If you are ethically-minded, this is cool stuff to argue–for or against.
The Future of Tradition
By Lee Harris
(Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of
…the transgenerational duty to one’s grandchildren may be put in these
terms: Members of each generation are committed to making sure that the
ethical baseline of their society does not move in a manner that their
visceral code instantly tells them is wrong. How much philosophical thought
is given in explaining this wrong, or in disputing its validity – all that
is irrelevant to the theory of tradition contained here.
But, once again, we confront the practical problem: How does a society go
about ensuring that the ethical baseline will be maintained at all costs,
and even when it is most tempting to depart from it in a downward direction?
Through appeals to enlightened self-interest, or through sermons and
For us, it is imperative that an eight-year-old boy should have esteem for
himself, for the person that he is. We do not want him thinking, “I wish I
could be like John”; instead, we demand that he think, “I’m just fine the
way I am. I don’t need to model my behavior on anyone else.” But our
insistence on creating self-esteem in an eight-year-old boy comes with a
high price tag – by refusing to encourage the boy’s dissatisfaction with
himself as he is, we are inadvertently taking from him the primary human
motivation to change oneself for the better. By pumping him full of
self-esteem, we rob him of the will to set himself transformative projects
and goals. Totally at peace with what he is, he ceases to have any reason to
become something more – and certainly no reason at all to become what he
The contemporary gospel of individual self-esteem is at odds with the
universal tradition of mankind – a tradition that the German poet, Rilke,
summed up in the concluding lines of a poem addressed to the torso of
Apollo, whose heroic perfection Rilke saw as a challenge to our own far from
perfect status quo – “Du must dein Leben andern.” You must change your life.
…You must change yourself, as Rilke’s poem tells us, but into what? A
tolerant person? A wise person?
This is how those fond of abstract reasoning can destroy the ethical
foundations of a society without anyone’s noticing it: They throw up for
debate that which no one before ever thought about debating. They take the
collective visceral code that has bound parents to grandchildren from time
immemorial, in every culture known to man, and make of it a topic for
fashionable intellectual chatter.
…The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if
middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in
its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of
decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people
who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil.
If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the
dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity,
where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?
Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the
fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated
ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom
embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children,
and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have
been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of
decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny
principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical
fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of
intellect, but a strength of character.