return to Lectures

University of California, Santa Barbara 
February 20, 1986

Individualism and Commitment in American Life

Robert N. Bellah


Books such as Habits of the Heart are not easy to summarize if at all. This talk, though nothing new, provides a brief summary of some of the motifs of Habits. As a cultural analysis of American society, Habits pays close attention to the way people talk. While the authors recognize that there are serious structural problems-economic, social, political, and institutional-in American society, they argue that there is also a problem of language. This is a complex argument that takes a book to spell out. But in short, Bellah and his co-authors argue, with the rise of a radical form of individualism we find it increasingly difficult to express the moral reasons for our social commitments to a whole range of social relations-from intimate to large-scale institutions as well as, by implication, the natural environment. What they mean concretely is fleshed out in the book and rehearsed here in a compact way. That Bellah would be agitating for individualism if he were in a Japan, a society he has studied a great deal, is an illuminating qualification to his and his co-authors' critique of American individualism. For that reason, the question and answer period that followed this talk is included, even though some of the questions are inaudible. Rae Ann McLennan tape-recorded the lecture. Sam Porter produced and edited the transcript, and wrote this introduction.


As those of you who have taken a look at Habits of the Heart know, the title for my lecture here is the subtitle of the book and I do want to rehearse some of the themes pointing up, perhaps in a condensed way, what we were trying to do in that book and the issues we were trying to raise.

Another title for this lecture that might be a little more startling is, "Is America Possible?" Is America in any continuity with its original self-understanding as a society governed with the consent of its members, as a democratic republic, still possible in the face of the realities of the late twentieth century? This is a question that was asked 150 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville. In that much revered and little read work, Democracy in America, he raised the question, Will Americans be able to sustain their free institutions? Or, will they gradually allow their free institutions to drift into what he called sometimes, "administrative despotism," sometimes even more ironically, "democratic despotism." He even pointed out that it would be possible for us to maintain virtually all the forms and symbols of a free republic while in fact becoming a despotism including, for example, free elections. Tocqueville, looking ahead to that moment when this specter of democratic despotism might in fact have taken place, says, "They will rise from their torpor every four years to elect their masters and then sink back into slavery." Think about it. It isn't entirely obvious that it isn't coming true. And the theme that Tocqueville raised, which gave him great pause as to our capacity to sustain our freedom, was the theme of individualism, which we pursued in talking to our fellow citizens.

By "we" I mean Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton who share the authorship of Habits of the Heart and share what I'm saying this afternoon. We decided in the fall of '78 or the spring of '79 to embark on an effort to discover whether what Tocqueville was talking about was coming true. Are Americans still citizens? is another way of asking the question of, Is America in its essential democratic form still possible? Or has the individualism that worried Tocqueville become so dominant that we really don't have the capacity to sustain our freedom?. So I'd like to start by raising the question of what Tocqueville meant by individualism.

First of all, to remind you, as Tocqueville himself puts it, individualism is a word recently coined. And in fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearance of the word "individualism" in English is in the English translation of Democracy in America. And it doesn't appear in volume one. It's only in volume two, that is, in 1835. That is surprising to us because we imagine individualism so endemically American that probably John Winthrop and the Pilgrims were talking about it as they got off the boat and certainly the drafters of the Constitution were talking individualism, individualism, individualism. No! Not one of them ever used that word because it did not exist. And while I don't want to put too much stock in this kind of semantic history, it isn't an accident that the word becomes common and central in the middle of the 19th century and not earlier.

Tocqueville says our fathers only knew about egoism. Now we have this new thing: individualism. "Individualism," and this is one of the places where he comes as close as he ever does to defining it,

is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look out after itself.

As this tendency grows, he wrote,

there are more and more people who though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.

And, finally, such people come to "forget their ancestors" but also forget they will have descendants and even lose touch with their contemporaries. And he closes this remarkable section with the sentence: "Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart."

