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The Myth of Our Moral Past

We have, it seems, memories that cast a rosy glow over our pasts. Times were always simpler, pursuits more pure. Or were they?

You know, the times when men where men and the women damn glad of it! The great times when you all went to school, everyone was constantly respectful and well-behaved and cared only about learning. Yeah, right! The great times somewhere in the past when politicians really listened and worked for us. The time when there weren’t all the problems with drugs and crime. Could we all stop eating from our bowls of Dreamos and focus on exactly when was this Golden Age?

Was it in the early 1900’s when capitalism was not at all controlled, child labor was common, six percent of the society graduated from high school, kids used to picket to have the right to attend school, railroad workers would lose an arm on the job and receive five dollars and their walking papers, monopolies controlled most of the economy and life expectancy was in the mid-fifties? No, it couldn’t have been then.

The fact is there was no perfect time to which we should aspire to return. Some things get better over time. Some get worse. Progressive and regressive forces battle it out on an ongoing basis.

Of course, that doesn’t politicians from using our faulty memories for their own interests. In particular, Republican candidates for president have invoked the myth of moral decay, telling us that world must be going to Hell because we are being less godly. As The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog noted this week, this is every bit as much a myth.

When considering America’s moral decline, my first instinct was to look at the crime rate. If Satan is at work in America, he’s probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime. There are some caveats to these statistics, as my colleague points out, but I think we can conclude that crime is not the cause of America’s moral decline.

So let’s look elsewhere. Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There’s just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.

Other areas that might indicate declining virtue are also going against the perceived trend. For example, charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, “the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.” So where is the evidence of this moral decline?

As they point out, increasing secularism is one of the “problems” pointed to, as are out-of-wedlock birthrates. They point out that the second begs the question of whether the issue is a moral one at all. With good social support, the children of unmarried parents don’t have to do any worse than the children of married parents. So what’s immoral about it?

The same goes for higher rates of secularism. It’s considered a problem why?

If the answer is that increasing secularism leads to…any other moral problem or any other problem that is measurable in this lifetime, it’s really time to stop making that argument.

Comments

  1. bspiken says

    Is it just me or this type of wistfulness for a better past is more usually than not a male thing? I do not remember (could be selective memory) a woman making this argument, however my father, grandfather, uncles, male friends, etc.

  2. resident_alien says

    *jumps up and down and cheers for this post*
    My room-mate,when mentioning the fact that he is a historian ar partys,is always asked:”Oooh,a historian!Say,during what time of human history would you like to have lived?” His standart response is the counter-question:”Ever heard of StarTrek ?”
    You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t get it…

  3. says

    The myth of the “good old days” is repeated every generation, I think. But in the same breath, the older generation will make observances about how much harder things were for them than for the pampered and lazy younger generation. They don’t seem to realize the dissonance of having it both ways.

  4. Stacy says

    It would be nice to think people will notice the empirical evidence to the contrary and stop making this argument, but if history is any guide–they won’t.

    “The youth of today love luxury; they have bad manners and contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Youth are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up food at the table, and tyrannize their teachers.” –Socrates

  5. Stacy says

    But in the same breath, the older generation will make observances about how much harder things were for them than for the pampered and lazy younger generation.

    We had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill–and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

  6. Navigator says

    I don’t think you can make a gender-based argument on this. Anyone else remember Anita Bryant and her anti-gay screed?
    And yes, history does repeat itself. I am having an argument on my Facebook page (with a woman) which repeats all the arguements for birth control that Margaret Sanger made over 100 years ago. She is anti-birthe control, and just doesn’t understand why it’s a good idea. You know, every child a wanted/planned child. Some people just cannot encorporate reason into their lives.

  7. says

    Did you read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature? It sets out a whole buttload of data demonstrating that we live (most of us anyway) in the least violent, most civilised time in human history, and charts the trajectory of this decline in violence over a course of millenia, from warring bands of hunter-gatherers for whom a violent death is a constant risk, through the development of states which had a vested interest in keeping their subjects from killing each other, through to the modern ‘rights revolutions’ which have made life much less dangerous for children, women, racial minorities, gays and other maligned groups.

