We tend to think of morality as long-lasting. Think of the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, or the claims of evolutionary psychologists that moral sentiments have ancient origins. Morality is associated with permanence, certainty, and truth. So it’s odd how rapidly our moral opinions can change.

Each of us could plot our own moral profile, a graph showing how much we care about a range of topics, from the environment to immigration. Concern, however, doesn’t necessarily imply understanding of an issue. You can see why: there’s so much to know about nowadays that we have to outsource most of the knowing to others. Yet expressing moral judgements is a common form of social bonding, and there are many situations in which we’re expected to have an opinion about a topic – often by people as ignorant of it as we are.

In part, this might explain why morality can change so fast: as people learn more, they may revise their judgments. However, many moral opinions are driven by fashion and the media, the sources from whom we learn about stuff we can’t be bothered to learn about. These sources don’t exist to impart information, but to sell things – and moral outrage sells; so it is in their interests to foster judgmental fervour. The result is a lot of strong opinions with a shaky factual basis. New facts alone may not suffice to modify these beliefs, but a wider cultural shift, with its changing social, legal and financial incentives, can.

In the UK a few decades ago, many women – and even young teenage girls – ran a gauntlet of sexual comments and touches by men. It was part of life, however unwelcome. Now the culture has changed so much that ageing celebrities are being hauled through the courts, and the media, for acts committed years ago. Current stars, and the public, know it’s no longer acceptable to fondle fourteen-year-olds or force yourself on an unwilling female. They know they may lose their job or even go to prison. This doesn’t mean such acts no longer happen, but they now carry more social risk.

We’ve certainly noticed the moral change in this case; there’s been so much public comment on sexual abuse. Yet there are some features of morality which have slipped out of our culture almost unnoticed. These forgotten sins (and their opposites, since every vice has its complementary virtue) used to be common, but no more. Is it that we simply don’t have the mental capacity to think about the older sins because our heads are so full of new ones, in this world of cyberbullying and online grooming? Or is it that older sins have become unfashionable – partly through their link with previous generations, and partly because they’re too uncomfortable for us complacent moderns to think about?

If so, might it be worth taking another look at them? It’s very hard for someone immersed in a particular social situation – i.e. living as most humans do – to see that situation’s problems. This is why outsiders, though often unwelcome, are so useful. They add new perspectives, whether you’re an organisation thinking of employing more diverse staff or a nation debating some hot-button moral issue.

If you haven’t a helpful outsider handy, another approach is to look at what isn’t in the public conversation. Silences can sometimes speak louder than words, and if no one’s talking about certain kinds of bad behaviour, that may be because it suits today’s society to encourage that behaviour.

As an example, how about vanity? It’s generally considered a form of pride, and we think of it as pride especially concerned with physical appearance. A quick check with Google Books shows that, at least in written words, discussion of vanity is declining, and has been since early in the nineteenth century, as the inset graph from Google Ngrams shows.

The decline of 'vanity' and 'vain' in written texts

The decline of 'vanity' and 'vain' in written texts, 1800-2000

Meanwhile, industries concerned with personal appearance are worth billions, and forecast to grow still further. Data from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery show that in the decade-and-a-half between 1997 and 2012, surgical cosmetic procedures in the US grew by 75%, to nearly 1.7 million. Procedures not requiring the beautified to be cut open grew by 920%, to over 7.5 million. Apparently, in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on ‘personal care’, which would be enough to reduce world poverty by half … if it had been spent on reducing world poverty.

It’s as if being ugly is now a worse moral flaw than being conceited. Which is peculiar, because we know from celebrities that where beauty leads, good behaviour doesn’t always follow. Nor are people with facial disfigurement incapable of the highest human virtues, whereas being conceited is associated with bad behaviour. Yet the beauty-is-good stereotype is so prevalent, it’s even featured in an fMRI experiment.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t talk so much about vanity these days. Maybe the moral principles which used to condemn it came up against the market’s demand for profit. Plus, technologies have turned what was once a matter of fate – personal appearance – into a matter of personal choice. (Providing you have the money, of course, but that takes us into yet another minefield, the morality of poverty, and this post has touched enough sore spots for the time being.)

The constant demand for economic growth, the new powers to change our appearance, and the earning potential of playing on human vanities – and anxieties – together make up a powerful set of forces to set against an elderly moral principle. With respect to vanity (and the vain demand a lot of respect), it seems that the clash between market and morals has been won by the market, at least in the West and for now.

Of course, vanity isn’t the only unfashionable vice. I wonder if the market’s winning on the others too.

Copyright Kathleen Taylor 2014 (www.neurotaylor.com)

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