Thursday, October 11, 2007

Habits of the Heart - Robert Bellah pt. 1

“How ought we to live? How do we think about how to live? Who are we, as Americans? What is our character?”[1] So begins Habits of the Heart. Its authors, delving into the life and values of “white, middle-class Americans”[2] explore the pervasiveness of individualism. Their study and title gives homage to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America by returning to his “admiration and anxiety” over the great strength of American individuals, as well as, the potentially isolating tendency of individualism.[3] Tocqueville described these American mores or “habits of the heart” not only as “ideas and opinions but habitual practices with respect to such things as religion, political participation, and economic life.”[4] He described it as the disposition of “each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraws into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself”…where individuals “imagine their whole destiny is in their hands”…finally forgetting their ancestors and descendents.[5]
This sociological study explores the nature of the individual’s participation in both public life through local politics, activism, and voluntary associations and ones private life in terms of love, marriage, and therapy. The first chapter highlights four very distinct individuals which serve to illumine their points through out the text. Even though they betray sharp contrasts in many ways they all share a common individualistic vocabulary in conversations about morality, society, and politics which they call the “first language of American individualism.”[6] Their differences often come in a variety of second languages.
These four individuals give us a broad look at cultural values and the difficulty of reconciling them. The authors claim that our “American cultural traditions define personality, achievement and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation”[7] because ones selected “values and priorities” are merely a personal choice, as long as it does not interfere with the choices of others, and not justified by a “wider framework of purpose or belief.”[8] The good is then defined by one finds rewarding however, as ones preferences change, so does the good.[9]
Where there is no shared standard value system, individuals all exist on equal ground where tolerance becomes the virtue of plurality. As a private matter, one cannot impose upon another’s chosen values. In such a world, conflicts are resolved by “honesty and communication” of ones “needs and desires”[10] as matters of “technical problem solving, not moral decision.”[11] Morality then is based on the highly subjective nature of personal preferences. Values are arbitrarily chosen. As a result, successful self-reliance and self-fulfillment become the standards for choosing those preferences and yet, that self-fulfillment is done in radical isolation without means of affecting that same fulfillment for others.[12] The only, and very ironic, fragile unity that such a strident diversity is able to bring about is in the language of individual rights.

[1] Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), xli.
[2] Ibid., xliii
[3] Ibid., xlii
[4] Ibid., 37.
[5] Ibid., 37.
[6] Ibid., 20.
[7] Ibid., 6.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 16.
[11] Ibid., 7.
[12] Ibid., 16.