Each year, a slew of “What’s America’s Biggest Problem?” surveys appear. They identify and quantify the most pressing issues of the day, focused on those measured by public opinion. The order of that list changes each year, but typically includes the economy, government, health care and others. Some argue the most important item of all isn’t even on the list — that America’s biggest problem is … America itself. In most cases, that means who we are as a people.
How Do You Fix the Soul of the Nation?
The year 2020 brought a unique array of COVID-19, racial tensions, record unemployment, natural disasters and a cascade of other profound traumas and sufferings. All these manifestations have compelled writers and thinkers to express deep concern about how America cares for itself, how we, as people, manage and respond to such events. Nearly every and other politician and public communicator pleads and offers reminders that “we’re all in this together” and implores us to “care for each other.” That, of course, begs the question: Aren’t we already caring and acting as if we’re all in this together?
It’s Not Trump, It’s Us
The media relies perhaps to a fault on Donald Trump as proof that Americans have become pathologically intolerant, uncaring, with no sense of a shared purpose. David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, recently described the president as cold-hearted, laying out the consequences of Trump’s inability to feel. Brooks expertly deconstructs the emotional anatomy of unempathetic people. But the piece goes beyond Trump as a poster boy for affluenza, implying that he is symptomatic of society’s reduced capacity to care. In a 2017 piece for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Kevin Aldridge clarifies and helps us properly focus when he efficiently concludes, “It’s not Trump, it’s us.”
If, as these writers suggest, America’s biggest problem is how it thinks, feels and acts as a society, then will the current traumas and moral pleadings have any lingering, durable effect such that America becomes a better version of itself? Many respected observers think so and offer options to further that goal. What are those pathways to a more feeling, caring America? Are they likely to succeed?
Most think religion plays a role. Aldridge advises us to “listen better” and “think before we speak.” Brooks uses a case study to illustrate how the experience of traumatic events can arouse compassion and thus make us “less blind to lives other than our own.” That theory will no doubt be tested, given that Americans are experiencing or at least observing traumas unlike any they’ve seen in their lifetimes. Nonetheless, probability and facts suggest things won’t change — the unparalleled events and hand-wringing platitudes of 2020 will provide temporary stimulation without durable effect. Why?
As an ethicist who lives and observes globally, I wonder whether America is really ready for a change and what is the best way to get the job done. Are shared traumas, more religion, better communication and empathy skills the best way to transform society? The solutions offered thus far look piecemeal, culture-bound and destined to fail. Even if America musters the will to create a culture of shared responsibility and interdependence, I’ll document how it lacks the skill and infrastructure to do so.
If we truly seek a greater sense of mutuality and “togetherness,” then one good place to look for the key ingredients is beyond our own noses and borders to cultures where those things already exist as a way of life. Those places give us reasons to think that more compassion might not be a central key and that we don’t actually need Donald Trump or any of us to “feel.” What we do need is ethics.
From my perch here in Tokyo, I’ve been lucky to enjoy and benefit from the Japanese priority of social interdependence (not individual independence). I marvel at how the whole country is set up to teach and live as “we” rather than “me.” How did they do it? “Behind the Independence of Japanese Kids Lies a Culture of Community” is just one of many reports to help Westerners understand this phenomenon.
When someone asks me why I live in Japan and what is so different about it, I generally mention ethics as my overly simplistic, one-word answer. How does Japan teach, market and impose on its people the ethics of personal and collective responsibility? That’s a subject beyond the scope of this piece, but the main venues are its homes, schools and workplaces. Each of those teach and expect everyone to think of others before you think of self.
That ethic had life-and-death consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic, because long before the virus appeared and whenever they were sick, the Japanese always wore face masks — and did so to protect others. Some parts of the world do so only grudgingly and with a different motive in mind.
How about theft? There’s almost none of that in Japan. Leave your cell phone or purse in Starbucks or on the street, and only two things will likely happen: You either get your property back, or it stays untouched. But that doesn’t mean the Japanese are more empathetic. They don’t steal because they’ve been trained and feel beholden to carry out their ethical obligations to their communities, not because potential thieves empathize with or “feel” more for their victims.
An article in The Atlantic, “Why Japanese Kids Can Walk to School Alone,” actually uses the words “ethic” and “group dynamics” to describe Japan’s shared ownership of public space and the responsibilities they feel to each other. It quotes cultural anthropologist Dwayne Dixon as saying that Japanese “kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others.” Can these lessons be applied outside of Japan? Maybe, but the first task will be for America to rethink its ethical priorities, academic discussion of which often induces sleep.
In quick terms, let’s say Westerners are in general over-exposed to the notions of “every man for himself” and “be all you can be.” When they hear the word “independence,” they likely conclude it’s one of the responsibilities, benefits and inalienable rights granted by a functioning democracy. If those ideas have been a big part of the moral diet in your life, then it’s easy to see how independence and autonomy might become your over-weighted priorities. Within that context, some Americans now believe it makes sense to kidnap governors and start civil wars for no good reason.
