Mar 172009

I am an admirer of Charles Murray, a good man whose extra­ordinary political cour­age captures what is best in the Quaker tradi­tion. His recent essay, The Europe Syn­drome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, makes a case for American ex­cep­tion­alism based upon the idea that the purpose of government is to faci­litate the pursuit of happiness — as understood in the Aristotelian sense:

My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

Murray observes that there are only four “institutions” in society within which human beings can achieve this kind of deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith.

The stuff of life — the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships — coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness — occurs within those four institutions.

The goal of social policy, according to Murray, should be to ensure the robustness and vitality of these four institu­tions. He argues that the European model of the state does not do this — that despite its material successes, “it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish — it does not conduce to Aristotelian happi­ness.”  

Murray predicts that science in the 21st century will reinforce these observations.  He cites Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience in support of the idea that “social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the find­ings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.” 

Finally, Murray suggests that America needs another political Great Awakening, a re­discovery “in the gut” of what is most valuable in life.

There are some big ideas in this essay.  Read it for yourself.


  2 Responses to “American Exceptionalism”

  1. [...] Murray’s talk was twice interrupted by fire alarms. As I remarked in an earlier post on American exceptionalism, Charles Murray is a person of uncommon intellectual integrity and moral courage, worth reading and [...]

  2. I read Murray’s intelligent article with great interest. One of its great virtues was clarity. Where one agrees, one sees why, and one almost always sees a clear statement, even when one disagrees.
    You say Murray observes that there are only four “institutions” in society within which human beings can achieve this kind of deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith. I found this particular passage weak in one key respect. Murray prepares the ground by arguing that “To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (…). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (…). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.” Seems reasonable.
    He then lists “the activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements … Having been a good parent … A good marriage … Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours … And having been really good at something—good at something that drew the most from your abilities.” From this reasonable list (perhaps not meant as exhaustive) he derives “the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life,” namely: “there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith.” The first three seem to follow logically and immediately from his argument, but how did faith get in there, other than by an act of faith?
    A lot of his essay dealt with faith, and the growing lack thereof in western Europe, so it seemed important to me that it was the one point where a conclusion was alleged which lacked any adequate preparation. The notion of faith as an institution seems awkward in any case.
    I found myself often sympathetic to Murray’s predictions of what biological research will show. I fear that in the future, as today, people will find it all too easy to simply discredit and reject scientific findings which don’t square with their ideological assumptions.

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