From one moral system to another

Edward Rubin, a professor at Vanderbilt University, sets an ambitious agenda in Soul, Self & Society. In the space of a reasonably manageable 300 pages, he offers a theory for the tandem development of the administrative state and popular morality in the Western world. Rubin presents morality being directly connected with the structure and activities of government, not because one dominants or dictates the other, but rather because both influence the conduct of individuals, meaning they will interact on a regular basis. One key aspect of this interaction, which forms the framework for Soul, Self & Society is that every few centuries there is a transition from one system of morality and government to another. Such transitions do not happen instantaneously – they can last years, decades, or longer – but they produce significant dislocation to those living through them. Explaining the reason for this dislocation is a key aspect of Rubin’s argument. While the bulk of the text is historical, the argument and insights are very much directed at the present where, accordingly to Rubin, we are in the middle of moral transition.

The first part of Rubin’s book is a historical survey of ideas of government and morality, both public and private, in Western Europe from the 6th century. Through this analysis, Rubin identifies three sequential sets of interlocking ideas of morality and government. The first, the “morality of honour” was dominant until the 11th and 12th centuries. With the collapse of governments and public institutions after the fall of Rome, what passed for government in Western Europe was embodied in private individuals: the lords and knights of medieval stereotype. The inspiration, justification and perpetuation of the political role and status of these individuals took the form of valourization of marital virtues, a duty to protect one’s followers and tying of societal bonds to personal actions (oaths, hospitality, etc.). Around the turn of the first millennium, a new morality took hold, which Rubin dubs the “morality of higher purpose.”  In the realm of governance, society witnessed the emergence of a truly public sphere with the formation of states and monarchies. Social relationships began to transcend personal interactions as people became aware that they were part of a wider social and political structure. Morality, with the assistance of a more purposive, less parochial Church, began to shift emphasis away from an individual’s duty towards others, in favour of a duty towards the larger community on the physical plane, and towards God and the salvation of their souls on the spiritual.

Then, starting in the late 18th century, governments in the Western world began to assume their modern administrative form.  The new governments prompted a shift of focus towards progress and material gains in the physical world. What emerged was a “morality of self-fulfillment,” which prioritized individual self-fulfillment, and required that the state not only avoid interference in an individual’s life choices, but actively facilitate them. The transition out of the morality of higher purpose into that of self-fulfillment has been occurring over the last two centuries, and many of the major social issues and controversies that time has witnessed, such as representative democracy, the rise of the welfare state, state education and liberalized attitudes towards abortion, marriage and sexuality, all reflect the new purpose of government. These controversies were not caused by competing moral systems – Rubin’s thesis doesn’t allow for competing moral systems, just transitions from one to another – rather, they are simply rear-guard skirmishes by the ever-fading morality of higher purpose.

Throughout his survey, Rubin gives special emphasis to the role of Christianity in Western society, and he concludes the work by offering his forecast on Christianity’s role in a society based on the morality of self-fulfillment. Christianity, according to Rubin, generally missed the chance to re-frame itself to be more relevant to the new morality, preferring instead to be a reactionary force on behalf of the old morality. Rubin suggests that Christianity could easily accommodate its truths to the new morality, especially given its past adaptations to other moral systems. In his conclusion, Rubin offers several suggestions for where Christianity could make such changes. Rubin’s suggestions may be controversial: many will see them as simply advocating Christianity as being therapeutic, a form of metaphysical self-help. Yet Rubin’s eloquent presentation demands at least attentive, if critical, consideration.


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