or publicity, but there are others who feel strongly that signing and affirming these principles is not only right but in their company's self-interest.

These are voluntary principles without any enforcement mechanisms except for the positive images enjoyed by those who sign them. Why, it might be asked, should a company bother? Given my own experience in international business and my service as an advocate for American business abroad, I am convinced that a sound set of principles can have an effect on the bottom line in at least five ways:

  1. They build trust within the company and within the community. That trust translates into loyalty, consistency, and greater productivity.
  2. They demonstrate that companies are only as good as their people and their policies. A company is what it rewards. It is not so much what it says in its mission statement or code of conduct as it is what it rewards its people for being. The performance review and reward system must reflect the values the company affirms.
  3. Customers and consumers increasingly take note of company values. They like to know that they are doing business with a company that not only produces an excellent product or provides excellent service, but it is committed to fairness, honesty, integrity, and the larger community. As international competition increases, companies that do things ethically, and are seen doing them, may have a competitive edge in some countries.
  4. More and more shareholders also care about company values. The social responsibility movement, once laughed at and dismissed as a minor nuisance, is now a $650 billion movement and growing. According to Rush Kidder of the Global Ethics Institute, socially conscious investments now account for some ten percent of invested funds in the United States.
  5. Self-regulation can make government regulation unnecessary. As president of the Council on Foundations, I frequently had to testify before Congressional committees on proposed legislation to regulate foundations. I often found a more sympathetic hearing when I could show that foundations were not only concerned about the matter under discussion, but also engaged in self-regulation.

Does responsible behavior affect the bottom line? I am convinced that it does, and I believe that in the years ahead you will see increasing evidence that principles affect profits and have a powerful, practical, and immediate impact on the bottom line.

The Impact of Interdependence
We come now to my third point about the changing role of ethics in public life. Social ethics at the dawning of the nation-state helped us understand the obligations of the citizen to the state. We now need public values that will help us cope with an interdependent world that is integrating and fragmenting at the same time. A major contribution of social ethics at the birth of the nation state was to help citizens understand the implication of freedom from tyranny, particularly the social obligation of citizenship and the limits of freedom.

Consider for a moment, the evolving vision of citizenship. The earliest vision of democracy was that the people have the power. The evolving vision is that the people have the vote, which is no longer the same as having the power. The awakening of the sense of citizenship as obligation to a larger community came with the French and American Revolution when the word signified in theory, but not in practice, the equal participation of everyone in a social contract. The notion of citizen is still evolving, but we can draw lessons for enlarging the meaning of citizenship from the almost unknown civic traditions of some of the groups that are transforming our national life.

Understanding our obligations as citizens also requires an understanding of what it means to be members of a public. We need to keep in mind that instead of a well-defined, distinct public, many publics exist, and the idea of public good frequently depends on which public is defining the good. It is only in the broadest sense that we are able to speak of a mass public. In the recent presidential campaign, we were reminded often that there is a voting public, which is all too often only a small fraction of the mass public, and there are issue publics who hold strong opinions and are often seeking influence.

We need students, graduates, and faculty who are willing to be a voice for those publics who are poor, weak, or marginalized; all those whom someone powerful might deem inconvenient or outside the circle of care. We need politicians who are willing to seek power to disperse it rather than simply concentrate it. We need community leaders who are committed to participatory development and assisted self-reliance rather than a notion of self-help that expects people with no boots to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Robert Putnam, who writes about the declining role of social capital in a democracy, Amitai Etzioni, who argues that shared values are essential for social solidarity and community, and Robert Bellah, who wrote about his fears of a democracy without citizens, are all pointing to the importance of what Alexis de Tocqueville once described as the habits of the heart of the American people: the tendency to form voluntary groups to meet social needs and to solve social problems.

And here we can learn a lot from the South African people about building community. Their emphasis on reconciliation may be at the heart of our search for public values appropriate for a world that is integrating and fragmenting at the same time. To live together in community is to be constantly engaged in connecting or re-connecting with those who differ not simply in race or religion, but tradition and theology as well as politics and philosophy. Where there is diversity, there is likely to be alienation and separation. Conflicts are inevitable and social relationships are constantly threatened and broken.

