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O Virtue, Where Art Thou?

The dynamics of moral agency in an age awakened to social sin.

Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus, and the creator and host of Breaking Ground. From 2016 to 2019 she directed The Philanthropy Roundtable‘s Character Initiative, a program seeking to help foundations and business leaders re-envision the nature and shape of formative institutions needed for social and moral renewal in the United States. Her path-breaking guidebook, The Fabric of Character, was published in 2019. Anne is also a 2020 Emerson Fellow, a Trinity Forum Senior Fellow, and a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity for the bulk of their citizens. She has published widely, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel

I confess I’ve never reacted all that well to the recruitment posters created to enlist soldiers in the First and Second World Wars: Lord Kitchener, Uncle Sam, John Bull. Chalk it up to my distaste for a certain flavour of male demand or a generational mismatch in messaging, but the infamous propaganda tools inspire jumpy nerves more than motivation.

Still, when I step out of my own time and ponder what that great tool of recruitment was attempting to achieve, I find that I admire its effectiveness in awakening the everyday citizen’s desire to serve. That loud pointing finger called forth a deep hope of nobility that beats unbidden in each one of us, and instead of gesturing toward some vague moral high ground, it provided a pathway wherein one could take responsibility and act in a battle for good to prevail in a troubled world.

Much has shifted since the mid-twentieth century. We no longer have the clarities that gave such propaganda power: an agreed-on enemy, a known good worth protecting, a patriotism without caveat or a cultural code that said you were better than nobody and nobody was better than you.

Instead, the terms of good and evil have proliferated and moved inland, finding potent expression in domestic politics and creating a mess of heated rebellions along the way. We live in an era newly awash in moral language of the systemic and the social, but instead of deploying it to frame the battles occurring on other shores, the moral lines are here—on our turf, in our relationships. Our history is being told and retold by a wider array of voices. Hearts once content are being challenged to expand.

It could all be very hopeful but for the timing: A society steeped in “my truth, your truth” is poorly equipped to navigate fuller tellings of social truth. The pervading frameworks for “what’s really going on”—white supremacy and systemic racism, illegitimate political authority and a corrupted elite—are at once vast and pointed, each one requiring a humility and robust moral vocabulary that we seem to have lost. It doesn’t bode well that structures of power are dominating our mental maps while odes to self-care seduce our souls. Whatever happened to conceiving of agency as something more than the individual’s rights and desires? Where is forgiveness in our calculus of what is owed?

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