“Science is the search for truth, that is the effort to understand the world:
It involves the rejection of bias, of dogma, of revelation, but not the rejection of morality.”
Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
American chemist, educator, peace activist
Recently, a granddaughter, a senior in high school, was asked to write an essay on morality and evolution. It was a subject that caught my imagination. Was not Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago, the most moral person ever? Can one argue we are more ethical today? Do our grandchildren have better manners than did our grandparents as children? How did a world that produced the Enlightenment, two hundred years later create a Hitler and a Stalin? Would anyone suggest that Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are more respectful of others, have higher ethical standards and are less narcissistic than George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison? It is hard not to conclude we have witnessed a reverse form of evolution, at least when it comes to morality.
Evolution is a natural condition. Civilizations evolve, mostly for the better. Consider the buildings we live in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive. Technology has changed the way we communicate, how we shop and the care we provide the sick. We have sent men into space. We grow more crops on less acreage. Evolutionary forces have reduced poverty and extended life expectancy. Even laws and prisons have become less draconian. Government has evolved – from authoritarianism to democracy. According to the website www.ourworldindata.org/democracy, 13 million people lived in democracies in 1830, while 3.92 billion did in 2012. Additionally, racial segregation has been addressed and government care is provided the elderly and impoverished. There has been a downside. War has become more horrific. A small number of social media companies influence how we think; privacy issues have been raised, and the prospect of cyber-war fare has increased. Still, technology-driven evolutionary forces have given us much, including time. But have they made us more gracious and considerate? Has compassionate government made us more respectful, thoughtful and thankful?
Different people will offer different answers, but one possibility is what William McGurn recently called “The Crisis of Good Intentions,” reminding this reader of Milton Friedman: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than results.” In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mr. McGurn noted that there are those who claim that capitalism is facing an existential crisis. He cited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“wild-west capitalism”), Thomas Pikety (“patrimonial capitalism”) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the gig economy is “the reincarnation of an ancient evil”). These are people who see capitalism as pernicious and government as the genesis for equality and social good. Yet California, the most socialistic of U.S. states, has the greatest income inequality of any state. It has the highest poverty rate, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which allows for differences in cost-of-living; yet, with 12% of the nation’s population, it is home to 24% of the nation’s billionaires. In his op-ed, William McGurn quoted Chapman University’s Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky: “California is creating a feudalized society, characterized by the ultra-rich, a diminishing middle class and a large, rising segment that is in or near poverty.” Does that not present a moral imperative?
Europe and California have become fiefdoms of hypocritical elites who brook no quarter with those with whom they disagree. Consider the climate change debate. To believers, man is principally responsible for the earth’s changing climate, reminding one of mythical King Canute’s conceit. Natural forces play no role. Salvation depends on obeisance to rules laid out by non-elected bureaucrats. If the end is worthy, so the well-intentioned proclaim, cost is immaterial. Yet carbon taxes – like those on lotteries, sports betting and marijuana sales – are regressive. Arrogance follows, as elites are segregated from average Americans.
Politicians have found success in the obverse of John Kennedy’s famous dictum: promise what government can provide; disregard what voters can do. Yet all promises come at a cost – not only in dollars, but in ethical standards. The dollar cost is an inconvenient fact, studiously avoided. Diminution in morality is simply ignored. Promising more has become habitual, with voters rising to the bait. Government’s offer of low-interest student loans led to a rise in tuitions. A focus on regulation slows the pace of economic growth and perpetuates a permanent administrative state. Today, like Orpheus with his gifted voice, politicians charm the electorate, promising an Earth where oceans will recede, tuition-free college and birth to death care. The result is increased dependency and reduced self-reliance, habits that lead to sloth and irresponsibility. Morality stems from civility, decency, self-esteem and respect for others. It finds its foundation in the dignity of work, not the dishonor of idleness. It evolved from the Golden Rule of doing unto others what one would have done unto them – a rule once taught by parents to children and teachers to students. And it characterizes America’s middle class, which tribalism threatens to destroy.
America’s middle class – a varied, un-compartmentalizable, but shrinking segment of the population – is unified by a value system based on a Christian-Judeo ethic, archaic in today’s global, multi-cultural world. These Americans are unique, in that they represent a cross-section of the world’s population – West and East Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latins. They believe in the rule of law, in the precept that hard work is fundamental to success, that strength comes from what we share, not how we differ. They are more likely to have nuclear families, to be church-goers and to be involved in their communities. Identity politics are useful to politicians, for they segment the electorate into identifiable groups. But the result is division, not unity, which, in turn, leads to personal greed – getting what one wants is more important than getting along.
Albert Schweitzer once allegedly wrote, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other humans.” It is an obvious truth, as morality is only necessary within a societal structure. The reason we were taught to be polite, to open doors, listen to others and to be respectful is that such behavior is imperative to civil relations. We understand the role smart phones and video games have had on social interaction. But this change in social behavior pre-dates the advent of the internet and social media. Church attendance has been falling throughout the post-War years. Out-of-wedlock births have risen. In his 2001 book, “Bowling Alone,” Harvard Professor Robert Putnam described the collapse of community organizations. There has been a concomitant decline in volunteerism, despite a rise in the over-65 crowd. The pending bankruptcy of the Boy Scouts of America, with its oath, “On my honor, I will do my duty to God and my country,” is not only a consequence of alleged sexual misconduct, but declining membership. What twelve-year-old boy today would recite that oath, so dated and out-of-sync in a world where honor is passé and where “God” and “country” are denigrated? We ask: are today’s PC police better than yesterday’s parents, ministers and teachers?
None of this fully explains why morality has failed to evolve, but perhaps provides clues. My granddaughter, who recently found out she will be attending Bucknell University next fall, was as perplexed as I, as to why ethical standards have retreated. Nevertheless, we both believe culture plays a role, and that the pursuit of happiness means traveling a road paved with a moral sense.
This article was first published on Thought of the Day.