It may come as a surprise to many but we’re not as morally bankrupt as some would lead you to believe.
Americans are often a quirky bunch. It’s always interesting to look at polls about what people think and feel on certain topics and how that impacts a course of action we take as a society. Polls of course are not a scientific prognosis and they differ quite a bit based on how the questions are asked and the sample group selected for a given poll. But they do offer a snap shot of the social conscience at a given time and are fun to speculate on. Take the topic of morality for instance.
A recent Gallup poll taken just this last January asked respondents to assess the moral and ethical climate in America today by asking them how satisfied or unsatisfied they were with it. To no one’s surprise a majority of those respondents, 69%, answered they were somewhat or very dissatisfied. This was 7 percentage points higher from those respondents that answered negatively to a similar question a decade ago. I’d be willing to bet that we would find this to be the trend no matter how far back we go.
For a nation that has such great bounty and is supposedly blessed with great freedoms, we are a negative lot. We always reflect back on yesteryear as better times but seldom remember how fearful we were when living them.
We seem never to be quite satisfied with what we have and feel that there is always someone ready to take it away from us. Other polls show we tend to be happy when we are with family and friends and most are willing to concede that money doesn’t bring happiness. Yet there seems to be a void in our universe that makes us feel that an amoral society lurks just outside our close circle of friends and family.
Such feelings about morality are both understandable and curious in a nation where a 2007 Pew research poll found that over 80% of Americans associated themselves with a religious faith. How can such a religious majority find so much immorality in a domain they dominate?
In 2000 the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) found that there were 267,864 religious congregations in America. Over 18,000 were in Texas alone, about 1500 more than were designated in the most populous state of California. These congregations of all types were composed of over 281,400,000 adherents. One would be left to conclude that there is a definite correlation between religious faith and views on morality, but that doesn’t suggest that religious people are more moral than non-religious people.
Interestingly, in a poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in March, 1999, nearly 40% of those polled felt that ethical standards were at lows because people failed to take responsibility for their actions, choosing instead to blame others for the ills of our world. When you put this perception beside the one that says we are most happiest when we are with friends and family, it is a short leap to conclude that our negativity could be a factor of what psychology refers to as transference.
If perception is reality as some social scientist conclude, then how much immorality is a perception of those we feel are not taking responsibility for their moral failures? Furthermore, how much of what we transfer to others is based on little or poor information about them? Is our pessimism enhanced and the world’s state of immorality increased as we form bonds with like-minded people who share equally limited views of “outsiders”?
The classic example to illustrate this, in this country as well as most others, are attitudes toward race. Early in our history the ignorant view that blacks were not human predominated the popular cultural of white aristocratic christians. Later these biased views would be replaced with the notion that all blacks were lazy and “shiftless”. Some of this belief still remains and is incorporated with today’s racism that blacks depend too heavily on government social welfare programs, a distorted perception that ignores poverty rates between whites an all other ethnic groups.
The same is true with our attitudes towards gays. In describing his metamorphosis from homophobe to tolerant straight man, Steve Chapman, columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, revealed that epiphanic moment as he discovered that his college room-mate was gay. They had been close friends but now he was confronted with an unknown that had negative connotations for him as a political, religious, and social conservative raised in Texas.
Being stunned by this revelation he lay awake at nights thinking about it. He discussed it with his gay friend and with his pastor. After much anguishing he concluded, “not without apprehension, that the revelation didn’t change anything. We were good friends before” Champan says “and we would stay good friends. And 35 years later, we still are.” (Up from Homophobia: It’s time to let gays serve openly in the military, Steve Chapman, reason.com, 12/6/10)
EXTRAPOLATING GOOD AND EVIL TOWARDS STRANGERS
Continuing then with my arm-chair psychoanalysis of the topic of morality and these tidbits of information, it appears that our ignorance of others usually leads us to wrongful conclusions and wounds up pigeon-holing people in categories that fit our stereo-types rather than any solid analysis of people who may well exist within our own social circles. Going back to those Gallup poles we see that some of the people we rate the lowest for honesty and ethical standards are lobbyists, car salespeople, politicians, business executives and lawyers. But most of us know people in these professions and yet somehow they are personally excluded in our general mistrust for their profession.
