Are We Morally Bankrupt - A Look At American Ethics and Morals
Is America Morally Bankrupt?
A good question, and there will inevitably be a very wide range of answers and reasons for those answers. Some will answer based on their religious beliefs, some will answer based on a desire for socialism and redistributing the wealth of our nation and some answers will be based on old, outdated concepts that never should have been included in a moral code in the first place.
As a nation, we are most definitely not morally bankrupt. We give more to the helpless or those in need than any nation on earth. We can and do show an enormous amount of compassion for people suffering from an illness or accident. We continue to promote the highest levels of ethics as we perceive them.
Nevertheless, we are on a downward slope as a group and as individuals. On the surface we claim a high ethical standard, but seldom make even a good faith effort to maintain the ethics we claim. It starts with the little things, the hidden actions that we hope won't be discovered, but almost inevitably progresses to a way of life and these things are all too soon rationalized as being OK. It often starts with actions that we don't even recognize as being unethical or only very marginally so.
Take a moment, please, to consider the following short paragraphs - to think about them and to perhaps let others know what you think.
We Enact Laws, But Don't Follow Them
An enormous percentage of our population is in jail or prison. The US Government reports that 1 out every 142 people are currently incarcerated, and other sources indicate that nearly 3% of Americans have been in jail at one time or another. This means that someone you know has probably been to jail at some time. That's a little hard to fathom - that nearly everyone knows someone that has done something serious enough to warrant jail time.
On top of that are the millions that are convicted each year of offenses not severe enough for jail. Speeding, for instance - as a group we have decided on speed limits, but how many actually follow them? Or do we all violate them "just a little" and hope we get away with it?
The list is almost endless here - it is against the law to smoke marijuana in most states (although that is slowly changing) but millions upon millions do it anyway. It is against the law to text while driving in most states, but that doesn't stop us from putting others at risk of death by doing it. It is illegal to drive drunk, but a DUI is perhaps the most common severe violation on the roads. It is illegal to drive a motorcycle or ATV in many areas, but tire tracks and ruts tell a different story. It is illegal to offer or accept bribes, but thousands of politicians and cops do just that every day (changing "bribe" to "campaign contribution" might make it legal, but never right).
Does this sound right to you? To follow all the laws that your society has enacted that you like or don't care about and violate the others? To violate laws intentionally, but just enough that you can get away with it? Is this a part of our ethical or moral structure now - that we have implicitly agreed to live together as a society (one that requires laws to function) but refuse to follow the laws we don't like?
Immorality As Commonplace Actions
We seem to have become a nation of people that commonly perform actions that we know are immoral or unethical - we just don't care anymore. Consider the following examples:
- Fifty years ago we didn't lock our homes or cars - we didn't have to. Now, you are inviting disaster by that action, and it won't be the career criminal that steals. It will be someone just passing by that sees that nice Ipod on the seat of your unlocked car and grabs it. Construction job sites are a huge attraction; literally tons of valuable merchandise disappear each year as well as small hand tools owned by the workers. Growing up 50 years ago our (unlocked) home was broken into just once - by a 4 year old neighbor looking for a playmate. Now, two of my grandchildren had their new bicycles stolen within a week of Christmas - left outside overnight instead of locked away in the garage they didn't stand a chance. What has happened that petty theft as increased to such phenomenal levels?
- Banks and stores now have to chain up their 25 cent pens at the counter or they disappear in such quantities that it affects even large businesses. Stores must spend tens of thousands each year to keep their merchandise from disappearing out the door under someone's coat. Do we think that it's OK to steal if the theft is small?
- We intentionally, and without caring, put others at grave risk while benefiting little or nothing ourselves. This, of course, refers to driving drunk, driving while texting, or other actions that have grimly proven to kill innocent people. Few of us would pull out a gun and shoot someone because they interfered with our inane conversation with a third person; is there really that much difference between that and raising the risk of their dying by a considerable amount because we just have to send a text message right now?
- There are very few of us that haven't been taught that plagiarism is wrong - it is not only immoral but illegal as well. Yet this single writing site, HubPages, has articles like this one stolen each day and published elsewhere without permission. These are not isolated incidents - it happens thousands, if not millions of times daily and this writer spends hours each month filing claims against such thieves. Plagiarism is a constant problem in the learning institutions of our country, and teachers are constantly failing students for doing it. Is theft of intellectual property then no longer immoral? Or have we become so jaded and lazy that we just don't care any more?
- We don't keep our word very well any more. Most married couples have promised to "love and cherish" forever. Not until they get tired or bored of their mate. Now we can't expect every marriage to succeed for a lifetime, but with a divorce rate of over 50% it would seem that few people actually intend to even try anymore. Or have you ever promised to call someone without having the slightest intention of doing so? Our politicians make promises that they know very well they won't or can't complete - why are they not called on it? We make promises to our children just to shut them up with no intention of following through. We make promises even to ourselves while knowing we will fail to keep them (quit smoking, new years resolution, lose weight, etc.). What's happened here?
None of these are big things in themselves, but they all point to the same thing - we really do know the difference between right and wrong, moral or immoral - we just don't seem to care much about our personal integrity any more.
