Professor James Davison Hunter traces the death of character to the disintegration of the moral and social conditions that make character possible in the first place. The dilemma he uncovers in The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil is especially acute in the realm of moral education, where society explicitly takes on the task of instilling enduring moral commitments and ideals within young people. The various strategies for accomplishing this task – psychological, communitarian and traditionalist – all operate, in the end, within a framework that renders the goal unachievable.
Our problem, Hunter argues, is not an absence of morality but rather the emptying of meaning, significance and authority from the morality that is advocated. Morality is reduced to the thinnest of platitudes, severed from the social, historical and cultural encumbrances that make it concrete and ultimately compelling. Thus, while intending to deepen innate moral sympathies and build character, moral education accomplishes just the opposite. In ways that are as tragic as they are ironic, its lessons finally lead children to a moral cosmology that is beyond good and evil.
Adam B. Seligman, Institute for the Study of Economic Culture, Boston University reviewed the book saying, “Excellent, accessible and well-written … This is a book to be widely read and discussed by everyone concerned with moral education in the very broadest sense of the term.” As did Wilfred M. McClay, of the University of Tennessee, saying, “James Hunter has a talent for writing important books – books that freshly map the contours of our culture, and in so doing, transform the way we talk and think about our lives. With The Death of Character he has done it again, mercilessly dissecting our confused discourse about moral educations. Hunter shows that the way back to ‘character’ will be much harder than we have been willing to acknowledge.” And Michael Novak, of the American Enterprise Institute, saying, “A brave exploration of spinelessness and self-deception in the dominant moral sectors of our time.”
Read an archived version of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s review from The World & I.
“[Hunter] knows how to support bold and surprising conclusions with measured and fair-minded observations that few can dismiss … There are many reasons to be critical of the psychological regime in character education, but Hunter offers the most devastating: It doesn’t work.”
- The Weekly Standard
“His great contribution is to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that moral education cannot be renewed without reintroducing the truth about good and evil, and he shows how we might go about doing that.”
- First Things