Are we prepared to give up our addiction to autonomy and personal independence for a taste of mutual, societal interdependence? If so, then ethics, not feelings, offer a more productive path in any quest for greater levels of solidarity and civility. Yes, Americans will be challenged to agree on the ethics they share. But if they do, then those ethics will guide the right choices as a matter of ethical sensibility, not a result of knowing how to better feel.
What are ethics and how do you learn them? When questioned about why they choose to give and do so much good for the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet usually utter the words “all lives have equal value.” That’s an ethic and, in fact, the official motto of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; an interviewer once asked if they own a copyright on that phrase. It’s interesting to review the motives of these titans, but a more compelling question is, how did you come to hear of this ethic and take it on as your own?
Gates and Buffet typically say they learned ethics from their parents. Buffet further advises: “I think the best place to learn ethics is in the home. If I had a choice of having ethics … fully on in the home or as a course in a school later on, I would choose the home.” The false dichotomy he presents overlooks that ethics education is done in places other than schools and homes. It also fails to consider that, statistically, American homes are likely to be more ethnically and culturally diverse than in many parts of the world.
Without some kind of American ethics playbook, each home would teach different sets of ethics such that the mutual dependence and shared values described earlier will remain elusive. How to plan and execute a national ethics education system might not, then, be one of Mr. Buffet’s many skills and virtues.
In the end — and for this ethics stuff to work — Americans will need to think about their daily actions and responsibilities to each other with at least the same priority and reliability they use to decide whether or not to drive through stop signs at intersections. Americans manage that task pretty well regardless of their culture or ethnicity. But the country now lacks the ethics education and training system it will need to express and impart its values and accomplish that larger goal.
Some observers already identified this weakness in America’s ethics infrastructure. Not surprisingly, they again point to “What American Schools Can Learn from Japanese Moral Education in Schools,” a summary that claims ethics education programs in US schools often have mixed results. These meet with resistance due to the belief of some parents and students that ethics education is too “religious,” an expendable elective like studio art and field hockey. And teachers already feel overwhelmed by demands to keep up with basic academic instruction, let alone add ethics to the mix.
There have been some gains in American ethics education, or at least requests for progress. An article in the Journal of Higher Education and Outreach and Engagement justified and laid out a plan for the “Integration of Ethics With American Pedagogy.” With noble eloquence, it notes that “the Americans of tomorrow, facing global issues, will be forced to make decisions that will build or destroy tolerance, make or break peace with other nations, and protect or ignore the value of the world’s natural resources. If the young Americans of today are to act as world leaders of tomorrow … to make decisions that will benefit humanity and the Earth, they must be equipped with … ethics.”
Whether the Trump or other presidential administrations share or even comprehend such goals and strategies is another debate, one that really doesn’t matter. It’s up to us, not the president. Donald Trump is unlikely to be the first leader with a reduced capacity to feel or a reluctance to consider cross-cultural solutions to American problems. But do feelings really matter?
Fix the Ethics
In one sense, yes, because the skills of caring and empathy are what help people see themselves as subjects of the ethics they share and embrace. This means compassion and empathy are essential, glorious parts of the human experience. But they might not be the priority David Brooks makes them out to be. The point here is that if we’ve got ethics, empathy becomes less important. Cold-hearted people can be ethical. If we can get Donald Trump and the rest of society to use ethics as a guide, then our compassion skills and how well we feel for others may be a secondary matter. Fix the ethics first and the rest will follow.
Michael Sandel, America’s “Dr. Ethics,” sums it up nicely in an August interview with the Harvard Gazette, “Why some Americans refuse to social distance and wear masks.” He notes that apart from America being logistically and medically unprepared for the pandemic, the country was also morally unprepared. That phrase is new and captivating in its ability to identify ethics as a critical national commodity of import equal to others.
He goes on to say, “Even as the pandemic highlights our mutual dependence, it is striking how little solidarity and shared sacrifice it has called forth. Why do we seem incapable of solidarity at the time we need it most? … This moment makes vivid the need for a broader public debate about the inequality this crisis has highlighted and a reconsideration of what we owe one another as citizens.”
Mutual dependence? Solidarity? What we owe one another as citizens? It’ll take more than one wise man to get those engines started. As some suggest, the endless traumas of 2020 might stimulate social change that leads to a more civil, interdependent society. I doubt it, but I could be wrong. After all, we’ve seen examples of widespread social-behavioral change. I thought Americans would never recycle their plastic milk bottles, quit throwing trash on the ground or happily sink their teeth into burgers made from plants — but they do.
Still, if there’s no systemic, seismic shift in how America thinks, functions and educates itself with regard to its ethics, then whatever moves America makes toward civility and shared responsibility for each other now will be temporary and will go to waste. Rather than catalytic, the effect many now speak of and hope for will more likely be hydraulic — America’s addiction to “self-first” will rise as the traumas of the day become less newsworthy. In the end, our future will look very much like our past. Those who seek to identify and fix America’s biggest problem may not at the moment be looking at the right things, in the right places.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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