Such a notion of an isolated existence in which one is completely self-sufficient is already a bit on the nutty side even in the 1830s and '40s. In the enormously interdependent world that we live in, where anything that happens anywhere in the world affects almost all of us, it is perhaps even more amazing that many of those sentences Tocqueville wrote describe so accurately the mentality of the American middle class today. It was the isolation of this form of individualism that Tocqueville saw as undermining our free institutions because, if the citizens withdraw into their "little circle of family and friends," if they turn their backs on the public world, if they do not participate in the structures, voluntary and public structures, then, indeed-by sheer abdication-we will be ruled by administrative despots and not by ourselves. Tocqueville worried that our obsessive concern for material betterment and economic advancement was what drove us in this direction. He saw us as, of all peoples in the world, the ones most concerned with material comfort and economic advancement.

But he also saw that there were a number features of our society that operated to offset and mitigate the tendencies we've so far been describing and pull us back, so to speak, from our isolation into a concern for others and for the public good. Indeed, he was one of the first to make several observations that still have a lot of truth to them. For one thing, Tocqueville observed that Americans are great joiners, that voluntary associations are a vigorous form of social life in America, that when Americans are disturbed about something they get together to do something about it. And the statistics, comparatively speaking with other advanced industrial nations, suggest that we are still a nation unusually prone to become involved-our citizens-in voluntary associations of several sorts. Andrew Greeley, in a somewhat bizarre review, argued that the thesis of Habits of the Heart was that for 150 years we have been losing our capacity to act in public. I don't think he read the book very carefully. We show, in the whole second half of the book, the way in which people are today actively involved. But they are involved in the face of many pressures and temptations to privatistic isolation. And it is the dialectic that we are interested in rather than any simple straight-line curve. Among the forms of civic involvement that Tocqueville pointed to is our tendency to get involved in local government. In Berkeley we have 13 neighborhood associations, which will yell and scream anytime City Hall does anything affecting their area. Obviously every place is not like Berkeley. But there is still a great deal of involvement and we show in the book how people are concerned about what is occurring in their communities and how they do various things to make a difference in that regard.

A second and perhaps in Tocqueville's mind even the first institutional factor-which helps to mitigate the isolation of our tendency towards privatistic withdrawal-is religion. And it is somewhat startling to hear Tocqueville saying, "Religion is the first of their political institutions." He was thoroughly aware of the First Amendment. He was a strong believer in disestablishment. He wanted the church disestablished in France. So that's not what he meant. He meant that religion in America operates as a school for citizenship both in practice and through its teachings. Let me illustrate that for just a minute. He pointed out that American religion is peculiarly democratic and republican by which he meant it involved active participation of the local congregation. And he pointed out that even the American Catholic Church which, after all, had a hierarchical-rather than say the Baptist Church, a very decentralized democratic-polity, even the American Catholic Church involved a much more vigorous participation of the laity in the life of the local parish than would have been common in Europe. So it was characteristic of American religious life that members of congregations and parishes come together, join committees, learn how to raise money-go through all of those procedures that teaches them how to participate in public life.

More important even than that, although he thought that was very important, is that the content of the teachings of Christianity constantly reminded people that they were not self-sufficient, that they had an obligation to their neighbors, which pulled them out of their self-concern and into concern for the whole world. Here again, though we can assess the quality of what it means-it isn't so clear, entirely, what it means-we still find that Americans are, compared to virtually any other advanced industrial nation, a very religious people with religious membership around a high 60 percent. Maybe just below 70 percent. And 40 percent of Americans telling us in polls that they went to church last Sunday. Very remarkably high according to most other societies.

The third area that Tocqueville saw as moderating our tendency towards privatistic isolation was the particular form of the American family, which he noted was the strongest family in the entire world. Whether we can say that the indices on that one are still as high is another question. Tocqueville says that if there is one key to the success of American democratic society it is the nature of the American woman whom he saw as upholding an ethic other than that of sheer privatized selfishness, teaching that ethic to her children and restraining her husband from his proclivities simply to pursue his own private interest. While describing this tension, he doesn't say how it's going to come out-and we don't say in Habits of the Heart how it's going to come out. But the tension is there and if anything it's stronger today than it's ever been before.

