The rise of the dark and dangerous forces now ruling America cannot be understood in isolation. This Bushite regime should be seen, rather, as a symptom of a more general moral crisis in American society, of an erosion of the moral structures that historically have held American society together.
So I have been arguing for more than a year.
But the question arises: why now? Why should American society be faced with such a moral crisis at this time?
Jimi Hendrix, greatest rock guitarist of all time, embodied the genius and self-destructive tendencies of the Sixties Counterculture
But even if one accepted that “explanation,” the question would still have to be asked: why at this point in our national history? For like the Bushite regime, the Sixties too did not just happen to happen. That social upheaval, too, was the product of the larger set of social/cultural/economic/political forces swirling around in this society, and indeed in the larger world.
So, what has been distinctive about our times that would account for a general undermining of the integrity of the moral structures that –historically and traditionally (at least to a greater degree than in recent times)– have buttressed the order of American society?
I would propose that a major root of the breakdown can indeed be identified. There has emerged in our society a phenomenon that, being historically unprecedented, can therefore be adduced to explain this similarly historically unprecedented cultural development.
What is new and unprecedented is how affluent in recent generations we Americans, as a people overall, have become.
But, onemight wonder, this achievement of such affluence has arguably been for generations the central goal of American society. How can something Americans have wanted so much be the root of our present crisis?
It’s not that there is something intrinsically terrible or regrettable about affluence itself. The problem, rather, as I will argue here, is that our historically rapid rise to great affluence –to a level for the great mass of people never before seen in human history– poses a new, and as yet unmet, moral challenge to our culture.
Here, in brief, is the nature of the new challenge.
The Moral Psychology of Scarcity and Abundance
It is an old idea– that luxury somehow weakens a people, makes them “soft.”
The ancient Arab historian Ibn Kaldhun, for example, developed a theory to explain how successive waves of nomads would emerge out of the wilderness to conquer the more civilized cities of Arabia. The nomads were tough and hungry, he said, while the rulers of the cities, sated with luxury, were soft, lacking the toughness and discipline needed to defend themselves.
But once the newly-conquering nomads were ensconced in the privileged position of the conquerors, they too would be surrounded by luxury. Their children, growing up in luxury, would become softer, less disciplined, than their fighting forebears. And by the time the grandchildren inherited the kingdom, they were too weak to maintain their position; they became ripe for conquest by the next wave of marauders. And so, Kaldhun said, the cycle would go.
This notion of how “
Nero and Agrippina at the Roman Circus Maximus
This corrosion of moral discipline has occurred because affluence transforms the nature of the choices people face. By moving us from a life governed largely by necessity into a life that gives wide scope for desire, the rise of affluence compels us to make a new and unaccustomed kind of moral choice. And in this way, affluence puts us in need of new kinds of moral guidance for which the old strictures, developed under wholly different circumstances, are quite inadequate.
For virtually all of human history until very recently –actually within living memory– the great mass of people lived lives not so very far from the subsistence level. Even in the richest of countries –such as the United States in the first half of the twentieth century– the level of material wealth for the average person gave only very limited scope to the role of personal desire in their moment-to-moment, day-to-day way of living.
In other words, throughout history the great majority of people have lived lives governed by necessity. With the business of survival weighing heavily, people needed continually to be asking the question, “What is required of me?.” The question “What do I want?” was, by contrast, something of a luxury, a relative rarity in the fabric of people’s daily living.
This was how almost everyone lived during the millennia during which the traditional moral structures of our civilization were constructed. As a result, those moral teachings handed down to us by our cultural/religious traditions deal overwhelmingly with questions of duty and responsibility. And so this traditi0nal morality provides a well-developed set of guidelines for how to answer questions like, “What is required of me by virtue of my responsibility to others and to society and to God?”
Our traditional morality tells us not to steal or murder, it tells us to pay our debts, it tells us to do our jobs, it tells us of the virtues of hard work and patience and loyalty and honesty. It tells us, in other words, what is required of us by the surrounding world.
Although the realm of responsibility and duty remain an important part of life, people are now in a position to ask, much more than ever before, “What do I want?” They get to make choices, in other words, that are not about one’s obligation to meet external demands but about choosing among one’s own internal desires.
What do I want to do with my leisure time (now that I am no longer working from sun-up to sun-down, as so many of my ancestors had to do)?
