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WHY MORAL CENTRISM AND WHY NOW?
 

Washington Portrait.  Public Domain.

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”

— George Washington, 1796

As everyone learns in high school, Democracy is not a perfect form of government; it’s just far better than the alternatives.  Democracy clearly lacks the efficiency of tyrannical and authoritarian rule, for instance, but in exchange for this inefficiency we gain freedom, representation and something fairly new in human history—an inclusive society.  And while inclusiveness in the context of a multicultural citizenry is not without serious challenges, it is also far better than any known alternatives.  It would doubtless be easier if everyone in America was of one color, creed, character and conscience, but that is simply not the world we live in.

The world we live in, and specifically the country Moral Centrism hopes to change, is the United States of America.  As an American, I am deeply proud of my country and its history despite—and in some ways because of—its failures and shortcomings.  We are an imperfect nation because we are an imperfect people and always will be.  We do not have to be flawless to be proud of who we are.  But neither do we have to settle for less than we are capable.

And we are capable of so very much.  We are blessed with resources, land, power, wealth, technology, freedom and an endless list of riches that would make any humble man blush.  Never in history has one nation wielded such military or economic might.   We have almost inevitably and in a very literal sense become The New Colossus of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty, “with conquering limbs astride from land to land.”

And yet this colossus has stumbled into the 21st century.  We are a nation divided; split 50-50 into red-blue camps, glaring at each other with outspoken hatred and contempt.  Every day the division grows, bringing with it bitterness, cynicism and rage.  On national television, elected officials accuse one another of treason, larceny, fraud and whatever other crimes or moral shortcomings they can even vaguely justify.  We all watch in a voyeuristic trance as the pretty, smiling faces on Fox and CNN recount the latest absurdities.  But in the back of our mind, we’re all asking the same question:

Does it have to be this way?

And the answer is a resounding, No!  It absolutely does not have to be this way.  Society does not have to be this divided.  Political parties do not have to be this hateful or polarized.  Government does not have to be this inefficient.  Things can be so much better so quickly if we just remember why this country exists in the first place.  Why did our Founding Fathers create this republic?  What was it, above all else, they set out to accomplish?  The answer is right there in the preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Moral Centrism is about this single sentence.  It is about focusing every day on the willful act of defending and building “a more perfect union.”  So how do we get there?

Let’s go back to the beginning: “Democracy is not a perfect form of government, it’s just far better than the alternatives.”  Sounds reasonable, but let’s imagine that we’re not talking about democracy.  Let’s talk about light bulbs.  After all, the light bulb is not a perfect source of light, it’s just far better than the alternatives.  We have incandescent light bulbs all over our homes.   Maybe we have halogen lights in the office and fluorescents in the kitchen, but Americans buy millions of light bulbs every year.  They must be the best available solution in these millions of cases.

And yet we all know light bulbs have shortcomings.  They use a lot of electricity.  They burn out.  They attract moths.  The incandescent light bulb, like democracy, is far from perfect.  In fact, more than 97% of all electricity used to turn on an incandescent light bulb is wasted as heat—the result of electrical resistance or “friction”.

But better lighting is on the horizon.  Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) promise efficiencies of 15% or more in the near future.  This means that within a decade, light sources for our homes could be more than five times more efficient than they are today.  And this means a vast decrease in both wasted energy and total energy required to light your house.

Incandescent
Light Bulbs

Lightbulb.jpg from Wikipedia Commons.  See Legal for Information.

Are Inefficient
+ Very Hot
+ And Short-Lived
Not Good Enough

Moral Centrism: Technical Progress Light Emitting
Diodes (LEDs)

Diodes_LED_foto.png from Wikipedia Commons.  See Legal for Information.


Are More Efficient
+ Far Cooler
+ And Last Longer
Still Not Good Enough

I doubt anyone is surprised that lighting technology is improving.  That’s just the way capitalism works.  Over a long enough period, creative people will find ways to solve technological problems.  And when they’re done, they’ll move on to Something Even Better.  Lighting will get cheaper, safer and more efficient.  As Americans, we know this just as surely as we know the sun will rise tomorrow.  We have such faith in ongoing technological progress that it has become almost incontestable fact.

“This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.  It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in”

 

— Joseph Schumpeter, 1975

But we have no such faith in society or democracy.  These things are not eternally improving.  These things are bogged in conflict and bureaucracy, plagued by partisanship, and irreparably static and stagnant.  Rather than the “creative destruction” of capitalist innovation, we just get the destruction. The Founding Fathers did the best that can be done, and so we’re stuck.  Deal with it.

