What Do We Stand For?

Published: November 20, 2019

By Jim Lichtman
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“These are the times that try men’s souls.” – Thomas Paine, English-born, American philosopher and activist.

Taken from Paine’s essay, The Crisis, those words were meant to inspire American revolutionaries as they faced an extraordinary moment of character.

Considering our current crisis, what Paine writes next is worth reflection.

“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

So how do we “stand by it now”?

During an overload of news, partisan rhetoric, fact-checks, social media, and presidential tweets, let’s step back from the noise and ask ourselves an important question:

As a country, what do we stand for?

“America,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes, “stood for something larger than itself — for freedom, human rights and the rule of law as universal principles.

“Of course,” Krugman adds, “we often fell short of those ideals. But the ideals were real and mattered.”

Then how do we live out those ideals? How do we live lives that matter?

At such a time, it is perhaps, important to turn to ethical values.

Ethicist Michael Josephson writes that the values of civic virtue & citizenship “acknowledge a civic duty that extends beyond one’s own self-interests… recognizing one’s obligations to contribute to the overall public good.”

Essential to those duties is the responsibility to be properly informed, elevating reason over passion, fact over favoritism.

“The ethical value of respect,” Josephson says, imposes “a moral duty to treat all persons with respect… never resorting to intimidation, coercion or violence [and] accepting other people’s beliefs and individual differences without prejudice.”

Josephson stresses the meaning of honesty. “We associate honesty with people of honor, and we admire and trust those who are… truthful, accurate, straight-forward and fair.”

“I dwell not upon the vapors of imagination,” Paine wrote. “I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.”

“Integrity,” Josephson says, “means more than, honesty. [It] refers to the ethical principle of moral wholeness, [and] the elevation of principle over expediency and consistency between words and actions.”

Deeper still, “moral courage requires us to do what is right even when it is likely to cost us more than we want to pay and more than we think is fair. It occasionally requires us to stand up and be counted, to fight for our beliefs, to demonstrate the courage of our convictions,” especially during demanding times.

After a great Civil War that bitterly divided our nation, Lincoln implored, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory… will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Americans are facing another crisis. How we make our choices in the weeks and months to come will determine the purpose and course of our lives.

It is during those times that try our souls that we must summon our better angels.

I will be attending a conference this week, returning Tuesday, November 26.


  1. Good things to think about. We have a form of civil war going on and people are so polarized. Great quote from Michael Josephson: “acknowledge a civic duty that extends beyond one’s own self-interests… recognizing one’s obligations to contribute to the overall public good.”

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