Do Unto Others
Do unto others as you would they do unto you - the so called "golden rule" of morality. Most people put that particular moral code fairly high on their list, and so they should. It is the basis for most moral codes concerning interpersonal relationships or dealings and nearly every culture has a form of it. Simply treat other people the same as you would like to be treated. The golden rule has been a part of human society for a long time, and is even referenced in the books of Matthew and Luke in the bible.
So how do we do there? Well, we insist that gay marriage (that doesn't affect straight people at all) not be allowed because we don't like the idea for ourselves or because our religion forbids it for us. Demanding that others submit to our personal beliefs in how they should live their lives is common and is, as our society continues to diversify in its belief systems, growing. No one wants someone else defining how they should live or believe - why do we do the same thing?
We demand, under force of law, that others pay for our government through "sin" taxes and other taxes that target politically weak groups that benefit little or nothing from these taxes. Things like motel room taxes or enormous cigarette taxes. The traveler using the motel doesn't benefit from the new city park paid for from room taxes, and the smoker doesn't benefit any more than a non smoker from government services purchased from his cigarette taxes. Would we like to be in such a targeted group, forced to pay extra for public services to benefit all? No? Why do we do it to others then? The "earmarks" our congress is so fond of are another example of this - get the rest of the country to pay for a new museum for us, or a new bridge we would find convenient. Those earmarks are under constant attack as immoral and wrong, but they somehow keep popping up. We all want our "goodies" to be paid for by someone else and will legislate it if possible.
Fox News reports of an incident where a Pagan Mom found her child bringing home a bible from school. Told that the school would make available any religious literature donated by anyone, she took a box of Pagan spell books to the school for any child that wanted one. Strangely enough, the school policy very promptly changed to not allowing any religious literature to be given out. Why is it that we are more than willing to promote our own faith to captive audiences in schools or government, but don't want anyone else doing it? Recently, the Idaho state legislature opened the session with its first Hindu prayer - several senators walked out, "making a statement" that while prayer from their own religion was wonderful, no other beliefs need apply. Do we consider what it would be like on the other end of such misguided policies - did we treat that mother as we would like to be treated? Was it ethical to belittle or disparage another's religious beliefs simply because they don't match our own? Somehow, our personal religious beliefs trump any morality issue we have all too often.
The short and long of this powerful and important moral rule is that we generally do a poor job of following it.
Variations of the Golden Rule
Christian: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
Hindu: Let not any man do unto another any act that he wisheth not done to himself by others, knowing it be painful to himself.
Confucian: Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
Buddhist: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.
Jewish: What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man.
The Bottom Line Of Morality Bankruptcy
When it comes to the end of the day, when we begin to add it all up, one of the things that must be considered is that moral concepts and structures change. They never remain static for very long, and when we try to compare our current moral acceptance to that of the past we must remember this. Slavery was quite moral in the past, while a beach bikini would have shocked great grandma nearly to death. Racism was not only rampant, it was quite accepted as a very moral attitude and when the Christian majority impressed their belief on the nation by printing the words "In God We Trust" on our money in the 1950s it was considered quite appropriate, as was inserting the words "under God" into the pledge of allegiance to our country. Spousal and particularly child abuse was common as both were often beaten savagely in a "necessary" effort to maintain control. Women in particular were second class citizens if considered a citizen at all.
None of these would be considered acceptable today and we have come a long way from the (now) misguided attitudes and ideas of the past. In this respect our nation has become far more civilized, and we have a much superior moral structure.
The problem is that all too often we only pay lip service to these great morals that we proclaim to be important to us. When push comes to shove, when the chips are down, we revert to mistreating anyone and everyone that gets in our way. We shoplift from stores (steal) simply for the adrenaline high we get. We demand that others live their private lives as we think they should, and don't care one whit what they think. The very leaders of our great nation lie to us on a daily basis, and the corporations we support with our hard earned money seek to deceive us with nearly every ad they put out (think small print that no one reads and that older people can't even see). As a society we enact tax laws designed solely to make someone else pay for what we want. The state of Idaho recently completed a multi-million dollar renovation of their statehouse, paid for 100% from cigarette taxes collected from a small minority of the population. And they're proud of making that small, politically weak, minority pay for a project to benefit everyone in the state!
Moral? I think not. Advertisements that are intended, and work hard, to induce us to believe something that is not true is a lie whether the actual words are true or not. Political lies are the same; spinning the truth to give a false impression is a form of lying even when the actual words are still true. So called "sin" taxes such as alcohol or cigarette taxes are nothing more than a transparent attempt to force others to live as we think they should, while also gaining "free" money for the benefit of the majority.
We can proclaim moral superiority to our ancestors in the morals we claim to be ours, but not so much in how well we adhere to them. We have a long way to go in that respect yet, and it seems to be getting worse. Like the laws we don't approve of, morals are for everyone else - not me. It's too much work and much too difficult (and restrictive) to do what I know is the right thing to do. In this respect at least, we are indeed morally bankrupt. We desperately need to do more than just talk about how great our moral structure is - we need to actually follow the guidelines therein.
What do you think?
Is America morally bankrupt?
© 2012 Dan Harmon