  8. says

    I blame the media
    Well, partly. And our monkey-brains.
    I recently talked with my husband about this: As the loving father that he is he is very afraid that somebody could abduct, rape and murder his daughters.
    It happens all the time, you hear about it in the news.
    Only, of course that it doesn’t.
    Those cases are very, very rare. But when they happen there’s a big media attention. There is big attention when it happens, there is big attention when they finally find the perp, there is big attention when the trial happens and it tricks our brain into believing that it happens all the time.
    I asked him if he was worried about his children when he drives with them in the car. There’s probably 1 child every two years who is abducted raped and killed (that is, of course, one too many), but thousand die each year on the road.

  9. khms says

    I’ve been in conversations like that, yes.

    It helps to point out that we hear of n cases, over a population of m million people.

    I’ve been impressed when hearing of serious crime – impressed of how little there is, that I should hear about that particular case in such detail. It’s definitely not routine.

    Oh, there are the routine serious cases, too. Stuff like fathers raping their children, or killing their family – they happen often enough (sadly) that usually, the news item is rather small, and there is little follow-up. (Unless the girl is kept imprisoned for a decade or more. You’ve probably heard of the cases I’m thinking of.)

    The form of a news item tells quite a bit about how common an occurrence it is.

  10. Dunc says

    Every time this topic comes up, I’m reminded of this excellent piece by Mark Steel (written in reference to a scandal involving mass child abuse at a care home on the island of Jersey): Sixties nostalgia that hid the horrors of Jersey.

    One striking aspect of the child abuse allegations being investigated in Jersey is that they took place in an environment of charming 1960s discipline that so many people scream we should get back to. It was a time without hoodies or political correctness, when children were taught respect and the bobby on the beat was not afraid to give young scallywags a clip round the ear and ignore their allegations of mass abuse, because back then everyone knew their place, especially children. […] [I]t is almost customary for every politician to get nostalgic for a mythical age of polite, safe, decent Britain. Maybe in Jersey the old politicians say: “We need to get back to the values of the 1960s, when you could go out all night, leave your door open and know that no one would come in and rescue the child you were keeping hostage.”

  11. Brian Wood says

    I think it was when we were murdering and torturing Filipinos back at the turn of the last century. We showed the world what we were made of, as we had not since Wounded Knee: if you’re littler and browner, screw you!!

  12. bspiken says

    @ Stacy,

    Excellent quote! And indeed, I guess I was thinking of the “When men where men and women were women” trope, but indeed I’ve heard many women spout some version of the “when we were kids we behaved ourselves” trope, indeed even hippie parents have the “the music nowadays its shit, our music had REAL soul”.

  13. jamessweet says

    as are out-of-wedlock birthrates. They point out that the second begs the question of whether the issue is a moral one at all. With good social support, the children of unmarried parents don’t have to do any worse than the children of married parents. So what’s immoral about it?

    It also fails to take into account the growing number of people who choose to have children in long-term (essentially indefinite) committed relationships who, for one reason or another, simply don’t choose to get it certified as a legal marriage.

    To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that one must be in such a relationship in order to make it morally acceptable to have children. I’m just saying, some of the trend is not even a shift from one type of child-rearing to another type — some of it is a shift in name only.

  14. noastronomer says

    “The fact is there was no perfect time to which we should aspire to return.”

    My personal opinion is that many people want to return to their childhood days of play and school. Days when we thought the door was always unlocked because we never noticed that our parents locked it. Days when everything matched our expectations because our families taught us what to expect. Days when people never got tortured or murdered because we didn’t watch the news.

    Now that we’re grown up we have to lock our own doors and our expectations are challenged at every turn. And people are routinely tortured and murdered around the planet.

    Mike. Who actually likes having his expectations challenged.

  15. says

    To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that one must be in such a relationship in order to make it morally acceptable to have children. I’m just saying, some of the trend is not even a shift from one type of child-rearing to another type — some of it is a shift in name only.

    Absolutely.
    My cousin and her partner never got married, but they raised two wonderfull kids into responsible adults in what is a pretty traditional family.
    Much better than getting married, having kids and getting divorced three years later.

  16. Aliasalpha says

    Dara O’Briain has a fantastic quote that pretty well sums up the entire mindset: “Nostalgia is heroin for old people”

  17. says

    Ha. I came here ready for a fight then I saw that you were talking about “The Present” (plus/minus 500 years.)

    Regarding when to be born, has anyone read Tristes Tropiques?

  18. says

    Sorry, may be a bit obscure. Here’s a link to Tristes Tropiques.

    Levi-Strauss (the antrhopologist, not the pair of jeans) talks about the tension between having been born too early to enjoy X while too late to have avoided Y.

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