Confronting our enlightenment apprehensions: Morally informed action and our capacity for progress in America
For over three hundred years, we have increasingly been acculturated to the modest moral expectations of our dominant public philosophy, liberal republicanism, and its more affectionate subordinate, communitarianism. Neither captures the full reach of our individual, social and political nature, although the designs based on the ontological assumptions of each model, and the actors who support them, have grown to powerfully constrain—and enervate—our social and political life. We are much more capable of deeply understanding and broadly caring about life, and of acting on the strength of both, than either account provides.
The above assertions are supported by historical and contemporary evidence of a dynamic that has been at work in America since before the Founding. It begins with morally informed core actors, nonconformists who are among the first to initiate major social and political changes which ultimately become part of our institutional landscape. Acting in venues of all sizes and locales, they demonstrate that significant, profound change is possible. The form and qualities of their actions—reflecting a nature that is more robust in its capacity to know, to care, and to act that our public philosophies provide—ultimately convince many of us to support their reforms. Their demonstrative persuasive successes on issues including abolition, civil rights, women's emancipation, worker protection, and much more suggest that their nature is not exceptional, and, accordingly, that it is time expand our prevailing accounts of who we are.
After first presenting an overview of the origins and development of liberal republicanism and communitarianism in America, the nature of selected morally informed core actors is derived from accounts of their background, context, and activism. These narratives are presented in a conceptual framework of action, caring, and knowledge that is that is informed by the actors' demonstrated capacities. Two pairs of historical core actors—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass from the pre-Civil War era, and Jane Addams, and Eugene V. Debs from the Progressive era—are used to accomplish this ultimately persuasive task, along with thirteen contemporary social and political activists connected with the Pioneer Valley and Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.