A Preface to Morals

by Walter Lippmann

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The premise of Lippmann’s argument in A Preface to Morals is that, in modern society, traditional religious beliefs have broken down. He makes clear that this is not to say that no one believes in God any more. Rather, he explains, the nature of religious belief has altered radically. Religion is no longer regarded as an undisputed fact but is placed in a context of doubt, even among true believers. Further, the traditional religious hierarchy, according to which God the father is all-powerful, is no longer in keeping with the power structures of a democratic society. In sum, religion no longer holds the all-encompassing authority it once held in society. Because of this, Lippmann asserts, modern society is in need of some system of values that can serve the function once served by religion.

Modern Society
Lippmann’s argument is based upon the assertion that, historically, unprecedented changes have been wrought in modern society. He states that the ‘‘acids of modernity’’ have eaten away at traditional belief systems. Central to his thesis is the argument that traditional religion is no longer in keeping with the realities of everyday life in modern society. Because of these discrepancies, he argues, it is impossible for people in modern society to accept religious doctrine with the same unquestioning faith that was common earlier in eras of human history. He asserts that the democratization of modern societies renders many traditional beliefs meaningless. Thus, the modern citizen in a democratic society sees evidence all around that leads to doubt. For instance, the habit of religious tolerance that accompanies the democratic separation of church and state implies that no one religion can claim legitimacy over all others. Lippmann also points out that modern society has become increasingly urban, rather than rural, and that urban life is not compatible with tradition or traditional beliefs. Further, the social and geographic mobility that characterizes modern living standards encourages a habit of leaving tradition behind. For all of these reasons, Lippmann argues, modern society is not compatible with traditional religious belief and doctrine.

Moral Authority
Lippmann is particularly concerned with what he perceives to be a modern crisis of moral authority. He argues that, in modern society, the moral authority, which was once under the jurisdiction of religious belief, has lost its power. It is Lippmann’s opinion that this breakdown in traditional faith is an inevitable result of the realities of modern life. He asserts that, to the extent that there is a need for moral authority, it is not because citizens in modern society are depraved but because they have lost faith in traditional religious authority. Lippmann suggests that the wisdom of the sages, both modern and ancient, is the best source from which to derive a moral authority appropriate to the modern age. Wise men such as Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Plato, Socrates, Spinoza, and others may fill this role. However, he argues that the basis for moral authority in modern society must come from the judgment of the individual, based on her or his own assessment of the wisdom of others.

Lippmann offers humanism as a standard for moral authority, which could appropriately replace religion in modern society. Lippmann explains that the values of humanism are derived on the basis of ‘‘human experience’’ rather than in accordance with divine will. Humanism, according to Lippmann, ‘‘is centered not in superhuman but in human nature.’’ Humanism is based in the ideal of acting in accordance with that which best facilitates ‘‘human happiness,’’ rather than an ideal dictated by some higher authority. Further, humanism does not subscribe to rigid doctrine but must adapt and respond to an ever-changing and increasingly complex society. Humanism is thus based in human experience and can be tested only by means of trial and error, and its value is determined only by the scrutiny of the individual. Lippmann explains that he subscribes to humanism because, to his mind, it is the only system of values appropriate to modern society that can fulfill the needs hitherto fulfilled by religion.

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