Reconciliation, thus, becomes as highly prized a value in the age of interdependence as freedom was in the scramble for independence. Reconciliation has to do with re-establishing or sustaining a connection to a wider community. There is an implicit notion of brokenness, a relationship that needs to be built or rebuilt. But the estrangement individuals and communities face can be moral as well as social and political. In South Africa, reconciliation is both a public value and a public process. It is fused into the political culture of those who govern, the theology of those who claim a new moral authority, and the ancestral tradition of those who now have the lead in building a new society. The commitment to a reconciling society has deep roots in the African experience. In the worst days of apartheid, the African National Congress wrote into its charter that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. These words also found their way into the new constitution.

There is among black South Africans a traditional concept of community called ubuntu. It assumes that all of humanity is bound together into a relationship that is bigger than any individual or group. This notion of community is best expressed in the Xhosa proverb Archbishop Tutu likes to quote, "People are people through other people." It follows that to deny the dignity or seek to diminish the humanity of another person is to destroy one's own. This is the message so badly needed in a world where the more interdependent we become the more people are turning inward to smaller communities of meaning and memory. This may, at first glance, appear to be reason for anxiety and even despair, but I am increasingly convinced as I travel around the world that the search for beginnings, the focus on remembering and re-grouping, may simply be a necessary and natural stage of the search for common ground. People are demanding respect for their primary community of history and heritage before they can more fully embrace a larger community of function and formality.

So let me conclude by suggesting that we can not understand nor appreciate the changing mandate for higher education without trying to understand the many voices urging a return of respect for the spiritual dimension, without trying to understand why religion is playing such a large role in public life. Many people, whether they are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jew or some other expression of a spiritual connection, are coming to believe that we are not here alone, that we do not exist for ourselves alone, that we are a part of something bigger and more mysterious than ourselves. And it may be that it is the common search, rather than our different answers, that will provide the basis of our unity.

As we look to the future, it is clear that the ethical issues with which policymakers now struggle are tame compared to some of the issues on the horizon. It is now reliably predicted, for example, that within five years either a U.S. government agency or a private corporation (perhaps both) will have in a desktop computer the entire human gene decoded. Policy analysts and ethicists will then be arguing over the implications of extending the human life span for Americans beyond 150 years, at the same time that the AIDS virus and other infectious diseases devastate populations in Africa and elsewhere. I hope that the recent turn to ethics in undergraduate education and professional training will be prepared to handle the new generation of public policy issues as well as the old.

But even more fundamentally, I hope those concerned with moral education and civic responsibility are prepared to handle the diversity that will characterize leadership in the new millennium. Although the present leadership climate may appear at first glance to be a leadership vacuum, it is more likely that we have simply been looking in the wrong places for leadership.

The days of looking for leaders with the right endorsements and the right credentials as defined by an established elite are hopefully nearing an end. Many will instead be ordinary people with extraordinary commitments. Their styles will be different. Their accents will be different and so will their color and complexion. We do not yet know much about these emerging leaders, but we know enough about the changing role of ethics in public life to suggest at least these three conclusions:

  1. The demographic changes are creating a demand for a new group of college and university graduates who seek power in order to disperse it rather than simply hold it. The demand is for leaders who understand what it means to share power rather than simply dominate it. Those who seek power to concentrate it may ultimately lose it to those who seek it only to diffuse it.
  2. Tomorrow's graduates must be able to use their values not simply to affirm absolutes but also to cope with ambiguities. During times of rapid change, there is always a revival of religion. Zealots emerge claiming one truth and one theology. As people search for something to hang on to, they tend to respond to those who provide answers rather than those who point to ambiguities. No religion, however, offers absolute clarity and self-evident truth; hence no vision of the present - let alone the future - can be accepted as final; no institution can be accepted as complete; no ideology can be accepted as closed. In matters of faith and morals, the right question is usually more important than the right answer to the wrong question.
  3. The demand for community in a world that is basically post-national will require us to understand and emulate the dictum of the African American mystic, poet, and theologian, Howard Thurman, who was fond of saying, "I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you." As Americans, we will need to be able to say, "I want to be American without making it difficult for Arabs to be Arabs, Asians to be Asians and Africans to be Africans. Those who are Christians will need to be able to say "I want to be a Christian without making it difficult for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims and Buddhists to be Buddhists." The mandate for higher education is to help shape this sort of discernment not only among those who study, teach,and do research in our universities and colleges, but in our communities and among other cultures as well.

James A. Joseph is former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. At present he is professor of the Practice of Public Policy Studies at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University.

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