Hysteria of the World: Part II

Why do people believe that society's morals are deteriorating?

Posted Jul 25, 2008

Do you think there's any truth to these claims? Are young people today really that much different from young people in previous generations?

There's no doubt that our culture's values have changed dramatically in many ways. In this vein, psychologist Paul Rozin has written much about the concept of "moralization". This is the process by which something morally neutral comes to be viewed, by a culture or group of people, as immoral. Slavery is a prime example of something that has been strongly moralized. But consider the kinds of things that have been moralized much more recently. What are some behaviors or events or objects that have come to be seen as immoral within the last 20 years?

Here are a few of them: smoking, drunk driving, eating meat, wearing fur, fast food, violence on TV, corporal punishment, and sexual harassment. Ask adults 30 or 40 years ago how they felt about these things, and few would have had any strong feelings one way or the other (sexual harassment wasn't even against the law in America until the 1970s).

There is also the process of "unmoralization", in which previously immoral things come to be seen as morally neutral. Some examples include: divorce, having children out of wedlock, working mothers, interracial dating and marrying, atheism, abortion, and suicide. This is not to say that every one of these things has become virtuous or sought after - or that people don't have strong opinions about them - just that they've lost some of their moral flavor in recent years. Fifty years ago a majority of Americans would have judged these things to be unquestionably sinful, whereas today we are much more tolerant of them.

Let's try a thought experiment: Imagine you were born and raised in the 1930s or 1940s, making you part of your parents' generation (or your grandparents' generation for you younger folks). Like most Americans growing up in this era, you have a strong religious upbringing, at least by today's standards. You are socialized from a very early age that the aforementioned things are wrong and sinful and should not even be contemplated. Everyone you know and trust holds these same beliefs, so you take them to be self-evident.

Then slowly, throughout your adult life, you watch as young people begin to do all of these sinful things more and more frequently, until many of these things become socially acceptable and in some cases even celebrated. Wouldn't it be only natural to feel that there was something very wrong with the young people and with society itself for accommodating behaviors that you were taught to condemn?

Hence, many adults perceive that society is declining, when in reality it has just been changing to reflect the times.

Maybe we can better understand this perceptual bias by identifying how the values have been changing. If you look back at the moralized and unmoralized items listed above, you might see a theme within each group.

The moralized issues all reflect a greater concern with harming people or limiting people's freedoms. These items are judged to be wrong due to a growing awareness that they can and do hurt innocent people (or animals). Similarly, the unmoralized items have come to be seen as personal choices that don't directly harm innocent people (though many still argue that they do).

The growing emphasis on autonomy and individual rights inevitably causes a de-emphasis on the more traditional values (e.g., the Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins), many of which conflict with the goal of autonomy. Traditional values tend to attach greater importance to obligations, self-control, and purity.

But if society as a whole is shifting toward these pro-"autonomy" values, doesn't this prove that traditional values are really falling away?

We doubt it. The tension between autonomy values and traditional values has been a recurring theme in every generation, and ironically, this tension is an essential part of what we consider social progress. The autonomy values, for example, lead us to care deeply about human rights and to resist unfair prejudice and discrimination. This is why the younger generations are usually the ones who instigate reform in these areas. In contrast, the traditional values are needed to maintain social order and accountability. Regardless of how it seems, traditional values are still as strong as ever in American culture.

We should also keep in mind that the same youngsters who are irreverent today will more than likely embrace traditional values as they get older. As children we naturally crave autonomy, but as adults we eventually choose to sacrifice it for other things (e.g., security).

Still, how do we come to terms with a shifting moral landscape that makes us cringe with ever-increasing frequency? As we suggested before, the first step is simply to be aware of our biases and how they color our perception.

Our minds tend to notice and process negative things far more readily than neutral or positive things. This "negativity bias" ensures our survival by alerting us to potential dangers, but it likely contributes to the perception that our environment is getting worse the longer we are exposed to it (i.e., the older we get).

However, most of the time we inhabit a very safe environment where it doesn't pay to be hypersensitive to threats.

One way we can reduce this negative bias is by viewing changes in our environment more objectively and trying to understand how they fit with the rest of our world. As inconceivable as it sounds, we would soon realize that many of these changes are for the best.

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)