"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Culture of Morality

One of the continuing debates in America is that concerning the persistence of dysfunctional communities, particularly in urban centers.  One one side of the issue are those who state that the causes of this dysfunction are purely exogenous – that is caused and perpetuated by others.  Persistent racism is often cited as an example of such factors – inner-city minority residents cannot escape the cycle of poverty and immobility because they are still prevented from doing so by the white majority.  Nothing much has changed since the days of slavery, and white, elite oppression is at the heart of community problems. 

An equally frequent, but more insidious claim of those who espouse the ‘other’ argument is that government, has failed in its responsibility to develop the programs that can enable these communities to improve – i.e. to provide better education, health care, and social welfare.  If only ‘we’ got serious about improving the lot of all people in America and finally invested significant resources to address the problems of crime, drug addiction, broken families, indifferent learning, social antipathy, and lack of enterprise, the problems would go away. 

On the other side are those who say that it is because dysfunctional communities have not espoused the moral values and principles which have been at the heart of every civilization – honesty, fairness, justice, equality, respect, honor, and valor – they have not evolved and progressed.  Unless these communities adopt majority values and adhere to majority norms, they will be perpetually consigned to ignorance, poverty, and stagnation.  These values, advocates say, were incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  The Founding Fathers, children of the Enlightenment, knew that that reason, discipline, and respect for family, community, and country were absolute prerequisites of modern democracy.  The famous individualism of America was only worth something if it was exercised in the name of community strength.

These advocates reject the idea of the ‘other’ – that is because of persistent racism, government neglect or the callous indifference of the wealth that cause and/or perpetuate urban poverty. While certain endemic issues, such as racial prejudice may exist, it is wrong to assume that it is the fundamental cause for lack of economic and social achievement perpetuates a culture of entitlement and dependency.  The election of a black president, the accession of black mayors all over the country, racial inter-marriage, and the gradual, progressive, but unmistakable representation of minorities in the professions, business, and academia give lie to the conviction that racism has not decreased.  Furthermore, there are few people (other than in the Deepest South) who would today object to have Barack Obama or Colin Powell live next door.  It is obvious that social class, education, breeding, and most importantly espousal of majority norms and values trump race.

These same advocates for moral values reject the idea that government is the solution, and in fact bemoan the billions of taxpayer dollars that have been invested in the wrong programs, at the wrong time, for the wrong people.  There is no point in investing additional money in education if despite 50 years of trying, inner city schools are little better off than the were before the sluice gates were opened by Lyndon Johnson.  Job programs are band aids for youth that have never been educated either in school or more importantly at home and have never learned the real skills for which employers are looking – honesty, hard work, discipline, and respect.  Social programs often touted as successes of government intervention, like Head Start or public pre-school are well-meaning failures.  Children who graduate from these ambitious programs go right back into broken families and irresponsible communities.

Eliot Turiel the University of California, Berkeley in his The Culture of Morality, http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam033/2001037820.pdf has suggested that after the social upheavals of the 1960s and the significant achievements made in the area of civil rights, the community activism that characterized that era dissipated, and through the subsequent years of progressive individualism, no coherent social philosophy emerged.  The social programs of the Great Society muddled along without much investment and oversight while conservative political philosophies celebrating individual freedom emerged; yet little serious thinking was carried out to link the two.  Perhaps most importantly, the issue of moral values was almost totally absent.  The self-styled ‘progressives’ felt that a focus on such values was archaic and irrelevant, ignoring as it did the powerful social and historical forces that inevitably and ultimately shaped society.  Advocates for moral values were never taken seriously as social commentators and remained in their churches and synagogues. 

Too many Americans have failed to incorporate traditional values of the society, so they are unable to form the appropriate traits or habits of character and were unwilling to sacrifice personal freedom for the good of society.  Embedded in this perspective is the idea that adjustment to or acceptance of the norms, mores, standards, and practices of society is necessary.

