Ethics and Virtue

The United States is, as should be evident from the preceding pages, a very heterogeneous nation, its people widely differentiated as to national origin, race, income, style of life, education, power, and religion. Still, most observers of the United States find in all segments of American society an amazing degree of consensus on moral values, amounting in fact to an "American ethos". This has two components. The first is an unusually explicit version of the humane ideals of Western civilization based upon Athenian philosophy, Roman law, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is a creed stressing the dignity of man and his inalienable rights of freedom and equality. It was written into the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights; it has been articulated in innumerable sermons, in an untold number of classroom homilies, in almost every major presidential address; it is continually reiterated by politicians, by courts of justice, by editorial writers, and by almost every speaker addressing a voluntary association in America. Millions of immigrants have had to learn it; they are in fact formally examined on it prior to receiving American citizenship. (This prerequisite indeed gives a unique overtone to American citizenship: it is an achievement rather than a birthright. One cannot understand the peculiar force of the emotionally loaded notion, "un-American" in public discussions unless one takes into account the fact that being an "American" in this sense presupposes an adherence to the American creed that is not taken for granted in advance of proof.) The second component in the American ethos is patriotism. The Second World War and the ensuing Cold War have kept patriotism in the forefront of American values. The large veterans’ organizations are its most visible self-appointed guardians, but it really embraces every segment of the nation. Even the smallest town arranges a Fourth of July Parade to reinforce it.

We do not have an adequate measure of the extent and intensity of belief in the American creed. One public opinion poll reveals that Americans are more reluctant to give up freedom than material gain.1) Another opinion poll took as its starting point a delicate border territory between the two components of the American ethos, that is, liberty and patriotism. It uses a scale indicating willingness to give the right of free speech to Communists, critics of religion, advocates of nationalization or industry. This scale reveals great variations in tolerance between middle-class and working-class persons, and between well educated and less educated persons. It calls "more tolerant," 66 per cent of the college graduates, 42 per cent of the high school graduates, and 22 per cent of the grammar school graduates.2) A significant fact is that leaders of communities and influential voluntary associations are much more tolerant than the average citizen or rank-and-file member.

A difficult test case for the American creed of equality and freedom is posed by the question of racial integration. A poll in 1956 showed that 60 per cent of the whites interviewed favored integration on public transportation facilities, 51 per cent did not object to the idea of living on the same block as a Negro with similar education and income, and 48 per cent agreed that white and Negro children should go to the same school. These figures indicate a shift in attitude since 1942, when the same questions were asked and the answers were 44 per cent, 35 per cent, and 30 per cent, respectively. The gain in the South since 1942 has been most pronounced: in 1942 only 2 per cent spoke in favor of school integration, in 1956 14 per cent did; also, the proportion of white Southerners approving integration on streetcars and buses rose between those years from 4 to 27 per cent.3)

Since these soundings were taken, the South has started a painful process of complying with the decision of the Supreme Court to desegregate its schools. The precise way of arranging the desegregation was not and could not be specified by the Court. The last five years has seen a great deal of experimentation with different methods of desegregation, the legality of which have been subject to many reviews. Most of the attempted methods achieve a so-called "token" integration, that is, normally one to three Negro students per 100 white students. The problem is not only a legal and a moral one, but also one of quality of education. The years of separate education for the races have also been years of unequal education. Integration will pick up pace and be less painful when something has been done to improve the competence of the Negro teachers and to improve the facilities of the existing Negro schools.

In the case of Negro-white integration in residence, transportation, and schools, our data do not exhibit the consensus and the national unity associated with the American ethos. As was the case a hundred years ago at the time of the Civil War, the nation is divided. But the ideals of freedom and equality and patriotism are invoked with equal fervor by both sides. Thus, while advocates of opposing positions devote their energies to arguing that their particular stand is the only one consistent with this moral heritage, the American ethos itself remains intact.

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1) Infra, Table 83

2) Infra, Table 81

3) Infra, Table 82