What do I want to do with my disposable income (now that I no longer have to spend just about every cent I have, like my ancestors did, to take care of the bare necessities of life)?
What do I want to eat, and how much do I want to eat (now that I –unlike so many before me– have a wealth of different foods available to me, and enough of them so that I can eat until I choose to stop and not until the food runs out)?
For recent generations, this greatly widened scope for the satisfaction of desire has had an enormous impact.
A half century ago, in the post-World War II era, Americans knew they were the richest people in the history of the world. Typical American baby-boomers enjoyed a degree of comfort, choice, and luxury unknown to their parents (or, indeed, to any mass population in human history).
No wonder the baby-boom generation launched the counter-culture!
As the first generation raised in such widespread affluence, this generation intuitively understood that the old morality of duty and sacrifice no longer sufficed. Once the realities of life loosen the grim grip of necessit, it no longer makes sense to restrict and repress desire so fully as the old strictures dictate. And so the youth, in a combination of insight and folly, threw off the old moral discipline in the name of the judgment-free ethic of “If it feel’s good, do it.”
Desire should reign supreme, the counterculture declared, and thus was launched the culture war between one side that clung to the old-time morality and another that imagined moral discipline to be superfluous.
Most of those youth, however, had grown up in a tightly disciplined world, had therefore already internalized many of those disciplines, and thus were able, after their youthful fling, to put together reasonably well-ordered lives.
Meanwhile, in the years since then, the effects of affluence –both liberating and corrosive– have only deepened as the range of choices available to average Americans has expanded greatly. A child growing up in America in the past twenty years has had, on average, a far greater scope for the satisfaction of his or her desires even than that enjoyed by the average baby-boomer.
In just a few generations, then –barely an instant in terms of the usual timeframe of cultural evolution– the proportion of life governed by how people answer the question “What do I want?” has expanded enormously. Yet the moral tradition has not been able to adapt and grow with anything like a corresponding speed. And with the old ethic of duty doing little to guide people in making wise choices for themselves, Americans have been falling into that moral gap.
America has become, as a result, a culture of indulgence.
Yes, the greater scope for the satisfaction of personal desire has its important good aspects. It is a form of liberation for people not to have to base so much of their choice in life on sacrifice and duty. But in the absence of the guidance and discipline required to make these new choices wisely and well, this new freedom leads not to fulfillment but to self-indulgence. And self-indulgence –being the slave of one’s own impulses– is not liberation, but rather a new form of bondage.
The Need for an Ethic of Wise Choices
What’s needed is the wisdom to know which choices lead to mere gratification and which to true fulfillment, which will make one a lesser being and which will help the realization of one’s best potential. As much as duty and sacrifice, these also are dimensions of the good. And the achievement of these goods requires a discipline that freedom does not impose.
Necessity, by contrast, instills a kind of discipline.
Taken on a back-packing expedition, a group of pampered middle class kids learns to focus on what needs doing. If they do not attend to the business of preparing meals, they’ll have nothing to eat. If they don’t put up the tent carefully, it will get blown over in the wind and they’ll will spend the night shivering. If they don’t keep track of their things, they’re liable to lose them. If they don’t attend to which rocks will stay still and which will roll when stepped on, they’re liable to fall and get hurt.
When life is taken up with such basics, one learns the discipline of paying attention to one’s choices and making them carefully. The consequences of such choices are clear and impossible to disregard.
Such a life teaches the difference between a good choice and a bad choice, and thus a kind of moral discipline. In a community depending upon each other in the face of such necessities, people learn to govern their choices by such things as duty, responsibility, obligation. Such a life ingrains the habit of disciplining one’s impulses and desires in favor of something deemed superior to mere immediate gratification.
Our affluence –with its sudden widening of the scope given to the gratification of desire– has relaxed that focus, and thus undermined that habit.
Lacking a profound tradition to provide wise guidance for our relationship with desire, we Americans have been sliding into lives diminished by self-indulgence. Without a discipline to orient our choices toward some notion of the “Good,” the continual choosing of mere gratification can make us slaves to our impulses. Without a broader perspective on the consequences –for good or for ill– of our ways of pursuing happiness, our culture’s adventures into affluence have caused a general loosening of our hold upon the moral vision.
