Modern Polymaths
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Modern Polymaths

Recovering American Decency — Modern Polymaths

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

It’s time to make American decent again. The dictionary definition of being “decent” is “marked by moral integrity, kindness, and goodwill”. At this moment, we need goodwill for one another. We need kindness, and we need moral integrity.

As the United States takes the first steps to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown, we’re seeing a classic American tension thrown into sharp relief: the community vs. the individual. Believers in “rugged individualism” are framing movement restrictions and mask requirements as a trampling of individual rights, even if they’re good for the community-at-large.

But these individuals have lost sight of something important. Liberty is not in itself a moral good. We value freedom because it allows us to build strong communities. That’s what’s good about it.

The American individual

The United States is built on the idea of personal liberty. Until your rights begin to interfere with the rights of others, you should be free to pursue the life you want. If we do that consistently, we create a society that allows each individual person to seek their own happiness. We believe that idea so deeply that we enshrined it in the Declaration of Independence as the “inalienable rights” that we were willing to fight for.

Anytime I think about American culture, I have to return to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The book is nearly 200 years old now but remains one of the most perfect crystallizations of the uniquely American ethos. There are several defining characteristics that de Tocqueville explores, including an obsession with equality and our relationship to faith, but even in the early 1800s, individualism was already one of our most prominent traits.

In de Tocqueville’s travels, he saw that Americans considered themselves discrete persons, independent from their communities, congregations, and families in a way that people in other parts of the world weren’t.

If you look at signs from the reopen protests, you immediately see that individualism being brandished. The word “tyranny” is often used, and quotes from the founding fathers abound. One of my favorites is “ Free people make their own risk assessments “, essentially demanding the individual freedom to disagree with experts even if it could prove deadly.

How our choices affect others

These protesters have forgotten why we value freedom in the first place. Liberty itself was never the goal. We required liberty to build the kind of society that we want for ourselves and our children.

Again, we believed the idea so much that we enshrined it in a founding document. This time, the preamble to the Constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

U.S. Constitution (emphasis mine)

In all the talk of unconstitutionality and trampling of the Bill of Rights, we’re forgetting why we have a Constitution. We enumerated our system of government and the foundational rights of our country so that we could build a better society for one another.

As we continue to construct the American response to this pandemic, we should not feel an allegiance to political parties or to the free market. Our only allegiance is to one another. Our greatest fidelity remains to our neighbors, colleagues, and other community members. We are, as always, in this together, and the “right” way forward is the path that promotes the general welfare and ensures the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

As I wrote recently, there is no going back to normal. Our job is to create a future that saves as many lives as possible, even if it means rethinking our economy, physical movement, and social behavior.

A return to decency

I want to reframe the debate about physical distancing and mask-wearing. It is not the heavy hand of government or an erosion of our personal liberty. The opportunity to change our actions to keep Americans alive and to rethink our economy for the betterment of our fellow citizens is a chance to show our decency.

Americans are dying of COVID-19 every day. We likely won’t know the real impact for years, but with 100K Americans dead by official counts, we’ve already passed the U.S. military deaths from some of our bloodiest wars, and the numbers are still climbing.

We will have a memorial in our capital for the citizens who die during the pandemic. We will publish their names. We will judge companies and politicians by the decisions they’re making now.

And as individuals, we should be looking for ways to live with decency. Masks slow the spread of the virus. Physical distancing creates fewer new cases.

As the Editorial Board of the NY Times put it recently, taking actions that protect one another is the most patriotic thing we can be doing right now. I’ve written about needing a new kind of morality for the world that we face today. Our old divisions and ways of thinking aren’t suited for the challenges of COVID-19, global warming, or a million other possible realities that we may face soon.

We’re in this together. As individuals, we have the freedom to care for our communities and to lift one another up. We have the choice to change what we can to make tomorrow better for our families, our neighbors, and all of our fellow Americans. We have all the liberty we need, but do we have the decency to use it well?

Originally published at on May 25, 2020.



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Alex Acton

Alex Acton

Professional Amateur & Avid Question Asker