Jennifer Herdt: in praise of the common good

By Ray Waddle, editor, Reflections magazine

These are not high times for “the common good.” The phrase and the ideal don’t get much primetime respect. The common good is out of step with the moment’s anti-government rhetoric, libertarian surges, and budget-cut scrimmages. In such a climate, some worry that the future of civic virtue and national purpose are at risk.

HerdtJennifer Herdt, who joined YDS last fall as professor of Christian Ethics, is happy to put in a good word for the common good. Despite the cultural mood against it, she thinks people secretly are eager to contribute to society’s improvement in ways that transcend self-oriented materialism.

“That’s a special thing about being human – a capacity to pursue the good because it’s good and not just because it’s personally beneficial,” she says.

“Human beings are capable of finding their happiness in contributing to the common good. I think people are dying to hear that.”

Herdt is a scholar of the history of moral thought, including classical and Christian virtue ethics and the significance of the virtues for the public square. These enduring, evolving virtues – courage, justice, honesty, generosity and other character traits that enable a person to live and act well – are tested every day. In political life, they either enrich democratic values and notions of the good, or lose out to other impulses that damage society.

Herdt worries, for instance, that society’s ethical language is getting “thinner,” losing touch with its moral and theological traditions. This is hurting our politics.

A thin vocabulary is content to characterize people or ideologies as simply good or bad, right or wrong, righteous or evil, patriotic or disloyal – one-dimensional labels and snap judgments that demonize the opposition, erode empathy between rich and poor, and refuse to find common ground for overcoming national problems. She is keen to make the case that church teachings – the panoply of sacred narratives, liturgical practices, art and music – must be a source of ethical formation in a contemporary world more and more disconnected from its legacy of belief and conduct.

This “thinning” tendency might be inevitable under pluralism: people fall back on subjective desires and values because notions of public virtue sound too ambitious or intolerant. Strident individualism intensifies the trend, insisting that society’s task is to maximize individual autonomy and preferences, not contemplate the common good.

Herdt calls that a cop-out.

“Pluralism has become an excuse for not attending to the common ground we share,” she says.

“People will differ over definitions of the common good, but it’s much better that people bring out their robust views for healthy debate and attempt to find common ground than it is to retreat into individual preferences and public silence.”

We must grapple together, she says. Strict individualism is a utopian fantasy. Life has an irreducible social dimension. A commitment to the common good involves organizing social structures so that they “foster the flourishing of everyone,” she says.

“We flourish together or not at all.”

Herdt has been thinking about questions of the social moral order since childhood. At age 5, she and her family moved from the American Midwest to the Philippines and saw poverty on a global scale. Her father, an agricultural economist, took a position there to work with an international team of researchers to create new, productive strains of rice to improve harvests and ease the crisis of world hunger.

“I saw so much abject poverty all around me there,” she recalls. “It gave me a strong feeling of gratitude for all that we had – also a strong sense of the contingency of my condition: I just happened to be born into a family that was not poor. This really impressed on me a sense of social responsibility. But I learned other things too. Even among the very poor we saw resilience, a capacity to be joyful despite their conditions. I certainly felt like it was a gift they had given me: they could teach me something about joy.”

Living in the Philippines for 10 years, Herdt grew up in a tight-knit international scientific community, religiously pluralistic. Raised Methodist, she and the other children freely batted around questions about religion and the tensions between faiths. A desire to ponder and resolve theological matters started there and never left her.

In her work, Herdt traces the relations between classical and Christian virtues, their influence on society, and the question of their potency and relevance to future generations. Her most recent book, Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago, 2008) won a Choice Magazine award for Outstanding Academic Title.

She sees the drama of the virtues – the ideas of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Kant, Hume and others – in play in the rough-and-tumble of national politics. After President Obama’s inaugural address in January 2009, she produced an essay that examines his list of favorite civic virtues – honesty, hard work, tolerance, curiosity, courage, patriotism and others – and traces their meanings ancient and modern. (See the essay at “The Immanent Frame” website, )

“They do not represent,” she concludes, “a simple retrieval either of the classical cardinal virtues or of the supernatural Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.  Rather, they represent the ways in which traditional Western understandings of the virtues have evolved over time, working out internal tensions and engaging with changing social realities – religious diversity, the rise of modern science, the emergence of the middle class.”

Much is at stake in society’s wrestle between old and new, secular and sacred, noble and utilitarian, tradition and novelty. Monitoring the interplay of virtues in public life, Herdt finds a civilization trying to hear itself think despite an era of tumult and change. Her aim is to help citizens sort through the noise, find clear signals from the past and virtuous paths into the future.

“In spite of everything, I think a lot of people want that kind of discussion,” she says. “We’re in a society looking for hope, looking for meaning.”


Posted: 04/04/2011