Monday, September 16, 2013

On Moral Decay

I was an observer (with a few ancillary comments) of a discussion revolving around "Moral Rot" a month or so ago, which has left me pondering the concept since.

I noticed some difficulties in that discussion, primarily revolving around "frame of reference" issues.

Consequently, I have decided to take a stab establishing some sort of framework around the subject. Here goes.

Moral rot, moral decay, moral decline... They all express the same idea, though with perhaps more or less passion, or disgust. At any rate, they suggest that general morality of humanity has decreased.

In other words we are expressing "Morality" in mathematical terms as a continuum. It has two endpoints. representing completely immoral, and completely moral, and (by reason of the previous  assertions), a midpoint, which one might refer to as neutral, or perhaps amoral (i.e. without morals. For my illustration below. I will use the number '0' to represent the midpoint.).

Now, if there were a simple way to obtain the current morality index, it would be easy to agree that there is or isn't a decline. If there were a "Morality thermometer", we could simply take daily measurements for some period of days, weeks or years, and by comparing current and historical readings, it would be quite obvious that there was or was not a decline.

Unfortunately there is no simple morality sensor. Unlike temperature, size, or population count, morality is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, "macro-measure". Worse yet, there is no common standard as to what components to include, or how to include them.

Alcohol, for instance, is viewed as a pernicious evil by some, and should be included in the measurement accordingly. Others hold no feeling one way or the other, and leave it out of the calculation altogether. Most individuals view theft as an immoral practice. However, this is not not universal. In fact, Many American Indian tribes held horse stealing as an honorable trade.

Thus, what one group might consider a sign of decreasing morality, another might consider a sign of increasing morality. So, in addition to a "Moral thermometer", we must also devise a "Moral compass", to establish a consistent measure of direction.

Those of various religions will point to their respective deity as their moral compass. But there are so many deities, and even differing interpretations of the same deity. There are also many who are agnostic, or atheistic with respect to deity, so this alone is not sufficient for establishing a fundamental point of origin and direction.

 It is made more difficult given that the process is one of "decay", indicating a slow shift. When decay occurs at a sufficiently slow rate, our perception can shift as well ,leading to a distorted view. Sort of like growing and shaving a beard. When you watch the process every day the growth of the beard quickly becomes rather 'normal'. You are vaguely aware of slight changes. The first appearance of whiskers, some thickening of the hair... When shaving the beard off, however, one truly becomes aware just how dramatic the change was.

Take the bikini as another example. They are quite common today. Most people aren't particularly surprised to see them at the beach, or the pool. A few people frown on them, but by and large they show up on every beach, in many television shows, including those rated for younger children. When the bikini was first presented to the public, the creator had to hire a prostitute to model it because no self respecting model would be caught dead in it. Clearly, our perception has changed with time, and exposure (I really didn't mean that as a pun when I wrote it).

And that is why we need a solid, reliable metric. Hot and Cold can mean entirely different things (ask an Alaskan and a Phoenician [meaning Arizona in this case]). But if we can get Temp at time 1 is 60 and Temp at time 2 is 50, now we have a practical sense of direction.

What if we used "Good" and "Evil" in place of  "Moral" and "Immoral"? While it might be reasonable to argue the terms are sufficiently similar to be interchanged, we are still left with ambiguity of definition.

What about "selfless" and "selfish"? Would it be reasonable to define an evil act as one in which you place your own personal interest first and foremost, to the complete and utter disregard for the impact your choice has on others? I may be slightly misusing "selfless" here. I am making a clear distinction between "selfless" and "self-sacrificing". while I use "selfish" to mean "Self above all else", I do not use "selfless" to mean "all else above self" (though one could also quite readily argue that wanton self-sacrifice is in fact a selfish act. An example would be someone who works 80+ hours a weeks to give their children a better life, this "self-sacrifice" is likely a selfish act in which one is selfishly focusing on the material status of one's progeny, while ignoring their social and emotional needs).

Now, there may still be some difficulty in constructing sound, irrefutable, logical proofs regarding the selfishness, or selflessness of certain acts. Some are quite obvious, as in the case of three young men who recently shot and killed a complete stranger because they were bored. Are the numbers of such incidents increasing or decreasing? But the obvious, violent crimes rate is not sufficient. It is more an end result, and it excludes many other acts of extreme selfishness, such as extortion, embezzlement, fraud, identity theft.

More importantly, one must also include the less obvious acts of selfishness, to really understand the trend.

Scan the news on any given day and you will see a barrage of selfish acts. Individuals suing for obscene amounts of money, often in cases where no financial, physical, or real emotional harm was done. Individuals baiting law enforcement in an attempt to create sensational videos either for personal attention to to elevate their particular cause (some of the 'open carry' videos on you tube demonstrate this). And in the political realm, we see increasingly polarized groups endless debating (arguing, really) their position, then resorting to attempts to 'game the system' (executive orders, defunding, etc...) rather than making any real effort to understand the other position, or applying any real effort to identifying or creating a workable compromise.

The increasing divorce rate is another strong indicator of selfishness. Marriage is no longer looked at as an agreement to work together to rear a family through "better and worse, sickness and health...", It is a simple coupling of convenience, made by star crossed lovers who go their separate way when the stars no longer sparkle brightly.

black vs. white, male vs. female, liberal vs. conservative, religion vs. atheism,... Increasingly the rhetoric is combative in nature, increasingly every little perceived offense is presented as publicly as possible, as each group strives to make their 'righteous' view heard. Not just heard, quite often now these various groups strive to force acceptance of their particular position.

Short term thinking is also an indicator of selfishness. This seems quite pronounced in modern financial thinking. Both in business and government, decisions are made based on next year's results, with no real consideration for the next three years, the next five year, the next decade. Kick the can down the road and let the next generation figure out how to dig themselves out of the hole we made. Can you get more selfish than stealing milk from your own baby?

Perhaps most telling are the observations of a 2008 Study on the subject of moral judgement, which illustrates the general inability of individuals today to think or talk about moral issues. The author concludes that "they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so." He illustratively comments that "When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner." He notes that interviewees responses were often along the lines of “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt."

He points out that it is not a case of them necessarily acting illegally or immorally, only that they couldn't recognized or communicate morality. In other words, it isn't that these individuals are more inclined to break laws, they just aren't able to express sentiment regarding rightness or wrongness.

But then, that is the nature of decay. It is a gradual process. It is not the case that yesterday we were all attending church, helping little old ladies across streets, and the next day we were raping pillaging, killing and plundering. No, there is a long timeline in between those two. We are somewhere in the middle, perhaps, but closer to which side? And  moving in which direction? Based on the results of the above study, my observations of current entertainment choices (Leave it to Beaver vs Everybody Loves Raymond, "I will always love you" vs "Let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young").

It is difficult for people to directly judge moral decay with any clarity, given our propensity to become desensitized to the gradual rotting which occurs (Have you ever seen or participated in a debate over which is cooler, Pirates or Ninja's? Did you ever stop to consider that you are choosing between murdering thieves, and thieving murderers?)

 And that is the real problem. It happens so slowly we are barely aware of it; one tiny spot of rust in the wheel well, hardly worth getting excited about, growing so slowly. Given enough time, enough exposure, we become desensitized . We can no longer see the rust for what it is. Then one day, in the distant future the simply car falls apart.

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