A moral deficit

Georgie Anne Geyer

November 25, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

THIS NEW group with "unthinkable" propositions for our society had the nerve to meet in the formal, gold-encrusted meeting room of the Russell Senate Office building in Washington -- inside the traditional symbol of "America." What gall! Everybody knows what is important in America today, right? Forgive me, I meant "rights"! Oh, I don't mean the old right to vote or right to a free trial. We are sophisticated people now. We talk about the right of children to sue their parents, the right to the recognition of sodomy, the right to demand a jury trial while equally demanding the right not to serve on a jury oneself.

Yet, here was Amitai Etzioni, the discerning George Washington University sociologist, boldly kicking off a bipartisan, volunteer effort by liberal and conservative thinkers who call themselves the "Communitarians." They want to achieve a new middle way while addressing some "moral deficit" in America and pushing personal responsibility to balance the notion of rights.

"The deficit is reflected in the fact that we have lost our agreement with one another," he said, and spoke of a "major theme of contemporary American culture: a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of community obligation."

Then he proclaimed the creed of this new era that his group seeks: "I am a 'communitarian,' a member of a new group of social thinkers that points to the twin need to curb the minting of rights and to balance existing ones with greater willingness to shoulder responsibilities and commitments to the common good. emphasize the importance of community, the moral claims staked by shared needs and futures, as distinct from the claims of various subgroups and individuals."

This group is indeed something very strange in American life today. It includes people as diverse as Walter Mondale's issues director William Galston, Harvard University professor Mary Ann Glendon, liberal Robert Bellah, Sens. Dave Durenberger and Patrick Moynihan, the able Roger Conner, founder of the first communitarian action group, the American Association for Rights and Responsibilities.

In an age that began some 30 years ago when American proponents of "rights" demanded that government take over all of their responsibilities, these baffling people seem to disdain government. Or, as Etzioni put it, "We don't like the government jumping in there first; we like the moral system being there first -- that's the way we think a decent society works and that's what we've lost."

Then this dauntless man cleared his voice for the final onslaught on the "rights" generation: "We feel they are entitled to lay moral claims on others," he said. "But all of this must be based on a moral consensus in society."

At this point, as this veritable declaration of war against the American romance with rights was being declared, it seemed to me that they were calling for an artificial creation of values -- a civic commitment to others, a sense of community, a willingness to take personal responsibility for one's acts and for the imperfection that could follow them -- that American society already had lost. But they disagreed.

"We are not creating artificial values; we are giving voice to values widely shared -- family and of moral strength. And politicians who express these values will find an enormously powerful response."

In short, they are saying there already is a new consensus "out there" beyond rights, beyond selfishness. They have a complex program that stresses not authoritarian answers to society's problems but individual responsibility meeting limited government involvement.

Basically, through influencing the thinking of the country, they want again to empower the "intermediary organizations," beginning with family and ending with school, church and community.

Of course, you must realize these are indeed crazy people even, most probably, dangerous people. They would call us all out of our selfishness and into some time-consuming, tiresome commitment one to another. They even are threatening that we could yet become as prosperous as Germany and Japan, as Singapore and Taiwan, where these values still predominate.

But luckily, it probably will not get too far. We will bury them with our insistence upon selfish rights and laugh at them for their hopes.

Or will we?

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