This loosening begins in our private lives, but then –because of the gradual replacement of the habit of responsibility by the habit of self-indulgence– inevitably moves outward into the wider world, eroding the allegiance to the good even in the realm in which our traditional morality has held sway.
The choices we make have consequences.
At the first level, the choices we make –even in matters that seem to bear only upon the person making the choices– effects what kind of person we become.
So, if we respond to an abundance of food by over-eating, we may become obese. Thus the much-reported rising epidemic of obesity –and of other unhealthful conditions associated with our over-indulgence of the foods containing excessive amounts of sweeteners, salt, and fats– stands as an emblem of how we can hurt ourselves with unwise, undisciplined choices.
If we respond to the abundance of media options by choosing those that appeal to our baser selves –spending our time with the most sensationalistic and coarse of cultural expressions– we train ourselves to yield to our lower impulses. We fail to embody the ideal of what we could be.
Accordingly, it is possible to track a change over the past two generations in the moral structures of everyday American consciousness by looking at the movement in our major theaters of cultural expression –television, films, popular music– toward the glorification and satisfaction of some of humankind's darker and least desirable inclinations.
The children and grandchildren of people for whom striving toward an ideal occupied a major aspect of their consciousness about the meaning of human life have trained themselves –and have been trained by the culture– to imagine that the satisfaction of appetite and impulse is life’s most fundamental purpose.
If we use our discretionary income to buy ourselves things that titillate but do not elevate, that we choose out of impulse rather than need, that are only about comfort and not about growth, then we diminish ourselves.
And so we see middle class Americans swimming in “stuff,” turning to “shopping” as one of life’s central activities, piling up possessions without finding any deep fulfillment in all these “choices” the marketplace gives them.
People have turned with increasing fervor, over this period, to traditional religions. But in the teachings of those traditi0ns one cannot find adequate guidance for how to make such choices. Thus the attempt to turn back the clock of human consciousness has not solved the problem of our moral chaos. But neither has America solved it by moving forward into a fuller vision of moral order.
And so, in America, the capacity of moral structures to channel human choices has weakened.
And thus now America has moved into a time of moral darkness. For the transformations of consciousness brought on by a lifetime of unguided choices ultimately impact also the wider world.
The habit of self-indulgence –of answering the question “What do I want?” in terms that make no distinction between “right desire” and “wrong desire”– cannot stop at the borders of the realm of the purely individual. It inevitably erodes also that other realm, the realm in which the tradition worked for centuries to discipline people to consider their responsibilities to others and to the good itself.
The ethic of self-indulgence enables people to saddle their descendants with their own debt, running up huge deficits in the national accounts. The habit of yielding to baser impulses makes it easier to support baser policies in the collective realm– wielding great national power without being constrained by a sense of obligation to provide reasoned justification, or to obey the accepted rules of conduct among nations. The failure to distinguish between those desires that are worthy of being satisfied and those that should be held in check by moral discipline can lead to a pervasive cynicism in society, a belief that human beings can never amount to anything anyway, thus opening the door still further to mere selfishness.
And now moral anarchy has opened the door to evil. The general weakening of moral structures has loosed the wolf from its cage. America slides toward fascism, in which the darkest impulses of greed and the lust for power, thinly disguised under a false righteousness, govern from the nation’s highest places.
Hence it is an urgent matter for us, as a society, to combine our affluence –with its wealth of choices– with an ethic that helps us know which wants we are wise to follow and which to deny as unworthy.
Teachers Good and Bad
In our quest for an ethic of wise choice, we don’t have to start completely from scratch. For one thing, there have been other people before us who have faced the opportunities and challenges of affluence: the aristocrats of earlier eras, sitting atop societies in which the impoverished masses labored to serve them. These people, too, confronted the challenge of finding the wisdom to elevate themselves above the decadence of self-indulgence. And indeed, that distinction between “right desire” and “wrong desire” is the intellectual and moral fruit of the aristocracy of ancient Greece.
And so some of the ancient philosophers –like Aristotle– might have something to offer us affluent Americans, at least a starting place for thinking about what kind of person we might wish to become, and what kind of choices we should make to craft ourselves into the best of our potential.
At present, though, the most powerful educational influence now operating in America has no such goals, and no such effects. I am talking about that mighty teacher– advertising.
