Modernity and Moral Decline
It’s the oldest hoariest trope in the world. Traditional values are declining. The youth have become immoral. The world is falling apart.
If you want the hoariest trope in the world with a Ph.D., you make a fancier argument. Youth are migrating. Community life becomes attenuated as the children leave small towns that used to be close and the cities fill with anonymous strangers who don’t know each other.
Want to work gender relations into the mix? People are having fewer children. Parents spend less time with children because both mom and dad are working. Children don’t have brothers and sisters or physically present parents to support them in a home-based social network. Families mean less. Family members don’t take care of each other. No one supervises the children. They come out bad. They migrate, have romantic lives away from the watchful eye of mother and dad, and marry people whom the parents view as being unsuitable. Or they stay in the same town, but family authority is not what it used to be.
Want to work associational life into the mix? Once people belonged to all sorts of voluntary organizations such as churches, social clubs and for-a-purpose organizations that gave meaning and form to their lives. Now everyone stays home, watches TV or surfs the internet. Everyone is lonely and has virtual rather than real human companionship. So, people act like trolls on the internet. They act like jerks to the actual human beings in their life, to whom they relate to in increasingly casual and distant manner.
Want to move this into the corporate suite? Businesses no longer do business with a set of clients who live in the same community, worship at the same religious institution, attend the same elite social clubs and have children that intermarry because all the kids went to the same high school.
One, economic relations are now global. People do business with total strangers four thousand miles away who speak a different language.
Two, economic relations are now temporary. There are fewer long-term business relationships with companies which have collaborated with each other for years. Firms are bought, acquired and sold, making the trusted people you knew for thirty years irrelevant, because they were bought out, given golden parachutes and you are now dealing with a new team from Dallas. Plus, competition is now dog-eat-dog and based on temporary short term advantage. If you don’t give me the price I want, I ditch you and get the same thing from Bangladesh.
Business which was once based on trust is now based on screw-your-neighbor. In the economic world, a lot of people are being screwed.
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How true is any of this?
A comprehensive review of all of human morality and all of human well-being for every nation and every period in history might be a little much for one web posting. Who needs TLDR?
The safe short answer is that a lot of this is true. However, there are strong countervailing trends that maintain both social morality and the quality of social life.
Crime is higher in cities than in rural areas. Divorce rates have gone up. Suicide rates are high. Marriage rates are down. Internet frauds and scams are up. In places where rule of law is weak, adulteration scandals and other victimizations of faraway customers is common. Layoffs are increasingly widespread. Fewer and fewer workers get benefits. After two centuries of real wages going up and up and up, real wages are declining, and declining significantly. Deindustrialization is common in the rich nations. Sweat labor is common in the poor nations.
So is the world going to hell in a handbasket?
It is the position of this website that ultimately all societies die, and the world is going to go to hell in a handbasket at some point.
But I don’t think a complete collapse of morality and human happiness is either occurring presently or is in the cards for the near future.
As Stephen Pinker correctly noted, crime in the developed world has been declining for the last eight hundred years and has continued to decline in recent periods. The “modern” world may have “modern” families and “modern” ethics, but we have not become depraved predatory animals. Where crime is going up in the Global South, weak police forces and pragmatic relationships between corrupt politicians and gangs are more to blame than any deep moral failing.
Rising globalization, migration and international trade has actually increased “cosmopolitanism” and tolerance for people of other cultures. We are increasingly exposed to new foods, new music, new forms of entertainment and actual people from other countries. This increases cultural flexibility and the willingness to both tolerate and respect personal styles that are not our own. It is easy to forget that even as outright racism and nationalism make themselves increasingly visible, there is also outrage against racism, outrage against nationalism, and widespread interest in defending diverse cultural traditions and the rights of minorities.
Economic relationships have in many cases become more predatory, short-term-oriented and harder on both customers and workers. But economic good behavior still exists. There are many companies that treat both workers and customers well. Business magazines all over the world print annual “Top 100 Best Places to Work” issues. In some countries these are accompanied by “Top 100 Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility”. The businesses described in these issues are really doing progressive things – even if there may be nastiness on other pages of their corporate ledgers.
Many small firms continue to do business the old fashioned way. In this regard, auto repair shops and boutique computer game companies can look remarkably similar. Both are small enough places that everyone knows everyone else personally. Both are dependent on skilled personnel that they want to keep. Everyone knows what their employees or co-workers can or can’t do and respects them for it. Auto repair shops may include some shady enterprises that serve as chop shops or specialize in ripping off customers. But there are a lot that work on building long term stable relationships with their client base – and will eat surprise costs in order to maintain the trust and confidence of their regulars.
It goes without saying that a lot of bemoaning of the “loss” of sexual and family morals is really concern about the substitution of one moral code for another. It is now okay for young people to choose partners without asking their parents for permission. Living together outside of marriage or having non-traditional forms of sexual activity are now often seen as acceptable. But this does not mean that sexual morality has “disappeared”. It is just that the norms have changed. The rules against rape and sex without consent have never been stronger. The new sexual marketplaces have institutionalized their own internal codes of conduct.
The kids may not be reading books any more and may spend all their time looking at their phones. But while the kids may be ignorant of much of the wisdom that can be found in the great books, the elders are remarkably clueless about the wonderful things that can be learned on the Web.
And not every student in 1890 was well versed in Aristotle, Titian or Goethe.
The ignoramuses of the present age look a lot like the ignoramuses of earlier generations.
And for that matter, the bigots of the present age look a lot like the bigots of earlier generations.
And the economic exploiters of the present age look a lot like the economic exploiters of earlier generations.
I don’t think modernity has made our world less moral.
Even if things are occurring in the world that look significantly less than perfect.
For More Information
There are polemicists who write about these issues. However, the great statements tend to be made by grand theorists.
For the most elegant statement of how strong families, strong religion and strict moral regulation produce greater happiness and objective improvements in the quality of life, see Emile Durkheim’s Suicide.
For how market relations lead to growing impersonalization and a more savage economic world, see Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation.
For the reverse argument about how loosening ties can lead to cosmopolitanism and greater decency, see Norbert Elias, Civilizing Process.
For “To hell with all this moral decline, look how better everything is getting”, see Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Stephen Pinker is very convincing.