This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
YUVAL LEVIN: Your role plays a crucial part in how you make ethical judgments. I don’t think about ethics in terms of what I should or shouldn’t do in a situation, but rather, I focus on what kind of person I want to be. What would that kind of person do in this situation?
The kind of person we aspire to be is significantly influenced by the institutions in our lives. When these institutions weaken, it becomes more challenging to understand our roles as parents, teachers, members of a community, leaders, or followers in different aspects of our lives. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to determine the right course of action in a given situation.
For example, if I’m on the highway, and someone cuts me off, and I want to yell at them, but I have two kids in the back, I’ll act differently because I recognize my role as a parent. These situations occur frequently in our lives. When it’s not just about “me,” but about my roles, like being a pastor or teacher, it demands different actions than my initial instincts if I were alone. These roles are crucial in guiding us to be good people and in making ethical decisions in specific circumstances.
The concept of virtue ethics, which focuses on what it takes to be a good person in the context of the roles we play, becomes challenging when we can no longer trust the institutions. If we lose confidence in the leaders of the institutions we’re part of, when those in positions of authority fail in their responsibilities, our sense of responsibility weakens. This situation could be described as a collapse of responsibility, as it becomes a question of why should I do my job if they are not doing theirs? This dilemma erodes the examples of what it means to be someone who follows the rules. Recovering a sense of responsibility requires everyone to recognize its significance, which is no easy task.
CURTIS CHANG: This notion that institutions anchor us by defining our roles and the virtues we should adopt reminds me of a statistic and a story. Research on human lifespan reveals two key moments when anxiety tends to spike. One is during adolescence — when individuals are transitioning from the cocoon of family and institutions into the world, facing a lack of institutional anchor. This might explain why adolescents are particularly vulnerable to anxiety, along with other biological factors.
The other anxiety-inducing period is retirement. This is when individuals are leaving behind an established institutional identity and, in a way, entering a second phase of adolescence, where they need to discover who they are. I hadn’t connected these dots until you described the formational aspect of institutions.
YUVAL LEVIN: That’s very interesting, and in a way, it all comes down to having a sense of what’s expected of you, your role. American life has changed in various ways, leaving us with fewer of these roles. The prevalent notion seems to be that people desire complete independence, but there’s a significant flaw in our narratives about freedom and independence. In reality, true independence is almost impossible. We are all dependent, and the question is what kind of dependence it is. Hopefully it’s a form of interdependence where we rely on each other, creating roles for one another to fulfill. American society has undergone a transformation where the emphasis is on “do your own thing,” but it leads to a sense of not having a role, of not belonging.
CURTIS CHANG: Essentially, you’re on your own.
YUVAL LEVIN: Yes, people are left feeling alienated because there are no expectations placed upon them. If no one requires your input or assistance, you lose your sense of belonging in the world.
CURTIS CHANG: So we talked about the statistic, now I’ll tell a story. My eldest daughter recently started medical school and she was understandably anxious about whether she’d be able to make it. During the first week, they had a ceremony called the white coat ceremony, where first-year medical students are given short white coats by their professors, signifying the start of their journey. This ceremony imparts a sense of ethics, practices, commitments, and relationships associated with wearing the white coat. They also receive a stethoscope, often donated by alumni, which comes with personal notes offering advice. It’s a beautiful tradition that anchors them and helps them understand their roles and virtues. And I could almost see it anchor her in this week of intense anxiety and help her settle into her path.
This made me realize that we don’t have such induction ceremonies for teachers or lawyers, and that’s something we’re missing. It’s all about instilling a sense of identity and responsibility from the very beginning.
YUVAL LEVIN: That’s a valid point. It’s important to also note that institutions can become overbearing. There’s a reason people seek independence and liberation. We’ve had moments in American history, like in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there was a cultural outcry for liberation from strong institutions. At that time, society had immense confidence in its institutions, which we might find difficult to relate to today. It felt like there was too much pressure to conform. The society went through a period of cultural liberation and economic liberalization in response to this. We now live in a time where the prevailing message is “be yourself” rather than “be like everyone else,” which, to a certain extent, is positive. However, we’ve taken it too far, resulting in a sense of placelessness and a lack of belonging, leading to the anxiety we experience today.
We need to be re-acquainted with the very concept of the institution.
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