Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Rise of Modern Morality

Every so often I read a letter in a newspaper or some other forum about "the decline of modern morality", in which the writer laments the failing moral standards of private and public life. I'm old enough to have been reading these articles for two or three decades now, and I've seen some samples of the same genre from past times. Elvis Presley caused a moral panic in 1956 by gyrating his hips on stage, and this was cited by commentators at the time as corrupting the morals of young people. Much has been written about the sociology of moral panics and I don't propose to repeat it here. Instead I want to argue that, far from declining, modern morality is actually superior to moralities of the past (and I use the plural deliberately).

  • In 1970 in the UK it was not only legal but widely accepted practice to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job. Women who wanted a life outside of home making and child rearing were seen as aberrant, and often regarded with scorn.
  • In 1960 in America many parts of the country segregated public facilities by race, with black people consistently and blatantly short-changed. This invidious system was widely supported by prominent politicians and churchmen.
  • Even into the 1970s in Australia aborigine children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed in institutions where they were denied proper education and were terribly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Again, this programme was considered perfectly proper and moral by the standards of the time.
  • There was a standing assumption for many years that unmarried mothers should immediately give up their children for adoption. In Ireland they were also incarcerated in the "Magdalene Laundries". Other countries had similar systems. Strangely, the fathers were left to go free.
  • For most of the 20th century, when it became necessary to remove children from their parents because of neglect or abuse little thought was given to keeping siblings together: they would be split up to suit the convenience of potential adopters or fosterers.
  • Until recent years in most Western countries, homosexuals were persecuted and discriminated against, both by the law and by society at large.
  • Until the 90s in the UK drink-driving was considered a minor peccadillo. Drivers convicted of the offence were more likely to encounter sympathy at the unfair attitude of the legal system than censure at their reckless disregard for the safety of others.
Not all of these evils are completely gone, but in all cases there has been a substantial moral shift. I know that some readers will look at some of this list, especially the tolerance of homosexuality, and regard this as evidence of moral decay rather than ascent. But this brings up another issue I have with the Cassandras of moral decay: their belief in moral absolutism; that right and wrong are entirely self-evident, and that any deviation stems from lack of morality rather than a genuine disagreement over what the moral course is.

The problem with moral absolutism is that (in its commonest form) it asserts that the perfect moral code has already been revealed and the only possible improvement is in closer adherence to that code. However I describe myself as a Liberal Utilitarian (although I confess I haven't actually read any of Mill's work). Hence I see "the greatest good of the greatest number" as a basic moral principle, while at the same time acknowledging that there may be a lot of disagreement about exactly what that means and how to bring that about. Liberal utilitarianism recognizes no absolute moral imperative apart from the general principle that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are good things. However by retaining that anchor it avoids the charge often leveled by the Absolutists that those who question their moral code are "relativists" who believe that any moral code is as good as any other. Liberal utilitarianism examines the impact of moral rules on the real people affected by them. If different rules would have a better outcome then those rules are automatically better. I see the arguments (both past and ongoing) about freedom, equal opportunities and tolerance to be a part of this process, and I see a steady improvement through history. Those who object to the current crop of improvements in morality because they contradict their particular absolutist code would do well to read their history books.


Miles said...

Well said!

Anti Money Laundering said...

Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That's morality, that's religion. That's art. That's life.