Jefferson’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ meant exactly this – that individual desires and pursuits were only valid if they contributed to the ‘happiness’ or well-being of the group.  Self-centered behavior was antithetical to the establishment of American society.

Those who believed in the principles of the Republic and the ancient history from which they were derived were marginalized.  Individuals grew exorbitantly rich while the poor descended further into anti-social behavior.  The Eighties were not good times.

In recent years, however, the debate about the role of moral values has gone mainstream.  Academics like Allan Bloom and politicians like William Bennett were among the first to unequivocally state that the problem was not with government, it was the abdication of social and moral responsibility by communities themselves and the families who lived within them.  Perhaps most importantly, they argued, was the erosion of the American family.  Not only were marginal families unable to provide the economic support to their children, the chain to a long history of moral and social values which were the foundation of the Republic was broken.  ‘Family values’ were debunked by the liberal Left as code words for the dismantling of social engineering, for they turned people away from the support of the only game in town – government. 

In the early part of the 21st Century, the tide has turned.  Government programs are suspect, and family values elevated and moved to the fore. Bennett and others argued since the 90s that a change in ethos – i.e. a move from entitlement to responsibility and accountability – could only happen if the ruling elites supported it.  While there remains a residue of discredited Leftist university professors who continue to support government social engineering, political leaders have moved far closer to the camp of Bennett and Bloom. 

Not surprisingly even ‘progressives’ who are willing to concede the role of moral values in the equation of social development, have been so trained to think only in ‘otherness’ – the primordial and principle role of government – that they automatically assume that it is government who now must teach principles of duty, honesty, loyalty, etc.  Of course it is not government’s role to do this.  They have never been moral arbiters or preachers, nor should they be; and any attempts would be so bound by political correctness, rules and regulations, and the fear of lawsuits and community protest that they would never have a chance.

The important next question is, then, “If not government, then who?”  Unfortunately the very people who could make a difference in changing cultures of entitlement to cultures of responsibility and accountability have not done so.  It take more backbone to stand up and say that the problem is not with white people, the establishment, Wall Street, racism, or government but with ‘our community’ or more pointedly with ‘you’.  It takes political courage because there is no money attached to it.  For years if a preacher howled about the insufficiency of public programs (read: “and if you don’t do something about it, my flock will not vote for you”), funds came down the sluice.  Individual social responsibility has only long-term gain to be hoped for.

Another answer to the question is ‘The Market’.  Arguments have been made that with the influx of young, upwardly mobile whites into formerly marginal urban neighborhoods, they will pull up the rest – that their values will be adopted by the socially marginal.  Of course this is rarely the case.  Poor minority residents of gentrifying neighborhoods leave because of rising property values and rents, and schools become more and more majority ‘owned’.

The gentrification of urban neighborhoods, bringing money and majority norms and values is unlikely to be the catalyst for social change within them.  Poor families will leave, and wealthier families will enjoy the social and economic benefits of improved public schools.

In conclusion, it is about culture, moral values, and a return to the fundamental principles of the founders of the Republic.  The return to these values must come from the community itself; and if current leaders are reluctant to advocate such a return, then the changing demographics and economic landscape of cities may help.  Blacks are no longer a majority in Washington, DC, for example, and whites will exert more pressure on municipal administrations to reform – i.e. to stop the flood of unsupervised, unevaluated money (provided by the property taxes of these very white people) that has poured for decades into inner city communities.  If the fiscal crisis continues, then municipal administrations with or without white support will be forced to cut back on profligate public spending.

In other words, a return to moral values will be a result of many factors – a change in the political philosophy of ruling elites, academia, and church and religious leaders; changing demographics which favor the re-introduction of majority norms and values; increasingly limited financial resources for public spending; and a changing national electorate which is becoming more conservative and less tolerant of entitlement programs of any stripe.

Whatever the factors contributing to change, it is about time.

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