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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Moral Freedom by Alan Wolfe

moral freedom: the search for virtue in a world of choice

How do Americans describe their guiding principles in an exhilarating and unnerving new era of moral freedom? What is the difference between right and wrong? What does it mean to lead a good life? What is virtue and what is vice? What is forbidden and what is allowed? How binding is the marriage vow? What are your obligations to an employer? To your friends? To yourself? Is it always immoral to tell a lie?

Eminent sociologist and public intellectual Alan Wolfe asked Americans around the country such questions in order to determine how we really think about morality today. Focusing on the traditional virtues of loyalty, honesty, self-restraint, and forgiveness, Wolfe discovered that the virtues are alive and well in America, even though they no longer resemble the ideals espoused by previous generations. Americans of all stripes—from the most radical to the most traditional—want to lead a good life, but in almost every case they are determined to decide for themselves what a good life means.  Read excerpts on
Moral Freedom reveals the advantages and painful difficulties of living in a society where rather than simply accepting strict conventions, each individual struggles to forge a moral life. Shedding light on Americans' guiding principles are Wolfe's findings in eight very different communities: from the Castro district in San Francisco, the epicenter of gay America, to Tipton, Iowa, a classic American small town of people who, while no longer working on nearby farms, are in one way or another still connected to agriculture; from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where much of the population is Mexican-American, to Fall River, Massachusetts, a once-thriving, predominantly Catholic factory town that has fallen on hard times and is now attractive to immigrants. On the heels of political and economic freedom, Wolfe concludes, an exhilarating and unnerving new era of moral freedom has indeed arrived