What a Growing Moral Vacuum Means for American Democracy

In a 2019 Gallup poll, 77% of Americans believe that moral values are deteriorating in the U.S. and that the country is morally divided.

In The Atlantic, New York Times columnist David Brooks deplores the rise of rudeness and loss of trust in American society – in our institutions, our politics and each other. Social media, isolation, changing demographics, economic inequality and uncertainty are among the causes cited. However, the main culprit seems to be a lack of moral education, which is at the heart of our political dysfunctions or general crisis of our democracy.

Pro-social behavior – social solidarity – has plummeted. We’ve lost the skills to treat others with kindness and consideration.  Our entire social fabric – families, schools, religious groups, community organizations and workplaces – has become fragile; it no longer succeeds in forming responsible, caring citizens. The moral formation of our society is failing.

What is morality and why is it important in society?

Our behavior is guided in part by a set of social norms and rules of conduct around morality, that provide a blueprint for people to harmoniously coexist within a group or society as a whole.

Morality is an integral part of our culture and of our democratic and religious values. It embodies a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, and practices by which we determine what is right and what is wrong – the guide to the right conduct in everyday judgments, actions, and decision-making. Morality often requires that people sacrifice their own short-term self-interest for the benefit of society. It helps to maintain social cohesion, fosters trust between people and promotes cooperation.

Concepts of justice or right and wrong are no matters of personal taste.

Morality also includes a dimension of responsibility. The lack of accountability and transparency that we see today in social media, and in political and religious spheres, is detrimental to moral values. In fact, we are witnessing a growing normalization of abusive and violent behavior that, under normal circumstances, would "violate our internal moral code".

What is the history of moral education?

For most of its history, America was blessed with morally formative institutions which were highly trusted. These institutions (family, community, school) championed a set of ideals that helped children acquire basic social and ethical skills. They offered concrete advice on how to lead a meaningful life: This is how you can find purpose in your life, or how you can engage in constructive discussions with your neighbors, or how you can support the nation. As a result of this character-building culture, people were better equipped to cope with hardship.

After the Second World War, there was a turning point. It was decided that moral education was no longer relevant. After years of restriction and deprivation, people longed for more freedom with fewer constraints, especially since it was assumed that people were naturally good and trustworthy. Thus, organization after organization moved out of the realm of moral training and into that of self-awareness.

In the 1940s and 1950s, schools began to abandon moral education, as educators and parents paid more attention to students' SAT scores. As Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, noted: "the ideal of scholarship" supplanted the earlier humanistic ideal of cultivating the whole student. The big questions – what is the meaning of life? How to live a good life? – have lost all interest. Such matters have become unprofessional for an academic.

By the mid-1970s, for example, the Girl Scouts’ founding ethos of service to others, had shifted: “How can you get more in touch with you? What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” one Girl Scout handbook asked.

Key consequences of loss of moral formation?

Moral communities are fragile entities, hard to build and easy to destroy.

In cultures where moral education and character building are limited or non-existent, people are left with little or no internal sense of morality or frame of reference.  

In such an environment, you become internally fragile. You have no moral compass to direct you, no strong ideals to inspire you. “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” wrote Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, quoting a famous line by Nietzsche.

A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone deprives them of the skills they need to face hardships and to be decent to each other.

When people are faced with a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. In recent years, people have tried to fill this moral void by resorting to politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.

The current problem of morality

One problem with today's conception of morality is that for a majority of people, it's based entirely on subjectivism. Thus, some individuals define what is moral or immoral in their conduct, based on their position on the political spectrum – red or blue.

As a nation, we've become fractured, split into two separate camps of right and wrong. This means that commonly accepted standards of moral conduct no longer exist. Instead, they are increasingly set by one person or a group of people who share the same beliefs. You don't have to be good; you just have to be conservative – or liberal.

This subjective standard of right and wrong is the source of many of society's problems. This means that what is good or bad for one person may well differ from what is good or bad for another. Some may feel that lying to serve self-interests is a good thing, while others think it's a bad thing because it calls into question the trust that others place in us. So how can we learn to live together in such an environment?

We used to share the same sense of what is the right thing to do in different situations. Over the years, those common values gradually became irrelevant and were replaced by a value system in which individual freedom trumps all other values.

Final thoughts

America’s Founding Fathers studied the history of democracies going back to ancient Greece. They drew the lesson that democracies can be quite fragile. The breakdown of the moral framework will always produce disconnection, alienation, and estrangement from those around us. When this happens, democracy is at risk, and the constitutional order is in danger of collapsing.

In periods of distrust, populism surges; it is the ideology of those who feel betrayed. For those who feel disrespected, unseen and alone, politics is an attractive option for finding a raison d'être. They feel drawn to leaders who speak the language of threat, tell a story of power and pit one group against another. A cultural battle between red and blue offers a sense of participation in civic life, by feeling rightfully enraged against the other side. People seek a rigid, closed ideological system that gives them a sense of security. They trust only their own kind. Donald Trump incarnates the age of distrust: incapable of vision and accountability, incapable of trust and of inspiring trust. Some Americans see in Trump's distrust a man who looks at the world as they do.

Moral ecosystems don't just happen. They must be seeded and nurtured to produce a healthy democracy.

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