While pointing out the deep inner tensions in our society-some pulling us towards citizenship and active participation in a free society and some pulling us away from that-he also analyzed our character, our kind of national psychology if you want to put it that way. He comments-remember already in the 1830s he sees these things-on our intense competitiveness, on our restlessness in the midst of prosperity. "In America," this is a direct quote,

I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures because they never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.

And they didn't even have television to show them all those things in the 1830s. This restlessness and sadness in pursuit of the good life makes it difficult, he says, for Americans to form strong attachments between each other. The efforts and enjoyments of Americans are livelier than in traditional societies, but the disappointments of their hopes and desires are keener and their "minds are more anxious and on edge," he says. Of such restless, competitive and anxious people Tocqueville writes, "they clutch everything and hold nothing fast." No flatterer. He holds a mirror up to us-showing us admirable traits and problematic traits.

I think it's interesting to take a look at an American making some of his first important public statements precisely in the 1830s, whom Tocqueville never mentions but who illustrates vividly what Tocqueville is writing about. And that is Ralph Waldo Emerson who is also beginning to write about American individualism, the difference being that whereas Tocqueville is worried Emerson is simply celebratory. His very positive feeling about individualism is expressed already in the famous Phi Betta Kappa address of 1837, "The American Scholar," where Emerson too talks about something he sees as new, just coming into the world. "Another sign of our times . is the new importance," writes Emerson,

given to the single person. Everything that tends to insulate the individual-to surround him with barriers of natural respect so that each man shall feel the world is his and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state-tends to true greatness. "I learned," said the melancholy Pestalozzi, "that no man in God's wide earth is either willing or able to help any other man." Help comes from our own bosom alone.

Emerson's devotion to what he calls the capital virtue of self-trust makes him leery of the dependence of the self on others but also of others on the self. Again, he writes, "A sympathetic person is placed in the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men who all catch at him and if he gives so much as a leg or a finger they will drown him."

The conclusion of these views for social ethics is clear enough. In the famous essay "Self-Reliance," perhaps the single most famous of all of Emerson's essays, he wrote,

Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee thou foolish philanthropist that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.

I could hardly find a starker rejection of the ethic of the New Testament. Emerson of course resigned from the pulpit and delivered his own revelation to the Americans.

What is surprising about this quick look at the teachings of Tocqueville and Emerson about individualism is, again, as I have already indicated, how accurately they describe our condition today. The contemporaneity of these issues and of the figure of Emerson is well brought out in a literary controversy last year about Emerson's meaning that took place between John Updike and Harold Bloom. Updike, in a long essay in The New Yorker ["Emersonianism," June 4, 1984, pp. 112-132] in which he desperately tries to like Emerson-he tells of carrying the essays on the Boston subway and reading industriously and so on-finally says he's just too coldly self-absorbed to be very helpful to us today.

And then Harold Bloom-responding in The New York Review of Books, clearly answering Updike in an essay significantly entitled, "Mr. America" [November 22, 1984, pp. 19-24]-glories in just those aspects of Emerson's teachings that Updike deplores. Brushing aside Updike's objections as "church wardenly mewings," dismissing Yale University President Giamatti's remark that "Emerson is as sweet as barbed wire," Bloom goes on to praise Emerson for proclaiming the only God in which Americans can any longer believe, the god of the self.

Many of the people that we talked to haven't necessarily read Emerson or if they did they don't remember that they did and yet the term "self-reliance" comes easily to their tongue. The notion that help comes only from one's bosom is a commonplace of contemporary middle class culture. As one of the therapists we interviewed put it, "In the end, you're really alone and you really have to answer to yourself.." And indeed we find, as we probe the characteristics of American middle class culture, a form of life organized around a restless and relentless pursuit of individual autonomy. A quest for the self, for leaving the past and the social structures that have previously enveloped us, for stripping off the obligations and restraints imposed by others, until at last we find the true self which is unique and individual, entirely different from anyone else.

