The Death of Character

The Death of Character. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 320 pp. (Paperback edition, 2001)
By James Hunter

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 this bold, compelling book 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.

Hunters's broad historical, sociological and cultural inquiry offers a fundamental challenge to the dominant paradigms of moral understanding and the way that these play our in the crucible of moral education. The Death of Character refocuses the national debate over out moral culture - the nature of the problem and the possibilities for constructive response.