Deciphering American Morality

Reviewed by Jeff Jacoby

One Nation, Two Cultures
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 192 pages.

“Of course I dislike the Nazis,” a student at Hamilton College in New York tells philosophy professor Robert Simon, “but who is to say they are morally wrong?” At Harvard too, James Q. Wilson encounters a reluctance on the part of students to condemn the Holocaust: “It all depends on your perspective,” one student tells him. Another comments: “I’d just have to see these events through the eyes of the people affected by them.”
Something has gone badly awry when students at prestigious institutions of higher learning cannot bring themselves to speak ill of the Final Solution. How America sank into such moral confusion and how it might climb out again is the theme of One Nation, Two Cultures, a concentrated cultural critique by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
It is no secret, Himmelfarb writes, that a lack of moral authority pervades contemporary American life. Americans consistently tell pollsters that “moral decay” or “moral decline” is one of the nation’s severest problems, and it is a belief that has grown more pronounced over time. In 1965, 52 percent of the public felt that “people in general do not lead lives as honest and moral as they used to”; by 1998 no fewer than 71 percent shared that view. Likewise, the proportion believing that “young people today do not have as strong a sense of right and wrong as they did 50 years ago” climbed from 46 percent in 1965 to 70 percent in 1998.
“It is not only conservatives… who now deplore the breakdown of the family; liberals do as well,” says Himmelfarb. No liberal or conservative “seriously disputes the prevalence (even glorification) of violence, vulgarity and promiscuity in videos and rap music, or denies their degrading effects.… Nor do many people today seriously doubt the inadequacy of education at all levels, or the fragility of communal ties, or the coarsening and debasement of the culture, or the ‘defining down’ of morality, public and private. It is no mean achievement to have reached at least this point of consensus.”
But while Americans may agree that society has been demoralized, many—perhaps most—are nevertheless unwilling to pass moral judgment on others. They shrink from appearing “judgmental” or “moralistic”—terms that are now used only as pejoratives. “They habitually take refuge,” Himmelfarb writes, “in such equivocations as ‘Who is to say what is right or wrong?’ or ‘Personally, I disapprove of pornography, but that is only my own opinion.’” Moral judgment has become so uncommon that its appearance is big news. When Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut used the word “immoral” in 1998 to describe President Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky, it made headlines around the country.
Yet the problem is not that Americans lack principles; it is that they feel they have no right to apply their principles to others. Thus, while 75 percent of the public believes that adultery is wrong, according to one recent survey, two-thirds of those who personally know women who have had adulterous affairs do not “think less” of them as a result. And what is true of the public generally is intensified among the young, particularly those who have been steeped in the ethos of multiculturalism prevalent in the educational system. (“If it is part of a person’s culture,” explains the instructor of one hospital course on multicultural understanding, “we are taught not to judge.”) And so college professors find their students “responding sympathetically to human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs or the scalping of enemies by Indians.” Or doubting whether the Nazis were “morally wrong.”
What happened?         
The conventional answer, especially among conservatives, is that the 1960s happened. Authority, tradition and sexual restraint were undone by a tsunami of social shocks: Civil rights, the pill, television, the anti-war movement, the swelling of the welfare state, the Baby Boom. Any one of these developments would have changed American life. All of them together fueled a cultural revolution that profoundly altered American society, as the old culture based on moral authority gave way to a new one based on permissiveness (or “tolerance”). In the new culture, traditional morality was no longer something to be enforced—not by government, not by civil society, not even by social pressure—but instead became a matter of “personal preference.” And as moral authority yielded to moral autonomy, vice became almost as respectable as virtue.
Himmelfarb accepts this conventional explanation, but her analysis goes further. The radicals of the 1960s, she points out, were raised during the 1950s. That was when the real seeds of change were sown. It was then that Dr. Spock’s views on child-rearing accustomed an entire generation to the principle of permissiveness. It was then that the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg first set the counter-culture stirring. It was then that the GI Bill doubled the number of students exposed to the intellectual trends of campus life, dramatically intensifying the effect of the new thinking on society’s moral instincts. And it was then that opposition to McCarthyism and the atom bomb gave many young adults their first taste of organized dissent.
All this happened in an era of burgeoning capitalism, when new wealth was enriching tens of millions of Americans. In Himmelfarb’s view, this new prosperity and the capitalist ethic which brought it about played a significant role in setting off the cultural explosions of the next decade. She cites Joseph Schumpeter, who had argued in 1942 that the very success of capitalism tends to subvert the society that makes it possible. “Capitalism creates a critical frame of mind,” he wrote, “which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own.” Decades before the rates of divorce and illegitimacy went through the roof, he foresaw that capitalism and the affluence it generated would threaten the “disintegration of the bourgeois family.”
Daniel Bell later refined the argument. While a free market cannot function without self-discipline and deferred gratification, he noted in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), the wealth it generates inevitably stimulates appetite, self-indulgence and an impatience with restraint. The outcome, sooner or later, is social degeneration. Endorsing this analysis, Himmelfarb declares that the success of capitalism has “taken its toll on the moral life of society”—indeed, she says, it has been “more destructive” than even Schumpeter could have anticipated.
Himmelfarb’s portrait of America’s moral decline is undeniably well-researched. But does capitalism really deserve to be blamed for today’s moral corrosion? The connection between affluence and decay is far from clear; in fact, it may be fairer to say that business is a bulwark against moral slovenliness. “Business has a vested interest in virtue,” writes Michael Novak, the renowned Catholic theologian, in Business as a Calling (1996). “It cannot endure without leaders and colleagues in whom many key virtues are internalized.… Business is dependent on the moral and cultural institutions of the free society.” Indeed, much of the popular literature on effectiveness and productivity that has appeared in recent years encourages precisely those traits which reinforce a moral order and which successful individuals often inculcate in their children: Self-restraint, responsibility, faith and order, as well as the ability to absorb and apply the wisdom of others. Hollywood typically caricatures capitalists as greedy villains, but the reality seems altogether different.
In short, the successful practice of business generally rewards moral rigor. It is no surprise that while American capitalism was, if anything, even more unbridled during the nineteenth century than during the twentieth, there was nothing like the decline in traditional standards or the flight from personal responsibility that are such hallmarks of contemporary society. Himmelfarb herself mentions that foreign visitors used to marvel at “the moral quality of the domestic lives of Americans.” Values and habits that would come to be known as “Victorian” were deeply rooted in American behavior long before that term was coined, and they remained rooted well into the twentieth century, even as the United States became a wealthy and powerful industrial state.

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