I might just tell you, as an aside, the language in which Americans express their uniqueness is among the most stereotyped language of any we got in the interviews: "We're all different." But it seems we're all different in exactly the same way. Here is a great irony, of course, that the common sense meaning of individualism, "I'm not doing what anybody else wants me to do"-but we live in a culture that relentlessly tells us not to do what anybody else wants us to do.

One of the strongest imperatives of our culture is that we must leave home. Unlike many peasant societies-for instance, in Japanese society, which I've spent a good bit of my life studying, at least in its traditional form-there is no notion that the ideal would be to stay and live with their parents, inherit the farm, carry on the worship of the ancestors. For us, leaving home is the normal expectation and childhood is in many ways one long preparation for it. However painful the process of leaving home, for parents or for children, the really frightening thing would be the prospect of the child never leaving home. The key to this process of leaving home is finding the kind of employment, which will make one self-supporting, and starting a family of one's own. Although the implication that that is necessarily the norm has weakened considerably over the last thirty years.

A very important part of this whole process of becoming independent is going away to college, and this often implies leaving of course one's local community, one's neighborhood, as well as one's parents. Here part of what's going on is the necessity to take care of one's self without relying on the older generation to do all of those things. But an equally important aspect is taking responsibility for one's own views. And very often this means not only leaving home but leaving church as well. One may not literally have to leave the church in which one grew up but certainly one has to come to one's own conclusions about that tradition. One cannot defend one's religious beliefs by saying they are those of the family in which one grew up. Interestingly enough, even today in Japan when you ask, "What is your religion?", you get a blank stare. When you ask, "What is your family's religion?", then they understand what you mean because the context of religion is collective and not individual. For us, it is just the polar opposite.

Of course, traditionally, Protestant piety expected, somewhere in late adolescence usually, a conversion experience. As we hear so much today about being born again-which is of course a term deeply embedded in the New Testament-conversion was often very carefully culturally stereotyped, however deeply felt by the people going through it. But today I think the pressure for autonomy in this sphere even is greater than those older emphases. We were certainly not surprised, on the basis of our interviews, that a recent Gallop poll found that 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "An individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue." Apparently we look inside in the depths of ourselves and come to our own autonomous understanding of these things and then we go to the church or synagogue of our choice. At least that's the cultural formulation, even though, in fact, of course most of us do get our religious beliefs from churches and synagogues.

I don't want to imply that it's uniquely American that people growing up have to come to terms with their independence and their separation to some extent from parents and from teachers. That's normal in any culture. It's that our culture pushes, emphasizes, and intensifies it beyond, I think, virtually any culture I know about.

We could talk further about the importance of finding an occupation that both gives you a sense of self-respect and provides the resources to live an autonomous life. We talk in Habits of the Heart, about these issues-how for many Americans, at various levels in the occupational hierarchy, the job somehow doesn't prove adequate in fulfilling one's autonomous self and often becomes a means-an instrument-to the acquisition of those resources which will allow one to live in a private lifestyle that will somehow fulfill this expectation that we will find this unique person-who we really are-and attain self-realization, self-fulfillment, happiness. The terms are several but they all point in the same direction.

But when we press the question, "What are the criteria that tell us what happiness is or that define the wants that when they are satisfied will lead to self-realization?", then the confident tones that we have been hearing begin to falter. And instead of any clear notion of any content there is simply the reassertion of "Whatever for you that fulfillment or happiness may be." It is not surprising that Americans turn to psychology as the place that is focused on that inner self. As Robert Coles says, psychology in this instance means a concentration, persistent if not feverish, upon one's thoughts, feelings, wishes, worries, bordering on if not embracing solipsism-the self as the only or main form of reality. To the point where, in the book, we speak of ontological individualism. That is, the self is the only real thing in the world. I am real. All of you are more or less fictitious. I know what I feel but I don't know for sure what you feel.

