(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alan Wolfe, a sociologist and political scientist with a long and distinguished academic publication record, has become one of the United States’ premier public intellectuals. Although his earlier works often had the technicality required in the learned professions, they focused on issues central to the “big” conversations: repression of dissent, the Soviet threat, the costs of economic growth, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s controversial book The Bell Curve (1994), and the relation of moral inquiry in the social sciences. Typical of Wolfe’s efforts is The Human Difference: Animals, Computers, and the Necessity of Social Science (1994). Directed mainly at the university set, the book examines such critical issues as artificial intelligence, ecology, and sociobiology. Marginalized in the Middle (1998) treats immigration, race relations, public education, pornography, and gender politics, all from the perspective of a pragmatic liberalism informed by a wealth of data and sociological theory. In One Nation, After All: What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left, and Each Other (1998), Wolfe discusses his work with the “Middle Class Morality Project,” an effort to go beyond polling by doing extensive interviews with small but representative groups of Americans. As the title indicates, Wolfe believes that despite the claims of writers who see this society as riven by profound divisions and “culture wars,” a more on-the-ground approach reveals Americans as too tolerant and too responsible for such grand battles.

For over two decades, moral philosophers and theologians have paid close attention to matters of moral character and the virtues. In the face of what has seemed to many to be a steady degrading and “de-moralizing” of American culture, interest in Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), Josef Pieper (1904-1997) and other “virtue theorists” has intensified. The moral neutrality of public schools has raised the question anew of whether “character education” can be introduced without violating the separation of church and state. Wolfe’s Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice nicely reflects the state of progress of this discussion. His aim is to learn how Americans actually reflect on a key set of virtues: loyalty, honesty, self-discipline, and forgiveness. In this way, one can gauge both the impact of the academic discussions and the way Americans on their own have evolved “vernacular versions” of virtue theory.

His method is similar to the one used in One Nation, After All: Working with a team of eight assistants, he “conducted interviews with people chosen from eight distinct communities, each of which was presumed to represent a particular slice of American experience.” The communities were the predominantly gay neighborhoods in San Francisco’s Castro district; Atherton, California, a very wealthy Silicon Valley town; Lackland Air Force Base and environs in San Antonio, Texas, where many of the respondents are Mexican American; students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Oakwood, Ohio, a prosperous suburb of Dayton; Tipton, Iowa, “a classic American small town,” economically connected to agriculture; Blue Hills, an African American neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut; and Fall River, Massachusetts, a struggling factory town attractive to recent immigrants. Wolfe also draws from a recent public opinion poll he helped design in cooperation with The New York Times Magazine, which probed attitudes on “sex, money, morality, work, children, identity, and God.”

Wolfe’s method of reporting on the huge volume of data collected here might be called “dialectical interpretation.” Thoroughly aware of the long battles between libertarians, liberals, pragmatists, conservatives and neoconservatives, he uses this spectrum as a way to listen carefully to his respondents, most of whom have little awareness of its existence. He then discovers continuities, ironic correspondences, key lines of difference, multiple complexities. Put another way, Wolfe acts as an active moderator and interpreter of a virtual conversation about ethics. This populist method allows Wolfe to make several claims: that the severe polarities of opinion asserted by “culture war” thinkers are not very perceptible at the level of common moral discussion; neither the religious right nor the human-rights left (nor for that matter cultural libertarians) have been able to mobilize opinion in the way that many fear; and “virtue” is not a term Americans use very readily, but they are deeply concerned with right conduct and the practical implications of such matters as a company’s loyalty to its employees and the local community.

In chapter 2, “Til Circumstances Do Us Part,” Wolfe examines the views of his subject on loyalty, a virtue “presumed to have been lost in America.” Yet, he usefully argues, loyalty...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)