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What Might America's Fathers Say Now?

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Imagine that the ideals and assumptions of the Founding Fathers could somehow take bodily form and visit America. How might this entity feel seeing the Republic collapsing from greed-driven special interest politics?

I doubt the entity would be shocked. After all, the Founding Fathers had anticipated (and tried to prevent) just such a thing. However, what would be shocking is that those responsible for the collapse are leading members of the upper class. And as the shock subsides, the entity would feel betrayed. The Founding Fathers had assumed a privileged and powerful upper class would be a bulwark against the corruption of the state, not the agents and emissaries of it.


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The influence on the Founding Fathers of the 17th century British philosopher, John Locke, is well known. Less known is the influence of the 18th century French philosopher, Baron Montesquieu. In the Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu had written that each type of government—Tyranny, Aristocracy, or Republic—had a corresponding “spirit” that goes along with it—fear, honor, or virtue. In order for a government to be successful, therefore, there had to be a match between the “spirit” of the laws and the “spirit” of the people. Thus, in order for Tyranny to work, the people would have to live in “fear.” In order for Aristocracy to work, the people would have to live in “honor.” And in order for a Republic to work, the people would have to live in—“virtue.”

Today we think of “virtue” as a rare and especially praiseworthy personal accomplishment. To the Founding Fathers, however, “virtue” was not rare but necessary, the lifeblood and essential ingredient of a nation of laws. In this they were influenced by Montesquieu, who defined “virtue” as the ability to put aside private interests and act selflessly on behalf of the common good. The Founding Fathers knew every Republic in history had fallen from a lack of “virtue.” Specifically, those lacking “virtue” would gain access to the machinery of government, diverting it from its proper use as an instrument of the common good to use it instead as a tool of special interests.

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Of course, the ideal situation would be to have only people with “virtue” to be in control of the levers of government. But where are these people found? Are they distributed randomly through the population, as Plato thought…or are they clustered in one social class, as was assumed in the Aristocratic social systems of the old world? It was precisely on this point that the Founding Fathers stumbled, failing to rise above the class-based prejudices of their day. As property-owning gentlemen of the upper class, they took it for granted that the only class of people that could be trusted to be consistently “virtuous” in high office would be property-owning gentlemen such as themselves. And they took the obverse for granted as well—that those historically lacking property and great wealth could NOT be trusted to be consistently “virtuous” in high office. In the political lexicon of their day, allowing people without wealth to exercise power directly was sneeringly referred to as “mob rule.”

As they crafted the Constitution, therefore, it seemed prudent to the Founding Fathers to entrust the actual power of governing to property-owning gentlemen while excluding the mass of ordinary citizens from the direct exercise of power. Accordingly, they created the new American nation as a Constitutional Republic and not as a Democracy. The difference is that where citizens in a Democracy set policy and make laws by means of direct voting, citizens in a Constitutional Republic lack direct power and vote only to select representatives to set policy and make laws. And as a last-gap protection from “mob-rule,” they created the Electoral College, establishing that citizens would not vote for the President directly but only for suitable “electors” who, later and behind closed doors, would actually select the next President.

Be that as it may, the worse has happened: people without “virtue”—albeit our upper class—now control the levers of power. Our situation is dire, and each day brings more bad news and less reason to hope. Given this, what can ordinary Americans now do to protect ourselves and our nation from the continuing predations of our upper class?

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Interestingly, contemporary moral development theory brings some needed illumination to this problem. According to moral development theory, morality is not an either/or thing, something one has or has not. Rather, moral awareness is complex and evolving, developing along a specific sequence of stages. Although different theorists number the stages differently, there is consensus there are three fundamental levels—the egocentric (only I count in my moral universe), the ethnocentric (only my group counts), and the worldcentric (everyone counts).

Now when we look at contemporary America from the perspective of moral development theory, some interesting results become clear. First of all, rich people in America operate primarily on the egocentric level, using the power of their position to benefit themselves. Ironically, the “mob” that forms the base of support for their special interest politics—flag waving patriots and religiously oriented social conservatives—operate mostly on the ethnocentric level, the next higher step in the evolutionary sequence. They have been willing to sacrifice personal rights, material well-being, and legal integrity because they believed the upper class leaders who told them doing so was best for the nation. As misguided as their support was, it expressed “virtue.” And finally, most progressives operate on the worldcentric level. Indeed, what it means to be a progressive is to “be” worldcentric rather than ethnocentric.

Now this bizarre situation, in which our highest class has the lowest level of moral development, is the exact opposite of what the founding fathers assumed and anticipated. Again, they expected the upper class to be a bulwark against the corruption of the state, not its agent and prime beneficiary. So what now? How can moral development theory help us to respond effectively to the continuing damage being done to the American state, economy, and culture by the predations of our upper class?

Here is how.

Moral development theory tells us that moral understanding and awareness is a function of a person’s level of development and not of the particular views they happen to hold. For example, there is a developmental sequence of ways of believing in God—an egocentric way (God values me over others), an ethnocentric way (God values my nation over others), and a worldcentric way (God values everyone equally). Similarly, there are different ways to be an atheist—an egocentric way (there is no God, so I can do anything), an ethnocentric way (there is no God, so my nation determines what is right and wrong), and a worldcentric way (there is no God, so I must be good, kind, and compassionate).

Now one significant aspect of moral development theory that is especially germane to our purposes is that there is no single way to make an effective moral appeal. This is because what “appeals” to a person depends on that person’s level of moral development. People on the worldcentric level can be appealed to in terms of universal rights and moral ideals; people on the ethnocentric level can be appealed to on the level of patriotism, tribal religion, and national self-interest; but people on the egocentric level—that is, people who lack “virtue”—can only be appealed to on the level of force.

In other words, the only effective way to get people on the egocentric level—and this includes many of the leading members of our upper class—to stop looting the nation and damaging the common good is to punish them with a level of severity sufficient to cancel out the benefits of their wrongdoing. In fact, unless known wrongdoers on the egocentric level of moral development are prosecuted to the full extent of the law for their transgressions, they will continue to act without “virtue.”

This is why it is necessary to investigate, charge, and punish those who are responsible for the crimes of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, many Americans have difficulty seeing this because of their core belief that material success is both the evidence and result of moral superiority. However, until steps are taken to punish the wrongdoers, the powerful members of our upper class who lack “virtue” will continue to use their position to loot our nation, destroy our economy, and degrade our culture, all while strengthening the authoritarian security state apparatus.

Interestingly, one “silver lining” in the dark cloud of the current economic collapse is that this crisis marks the end of the core American belief in the moral superiority of rich people. Indeed, as the dust settles from the devastation of the Bush years, the lack of “virtue” of an upper class that lacks “class” is being revealed in exquisite detail. With a boy of their youth to serve the lust of their greed, the most privileged and powerful citizens in the most privileged and powerful nation managed in a surprisingly short time to foul the economy, to corrupt the state, and to degrade the culture of America. And the way the media was mobilized to “leverage” the eager willingness of working Americans to do what is best for the nation into a base of support for greed-driven special interest politics and a foreign policy consisting of profitable war crimes—this is not a pretty sight.

George Orwell once remarked that a rich person is only a dishwasher in a new suit. This ongoing and gathering collapse we are living through is proving both Orwell and the Founding Fathers wrong. We can now see that the difference between a rich man and a dishwasher goes much deeper than their clothes. For one, the dishwasher probably has some “virtue.”


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John Bardi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Penn State-Mont Alto. He is also a musician and has been playing blues and rock guitar since 1961. Author: "Conversations With A Philosopher From Another Planet" (available on Amazon)

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