Are we less virtuous than we used to be?
I frequently hear comments about the shifting societal morals. Typically, it is in a negative sense. “We have lost the important values.” The America I grew up in (the 50s and 60s) were halcyon days of virtue and civility? This is a “rearward-looking” perspective (the past is better than today). Moreover, many who ascribe to this notion also believe that the future will continue the downward spiral.
Are we disgruntled because we believe we have lost our footing? Or, are we simply idealizing the past because we are uncomfortable with change and unwilling to accept the uncertainty of the future.
The underlying question is whether those values in which we believe are fixed or whether (like the Constitution), they can evolve and be understood correctly only within the context of the time in which they are applied. In other words, are they living (relative) values or absolutes? If there are “absolute universal truths,” what are they and from whence are they derived?
Our history is replete with standards of behavior relevant for their time, but are ultimately cast asunder. A significant example is how the concept of “honor” has devolved. Honor includes both personal ethics and behavior, as well as a reflection of societal codes of conduct. It lies at the core of the “hard” choices people make. The importance of personal honor seems to be declining.
In the age of chivalry, a leader might be driven into a Quixotic (and suicidal) attack rather than suffer a perceived stain on their personal honor. Even as late as the 19th century, duals were fought over supposed slights. Today, the watch-phrase seems to be, “discretion is the better part of honor.” The depth of insult required to trigger a dramatic response seems infinite. Is that a “bad” thing? Have we lost our bearings? Or, simply come to our senses?
Relativism is the antithesis to absolutism. Today, it is most obviously demonstrated in politics. Our national leaders (on both sides) have undertaken activity or made outrageous proclamations that their supporters tolerate in their own man, but rail against in the opposition. We justify our side’s behavior not by acknowledging that it fits an objective standard (of ethics), rather that it is “not as bad” as the other guys. Somehow this has become acceptable even among those who otherwise lament the perceived shifting mores.
The evolving prevalent belief is secular humanism, a philosophy that embraces individual reason and worldly principles while specifically rejecting religious dogma. Ethics and moral principles are derived solely from human faculties such as logic, empathy, or moral intuition, without divine revelation or guidance. In other words, “right and wrong” are derived from our own power of reason.
The differentiation between “right and wrong” is perhaps the most fundamental value. It is the basis for the biblical admonition, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” But this is not simply a religious decree. We humans seem to have innate sense of this. It is the basis of the Golden Rule. This seems about as universal a moral standard as we have. In fact, all other values are grounded in this single notion.
However, this creates a conundrum. In a state of nature, without some divine inspiration, why would we intrinsically believe this? While at some level, it protects us (primarily the weak), it also violates the evolutionary imperative of “survival of the fittest.” There are always occasions in which “cheating” will yield the best results. Often habitual cheating yields long-term prosperity. How many “successful” people from Robber Barons to Oligarchs have followed this path. If this is the case, why would we not always look for such opportunities (if there is no higher source for such beliefs).
One of our fundamental challenge lies in what we should expect from our great institutions. The political leadership seems beyond redemption. However, other institutions like the service academies, with their essential purpose (to produce leaders of character to defend our country) would seem to demand a higher responsibility. Recent events (like the West Point cheating scandal and its apparent pallid official response) would seem to undermine those beliefs. One might question whether a strict standard such as West Point’s traditional Honor Code, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do,” has relevance in our modern society. I think they do.
However, I am torn. I do believe in universal truths, and I believe they are divinely inspired. I also think that actions must be placed in context. For example, the knight-errant might also have owned slaves and oppressed the peasantry in addition to being honorable and faithful. I can internally reconcile such inconsistencies. While there may be fixed moral values, they play themselves out in a culture of flawed humans. A person may innately (or divinely) believe in the Golden Rule, but be just as likely to accept an incorrect bill at a restaurant if it is in their favor (just a little white lie).
Our times have issues, but I do not believe that previous epochs were necessarily more virtuous. My happy youth in which we pledged allegiance to the flag was also a time of gross racial injustice. We are more egalitarian and tolerant than before, but we are also more self-absorbed and narcissistic (if it’s good for me, it is good!) We never have been, nor will we ever be perfect beings in an ideal society. All we can do is follow our own beliefs, with the understanding that we will fail…and then try again.
Rather than simply critique the failings of others, perhaps we would be better served to acknowledge our own and let God sort things out.