The latest political upheaval generated by the Tea Party was ready to replace every single Congressperson because of their apparent disregard for “the American people”. The reality was that most people only thought everyone else’s state and federal representative were immoral and needed to be replaced.
We tend to trust nurses, pharmacists, military officers, teachers, doctors and police yet we know there are some bad eggs in this crowd. Knowing this though doesn’t prevent us from holding these professions at higher levels of esteem. Why? Because they have a better track record and their jobs are not motivated by financial profits? Maybe. I can see where that would surely play into this type of logic. But might it not also have something to do with how we grew up thinking that these people were “safe” and that other types were not?
THE BASIS OF IMMORALITY
How we rate morality tends to be reflected in what best serves our interests, our associations with others and how much we are like or unlike those we tend to judge. Though sex outside the institution of marriage has historically been a moral taboo in our society, 57% of those questioned in a May, 2009 poll thought it was morally acceptable. Likewise, gambling was deemed acceptable by 58% and 62% said divorce was no longer socially unacceptable in terms of morality.
But when those polled got in less familiar territory that provided no tangible benefits for them, they tended to be more critical and less tolerant of gays, suicides, women who have had abortions, polygamist and religious affiliations outside their own. For some, immorality is strictly viewed as a singular criteria of human behavior but which often poses no visible harm to the public.
Good and decent people who work hard, volunteer their time to help less fortunate people and contribute to their communities success are often demoralized and socially ostracized by those who judge them from their distant moral perches for sleeping with another partner, taking illicit drugs or seeking an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. In the eyes of some then the total value of a person is wrapped up in this one deviant behavior and all of their moral successes are ignored.
WHEN SELF-ORDAINED “RIGHTEOUS” PEOPLE PASS JUDGMENT ON OTHERS
When so-called “pillars of the community” come out in public and condemn others for what they are guilty of themselves, then a degree of intolerance should be exhibited by the general public. I cite Newt Gingrich’s hypocrisy as a classic example.
Gingrich was motivating the religious right in this country to support the GOP back in the1990’s by associating Democrats with values that were anti-family. Yet we discover that Gingrich himself had been divorced twice in an amoral fashion, having “presented his first wife, Jackie Battley, with the terms of their divorce [in 1980] as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from surgery for uterine cancer”; an action that would replicate itself when he divorced his 2nd wife, Marianne in 1999 for a younger woman. Gingrich later refused to pay alimony or child support to Jackie. (SOURCE)
Following Gingrich’s unfaithfulness to Marianne she asked Newt how he could parade around the country speaking about family values and be in violation of such values. Deluded with his own sense of exceptionalism, Newt told Marianne that “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
Centuries ago Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos made an observation that suggests morality was a group thought for the most part. “Thou shalt know; self-chosen are the woes that fall on men – how wretched, for they see not good so near, nor hearken to its voice – few only know the pathway of deliverance from ill.”
The religious and political zealot like Gingrich sees their world in narrow references that ascribe to a philosophical view originating in ancient paternalistic cultures. This father-figure imagery feels right by people who’ve been raised in this regimented environment. With so much chaos in our daily lives people are susceptible to the notion that somewhere there is a remedy that will deliver us from our woes. The authoritarian prescription that the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions teach, along with distorted concepts of “might makes right” and “survival of the fittest”, fits this need. This is the link then, I think, between a highly orthodox religious culture and a sense that “those” less disciplined than one’s own ethical niche are less moral than a “chosen few”.
WE’RE NOT PERFECT BUT WE’RE NOT IMMORAL
We are all imperfect and the need to establish moral guidelines is essential in a civil society. Most of us have had moral lapses and perhaps will have a few more before we die. Yet I think for the most part we are more a moral society more than an amoral one. We only have inordinate pangs of guilt when social conditions like the current economic recession come into play and prophets of doom whose self-interests are threatened take to the soap boxes and airwaves preaching Armageddon is just around the corner.
I also think our moral compass may be tightly wound some of the time but it still works. When the social mechanisms that keep it running seem in need of repair, level-headed people, like this elderly lady in North Hampton, England, eventually step up, make the necessary corrections and lead by example to keep us on track and allow us to progress forward, despite the destructive efforts of extremist and deviants to the contrary.