In our polarized political climate, the end of a year offers a chance to look inside and think about the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of lives we want to lead.
From Greek philosophers to our country’s founders, the literature on these topics is extensive. But as we enter a presidential election year, an essay by American political philosopher Yuval Levin caught our attention.
In “Taking the Long Way: Disciplines of the Soul are the Basis of a Liberal Society,” Levin puts this question into a political frame but ultimately challenges us to take a longer view toward what makes a truly great society. Both political parties, he suggests, are missing the bigger point.
Those on the left, or progressives, believe that we should be free to shape one’s life as one chooses. Yet within our current society there are several artificial economic and societal constraints to this freedom. Therefore, to help people realize their full potential we need to level the playing field through progressive taxation and entitlements to increase opportunity for people who have fewer of them. More government is needed to ensure the freedom of others – hence what Levin calls the “paradox of liberalism.”
While conservatives also believe in individual freedom and personal liberties, Levin writes that the conservative path to a productive society hinges on individual rights and general protection from government. While society cannot overlook the well-being of the poor, the obligations to ensure this well-being is limited and a strong premium is put onto free market economics relatively free of regulation. Smaller government is therefore better.
While both parties have strongly held views about the role of government to foster a free and just society, Levin says “both seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul.”
Liberating us from outside constraints presupposes that we are capable of handling a high degree of freedom and responsibility. By focusing on these political “shortcuts” to create personal liberty without also fostering responsibility, we are missing an important discussion about the work needed for each of us to build a strong moral foundation. We not only need to be able to choose – but choose well.
Building this moral foundation, Levin argues, is critical to creating a truly liberated society capable of freedom and responsibility that brings out the best in all of us. In today’s culture wars, however, the “long way” necessary to creating this moral foundation is often seen as old fashioned and out of sync with modern times.
But how can we create a truly liberated, democratic society without a society that is ready to exercise these liberties responsibly?
To get there, Levin points to several important societal institutions critical to moral formation that need greater attention. The first is family. From our very first years, the lessons learned growing up in a cohesive family unit are crucial. We learn that choices have consequences and mutual happiness is dependent on mutual contribution. As children we learn to navigate between what is right and wrong, and as parents we hope (and pray!) our children carry this moral judgment into adulthood.
By serving others, we learn the power of contributing to something bigger than ourselves and we, and society, are better off because of it.
Work also instills important moral fiber. While a job carries important economic utility, it also instills dignity, personal responsibility, reliability, and contribution. A well-employed society contributes to a more engaged citizenry. Similarly, there is tremendous moral value to volunteerism and civic engagement. By serving others, we learn the power of contributing to something bigger than ourselves and we, and society, are better off because of it.
A liberal arts education can also ground our understanding of what makes for a good society and an enlightened leader. While focusing on practical skill-building and vocational training is important, we will fall short as individuals and society if we don’t also take time to delve into the wisdom gained from philosophy, an appreciation of the arts, and great literature.
Much of our society has also been morally grounded through organized religion and personal spiritual quests. It is through these journeys we can learn to temper our appetites, find an inner peace and contribute to a more peaceful, just world.
In today’s politically challenging environment, it is easy to lose sight of how we can begin the path to a better future by starting within – and from this strong moral foundation cultivate a stronger society and citizenry. Maybe this year we can strive for a new perspective.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.