Summary: Public concern about a moral decline in our society is rooted in two issues: irresponsible behavior and a perceived loss of meaning. Though conservatives and communitarians blame individualism, rational individualism is the best response to these problems.
For the last several years, people across the political spectrum have been voicing concern about the moral temper of our times. There is a wide spread-sense that we are living in a moral vacuum, that people have lost their bearings—that, as the late Christopher Lasch put it, "the moral bottom has dropped out of our culture."
Commentators on the left as well as the right have decried the increasing levels of social pathologies, from violent crime to cheating among students. And there is a surprising degree of consensus that these problems are not the result solely of economic poverty; they reflect a poverty of values, of character, a moral deficit.
There is a particularly intense concern about the effects of these pathologies on children. In a thoughtful book called Children and Religion, Martha Fay quotes a worried mother: "We are teaching [our daughter] how to behave as if she lived in an ideal world, but she really lives in a world that reflects almost none of the values we hold." The Book of Virtues, by former Education Secretary William Bennett, a collection of stories with moral lessons from the Bible and classical literature, is on the best-seller list. An organization called the Character Counts Coalition has been formed to "strengthen the moral fiber of the next generation...."
In short, on the public agenda today, along with taxes, health care, the environment, and other issues, there is something we might call "the values issue." The values issue is not a political issue per se, although various activists have proposed government policies to deal with aspects of it. But it is a public issue, a matter of concern about the kind of society we live in, the kind of behavior we can expect from people around us, the kind of environment in which our children will acquire their values.
The Flight from Responsibility
For purposes of analysis, we can break the values issue down into two components: a problem of responsibility, and a problem of meaning. The problem of responsibility is reflected in a series of social indices that have become all too familiar. At the top of the list is the crime rate, which more than tripled between 1960 and 1980. The rate of violent crime increased by a factor of more than four. There is some dispute about whether crime has been increasing over the last decade, but there is no dispute that it is currently at a level far above what it was a generation ago. And there is no dispute that violent crimes have been increasing rapidly among juveniles. The Department of Justice estimates that 8 out of 10 Americans will be a victim of violent crime at least once in their lives.
There have also been changes in family structure. In 1960, five percent of all babies were born to unmarried women. In 1990, the figure was 28 percent; among black women, 65 percent. The vast majority of these women are poor. The vast majority have a high-school education or less. Many are teenagers who are ill equipped, economically or psychologically, to raise a family. Among the many distressing consequences of this trend, it is worth noting that some 70 percent of juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes.
On a broader scale, there has also been a rise in the entitlement mentality, the attitude that need is a claim on the resources of others, that the world owes me a living. This mentality is the source of what has been called the "proliferation of rights"—the number of goods which people feel that government must supply them with: food, shelter, health care, education, employment, compensation for unemployment, public transportation, basic telephone service, and on and on. According to an opinion poll on health care, a majority of people are unwilling to accept higher deductibles or co-payments for health insurance. They would prefer price controls on doctors and hospitals, higher taxes, limits on their right to choose their doctor, and limits on new technology—anything rather than more personal responsibility.
These issues of personal responsibility represent one category of moral problems today. Another category has to do with meaning, as in ''the meaning of life"....
As rational beings, with the capacity for conceptual thought, self-awareness, free will, and long-range values, we have spiritual needs. We need to invest activities like material production and sex with meaning—with value significance—that goes beyond the merely physical. Making money is nice, for example, but if that's all that work involves, it is not very satisfying. There's something missing: the sense of meeting challenges, creating value, realizing our potential.
This missing "something," I believe, is what people are referring to when they speak of a loss of meaning. They see themselves or others engaged in activities that seem drained of the qualities that make us human, activities focused entirely on the material, the physical, the external....
The reduction of work to making money is paralleled by the reduction of sex to a physical sensation. In Lakewood, California, a gang of high-school boys who called themselves "the Spur Posse" got points for every girl they slept with. The story became a kind of national scandal because of the unapologetically callous attitude of the boys—and some of their parents. To quote from a Time Magazine story,
Billy Shehan, 19, bragged that he was the highest scorer, with 66 points. “My parents were a little surprised,” he said. “They thought it was more like 50.” Shehan said that while many of the boys did not use condoms..., he did. “I buy them by the boxload,” he explained.... [His] father Billy Sr. offered a historical perspective. “I'm 40. We used to talk about scoring in my high school,” he said. “What's the difference?”
The problem of meaning is harder to measure quantitatively than the problem of responsibility. But there is one statistic I find telling, and that is the rate of suicide. Suicide is the ultimate expression of the loss of meaning in one's life. Between 1960 and 1990, the rate at which young people succeeded in taking their own lives more than tripled, from 3.6 to 11.3 per 100,000.