Of course, this is utter nonsense.  Just as the process of creative destruction builds new technologies and obsoletes old, democracy can and must evolve.  Old ideas, from slavery to keeping women from voting, were pushed aside by new ideas such as civil rights and universal enfranchisement.  These were hard and painful changes, but they were undeniably the right changes.

Even greater changes are needed today.  We can all see the problems, whether they are declining public trust in government, the media or other pillars of democratic society; an increasing lack of transparency in government and large corporations; intractable conflicts between the secular values of the left and the religious values of the right; and so on.  What we have trouble seeing are the solutions and as a result we seem to assume there are none.

Now wait, you say.  As a “liberal” you might think that legal secularism and multiculturalism offer us the path to unity based on a common set of secular ethics (if only those crazy evangelicals would stop driving their medieval belief systems down our modern throats).  Or as a “conservative” you might think that traditional Judeo-Christian religious values can re-unite the country on a foundation of timeless common morality (if only those lunatic-left atheists and materialist scientists would stop polluting the airwaves with narcissistic nonsense).

But neither of these viewpoints are solutions; they are simply incompatible political platforms and worldviews that drive further division, not unity.  Noah Feldman provides a far better overview of this specific conflict in Divided by God than I could ever hope to, but the conclusion we reach is the same: a solution requiring total victory over the enemy (left or right, secular or religious) is not a solution at all—it is a recipe for perpetual warfare.

Which brings us back to the incandescent light bulb.  The purpose of a light bulb is, no surprise, to provide light as inexpensively and reliably as possible.  Anything that detracts from the production of light, including all the wasted energy lost as heat, detracts from this purpose.  The purpose of democracy, and especially American democracy as prescribed by our Constitution, is to “provide a more perfect union” that includes justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare and the blessings of liberty.  Anything that detracts from this, including all the wasted time and energy of partisan or “values” warfare, detracts from this purpose.

Here is where the analogy breaks down.  Lost energy in a light bulb is annoying and costly, not immoral.  But in a democracy formed to unite people, any and all issues designed and intended to divide us as a people are not merely wasteful but immoral.  There will always be differences in beliefs, but when we go searching for wedge issues to unite parties but divide the nation, we are intentionally destroying the unity sought by our Founding Fathers—and in doing so we trample on justice, destroy all sense of domestic tranquility, weaken our common defenses, bleed the general welfare of any meaning and, most tragically, lose all claim to the blessings of liberty.  These are moral issues.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to [political] party dissensions, which, in different ages and countries, has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

 

— George Washington, 1796

This may sound like hyperbole, but remember how we came to Civil War.  Our Founding Fathers had no choice but to compromise on slavery in the Constitution in order to unite our fledgling nation.  They were forced to institutionalize the seeds of conflict.  Every man and woman in the thirteen colonies must have understood that the slavery question would eventually need a more final resolution, but who among them could have imagined the horror of a Civil War that would cost nearly six hundred thousand lives and almost destroy the country?

Today, we all know that the red-blue, secular-religious, left-right, environmental-business divide needs to be addressed.  But do we understand what will happen if we fail to do so before this division becomes permanent?  I am not saying we are on the verge of civil war.  I am saying we are already engaged in a domestic cold war that will have even more dire consequences.

The end of the Civil War brought with in victory for the North, the end of slavery, and a century of bitter resentment by the South.  But at least the issue was resolved.  What we face today is a choice.  We can choose to resolve core conflicts and build a better democracy built on shared values and goals, and by analogy reduce the friction and waste in or government and society.  Or we can choose perpetual conflict; to in essence build a worse light bulb that produces more waste, more friction and less…light. 

Amoral
Partisan Politics

+ Less Public Trust
+ Low Transparency
+ Costly Government
+ Large Government
+ Intractable Problems
=
Wasted Money ,
   Time and Energy

= Resources
   for Priority Issues

= Disunity & Division

(Immoral Solution)

Moral Centrism: Social Progress Morally Centrist
Policies

+ More Public Trust
+ High Increasing
+ Efficient Government
+ Small Government
+ Solvable Problems

=
Well-Used Money,
   Time and Energy

= More Resources
   for Priority Issues

= More Perfect Union

(Moral Solution)

This is a moral choice for the simple reason that America is not an island unto itself.  The time, energy and money wasted on bipartisan bickering and the politics of vengeance is time, energy and money that is not spent reducing poverty, eradicating disease, protecting justice, increasing public welfare or defending liberty.  The issue of unity is therefore a moral issue, and in seeking unity we must seek our common moral center—the thing which unites us, binds us together, and gives meaning to the name our nation: the United States of America.

“In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.” 

— George Washington, 1796

Moral Centrism is nothing more than the focused search for the ever-more perfect union our Founding Fathers dreamt of more than 200 years ago.

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