A Preface to Morals

by Walter Lippmann

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1399

Religion in the Modern World
Lippmann addresses what he sees as a crisis facing modern society due to the increasing number of people whose lives are no longer ordered by religious conviction. He asserts that modern humanity in increasingly democratic secular societies needs to look to some form of ‘‘new orthodoxy’’ by which to live. He notes that it is certainly true that many in the modern world still believe in God. However, he argues, the nature of this belief, even among the clergy, is of a different nature from what it once was so that now people make a distinction between the factual world and the spiritual world. Lippmann observes that fundamentalism in religion is the exception that proves this rule: fundamentalist movements arise in reaction to the overwhelming trend in modern society toward religious doubt. He notes that this ‘‘loss of certainty’’ regarding religion had led to a change in how the Bible is understood. Whereas it was once understood by most as literal (yet also symbolic), it has come to be interpreted as literary analogy. Further, it is only in modern history that the concept of a conflict between religion and reason evolved. He argues that, even among the faithful, there is a seed of doubt, based upon the conception of faith as less certain than rational, scientific knowledge. He goes on to argue that a society’s concept of God is always a reflection of that society’s governmental system—so that, in a monarchical society God is conceived as a kingly ruler; in a feudal society, as a landholding lord, and so forth. Lippmann thus notes that in a modern democratic society, conceptions of God have lost the image of all-powerful, patriarchal authority. Further, he asserts that the modern crisis in faith is due to the fact that, over the past four hundred years, daily life has resembled less and less the conception of the universe put forth by religion.

Faith and Tradition in Modern America
Lippmann focuses on the particular character of America by pointing out a variety of reasons for the loss of religious faith that characterizes modernity. The rapid pace of change in modern society has left people without permanent landmarks by which to make sense of a religion that is based on an ancient society. Further, because America is a nation of immigrants, socially and geographically mobile, the old religions no longer resemble anything in modern life. In addition, he argues, whereas agrarian life, dependent on tradition and subject to the forces of nature, is in keeping with religious tradition and conviction, urban life dispenses with tradition and is beholden to technology rather than the natural world. Finally, Lippmann puts forth, figures of authority in American society are merely a class of wealthy socialites who possess no moral high ground in the eyes of the masses.

Separation of Church and State
Lippmann goes on to observe that the crisis of faith in modern society is partly due to changes in the relationship between church and state. The separation of church and state results in a society in which the church is no longer the overarching societal authority. Particularly, the policy of ‘‘tolerance’’ among religions implies that no one religion can assert supreme authority over all citizens. As a result, the individual citizen, even while faithful to his or her own religion, does not consider it to be the dominant authority in civil life. Lippmann suggests that patriotism, particularly in time of war, has to some extent supplanted the all-encompassing religious faith once exerted by the church. Further, in a capitalist society, that which represents authority in the realm of business is considered separate from religious authority. Modern society thus lacks the sense of an all-encompassing meaning and direction to human life, which was once provided by religious doctrines of destiny. Lippmann further claims that the separation of church and state has led to a separation within the individual self, in which daily human activities have no sense of one great overarching meaning. In this context, there is no ‘‘moral certitude,’’ and no all-encompassing system of values has emerged to take its place.

Science and Religion
Lippmann observes that the role of miracles in traditional religion has been used as a source of concrete physical evidence of the existence of God. However, the development of modern science has outmoded religion in its capacity to provide concrete evidence in support of claims to truth. He asserts that the ascendance of science as a claim to truth has always posed a threat to people’s capacity for religious faith. He notes that attempts to develop religious beliefs based on scientific discovery have failed on two counts: first, because scientific theory is always subject to change as a result of further scientific discovery; and second, because the assertions of science, no matter how true, can never serve the human needs traditionally satisfied by religious faith.

Lippmann explains that, in traditional religious practice, morality was based on ‘‘divine authority,’’ and the believer strove to act in accordance with the will of God. Since ‘‘divine authority’’ no longer holds the power it once did in the human mind, he asserts, modern society must find some alternative basis for morality. He puts forth that humanism is the ideal basis for moral authority in the modern world. Lippmann offers the wisdom of such figures as Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Socrates, and Spinoza, whose teachings form the basis of humanism. However, he points out that those who espouse humanism ‘‘have no credentials’’ on the order of the moral authority of God. Rather, the sages of humanism derive their authority from the self-government of the individual, who is required to take full responsibility for adhering to humanist teachings.

Desire and Asceticism
Lippmann discusses the persistent concern, among the ‘‘popular’’ religions (as he calls them), as well as the sages, with the need to place restrictions upon human desire. He asserts that asceticism (the self-imposed denial of basic human desires) is central to human happiness and ‘‘the good life.’’ Modern capitalist society, by contrast, promotes the idea that humans should seek to freely satisfy all possible desires. Based on the theories of Sandor Ferenczi, Lippmann traces human psychological development from childhood to maturity as a process of slowly but surely learning that the world can never satisfy all of one’s desires. Maturity, thus, is defined as the state of bringing one’s desires into line with reality. He explains that religion has always played the part in society of imposing external standards of asceticism and self-denial on the general public. The sages, however, have confined their advice regarding asceticism to a small circle of pupils. Because, according to Lippmann, religion has ceased to serve the function of disciplining desire in modern society, there is no generalized societal code designed to enforce the curbing of individual human desires.

Evil, Disinterestedness, and the Moralist in the Modern Age
Lippmann observes that the concept of evil has been altered in the age of modernity. He explains that, traditionally, evil is seen as a matter of the judgment of God, whereas in modern society, evil is seen as a phenomenon that is created by humanity and can thus be eradicated by human action.

He asserts that in the modern world it is necessary to cultivate an attitude of ‘‘disinterestedness’’ in matters of moral concern. By ‘‘disinterest,’’ Lippmann means an ability to judge matters from an objective perspective not necessarily in keeping with the personal interests of the individual. He cites scientific method as the epitome of ‘‘disinterested’’ endeavor. For Lippmann, ‘‘disinterestedness’’ is the key to formulating standards of morality in the modern world. Particularly in business, government, and sexual relations, the ‘‘three great phases of human interest,’’ an attitude of ‘‘disinterest’’ is all-important.

Lippmann observes that the role of the moralist in modern society has been misconstrued. It is no longer the place of the moralist to control and punish the populace to elicit moral behavior. Rather, the role of the moralist in modern society is to teach others how to place limits on their own desires for the sake of ‘‘the good life.’’ Lippmann describes the ideal replacement for traditional religion as a ‘‘religion of the spirit,’’ which does not conform to a strictly defined set of beliefs but to whatever values are in the interest of ‘‘the quality of human desire.’’

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