Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Morality in America

David Brooks is upset about the moral character of working-class Americans:
David’s mother was basically absent. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he said. “I never really got to see my mom that much.” His dad dropped out of school, dated several woman with drug problems and is now in prison. David went to seven different elementary schools. He ended up under house arrest, got a girl pregnant before she left him for a drug addict.

Kayla’s mom married an abusive man but lost custody of their kids to him when they split. Her dad married a woman with a child but left her after it turned out the child was fathered by her abusive stepfather. Kayla grew up as one of five half-siblings from three relationships until her parents split again and coupled with others.
And so on, the sort of stories we all know.
The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. . . . But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Well, maybe. I am more impressed than Brooks by the relationship of all of this to economic trends. It seems to me that the root cause of working class decline is the inability to get decent jobs. Rather than lecturing people about their failings, I think the way to get them to knuckle down and get to work is to offer rewards that make knuckling down seem worth the effort. Who is going to transform his or her life for $8.50/hour? As that study of poor Cherokee families after they started getting casino money showed, nothing helps poor people turn their lives around like more money.

And if we're going to demand moral reform in America, how about we start at the top? Like, maybe by prosecuting Dick Cheney for war crimes? What is the moral lesson working-class Americans are supposed to draw from the fact that nobody has been prosecuted for the grossly illegal torture and abuse of terrorist suspects? Or for the Wall Street shenanigans that nearly trashed the world economy in 2008? "Virtue pays" seems to me a bit of a stretch.

To be fair to Brooks, he has written often against upper-class malfeasance, and he has long been on something of a crusade to keep the smartest young people from going to Wall Street. But I think any effort to convince people that virtue is necessary for success is going to shipwreck on the rocks of Kim Kardashian, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, CIA torture, AAA bonds backed by low end mortgages, and a politics that revolves around personal attacks, angry denunciations, misleading statistics, outright lies, and clannish loyalty to one's political tribe.

The lesson I draw from contemporary American life is that to be successful you should have only the virtues that help and none of the ones that get in the way.


pootrsox said...


Thank you!

G. Verloren said...

It's more of the age old argument - "The poor are only poor because they're lazy and immoral! The rich suceed because they're hard working and right-thinking!"

Pick an ethnic minority, you'll see this tired old argument rolled out by the majority. The English said it about the Irish, The Nazis said it about the Jews and the Poles, and until recently Whites in America openly said it about Blacks and Hispanics (and many certainly still say it less-than-openly).

Every new generation bemoans an imagined "decay of morality" within society, with people convincing themselves that anything which differs from their own narrows worldview is the root of all social ills and worldly evils.

Pick a civilization anywhere on the globe, at any point in history, and you find the same notion repeated time and time again - "The world is completely and totally fair! If your life is miserable, it must be because you're a bad person and therefor you deserve to suffer! You have only yourselves to blame!"

Unknown said...

Many poor communities seem to have plenty of churches and churchiness, so I imagine a lot of the folks Brooks is writing about grow up with goodly amounts of moral hectoring and good-evil dichotomizing. University relativism--which I suspect is the kind that really bothers Brooks--can have only the most indirect impact on the poor (e. g., in the training of social workers--and would moral hectoring be an effective technique of social work? I doubt it.).