THE BLOG
03/16/2011 10:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Myth of Moral Decline

Reading letters to the editor for local newspapers is not likely to expose one to deep thinking, penetrating analysis or useful information. Often the logic is quite pathetic and the evidence used to substantiate the conclusions very questionable. One such letter, from Browns Valley, CA, about the "moral decline" of America, was so astoundingly bad that I wanted to share it. It illustrates the way that many conservatives view the world.

The author argued that America is in moral decline, his proof was the following stories he mentioned from the paper.

First: 2-year-old raped at theme park; Second: Disney employee rapes single mother traveling with two young children; Third: Two men in Arizona charged with attempting to have sex with dogs; Fourth: Gay man appointed as social secretary at the Obama White House (now this does not surprise me).

Notice that he puts on a level of moral equivalency, two rapes, bestiality, and a gay man working as the social secretary in the White House! Apparently employing a gay man is on the same level as raping a two-year-old child.

Also consider this silliness about the alleged "moral decline" or America. Conservatives routinely believe we are in the midst of moral decline because conservatives, by the very nature of being conservative, fear change and assume it to be evil. Women showing their ankles and voting were once considered a sign of moral decline. Zippers on pants were considered proof of a moral decline. Interracial marriage was in the same boat.

F.A. Hayek, (whose book The Road to Serfdom was apparently embraced, but not understood, by many conservatives) warned of the conservative temperament. He wrote, "one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such." Hayek acknowledged a benefit to a cautious view of changing institutions too quickly, encouraging debate and dialogue, but said the conservatives went too far because they were also "inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind."

I tend to think that morality is primarily how you treat others. Certainly the rapes mentioned in this letter are immoral. The bestiality thing is certainly bizarre, and rather disgusting. I'm not sure I could put in the immoral category in that it doesn't harm anyone else. But I would put it in don't-come-anywhere-near-me category because I think it rather disgusting.

But this string of incidents, gleaned from a newspaper, does not indicate moral decline. The nature of the media is to give strange news, bad news, or very important news. On the day that story ran here is what you didn't see: 300 million Americans were not out fornicating with pigs, or cows, or sheep. As for rape, here is a a chart from the US Department of Justice on incidence trends in the United States. Even a brief glance will show that incidents of rape have been declining. You will see it is the same for robbery and violent crime as well.

Less violent crime, less rape and less robbery doesn't sound like moral decline to me. I would contend that the conservative movement has rushed into the culture war precisely because there is so little else to whine about. Yes, there are more openly gay people today. But, there is no indication that the number of gay people are greater, only that they are more open and honest with friends and family. And that is a good thing. Perhaps one reason for this is that society is now less violent.

Public morality, that is morality which ought to concern the community at large, is exclusively about how people treat one another. As for "private" morality it is simply none of my business. As Lysander Spooner noted in 1875: "Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another."

What drives the conservative agenda today has little to do with actual harms inflicted on others. It is more about imaginary harms concocted out of thin air. If you have followed any of the debate about marriage equality we hear that their will be dire consequences. Bigots like Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse, have a litany of disaster they want to lay at the feet of legal equality for gay people. Yet, they never quite explain how legal rights equals the social disaster they predict. And when asked for evidence they will tell you that you have to wait 30 years or more to see it. That certainly is a convenient excuse for the lack of evidence, but I suggest it is to be expected from those of the kind of timid minds that Hayek warned about.

Certainly the statistics that exist do not show the kind of moral decline that conservatives have been fearing for the last few centuries. In truth we live in a world that is actually more peaceful today than before. Violence, as a means of achieving ends, has been declining. There is less race hatred, less religious turmoil and less genocide. Sure there is still much progress to be made, but we shouldn't be wringing our hands in fear that the end is nigh. It isn't.

Given that my morality focuses so heavily on how we treat one another I want to share a couple of videos from these two brothers. Noah Hornik went on-line to raise $5000 to put on a concert to benefit LGBT kids. Here he explains why. His brother Julian makes a cameo appearance and they mention the song Julian wrote, It Gets Better. I include a video of Julian singing his composition.

Given my other-focus when it comes to morality issues, I too look at trends. And if these young people, showing such compassion and focus on how others are treated is any indication, and it is, then we are not declining morally, but evolving. I can only applaud that. And while conservatives would shudder to find out, I suggest that FA Hayek would applaud it as well. Perhaps Glenn Beck will stop recommending him now.