Public Agenda

Why Our Moral Norms Are Eroding


Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

I fear that the deep trends unwinding social mobility cannot be reversed merely by modest short-term fixes like increasing the minimum wage. Of course we should do as much as possible to ensure that people with full time jobs do not fall below the poverty line. These are necessary but not sufficient actions.

We also need a long-term strategy to restore our economic and moral vitality based on a sound understanding of the deeper forces at work and how to reverse them. The least understood of these deep forces is the one undermining our social and ethical norms.

Increasingly, we equate doing wrong with breaking the law, thereby condoning selfish, irresponsible behavior as long as it is lawful. In my last post, I described this phenomenon as “anomie” -- the state of normlessness.

The causes of this condition of anomie are clear if one knows how to connect the dots.

Those of us old enough to have lived through the 1950s remember when our society was too norm-ridden, too rigid and conformist, too restrictive of the freedom of individuals to choose their own life styles. Then came the 1960s and the cultural revolution of the decades that followed. Individual freedom exploded; conformity to cultural norms weakened.

It is too glib to state that the pendulum simply swung too far -- from too much conformity to too much individual freedom. Rather, what happened was an unintended consequence of the increase in individual freedom. It wasn’t intended to weaken our culture, but it did so to an extraordinary degree.

The main source of ethical norms is culture: the thick web of religious faiths, unwritten rules, expectations, rituals, beliefs and norms that represent the cumulative experience of successive generations.

Every society has its own distinctive culture. “Distinctive” doesn’t equate with “sound;” some cultural norms promote barbarous and indecent norms, especially in relation to sexuality. The only thing worse than normlessness is a brutal system of norms.

In our hunger for greater individual freedom we have inadvertently weakened the cultural values that strengthen civility, concern for the other and the common good.

We wouldn’t survive without the constraints of a strong culture. It would mean the collapse of civilization and stability, and war of each against all. The constant tension in all societies is the relative strength of culture in relation to the individual autonomy. It is hardly surprising that in our hunger for greater individual freedom we have inadvertently weakened the cultural values that strengthen civility, concern for the other and the common good.

We are, I believe, moving into unexplored territory. We have created a society where individual expressiveness is a “right” that all can enjoy.

But we have not yet learned how to manage the coexistence of individual freedom with the need to maintain universally respected moral norms designed to advance the common good.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.


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