My friend and I were talking about organizations and politics and people, and talk turned to people in their moral centers, and where those come from. People don’t usually dwell on these matters. The discussion reminded me how, like our parents’ personal quirks, inherited national and ethnic identities do form a part of us. Catholic schooling told my friend that no one is better than another. My family’s expectations include norms that can be traced to Confucian ethics of obligation and social standing.
Our American nationality also constitutes a part of each of us. It does so differently from the way that other nationalities shape their constituents. We Americans have a sense of how those work from our family histories, whether Hindu or Hungarian, Ibo, Irish, that famously dominant European Protestantism, or some mix or synthesis.
We are also heirs to a written founding creed, of unalienable individual rights. This creed is abstract, and can seem to apply only to civic matters – its second component is that governments exist to secure the unalienable rights. But as the bedrock of American nationality, it is still part of an American’s identity, in the same space that Italian-ness or Lakota-ness resides in the psyche. And an abstract, apparently civic creed in that space is still, even after a quarter millennium, a new and strange thing.
This element of identity sits alongside the ethnic legacies and their effects on our mindsets. It neither endorses nor excludes any of those – it only rules out actions that infringe on others’ rights. It provides common ground for all of us, in a shared identity of principle.
It also means any inherited ethics hold no binding authority over any of us. I may follow my parents’ religion, but I have options – it is my choice, not a received Truth. This non-authority of inherited traditions leaves us all to construct my moral center, myself. It actually forces us, whether we see it or not, to choose my moral bedrock. Even if I choose to follow my ancestors’ legacy, I choose to obey its rules; they are not pre-ordained for me. And even if I only rebel against my parents’ moral doctrines, I am making a choice.
This is freedom of a radical kind, still strange to humanity though an implicit feature of American life for 240 years. Americans have historically busied ourselves with making use of our rights, or fighting for them, as a given. This is a gift of our national founding. But this freedom brings a burden which, as an element of identity, we don’t usually ponder. How does “lil’ol’me” choose what God to worship? How does the average Joe figure out if gene splicing and the discovery of the Higgs Boson change God’s truths? Does “moral center” mean anything at all?
Many of these questions have, ultimately, no answers that can be proven in logic and fact. But the ways in which we treat each other and order our lives will matter for our own personal psyches, and through them for our society.
This moral center we build, each for ourselves, whether we sense it or not, in our daily actions and choices. Recovering alcoholics know this, and any number of us, as we develop the habits that keep us operating, realize it too. And we know all the influences, from parental charges to the demands of making a living to those ethnic back stories, may affect our choices, but the choices are mine, for each of us.
This nation conceived itself in the creed of rights and government dedicated to them; that nationality also leaves us, each and all of us together, to create our selves by our own chosen lights. The responsibility is immense, but so is the opportunity, to use my personal agency to shape myself and world around me, where once – and still for billions – only imposed rules reigned.