Advertising is a highly developed technology of persuasion, operating largely in the services of a system that is all about buying and selling. For the overwhelming majority of the ads to which Americans are constantly exposed, therefore, the only distinction that matters is between choices that involve spending money and those that do not, and distinction between right desire and wrong desire is irrelevant. Indeed, as most of our spiritual traditions have taught that true fulfillment is not to be achieved through material acquisition, advertising is more likely to ally itself with wrong than with right desire.
Advertising not only teaches material values, it also teaches other ways of regarding life that run counter to our best traditions of wisdom and morality. It teaches a kind of self-preoccupation. You deserve it all. Treat yourself. It teaches an ethic of immediate gratification. By now, pay later. It teaches indulgence. Eat this, it is sinfully delicious.
Thus any cultural revolution to supply the missing ethic of wise choice must overcome the influence of one of the most expert and most abundantly funded molder of contemporary consciousness. And with the most powerful institution in America profitting from the culture of indulgence, it is hard to see where a comparable force is to be found to drive the advance of wisdom to discipline Americans’ approach to the satisfaction of desire.
American society does contain other institutions that might help with this shaping of the new dimensions of moral discipline, this new ethic of wise choice. There are schools, churches, families, the media of ideas. At present, all these are deeply contaminated with the forces of moral anarchy, and some also with the darker forces that this moral anarchy has allowed to rise into positions of great power.
But cultures can renew themselves and grow in various ways. The teachings that comprise our the moral traditions of our ancient traditions took a long time to develop out of the cruelties of history, but emerge they did out of the human drive to live well-ordered and fulfilling lives, and out of the social evolutionary imperative for cultures to craft what works for the long haul. For the development of this new supplementary moral vision, we must rely upon those same driving forces.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
The changes that are needed, like everything deep and fundamental in culture, will take time.
And so we ought not flagellate ourselves over our failure yet to meet this moral challenge. Because of the magnitude of the cultural renovation our new circumstances require of us, our inability to accomplish this readily is entirely understandable . Our affluence, that is, requires of us such a deepening and broadening of our moral understanding –such a major cultural revolution in long-standing ideas about the good in human life– that it is wholly to be expected that it would take generations to negotiate the transition.
Nonetheless, there are already some emergent signs of the emergent ethic. In this still-increasingly obese society, we can also see the emergence of an ethic of regular exercise and of healthful eating. In the midst of our trashy culture, there are signs of opposition to the debasement of the human spirit, and the emergence of other forms of expression that elevate rather than degrade. In the midst of our still unchecked materialism and self-indulgence, there has emerged and ethic of voluntary simplicity. And, in the realm of social responsibility, even as SUVs increasingly dominated the American vehicle fleet, the demand for more environmentally responsible hybrids has outpaced some manufacturer’s ability to produce them.
Given time, the culture might well catch up with the new material circumstances of affluence. Given time, and if our affluence proves sustainable for the coming generations, our culture will likely succeed in developing an ethic of wise choice as fully developed as that ethic of duty it must supplement to create a moral vision adequate to our need. Given time, the culture will supply a discipline to help guide people toward a fulfillment deeper than mere consumerism can offer. And given time, people will integrate that inner discipline with their responsibilities toward other people and with the needs of the wider world.
First Things First
The task of that cultural transformation must, however, await our meeting the more immediate crisis–the fascist threat represented by the present American regime.
Even if it is so, as I have argued elsewhere — that the rise of fascism is a consequence of a general moral loosening; and even if it is so, as I argue here, that this moral loosening is the result of the inadequacy of our cultural tradition for disciplining and guiding our uses of our new-found affluence; the immediate need is to turn back these forces of darkness so that they cannot imprint their brutal and hollow vision onto the evolving nature of our society.
The house needs renovation. But it’s burning now, and first we must put out the fire.
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Dr. Andrew Bard Schmookler is a prize-winning author, radio commentator and public policy analyst. He is the creator and author of the website None So Blind, which is devoted to understanding the roots of America's present moral crisis and the means by this present challenge can be met. He can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org. Schmookler does regular talk radio shows -in both red and blue states -- discussing the questions of meaning and value that we face in our lives. Dr. Schmookler's most recent book is “Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide”, which explores some of the basic issues that underly this country's current polarization.