The Four Moral Cultures

A sense of foreboding has darkened my skies these last few weeks, fueled in part by what I see in the news and in part by what’s closer to home.

I’ve always been one to assume the best in people. That optimism is no longer sustainable.

Without centering in on any one issue, it’s clear from a few moments of watching network television at any time of the day or night that the nation has reached a new nadir of widespread stupidity and evil—and this despite serious competition from the last several decades.

There are dark signs closer to home as well. For the past couple of years I’ve taught ethics to professional masters’ students. This effort has shown me just how little young Americans know about, think about, or care about right and wrong.

But foolishness amongst students, villainy among the famous and powerful, and bloodlust among the masses is anything but new. So what has brought this sense of foreboding now?

It occurred to me this morning that what is happening now is a particular kind of corner-turning that is new—at least for America, and at very least in the last 70 years. We are at a tipping point between the moral culture we have sustained since—so far as I can tell—the 1940s into a moral culture that I don’t believe America as a society has plumbed before.

This intuition hinges on the thought—a mere hypothesis—that there are four moral cultures to which a society can subscribe. The corner we are turning is the change from one of these four moral cultures to another.

The highest moral culture would be the Society of the Good. This is a theoretical culture—I don’t believe history has seen it. But it fuels much of our perceptions and ambitions about how people should interact and live, and so although it is never present it is always with us. A Society of the Good is a perfect society—perfect specifically in a moral sense. Imagine a community in which everyone is selfless, everyone is loving, everyone seeks the best for others. Imagine that you were such a person that in every circumstance you carefully considered and actually carried out the Golden Rule—do to others what you would have them do to you—regardless of the cost to yourself, and that every other member in the society was also that sort of person.

Again this is a dreamed-of community, not a real one. Every attempt to actually create it has ended in failure—often spectacularly. But the fact that such a society has never been formed—indeed, that such people have never been found—does not invalidate the beauty and goodness of the vision. It is—with some variation—the “heaven” hoped for by several of the major religions. Gene Roddenberry wished for it through his Star Trek TV series. It is also Rivendell, and holy elves are its citizens.

Ours is an age of sneering, so even to mention such a community or to characterize it as “high”—as if it were somehow above other ways of living together—is to invite ridicule and even an odd sort of reprobation. But until recent decades, American culture as a whole would have recognized the value of the dream and aspired to advance it if they could.

The Society of the Good is the first moral culture, the most aspirational, the highest and best. The second moral culture, therefore, is one step in descent from the Society of the Good.

In the second culture, people recognize and admire moral perfection, praise it in others, and seek it in themselves. But because each finds some evil as well as good in his or her own heart and actions, they recognize that their society is flawed and fragile. This is the Society of the Contrite. In this society, although people do commit evil, they recognize and confront it in themselves and in others. Evil is forgiven but not condoned. Confession in some form is a major feature of this society, and humility its chief virtue.

The Christian church aspires to be this sort of community. The tax collector who beats his breast—”God have mercy on me, the sinner!”—and Paul the repentant arch-sinner are its paragons. Yet the church seems only rarely to achieve and only briefly to sustain this vision. The grace required to address evil firmly but without judgment seems to fade from even the best communities. Self-knowledge too quickly corrupts to self-debasement, awareness of evil to legalism, spiritual discipline to physical flagellation, and confession to gossip. Yet the ideal—again—does represent something good. And in places some communities have, for a time, approached this ideal closely.

The third moral culture is the offspring of the second—sometimes literally. The children of morally and religiously careful parents often maintain many of the public behaviors associated with their inherited religion while surreptitiously discarding its ideals. For these children, good behavior ceases to be a passion and instead becomes a matter of avoiding the wrath of parents and other authorities. This subversion of moral aspiration to mere moral conformity creates the Society of the Furtive. The moral lives of its constituents are marked most strongly by a sense of shame, which arises from the conflict between the desire to “fit in” by being seen to do good while secretly enjoying behaviors that the society labels as wicked.

The film American Graffiti depicts the morally ambivalent and furtive culture of teenagers in the early 60s being raised by the careful moralists who had fought self-sacrificially in World War II. (Yes, I’m painting in broad strokes. Not every soldier fought self-sacrificially. Not every parent of the 50s and 60s was a moralist. But the culture, on the whole, was concerned with morals and viewed World War II as a moral victory.) The children of the original American pilgrims offer another vivid example. Though their parents left hearth and home and literally crossed the sea to form an idealistic Christian “city on the hill,” the children raised in this society held this ideal with much less passion. “Waywardness” and fears about secret sins dogged the second generation.

Before I move on from the Society of the Furtive, let me be clear that this is not a good or admirable society. It is characterized by pretense, legalism, hypocrisy, and moral confusion. No religion and no religious leader aspires for this. And it is the Society of the Furtive that we are now swiftly leaving behind.

But what we are taking up is even more troubling. This is a society where good is not only neglected but reviled. It is a society where evil is not merely confessed, nor merely hidden, but is joyously celebrated. This is the Society of the Evil—a society in which good and evil have, almost completely, flipped around—yin for yang—each mistaken for the other. It is a society of the evil because—quite pointedly—it is a society consisting of evil people in the full sense of the word: people who can no longer recognize good, who don’t want to recognize good, who openly despise good, and who busy themselves by constructing the biggest arena for evil they can.

It might be called, perhaps a bit less provocatively, the Society of the Free, and this would also help explain how it happens. When freedom becomes the central moral tenet of a society, then that society has taken the last step into depravity. Freedom!—such a beautiful word. And yet as capable of subversion as any other.

When freedom becomes corrupt, it becomes—ironically—the most rigid of laws. My freedom to do what I want trumps any action you might take, any comment you might make. “Stop talking to me!” freedom says. “How dare you say or even think I’m wrong!” Freedom sets up as tyrant, crushing all other moral discourse. Under its regime, anyone can do anything except what is good or loving or right. Under freedom there can be no confrontation except to silence those who believe in something (other than freedom), defend something (other than freedom), or advocate something (other than freedom). Freedom enslaves every word, every thought. Freedom rules over all.

In this climate, good and evil quickly lose all meaning. The thrill of self-determination is the only good; limitation the only evil. All moral reasoning reduces to, “Who can stop me doing it?” When the answer is “no one,” I call it good. When the answer is, “People stronger than me don’t like it,” I call it bad. (I call nothing “evil.” Evil is a limiting word, designed to impinge others, and is therefore violently forbidden.)

It seems to me—it’s an intuition based on observation—that America is moving into enslavement to freedom with a fervor and speed that can only be called religious. This has surprised me. The nation is thrilled with itself—ecstatic and throbbing as it ritually cuts the throats of old laws and definitions and mores. “Never mind what people thought twenty years ago and for untold centuries before. Those are the old days. Those people were unenlightened. Evolution has cursed them. We are the blessed ones, the enlightened, the Evolved. Our eyes can see what no eyes before ever beheld!”

What fills them with joy fills me with dread. They don’t see where enslavement to freedom leads. History has taught this lesson clearly. But history is dismissed as small-minded and its voice is quashed.

A Society of Evil cannot last. It will come under judgment. Calamity falls. And the whole sordid affair—from the vile celebrations through the moral collapse to the expanding filth and violence to the final judgment—proves a horror for both the guilty and the innocent.

That’s what I dread. That is what darkens my skies.