Frequently it is at just this moment in the conversation that Americans will start talking about values. But again, when we press, values turn out to be the incomprehensible, rationally indefensible thing that the individual chooses when he or she has thrown off the last vestige of external influence and reached pure contentless freedom. The improvisational self chooses values to express itself and they are defended on no grounds other than arbitrary choice. At this point it is clear that the language of values is not a language of value, that is, not a language about moral choice. When people talk about values they are not beginning a moral conversation. They are ending one! When you say, "Those are my values. You have your values", that's the end. There is nothing more to talk about. There are no criteria other than sheer inner validation that might give us the capacity for reasoning together about moral things. This is what Alasdair Maclntyre in After Virtue calls "emotivism."

I want to make it clear that we got to know the people we talked to well enough to know that they by no means have the empty selves that their language would imply. Most of them are serious, engaged people deeply involved in the world. So there is some kind of hiatus going on here. In so far as they are limited to a language of radical individual autonomy, as many of them are, they cannot think of themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition. They cannot express the fullness of being that is actually there.

As my colleague at Berkeley, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, pointed out, the classical figures in modern thought have undertaken what is known as, what Paul Ricoeur and others refer to as, "the hermeneutics of suspicion." Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud lead us to doubt whether anyone's noble or moral language is really to be taken at face value because it's really just a mask for economic interests, will to power, or libidinous impulse of some sort. And what Bert Dreyfus points out is that curiously, in Habits of the Heart, we are reversing the hermeneutics of suspicion by suggesting not that the language is more noble than the action but the other way around. People are not as bad as they talk. This too was something Tocqueville picked up in a passage in which he says even when Americans are behaving in an extremely altruistic way, if you probe their motives, they will tell you it's out of self-interest-as if they were embarrassed that there might be anything else that motivated them. So this is not entirely new.

We suggest that the languages that help us think of ourselves in connection with others-the languages that come from the biblical and civic republican traditions-have weakened and are less available than they once were. And the language of radical individual autonomy in our common life has become stronger, even though in many ways we continue to act out that civic republican and biblical concern for others. Certainly nobody that we talked to imagines that life lived entirely alone would be satisfactory. The people we talked to, as we know from surveys that are much more representative than our sample, want connectedness. We know that something in the vicinity of 94 percent of all Americans have-as an ideal-the idea of spending your life with one other person. When you ask them, "Do you expect that will really happen to you?", the figure drops to something like 45 percent. So there's a dramatic difference between ideal and reality. But the notion that connectedness is a good is certainly still alive.

There is a problem with people who conceive of themselves as self-sufficient individuals in figuring out how they can establish and sustain relationships to others. Radical American individualism seems to contain two conceptions of human relatedness that, again, look perhaps at first incompatible but seem to be held simultaneously by many of the people to whom we talked. And here, again, is the continuity. We find both of these eloquently expressed in Emerson.

Thinking about individuals as sovereign states, as that passage from Emerson pointed out, one might imagine that the only relations possible between them would be by treaty, that is, by contract. And of course contract is an important form of social relationship. But of late it becomes not simply something that occurs in the business world but begins to invade the private world. And some of the psychological advice sounds like it came out of a course in business management so that the concern is for making sure that you are going to get a fair return on your investment-emotionally as well as in terms of money.

The other idea that we also found widespread, and which seems at first glance to be so radically different, is that after all, down at the bottom, at the deepest level of these autonomous selves, there is something that is fundamentally the same. Emerson would've called it nature. Our language is more various. The idea that, at certain moments at least, certain expressively intense situations such as romantic love or even in larger contexts such as a rock concert or when the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl, a spontaneous fusion occurs maybe between two people, maybe even sweeping through a whole city, in which-for a moment-it is our identity, our commonness, our fusion that's important and not the calculations of our interest in the contractarian model.

