In Morality USA, co-authors Ellen G. Friedman and Corrine Squire incisively explore the troubled terrain of moral life in the contemporary United States. Arguing that moral uncertainty has become an everyday experience over the twentieth century, they ably document the leading but clashing modes of moral decision-making that prevail, not only in public debates but also in personal discussions among families and friends over what constitutes the rules of right conduct. Their map of moral ambiguity highlights responses that range from the rigid universals of moral absolutism to the slippery slopes of moral relativism, illuminating the problematic, often internally contradictory features of each of these positions. Urging recognition of the plurality of competing moral discourses available today, they contend that the most democratic response entails learning how to negotiate among these multiple positions rather than adhering to any given stance regardless of context.
The greatest strength of this thoroughly readable and eloquently argued book is its panoramic view of the moral complexity of everyday life. Friedman and Squire deftly direct attention to the myriad events that necessitate moral response, from innovations in reproductive technology to increasing contacts among members of diverse ethnic and religious groups with varying beliefs. They indicate, as well, that [End Page 513] extended media coverage of such issues further complicates the nature of moral debate at the turn of the millennium (an event itself targeted by the media to fuel moral urgency and sometimes panic).
Although Morality USA contends that we might well celebrate current conditions of moral uncertainty precisely because such circumstances force the realization that morality is not a unitary and pregiven set of truths, Friedman and Squire also show that the more common responses are retrenchments to a fixed frame of moral judgment. They describe these reactions even-handedly, pointing out the ways in which such views are laced through with anxiety, fear, nostalgia, and anger, yet treating each one with sensitivity and compassion, in keeping with their general purpose of fostering respect for the moral discourses of others. At times, however, this commitment to pluralistic tolerance tends to sound naive in the face of intolerance promoted by established power relations that condemn moral differences. It is not that Friedman and Squire gloss over issues of homophobia, racism, and sexism—indeed they underscore the dangers of these fixed and oppressive beliefs—but, rather, that they accord too much credit to the power of communication to alter them.
Optimism about the power of communication also weakens their case against moral relativism. This is most clearly the case in the chapter cleverly entitled “Lite,” in which they describe how certain banal media have overtaken moral discourse. Despite an apt critique of this cultural trend, they conclude by stating that “lite provides a window on this ethical indeterminacy.” While listening to talk radio or watching America’s Funniest Home Videos could provide such a view, “lite” culture strikes me as more likely either to shut the window on moral reflection, as with Rush Limbaugh, for example, or to open it so widely as to efface the historical context altogether. In either case, the socio-economic relations of power that promote these forms of entertainment run counter to the moral complexity that Friedman and Squire seek.
If the book sometimes drifts toward the overly optimistic, it is, nevertheless, more often a highly nuanced account of the shortcomings of a number of prominent moral discourses. In particular, the treatment of emotivism is invaluable. Explaining how the slide into individualized accounts of what “feels right” deters moral discussion and negotiation among competing notions—necessary for democratic process—they demonstrate how the prevalence of self-help and personal [End Page 514] growth movements accentuate this kind of response. In contrast to the limitations of emotivism, artistic representations, ranging from the visual arts to film and literature, are held up for the ways in which they accent moral ambiguity. Cautioning that “art is under no pressure to negotiate moral complexities or produce solutions,” they underscore its value for defamiliarization, as Shklovsky theorized, or revealing that we are “strangers to...