I ran across this video on Fox News this morning. It asks a very good question:
Indeed, what has happened to morals?
I found the content of the video to be quite lacking in its attempt to address what has actually happened to the idea of morals and values in our society today. The closest anyone came was the guy who began talking about absolute truths and the fact that 91% of the younger generation do not believe in such things.
This, of course, is probably the root of the matter. We live in a society governed by relativity. There is no longer a general understanding or consensus about how truth is derived, and when there is no truth, there are no morals.
The video, unfortunately, only gives a cursory thought to this as the anchor strives to connect government scandal to the administration and give the administration a black eye because of it. What could have been much more productive is a deep reflection upon the nature of truth, the nature of ethics, and how such things have been cast aside by many within our culture.
The Nature of Truth
It's hard to imagine that much of the understanding of truth within our society derives from thoughts from the late 1800's, but I believe it can be traced back to that period. Philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche famously decreed that "God is dead," and along with that idea came the natural consequence that any noble ideals such as absolute truth were dead as well. Such thoughts were fallacies constructed by faith and not reason.
Nietzsche argued for perspectivism: the idea that all of our understandings of morality, justice, and truth are grounded and rooted, not in something that stands above and beyond our reality, but in things we have been conditioned to believe. And the idea that we have arrived at some sort of universal truth through our efforts is tantamount to selfishness and arrogance on our part. (Gay Science) All we have is our perspective of what is right and what is wrong.
Much of what is called post-modern thought is predicated upon this belief, and it has surged relatively unchecked through our culture.
Even in the above video, we see how deeply ingrained this thought is as the Muslim spokes-woman addresses the Secret Service scandal by saying essentially, "I'm not making a judgment because it's between them and their God and their spouse..." This comment actually relativizes values and morality for if such actions are understood as O.K. by those agents--"I'm not hurting anyone, just having fun, and my spouse doesn't care."--then why the uproar?
Ah, but if there is a moral standard, then we have a very different conclusion. We can render judgment and say these men were wrong in what they were doing. But on what do we rest such a judgment? Are there such Truths which transcend society, culture, etc.?
If there are not, then there is no justice; there is no honesty; there is no right and wrong. Do you really want to live in such a culture?
The Nature of Ethics
If we can agree that living in such a culture would be a very bad thing, we must then move to the discussion of what sort of ethics govern our behavior.
This leads to a very sticky discussion in a pluralistic culture which has people of all sorts of faiths and beliefs including those who say they have no faith or belief. How can one even begin to put together some sort of understanding of how we are supposed to treat one another?
At one time in our country, things were a little more simple in this realm. Nearly all of our understanding of ethics was based upon the Judeo-Christian heritage. At first, it was mainly a Protestant view of such ethics; then it morphed into a Protestant/Catholic view; then it was Protestant/Catholic/Jewish, and then it went to pot. As more and more people of other faith backgrounds came in, the ethical situation faltered. Why?
Simply put: basic assumptions lead to very different places.
The assumption reason is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to social Darwinism.
The assumption Christianity is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to Biblically based values.
The assumption Islam is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to Koran based values.
The assumption Buddhism is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to the 8 fold path as a place for values.
The assumption that Hinduism is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to Vedic based values.
The assumption that the U.S. founding documents are the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--even if that happiness might make others miserable.
So, where do we start in formulating ethics if such assumptions will lead to such varying positions?
How such Things Have Been Cast Aside
To even begin the conversation is difficult work, and rather than do the difficult work and argue which set of ethics might be better, many have given up altogether. It's easier and intellectually lazier to throw up one's hands and say "it's all relative," and then let each culture and person do as they please.
Now, that might work very well in a small area with a homogeneous population, but if you are in a pluralistic society, it won't. Something has got to give. Either a meta-narrative must exist to give guidance and ethics, or get ready for anarchy.
Perhaps we are already there, at least morally.
So how can things change? Is it possible for the U.S. to formulate a new narrative (or capture the essence of its earliest roots)?
In order for such a thing to happen, the figure I cited earlier about 91% of young people believing there are no absolute truths will have to be reversed. We will have to recapture and articulate just why it is of the utmost importance to adhere to these truths, and we will have to literally change a culture rooted and grounded in relativism.