Of course these two models don't apply to the same spheres, precisely because the expressive intimacy, the emotional fusion is necessarily brief and very special.

More and more of our relationships are translated into contractual terms, even in marriage and friendship. As one of the young therapists we interviewed put it,

Commitments take work and we're tired of working. When we come home from work the last thing I want to do, you know, is for people to sit down and say, 'Well, let's sit and work on our relationship. Let's talk about it.' Yes, but I worked eight and-a-half hours today, you know. Let's just sit down and watch the boob tube.

His protest ends in a confession: "It's like you periodically ask yourself, 'Is this worth my effort? Is this worth that?'" Faced with ongoing demands to work on their relationships as well as their jobs, separate and equal selves are led to question the contractual terms of their commitments to each other. Are they getting what they want? Are they getting as much as they are giving? Are they getting as much as they could get somewhere else? This is a classic mode of the pattern of American individualism, "If you don't like it here go somewhere else", to another town, to another job, to another wife, whatever it may be.

Again, many people who talk like this don't act like it. A successful California lawyer who has sustained a long marriage and was accustomed to explain all his action in cost-benefit terms was finally pressed in our interview to see that no interest maximizing calculus could really account for what was in those terms an irrational commitment. In other words, no marriage that lasts thirty years is that exciting all the time. And so at last he affirmed that his happiness with his wife comes from "proceeding through all of these stages together. It makes life meaningful and gives me the opportunity to share with somebody, have an anchor, if you will, and understand where I am. That, for me, is a real relationship." Here he is groping inadequately but groping, I think clearly, for words that would express the sense that his marriage is a genuine community of memory and hope-a context that actually helps him define who he is, part of his identity, and not merely a forum in which an empty self maximizes its satisfactions.

In another case, a woman who had recently renewed her commitment to Judaism at first seemed to explain that in highly individualistic terms. She assured us that it wasn't because she believed in God because she doesn't. But joining a synagogue and even keeping kosher, which she was not raised to do, provides "structure" in a chaotic world for her children and herself and her husband. In her highly educated mentality it was as though communal ties and religious commitments could be recommended only for the benefits they yield, for the social, emotional and cultural functions that they performed. Perhaps she had had a course in the sociology of religion and succeeded all too well. But there was a moment in her conversation when she transcended these presuppositions. She told us,

the woman who took care of my daughter when she was little was a Greek Jew. She was very young, nine, ten, eleven, when the war broke out and was lying at the crematorium door when the American troops came through. So that she has a number tattooed on her arm. And it was always like being hit on the stomach with a brick when she would take my baby and sit and circle her with her arm, and there was the number.

In that moment she wasn't talking about how much she was getting out of Judaism. She knew herself as a member of a people that includes the living and the dead, parents and children, inheritors of a culture and a history that tells her who she is and that she must nurture through memory and through hope.

I can only allude to the fact that in spite of the powerful culture of radical, privatized autonomy that I have been describing so far, there are many, many Americans actively engaged in concern for others in a variety of civic, political and religious organizations. The whole second half of Habits of the Heart describes a series of people who I think can be called heroes and heroines of everyday life. People who are genuinely dedicated to the common good not out of some sort of martyrdom but out of joy in the dedication. But they are also not infrequently afflicted with a sense of question as to what it all means and how it can all work out in the end.

There are deep structural problems in our society: economic, political, social, institutional. What we are suggesting is there is also a problem of language-of having lost touch with, or finding it increasingly difficult to express, those impulses, those commitments that really do tie us to one another, that identify us through those ties and commitments, not against them.


