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  • Review of Duty Bound:Responsibility and American Public Life
  • Donald R. Brand (bio)

Mark Blitz's Duty Bound seeks to provide for the modern liberal polity what Aristotle's Ethics provided for the ancient Greek polis. Blitz brilliantly describes the virtues that we, modern Americans, still honor; and he then demonstrates that our virtues are derived from Locke's understanding of nature, the self, and the virtues. We borrowed more from Locke than the idea of rights found in our Declaration of Independence, or the justification of acquisitiveness found in our Lockean conceptions of property and free markets; we borrowed conceptions of duty, self-restraint, and moral obligation. Through careful attention to our use of language, Blitz explores the often implicit moral continent that we inhabit, a hierarchically structured ethical universe that culminates in the virtue "responsibility," just as the classical virtues culminated in the virtue "magnanimity." This ethical universe is not religiously grounded, but from its origins in Locke to its modern manifestations it has generally sought to make religion an ally rather than an enemy. Most importantly, the modern virtues summed up in the duty of responsibility provide a firm foundation for resisting the currents of nihilism and relativism that besiege us in the modern world.

Far from purveying gloom and doom about moral decay in our contemporary society, Blitz is remarkably sanguine. He is no Pollyanna, blind to human weakness or vice; but our inability to fully live up to our moral aspirations is less of a threat to well-being of liberal democracy than a loss of our moral compass would be. Blitz is sanguine because Americans still praise responsibility as a virtue, because this praise encourages Americans to act responsibly, and because "liberal democracy works best when responsibility flourishes (Blitz, 1)." In this regard we are still Lockeans, as our forefathers were, and Blitz is providing a more sophisticated and defensible variation of a thesis most famously associated with Louis Hartz. Whether this is an accurate description of American political development remains an open question.

If we focus on the history of American political thought, on the ideas and concepts that have been central to the most thoughtful Americans during different historical eras, what is notable is the movement away from Locke. The Lockean liberalism of the American Framers was challenged first by various forms of historicism, culminating in Progressivism; and then, more recently, by various forms of postmodernism as the identification of history with progress appeared increasingly untenable. American intellectuals first turned from Locke to Hegel as their philosophic mentor, and more recently they have increasingly turned from Hegel to Nietzsche. In principle these intellectual fashions are reversible, and, if we were strictly concerned with the history of political thought, then the publication of Duty Bound might suffice as a response to the challenges posed by these later currents of thought. By demonstrating the power of Locke's thought, its grounding in a common sense approach which is no less plausible today than it was when Locke wrote, its success in undercutting religious dogmatism and scholastic sophistry, and the reasonable balance it strikes between freedom and responsibility, Blitz provides solid reasons for preferring Locke to either Hegel or Nietzsche. By showing us that Lockean responsibility, though less resplendent than the ancient virtue of magnanimity, is nonetheless impressive in its own right and sufficient for the purposes of sustaining constitutional democracy, Blitz helps us to return to moral first principles. Moreover, by drawing not only upon Locke, but upon the wisdom of classical political philosophy, in justifying Locke's defense of responsibility, Blitz may provide a more compelling defense of responsibility than Locke himself was able to provide.

These theoretical accomplishments notwithstanding, Blitz's application of the responsibility framework to specific institutions and practices raises questions. The task we face in restoring first principles is more daunting than Blitz concedes because the movement of political thought away from Locke has been accompanied by changes in institutions and practices that reflect a different, non-Lockean, understanding of politics and moral virtues, and these changes in manners and mores cannot so easily be reversed. Blitz's analysis of legislative bodies provides a telling example. Locke's natural...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 60-65
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-23
Open Access
No
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