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?

7 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.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    In Hebrew, it is: אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

    In Latin: nihil sub sole novum

    As it was before, it is now.

    It’s just more public.

  5. Daze says:

    I’m fairly certain that morality is higher (?? – what’s the scalar here?) now than it was earlier in my life. Within my adulthood, let alone my lifetime, it was basically accepted that you put up with predatory paedophilic behaviour from a “good man” like a priest or charity fundraising celebrity, that women just had to accept that senior male colleagues might grope them from time to time. The fact that we now recognise these behaviours as immoral is an indication of better moral sensibilities, not a rise in immorality.

  6. Rehcra says:

    You can’t forget that morality is an ever changing spectrum. We are basing this on what we see as moral now. But there are also things that we do now that in the past would of been seen as amoral. So the real check is not on what we see as amoral behavior now but how free we ourselves feel to be amoral compared to how free people might have felt in the past.

    My point being that a society can be 100 percent devoted to upholding their own morals and still be seen as amoral because of a difference of beliefs. A societies own moral standards matter more in this context than any others.


  7. wumpus says:

    Not only did crime peak in 1980 or so, but you have to question what was included and what was not.

    Domestic violence was probably not considered a crime, although if you put a family member in the hospital this might change (this wasn’t true in the 1950s-60s: it might have been considered a terribly bad habit (“have you stopped beating your wife”) but not a crime as long as they live). I know a friend growing up around then was constantly “falling down and needing stitches” (even though he played zero sports) and his father beat his mother at least once. No charges ever filed. On the other hand, another friend was stabbed in the chest by his father and probably wasn’t expected to make it. I’m fairly sure he was charged (I didn’t see him again for years).

    Drunk Driving was not considered a serious crime. Hard to believe, but 25,000 Americans would die every year and those who caused it by driving when incapable of wrangling a few tons of steel were considered “just accidents”. A license to drink was considered a license to kill. Well within 10 years new drivers simply took it for granted that killing someone because they couldn’t bother to find a better way home was murder (not that plenty had a problem with murdering anyway: drinking was that much more important to them).

    Sodomy was a crime (in some states [guess which]) until at least 2003. And the supreme court upheld anti-sodomy laws in 1986. Try to guess how many “crimes” fell under this one.

    Interracial marriage hasn’t been a crime since 1967, so presumably won’t show up in 1970-1980 crime stats.

    Porn’s status seemed to vary wildly (depending on district) from 1900-1980, but seemed to be roughly modern levels in time for the VHS-beta format wars occurring roughly around 1980, this shouldn’t effect our stats.

    The War on Drugs was ramping up in the 1980s. How much of a crime that is, but it should probably be compared to Purdue Pharmacudicals foisting oxycontin on an unsuspecting population, knowing full well it was essentially heroin (they got off scot free).

    So not only did the 1980s have much more reported crimes, those reports also have a stark indifference to many acts of violence as long as said attacker was a husband, father, or step father (divorce became a big thing in the 1970s) [woman on man abuse is still unlikley to be reported or acted on, then or now]. And don’t forget the massive waves of dead produced by drunk drivers, often quite young (how many old people are out driving after midnight?).

    Earlier periods have even worse “not reported as crimes”. I’m fairly sure lynching was over by then (the “last” one was in 1981, but that *was* considered a crime and at least one death sentence was issued. My comments are more about earlier ones that wouldn’t be listed as crimes at all).

    I can only wonder about the 1000+ people killed by police in the USA each year will be thought of in the future (I think more die in jails thanks to complete indifference, but don’t have the numbers). These are invariably considered “noncrimes”, nor are beatings, tazings, torture and other “street justice” cops out.

    I suspect this type of thing is what people think of as “a less moral nation”. Shooting unarmed people and “testilying” was almost certainly routine cop behavior in the US since day 1. It is only with the addition of “even bigger brother” car/body cameras that a true picture is coming to life (well, that footage is often “lost”, but with everybody carrying a video camera in their cell phone, enough footage still exists). You either have to believe that this was always cop behavior, or that cell phones and body cams somehow brought about a complete change in behavior whether or not the cop knew it was on. I for one don’t believe the old myth that cameras “steal your soul”.

    Using teenage sex as a barometer seems really weird, and typically used by the same people who insist on “abstinence education” (and birth control and abortion restrictions) after being shown that such “education” routinely increases teenage pregnancy.

    Everything I’ve heard indicates that modern teenagers are having less sex than any previous known generation. 1980 may well have been a high point (I wasn’t a teen yet, but certainly can believe it was), with teens still sexually active well until 2000.

    Even the “oh so moral” 1950s certainly had plenty of teen sex. It is almost a stereotype of that age that it was pretty much the final stages of courtship and that marriage was immediately scheduled shortly after conception. It should be noted that neither participant might have realized just how “final” the courtship was.

    Finally, the 1950s data is probably the only trustworthy bit of note, and then only by checking birth records against parents of record (and don’t be surprised if many case needed a more appropriate “father” quickly. Surveys are nearly useless for anything but “survey responding behavior” (538 is lucky voting is “close enough” to “survey responding behavior”, but even they have to use a lot of math to tease survey results into accurate forecasts). I tend to believe that the data I quoted is accurate, but have to admit that it is probably as much a gut acceptance of really noisy “evidence” as the people who claim that we are a “less moral nation”.

    I look at the crime data from 1980 and try to put into place how many people were beaten/killed while the police stood by and said “he was drunk. It might not have been right to do that, but it is hardly a crime”. I was young at the time, but I certainly remember picking up beer bottles thrown into my parents lawn every time I had to mow it (this wasn’t true by the time I was driving on my own). I strongly suspect that you can’t possibly look at crime stats and think that it used to be a more moral nation.

    Finally, I really have to suspect a significant minority insists that “morality”==”maintaining white supremacy”. This certainly was one of the prime motivations of establishing police forces and has been a major goal of policing ever since. Since the primary job of policing is to “maintain the peace”, it is therefore required that people stay in their established station, and woe be the ones who try to sit in the wrong place in woolworths (or take their skittles home). I’d like to think that these stations aren’t quite as race/caste-based as earlier, but 1000 killings a year says otherwise.

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