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The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition Paperback – August 15, 2007
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“No more important book has been published in this new century. If the American people ever win back their traditional way of life, founded on family, faith, and federalism, The Morality of Everyday Life will be remembered as an important milestone in that victory.”—American Conservative
“Writing much more accessibly and knowledgeably than most modern, professional philosophers, Fleming revivifies the body of thought with which civilization was created and without which it is disintegrating.”—Booklist
"This book is a pleasure to read, filled with telling and memorable examples--both erudite and popular--and continually stimulating in its account. Its rhetoric blends something of a Nietzschean subversion with the humane balance of Hume. It is the most devastating critique of liberalism since MacIntyre."—Donald W. Livingston
About the Author
Thomas Fleming holds a doctorate in classics and is the editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, published by the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Illinois. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Politics of Human Nature and The Conservative Movement.
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Here's what I love about this book. Thomas Fleming is a well read, broad thinking curmudgeon and contrarian. It's a joy. When you read this you're not getting dry philosophy from a book that people just have and leave on shelves. Neither are you getting talk radio or New York Times talking points about 'What's wrong with this world and who is ruining ruining it!' Instead you get a different perspective from a midieval/classical point of view about assumptions and ideas we plainly take for granted, how they've only occurred recently and only in western thought and the violence and damage those thought processes have lead to in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fleming's mind is like a vault of classical writings and Eurasian history. The examples, citations, quotes he uses really livens up the text.
I especially liked Fleming's comparison of wealthy nations providing food aid to the Third World to a lifeboat, in which we have an obligation not to take on more passengers either as immigrants or consumers. I agree that it is ethically permissible to refuse aid to societies that do nothing to reduce their population. In my opinion, any charity that provides food or medicine to poor people but does not provide birth control or other means of reducing population has a lot to answer for. I also liked Fleming's application of the same principle to taxes. When the money for yet another hare-brained income transfer scheme is coming out of what I earn for my family, don't expect me to like it.
Fleming wants the foundations of conservative ideas questioned also, which I think is excellent. For example, Fleming discusses the Christian commandment that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Since no ordinary person possibly can or does love his neighbor this way, it seems pointless to base an ethical system on this. Objective points of view, taken to their natural extremes, will inevitably turn us into monsters who will kill for some higher cause or other. I liked Fleming's line that "one sign we are dealing with a superstition is the unwillingness of the believer to question basic assumptions," which he applies to Christianity. I've seen far too many Christians in precisely that position.
In the last two essays Fleming seems to get bogged down, though there are still some good points made. In the essay "The Myth of Individualism" Fleming argues that we should put less emphasis on the individual and more on community. That's fine as far as it goes, but arguing that our society's problems really come from seeing ourselves as individuals struck me as taking this idea further than his evidence will support.
In the last essay "Goodbye, Old Rights of Man," Fleming occasionally seemed to me to be contradicting much of what I had agreed with in the earlier essays. For example, he talks about abortion as killing real unborn children to promote an abstract quality of life. This strikes me as exactly the sort of hard and fast rule that he said was inadequate to deal with the messiness of human existence. I agree that you shouldn't abort a child for trivial reasons, but then you shouldn't have a child for trivial reasons, either. Is it wrong to abort a child if there are already too many children to properly care for in the family? If the parents have serious genetic defects? What if the local community is starving? What if the local community would starve if the population doubled? I agree with Fleming that today's obsession with rights has gotten out of hand; but it's not only the liberals who sometimes take this too far.
Fleming has a tendency to make sweeping statements irrelevant to his argument, without providing any support for them. For example, he calls today's environmental havoc, such as pollution, the residue of Western liberalism. He dismisses all of American art, and the theory of evolution, with the same casualness. Well, I'm a scientist who believes in evolution. I'm a little surprised that Fleming doesn't, given that evolution is all about the sort of messiness and contingency Fleming is writing about. I would suggest pairing this book with something on evolution, such as Stephen Jay Gould's book "Wonderful Life".
Fleming's ideas can be taken too far, which Fleming seems unaware of. It is all very well to be concerned first for our own families, but taken to an extreme the result is nepotism and corruption. The Renaissance popes are the classic example of this, but it is a serious problem in many countries. In the Philippines even the proper handling of church funds is nearly impossible, because people feel that if their families ask them for money they must give it, even if the money is not theirs. Nepotism is a problem in the U.S., as shown by the political career of George W. Bush, a man whose sole qualifications for office appear to be his famous father and an uncanny ability to remember people's names. Too much ignoring of abstract principles like equality can lead to disaster too: look at what happened to the ancien regime of pre-revolutionary France, and to the Russian czars.
Yet the ancient (and in fact almost universal) way of looking at moral questions is different. I have different obligations to different people. My duties to family and the world are not equal. Charity, as they say, beings at home. To the liberal "citizen of the world" this is provincialism at its worst. "[T]here is a consistency of tone, a certain universal high-mindedness that is impatient with distinctions and disdainful of irrational attachments. Sentiments of loyalty, because they are not entirely rational, do not yield their secrets to analysis or measurement." [p. 103.] People who profess a love for mankind first and foremost have the tendency to be cruel to their family and friends. It's easy to justify almost anything in the name of one's love for mankind. (A point made in Paul Johnson's suggestive, if problematic book, INTELLECTUALS.)
Dr. Fleming's book, as one might suggest by my brief description, is hardly rationalistic and abstract. There are plenty of examples from "everyday life" illustrating the arguments of the book. My only complaint is that I had hoped Dr. Fleming would have situated his ethical approach within the tradition advanced by writers of the Old Right. Richard Weaver and Robert Nisbet are mentioned once, and Russell Kirk not at all.
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Like many great books, this book has gone largely unnoticed by the current establishment.Read more