Uniting Against Enlightenment Individualism
That is the values issue, then: a two-fold problem of responsibility and of meaning. The issue has been addressed primari1y by conservatives on the one hand, and communitarians on the other, who, despite their differences, tend to agree that morality is social in character. And this in two senses: First, that morality is a matter of conforming to and internalizing community standards. And second, that morality is largely a matter of service to the community, as distinct from the pursuit of individual self-interest.
Those who take this point of view tend to blame our current problems on excessive individualism, specifically the counterculture of the 1960s and its demands for sexual liberation, its contempt for "bourgeois morality," its emphasis on self-expression rather than self-discipline. A Wall Street Journal editorial complained about the "shift away from community and family rules of conduct and toward more autonomy, more personal independence. As to limits, you set your own." Communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor has written: ''The individualism of self-fulfillment ...is widespread in our times and has grown particularly strong in Western societies since the 1960s.... This individualism involves a centering on the self and a commitment to shutting out, or even unawareness, of the greater issues that transcend the self."
Whatever differences there are between conservatives and communitarians, and within each camp, they are united in opposing the secular individualism of the Enlightenment, with its confidence in reason, its belief that the individual is an end in himself with the right to pursue his own happiness, and its demand that individuals be free to choose their goals and their associations with others. But in fact, I would argue, it is precisely the individualist values of the Enlightenment that we desperately need today. I refer to the individualism of the Enlightenment because I want to stress that I am not defending the expressive or subjectivist individualism of the 1960s: the do your-own-thing, let-it-all-hang-out, Woodstock spirit that celebrated the primacy of emotion.
Individualism Rooted In Reason
The individualism we need is that which sees the rational faculty as the essential characteristic of human beings, and rationality as the primary virtue.
The problems of responsibility we see today are, at root, problems of irrationality. One of the recurrent themes in studies of criminals, for example, is their extremely short time-horizons, their inability to make the future real. The entitlement mentality is sustained by wishful thinking—the belief that one's desire for a good entitles one to it—and indeed by magical thinking—the belief that government can provide the goods out of some bottomless well. The flight from responsibility is sustained by the willingness to ignore cause and effect: to ignore the fact that actions have consequences, and the fact that goals cannot be achieved without effort.
Rational people understand that the long-range benefits of trade, cooperation, communication of ideas, and other forms of social intercourse require respect for the rights of others. They do not expect government to spend more on services than it takes in in taxes. They do not expect to earn an income without offering skills and hard work in return. They do not conceive and bear children they cannot care for. Conservatives and communitarians may well be right that the problems we face today were caused in part by the cultural changes of the 1960s. But if so, the culprit is the rampant subjectivism of that era, not its individualism.
A Selfish Philosophy?
Individualism, even of the rational variety, still puts the individual first. It maintains that individuals are ends in themselves who have the right, morally as well as politically, to pursue their own happiness. The only general, unchosen obligation we have to others is to respect their rights....
Is this a selfish philosophy? Yes it is, in the proper sense of selfishness, one that is founded on a valid concept of self. I said before that human beings have spiritual as well as material needs. We need purposes that give meaning and direction to our lives, and we need a sense of efficacy and self-esteem, a sense that we are competent to meet the challenges of life. In this respect, many of the moral problems we see today are outward signs of an inner emptiness, an inner selflessness. The increasing rate at which young people are committing suicide—hardly a selfish act—is only the most obvious example...
I do not have children, but if I did, these are the moral lessons I would want them to learn: Develop your mind so that it is a tool you can rely on to make your own decisions, and not have to rely blindly on others. Remember that facts are facts, not to be evaded. Learn to think long-range, so that you can take account of the consequences of your actions, and plan for long-range goals like a career or a family of your own. Learn to think in principles, and act on principle, so that you do not sacrifice your reputation and self-esteem to some short -term gain. Above all, remember that your life is yours to live as you choose. Your happiness is an end in itself. There is no one else to whom you must answer or justify yourself, and no one else to blame for your problems.
If these were the values being communicated to young people, if these were the values embodied in our culture, I am convinced we would have fewer criminals. We would have fewer babies produced by young men who are never heard from again and young women who lack the financial and psychological resources to be parents; fewer teenagers waiting passively for life to happen, killing time with drugs and one-night stands; fewer people who measure their worth by money, power, or prestige; fewer people demanding goodies from government. We would live in a better society, as well as a freer one....
Originally Published in IOS Journal Volume 4 Number 3 • September 1994