A Less Moral Nation?

The other day I read an editorial that cited quite a few statistics to the end that most Americans feel that the country is “less moral” than it was fifty years ago. I don’t dispute the fact that people feel that way, but I’m not nearly so sure about the accuracy of those feelings.

As shown by all the revelations surfacing in the wake of the Me Too Movement, there has been a continuing pattern of sexual abuse by men, particularly powerful men, dating back to the beginning of the United States, and even before that. The fact that it’s been revealed doesn’t change what happened or make the country any less or more moral, although it does reveal that we certainly weren’t as moral as we thought we were.

Often one of the statistics used as a proxy for “morality” is the teen pregnancy rate, but teen pregnancy rates have decreased by almost eighty percent since 1957, and that decline has continued steadily since 2000. Some of that decline is doubtless due to the use of birth control, but the CDC attributes a significant share of the recent decline to sexual abstinence by teenagers.

While a great number of people have cited President Trump as immoral because of his sexual behavior, Trump is an absolute piker compared to President Kennedy… or even Lindon Johnson. And while Richard Nixon may not have strayed sexually, given the Watergate scandal, can one say that he was more “moral” than recent Presidents? I served as a Congressional staffer some forty years ago, and there were more than a few sexual scandals involving powerful senators and congressmen. The difference was that the media didn’t report them as often or in any detail. So, ignorance fosters, at least partly, the idea that our past leadership was more “moral.”

As a nation we had to enact legislation to even begin the process to allow minorities and women equal rights with white males, and even as late as 1960, it was often difficult for a woman to get a credit card in her own name. In 1965, in most of the south, buses, lunch counters, rest rooms, and still many schools were effectively segregated. Where was the greater morality in that?

Admittedly, the crime rate today is higher than in 1960, but the peak in the crime rate, depending on the type of crime, was between 1980 and 1990, and the rates have declined since then. What about marriages and divorce? The per capita divorce rate peaked in 1980 and has declined ever since, although marriage rates are also declining.

So why do so many people feel that we’re a “less moral” nation today?

Is it because more and more people have defined what is moral in terms of their personal beliefs? Or because economically, a large percentage of the middle class has seen their economic position decline, and that equates to a less moral society? Or because there’s always a tendency to recall the favorable aspects of the past and forget the less favorable ones?

3 thoughts on “A Less Moral Nation?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Some very cursory googling suggests that volunteerism is generally up compared to the mid-70’s.

    On the other hand, with sex as usually the first impression of morality, a portion of those wishing full equality for nontraditional arrangements are certainly more vocal than ever. Other groups defined at least partly by conduct rather than ethnicity or religion (illegal immigrants, for example) may also be more vocal.

    And although I’m not sure how to measure the reality, there may be a perception that people are more self-centered now; perhaps furthered by the substitution of social media for personal contact.

  2. Tom says:

    It is not just the US that can be considered less moral than in past eras, just look at Israel, Australia, Malaysia, etc.

    The perception maybe because everybody knows everybody else’s business and knows it almost instantly; plus, we tend to have large groups of people laugh about what we learn about each others lives rather than cringe. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt but it now also breeds also “Me Too!” if one considers drugs and sex specifically. Heck there is apparently a social group crying that they don’t get enough sex; and their solution: hate the opposite sex!

    I saw some interesting statements and opinions about memes. Maybe the spread of immorality is just another fad or meme (oops memes are supposed to be serious social science).

  3. M. Kilian says:

    I think that when people aren’t content with their lot at a moment in time, the past is an easy target in particular for those not born to it.

    For some, the past is a golden age where resources were plenty and culture was graceful and dignified- and we have squandered it, corrupted it or had it stolen from us.

    For others, it can be a dark age from which the depravity of the modern age spawned from and anyone doing well has done so at the continued cost of others.

    Unfortunately such views of the past and similar are at best skewed- at worst and commonly they are simply justifications for their actions.

    The past is better used to tentatively draw from what worked, and more importantly to avoid repeating mistakes that have already been made. There is some value in a lateral approach as in science when new discoveries can make old knowledge obsolete (in light of progress), but that’s where value quantification gets messy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *