Real American EthicsTaking Responsibility for Our CountryAlbert BorgmannUniversity of Chicago Press, $25, 232 pp.
Albert Borgmann’s Real American Ethics is a work of public philosophy aimed at the general reader. Borgmann is a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana. He wants to shine a light on existing American habits and values and then suggest a reasonable course of personal and civic self-improvement. We desperately need a renewed ethics of citizenship in America right now, but not quite the one Borgmann provides. It is too reasonable for our unreasonable times.
His book divides into sections on theoretical, practical, and “real” ethics. Theoretical ethics (largely Kantian, for Borgmann) tells us what we must do: respect the autonomy, dignity, and equality of all. Practical ethics tells us what we should do: cultivate the good life, which is the life of personal and political virtue. Real ethics, the third division, is the ethics of the material environment-“the visible, tangible stuff that engages and surrounds us.” Real ethics tells us how we should live in the world we have made. Both the title of the book and its structure indicate that it is real ethics that Borgmann cares most about.
According to Borgmann, himself a political liberal, Americans share a “decent,” centrist consensus about such vexing political issues as abortion, environmental protection, corporate power, gun control, and universal health care. He passes over these issues rather quickly, as he does with questions about the proper role of religion in the modern democratic state. Many Catholics will find his rapid dismissal of the antiabortion position to be especially disappointing. Having quickly taken some of our most contentious national issues off the table, Borgmann argues that America’s direst problem is consumerist apathy, spawned by affluence and technology run amuck. Of course, he recognizes that many Americans are poor, and it is clear that he cares about social and economic justice. But on the whole, he is much more exercised about the way the rest of us navigate the culture of consumption.
Americans live in “a cocoon of comfort and indifference,” seduced by the escapism of easy pleasures, says Borgmann. We spend too much time sitting in front of video screens and not enough time interacting with other people. We scarf down drive-through fast food instead of eating freshly cooked meals at the dinner table. And at every level, from the home to the urban jungle to the natural world, we have allowed the environment to deteriorate. In short, modern life makes it ever more difficult to lead the good life, the life of “wisdom, courage, friendship, and grace.” This indictment of American culture is quite familiar. What separates Borgmann from other mainstream cultural critics is the fact that he attributes our moral decline to free-market forces on the one hand, and poor choices about physical infrastructure on the other.
Borgmann blames many of America’s ills on unchecked commodification. Roughly, commodification is the process by which nonmarket goods are drawn into the marketplace to be bought and sold. (Young women who sell their eggs to fertility clinics present a paradigmatic example of commodification.) American society has witnessed the steady commodification of everything from education and health care to romantic relationships and personality traits. Borgmann believes that these commodified goods are just too tempting. When we can easily purchase whatever we want, we will rarely choose to pursue deeper moral goods like wisdom and friendship, and we will miss out on the joys of public celebrations, lush parks, and thriving town squares.
His critique of consumerism is fierce, but the deeper telos of his book lies with his philosophy of the physical environment. Borgmann argues that we implicitly shape ourselves as moral agents when we shape our material environment. Thus, we should shape that environment consciously, with an eye toward supporting the good life. For example, he repeatedly criticizes the interstate highway system for inadvertently fostering an automotive culture that diffuses the population and draws people away from centers of communal activity, thereby depriving them of opportunities for rich social interactions and moral growth.
Yet Borgmann’s real goal is not just better public land use. His book concludes with a disarmingly specific ethics of hearth and home. Borgmann wants us all to move our television sets from the living room to a less central location. He thinks we should all learn to play a musical instrument. And, most important of all, he wants us all to eat dinner at the table with other family members. He is quite insistent about this. “The dinner table is that focal thing, the center of grace where we can rest the case of our lives.” In a quite literal sense, for Borgmann, all virtues-both personal and political-flow from the dinner table:
For us today, the ordinary obstacle is neither the struggle for survival, nor the demands of public life, but the distractions of consumption. It takes fortitude to leave the cocoons of comfort and convenience. But once we have gathered at the dinner table, wisdom and friendship can be ours and they in turn can give us the courage to join with our neighbors in the design of a public realm that encourages celebration. Perhaps we can draw from common celebrations the generosity and resourcefulness to meet our obligations of justice and stewardship. Thus the United States can become the country of grace that the people who came here have searched for and worked for.
Borgmann calls this charmingly bourgeois vision “a Jeffersonian life,” and it is clear that he is much taken by a certain picture of Thomas Jefferson-the nonpolitical Jefferson, proprietor of a graceful home. (Earlier in the book he also compares Jefferson to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, but those comparisons are cursory next to his later treatment of Jefferson the homeowner.) Borgmann writes at some length about the way Jefferson arranged the rooms at Monticello and how he classified the books in its library. He imagines that we might model our own comportment after Jefferson’s plan for his daughter Martha, and thereby cultivate the prized virtues of grace, courage, and wisdom. Borgmann is also quite explicit about just how we should emulate Jefferson himself: “Like Jefferson, we should center our lives in our homes, among family, friends, and neighbors.” Apparently, Borgmann’s final, considered response to the travails of America today is this: cultivate the habits of the hearth.
I find this advice nothing short of astonishing. I agree, of course, that our national character would benefit if more people enjoyed a richer home life, and I understand that when Borgmann urges us to “center our lives in our homes,” he means that civic renewal must begin in the home so that it can then spread out from the home. I will even set aside the easy criticism that Borgmann’s dinnertime idyll is unattainable for many people who are impeded by a labor environment that is hostile to working families or by unwelcome urban isolation. All that aside, I am still struck by the fact that in Borgmann’s homey call to arms, the dinner table is at least three steps removed from any direct engagement with politics. He urges us to pursue a “Jeffersonian life” that is not primarily a political life.
In another time, Borgmann’s claim that civic renewal begins at home might pass muster. But life is short and the hour is late-too late for his gently indirect program of civic rehabilitation. In our time, “taking responsibility for our country” means first of all taking immediate responsibility for its politics, and when it comes to politics, Borgmann seems almost willfully blind. He makes no mention at all of the Iraq war, presents one paragraph on terrorism, and discusses the events of September 11 only in the context of public architecture. As a result, he does not even consider the possibility that our leaders themselves might foster apathy-as well as fear-to serve their own political ends. He takes it for granted that our political liberties are secure, but he does not discuss the Patriot Act, the legal rights of “detainees,” or the Bush administration’s theory of the unitary executive. Worst of all, in a book that claims to paint “a moral portrait” of our nation and to determine “what sort of people we are, whether we are morally decent or not,” Borgmann devotes a single sentence to the shameful, institutionalized abuses at Abu Ghraib. One finds that lone sentence in an endnote, on page 219.
Real American Ethics is ruminative and wholly benign, but it is a book for a bygone era. In dark times like these, we don’t really need a new ethics of the hearth or a new ethics of the marketplace. We need a new ethics of the polis and the assembly. We need Thomas Jefferson the fiery advocate of liberal democracy, not Thomas Jefferson the graceful homeowner.