Questions & Answers:

Question: Inaudible

Bellah: The first part of the question I think I can answer. And that is we argue in the book that the problem with American culture of late is not selfishness. It is not what it was called during the seventies, "me-ism," in the sense of some kind of psychological preoccupation with sheer self-interest. What we are really talking about is a cultural habit, which defines reality in terms of individual selves. There are lots of people who behave in ways that are far from selfish and don't fit that me-ism stereotype. Nonetheless, in the language, and to some extent even in the form of life, we find a separating, isolating individualism. Now I don't think that's a particularly optimistic analysis either.

What we in effect are arguing is that in a genuinely free society there needs to be a capacity to come together with some kind of common criteria for answering the question: What is the common good? And it's precisely this cultural language of radical individualism that makes it impossible to talk about the common good. The common good is seen only as the sum of the individual goods or the individual rights of however many millions there are of individual citizens. And that, we think, is very ominous. We are not thrilled with that.

We are more optimistic about kinds of political involvement that bring people into a continuing organization where they can work out together what they are trying to do-argue, even fight with each other but sustain some kind of long-term commitment rather than writing the check for the single issue that happens to fit my mood at this moment. Or answering a telephone poll in one's private living room and then having those opinions summed as an argument about what Americans believe when none of those Americans have ever discussed those things with anybody and come to a reasoned decision. So that isolating kind of intervention in politics is certainly not something about which we feel optimistic.

Q: I was wondering how you feel all this relates to contemporary politics and the Reagan administration. It seems that when you say that individualism isn't selfishness, I was wondering how you'd look at things like the decline in concern with poverty in America and the social issues.

B: Yes. I'm not saying Americans aren't selfish. I think selfishness is one of those things that is probably there most of the time. It's not something that gets worse or better terribly much. We do things better and worse but not because we are more or less selfish but because we have the cultural and social forms to do things better. It isn't just our private motives.

There is much about the present situation that I think is troubling. For example, the type of politics which is organized around thirty-second television political ads which cannot do anything except either entice you to some desire or frighten you to some fear-to respond not through any rational political discourse but in the pure privacy of one's momentary feelings into this candidate is good or this candidate is strong or whatever the image trying to be projected is. I think there's much of that in our political life today, which is certainly alarming. The problem with the political agenda, which dominates the present administration, I think is that it seems to be a coherent argument. It also seems at the moment to make sense emotionally. And I think it can only be countered by better arguments and by persuasion to other positions that I think in the long run will prove to be more coherent in terms of the world in which we live. The form of our politics doesn't make that kind of conversation very easy but it doesn't make it impossible.

Q: Inaudible

B: I was trying to illustrate that all through my talk. It is precisely the notion that there isn't any moral language except how I feel, what I prefer, what I feel comfortable with. There is an inability in most of educated America to have any moral conversation about what is good because it is considered inappropriate for you to make a statement that anything in particular is good. You have to preface it with: I think, I feel. You have to subjectivize it. That undermining of any possibility of coming to a common moral understanding of the world I think greatly weakens our capacity to be citizens.

Q: What would be the major difference?

B: Interestingly enough, not only is the first translation of Habits lined up for Japan but there is a group of Japanese social scientists who are embarking on a Japanese Habits of the Heart project. So we will know in a couple of years what the comparable findings are, so to speak. Not that it's an easy study to replicate in another culture. There is one other group, and that is in French speaking Quebec, that is trying to do a Habits of the Heart study following our book as a model.

What I think one would find in Japan-indeed, if I were Japanese and I were writing this book I would be singing the praises of individualism because I think in Japan the problem is not too much individualism but not enough. The whole modern history of Japan has been involved with intellectuals who try to understand what on earth this thing that westerners keep talking about-the individual-really is because it doesn't even make any sense in Japan, although there's a strong yearning and kind of wish for something like that. So, in some respects, Japan and the United States are at the opposite ends of the polarity on most of these issues. What I would consider a reasonably healthy society ought to be somewhere near the middle. This is why I particularly don't care for the notion that Americans, because it works economically, should adopt the Japanese model.

return to Lectures