Are Morals Worse Than Before?

IF YOU were to ask historians, “Are people’s morals today better or worse than in the past?” some may answer that it is difficult to compare the morals of different time periods. They may feel that every age has to be judged in its own context.

Consider, for example, the development of violent crime in Europe since the 16th century. Murders were not that unusual 400 years ago. People often took the law into their own hands, and blood feuds were common.

Nevertheless, historians Arne Jarrick and Johan Söderberg write in the book Människovärdet och makten (Human Dignity and Power) that the period between 1600 and 1850 was “characterized by a genuine civilizing of social life” in some places. People had become better at taking the needs of others into consideration—they had become more empathetic. Other historians note, for example, that theft and crimes against property were much less common in the 16th century than they are today. Organized gangs of thieves were rare, especially among the rural population.

Of course, the institution of slavery existed, and it resulted in some of the most serious crimes in history—the kidnapping of humans in Africa by European traders and the brutalizing of these millions of slaves in the lands to which they were taken.

Thus, if we look back over past centuries, we will likely find that when viewed in historical perspective, some conditions were better, whereas others were worse. Nevertheless, something very different and very serious—indeed, unprecedented—happened during the 20th century and is still happening.

The 20th Century—A Turning Point

Historians Jarrick and Söderberg observe: “In the 1930’s the curve of murder and homicide once again turned upward, and, sadly, since then this trend has continued for more than half a century.”

According to many commentators, there was a large-scale deterioration of morals during the 20th century. An essay about moral philosophy says: “One can clearly see that society’s view of sex and what is morally acceptable has changed much in  the past 30 to 40 years—from society making clear what is morally correct, by means of strict rules, to a more free and individualist view.”

This means that sexual conduct and other aspects of morality are things that most individuals now feel they can decide for themselves. To illustrate this, the essay cites statistics showing that in 1960 only 5.3 percent of all children in the United States were born out of wedlock. In 1990 the figure was 28 percent.

In a lecture at the University of Notre Dame, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman described the morals of our time as a “values vacuum, . . . where traditional ideas of right and wrong have been gradually worn away.” According to Lieberman, this phenomenon “has been brewing for the better part of two generations.”

Secularization

What do historians and other analysts say is the reason for this remarkable development during the 20th century? “One of the most important changes in society during the past two centuries is secularization,” observes the book Människovärdet och makten. Secularization meant that “people would be afforded the opportunity to take their stand on different viewpoints on their own. This idea . . . has its origin among the 18th-century philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were the first to . . . reject the Bible as the only source of truth.” Thus, religions, especially those of Christendom, are not looked to for moral guidance as much as they were in the past.

But why is it that a philosophy that was formulated in the 18th century took more than 200 years to catch on? “These ideas were not easily spread to the public,” says the above-mentioned book. “The movement toward secularization was slow.”

Even if the trend to abandon traditional moral standards and Christian values did proceed slowly for most of the past 200 years, it accelerated sharply during the 20th century. This has especially been the case in the past few decades. Why is that?

Selfishness and Greed

A strong contributing factor is the rapid technological and economic development in society during the 20th century. An article in the German newsmagazine Die Zeit stated that we live in a “dynamic epoch and not, as during former centuries, in a world characterized as being static.” The article explained that this has led to a system of market economy, which is based on competition and propelled by selfishness.

 “This selfishness,” the article continued, “could not be stopped by anything. In its wake grows the brutality that marks our daily life, as well as corruption, which in many countries has reached right up to the government. People think of themselves and the maximum gratification of their desires.”

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow, of Princeton University, found through in-depth polling that Americans today are more focused on money than they were a generation ago. According to the study, “many Americans fear the yearning for money has overpowered other values like people’s respect for others, honesty at work and participation in their communities.”

Greed in society has further increased because many business executives have granted themselves huge wage increases and lucrative retirement benefits while urging their employees to be moderate in their wage demands. “The problem with the pursuit of profit among business leaders is that their attitudes are infectious and that they lower the moral threshold among people in general,” observes Kjell Ove Nilsson, associate professor of ethics and theological director at the Christian Council of Sweden. “Of course, this has a devastating effect on morals—in society as well as on the personal level.”

The Media Culture

Another major factor contributing to the rapid moral decline in the latter half of the 20th century is the media culture. “The new values transmitters are the television producers, the movie moguls, the fashion advertisers, the gangsta rappers, and a host of other players within the electronic media-cultural complex,” says Senator Lieberman. “These trend-setters exert an extremely powerful hold on our culture and our children in particular, and they often have had little or no sense of responsibility for the harmful values they are purveying.”

As an example, Lieberman cites a record made by a heavy-metal band called Cannibal Corpse. The singers describe in detail  the rape of a woman at knife point. He and a colleague made a plea to the record company to withdraw the record. But as Lieberman relates, it was to no avail.

Responsible parents today are therefore locked in a bitter competition with the media culture as to who will influence and raise their children. But what about families where the parents are not conscientious? “In those cases,” says Lieberman, “the culture is unchallenged as the standard setter, and the child’s sense of right and wrong and his priorities in life are shaped primarily by what he learns from the television, the movie screen and the CD player.” And more recently, the Internet can be added to this list.

Back to “a Moral Stone Age”

How are the effects of these negative influences evident among young people? For one thing, in recent years more children and teenagers have committed cruel acts of violence against other children as well as adults.

A shocking case took place in Sweden in 1998. Two boys, five and seven years of age, choked a four-year-old playmate to death! Many asked the question: Do children not have a built-in restraint that tells them to stop when they are going too far? A child psychiatrist made this telling comment: “A restraint against letting it go too far is something that has to be learned,” she said. “It could have to do with . . . what role models children have and what they learn from the adults around them.”

A similar phenomenon can be observed in violent criminals. According to Sten Levander, a professor of psychiatry in Sweden, between 15 and 20 percent of all prison inmates today are psychopaths—people who are extremely self-centered, lack empathy, and are unable or unwilling to understand the concept of right and wrong. Even among children and youths who are seemingly normal, observers have noticed a blunting of moral senses. “We have been thrown back into a moral Stone Age,” claims Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of philosophy. She noted that when her young students are faced with the question of what is right and what is wrong, most of them react by becoming very insecure. Then they reply that there is no such thing as right or wrong. They believe that each person must consider what is best for himself.

In recent times, many of her students have objected to the principle of the unique dignity and value of human life. For example, when asked what they would do if faced with the choice between saving the life of their pet or the life of a fellow human whom they did not know, many said that they would choose the animal.

“The problem is not that young people are ignorant, distrustful, cruel, or treacherous,” says Professor Sommers. “To put it bluntly, they are conceptually clueless.” She claims that many young people today actually question whether there is a right or a wrong, and she feels that this attitude poses one of the greatest threats to society.

The undermining of morals in our time is therefore a reality. Many fear that dire consequences could result. The article in Die Zeit referred to earlier says that the free market economy of today could gradually “degenerate and maybe someday collapse as the socialistic system did recently.”

What does all of this really mean? And what kind of future do we have to look forward to?

[Pictures on page 6, 7]

“The new values transmitters are the television producers, the movie moguls, the fashion advertisers, the gangsta rappers . . .”