You may remember that the Catholic Church has blamed the “moral laxness” of modern society for the actions of pedophile priests and the bishops that covered for them. The usual version has it that the liberalism that was emblematic of the sixties counter culture has pervaded society, and we’re all now moral relativists.
I haven’t heard any representatives from Penn State use this argument, but David Brooks has stepped into the breach, offering his own pseudo-sociological take. It started on Meet the Press, where he dropped this insight:
MR. BROOKS: I don’t think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, “If it feels all right for you, it’s probably OK.” And so that waters everything down. The second thing is a lot of the judgment is based on the supposition that if we were there, we would have intervened.
It continued in an editorial titled Let’s All Feel Superior, in which he hopes to knock us liberals off our high horse:
People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside.
“In centuries past …” Merciful Moloch, this man has a history degree from the University of Chicago, yet he’s trying to hang a historical argument on a vague line like “in centuries past.” The only saving grace is that he was born in Canada, so the US doesn’t have to shoulder all the blame.
Alright, let’s look at this. If we’re talking about human weakness and sinfulness, there’s a definite Protestant flavor there, so those centuries must come after the Protestant revolution. And if we’re talking about rationally constructed systems of morality, we’re probably dealing with the high Enlightenment. So let’s say that “centuries past” means about three hundred years.
Have the past three hundred years been noted for their high moral tone? Quite the opposite, actually. I look at the wars, the exploitation and the genocide. If there’s a moral system that has produced all of that, I’d as soon live without it. If Brooks is going to argue that we were better off, he’s going to have provide more of an argument.
A second problem shows up in the phrase “… people built moral systems …” The people who are flawed are the same people who create, interpret and enforce those moral systems. Not surprisingly, those moral systems are flawed, their interpretation is self-serving and their enforcement tends to fall on those with the least social power.
In American history, those systems always involved hierarchies: man above woman, white above black, Christan above Jew, Protestant above Catholic, and so on. We’re all flawed, but it seems that some of us are more flawed than others, and the least flawed always seem to be the ones running the system. These systems were torn down because they perpetuated these hierarchies in the name of morality.
Unfortunately, I have a hunch that Brooks considers these hierarchies a feature and not a bug. Corey Rubin’s book The Reactionary Mind is making waves because he suggests that, “Historically, the conservative has favored liberty of the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders.” I suspect that Brook’s main problem with liberalized morality is that it is decentralized, which prevents the upper class from assuming its natural position as the arbiter of what is right and good.
A Christian student group at UT Dallas asked, “What would Jesus say if he came back today?”
Here was one clever response…
This is a pretty funny conversation between an atheist and Christian on the show “Community”:
But to be fair, people without gods kill people, too. The point is gods have nothing to do with it.