← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Why Is the World in Moral Decline?

photograph of dark alley with sunlit street in background

It isn’t. But apparently it feels that way to most people. According to investigators Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert, people everywhere (or at least in sixty different nations) have consistently believed for seventy years that the world is declining morally – that people are getting ethically worse as they get older, and that every succeeding generation is morally worse than the one before it.

Except that if you ask people other questions like, “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” or “Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?” or “During the past 12 months, how often have you carried a stranger’s belongings, like groceries, a suitcase, or shopping bag?” you get very different answers. Mastroianni and Gilbert say, in other words, “that when people are asked to assess the current morality of their contemporaries, their assessments do not change over time.” So, if you ask people if society is declining morally and people are worse than they used to be, a startling 84% say, “Yes.” But if you ask them about how they’ve personally been treated lately the answers people gave in 1949 pretty much match what people say in 2023. Hence the title of Mastroianni and Gilbert’s paper, “The Illusion of Moral Decline.”

I have encountered a lot of anecdotal evidence that people believe that morality is declining, and Mastroianni and Gilbert cite more. In fact, I have heard plenty of people claim everything is declining, all the time. What is new to me is that people’s contemporaneous reports about their actual experiences with other people belie this narrative of decline. How can we explain this?

I would argue that human beings are pervasively influenced by various archetypal narratives. Here are two really powerful ones. The narrative of progress – that, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” – has had tremendous influence. But the narrative of moral decline goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and that apple. (Lest you think it’s only a Christian phenomenon, the Ancient Greeks also thought everything and everybody was getting worse.) There is, however, no narrative of stasis. People usually think that things are mostly getting better or mostly getting worse.

But even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why the majority gravitate toward the latter rather than the former – that morality should be thought to be in decline, specifically, rather than progressing. The explanation that Mastroianni and Gilbert give for this illusion is based on how two psychological phenomena come together: “biased exposure effect” and “biased memory effect.” Biased exposure effect says people pay more attention to negative information about other people. The media, especially the new media, may amplify this effect. “If it bleeds, it leads” was supposed to have been the motto of the most influential newspaper publisher in American history. But negativity, even violence, still seems to generate more interest on screens. Biased memory effect, alternatively, goes the other way. People recall positive events more, forget or misremember negative events, and to the extent they recall negative events tend to have lost their emotional impact. You may have experienced meeting someone who we once had a conflicted relationship with, but discovering you now share a warm nostalgia for positive events you share and forget about the bad times.

So, when people look around at what is currently going on the negative aspects of things, the bad things that happen have more salience for them. However, when they think of the past it seems much better to them now than it did at the time. But when you ask people specific questions about what they have recently experienced, those experiences aren’t all that different from what people experienced in the past.

I don’t want to argue with any of this – I am not an empirical psychologist. But I wanted to bring one thing to the forefront that seems to be lurking behind. There’s always a problem when doing empirical work on normative or moral issues. Most famously, in studying moral development Lawrence Kohlberg asserted that people who follow Kant’s moral theory are more morally well-developed than consequentialists. But that only makes sense if you have already won the argument about Kant’s theory being the best available. Try telling a utilitarian that they only believe that view because they are not as morally well-developed as Kantians. Given our very different perspectives, how should we go about quantifying moral decline?

Mastroianni and Gilbert give a pretty plausible account of the core of morality when they ask people if other people have shown them respect or have been helpful. But suppose I have the view that any marriage except between one man and one woman is morally wrong or that doctors who help people medically transition from one gender to the other are butchers. I might think then that while people are still relatively nice, they are morally bankrupt in ways no one would have even thought of in the past. Or suppose I think abortion is the key to women’s autonomy and without robust protections around it, women will not be counted as fully-human. I might think that Dobbs v Jackson shows the world in precipitous moral decline. Whether or not you think the world is in moral decline depends on how we define moral decline. Again, it’s perfectly possible to think that in one-on-one interactions people are generally fine, but that, overall, things are worse because people are morally corrupt in other ways.

Is there a way to generalize this effect? What if the older people get, the more they tend to get morally conservative in their outlook? What if successive generations of younger people tend to be more tolerant of a wider range of behaviors? Then one person’s moral decline is another person’s moral progress. Or so we might speculate.

Is It Always Wrong to Blame the Victim?

photograph of burning match near a bunch of unlit matches

In July 2010, Terry Jones, the pastor of a small church in Florida, announced he would burn 200 Qurans on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — an event he dubbed “International Burn the Quran Day.” The pastor blamed the Quran for the attacks and other terrorist violence. When September came, Jones was temporarily dissuaded from acting through the personal intervention of religious leaders and government officials, including a phone call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Nevertheless, in March 2011, Jones livestreamed a “trial” of the holy book, complete with Arabic subtitles. After a brief recitation of the “charges,” the pastor condemned a copy of the Quran to be torched in a portable fire pit. A few weeks later an Afghan mob, whipped into a frenzy by sermons and speeches denouncing the act, attacked a U.N. compound, killing seven U.N. employees. Subsequent riots left nine dead and more than ninety injured. Days later, two U.S. soldiers were shot and killed by an Afghan policeman in an attack that was later attributed to his anger over the burning.

Condemnation of Jones was nearly universal. A frequent theme in the chorus of opprobrium was the argument that Jones was responsible for putting American lives at risk overseas.

Prior to the burning, President Obama said that “I just want [Jones] to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan.” After the riots, a Pentagon spokesman said the violence showed that “irresponsible words and actions do have consequences.” Some commentators also blamed the U.S. media for “recklessly” amplifying the story. Only a few, mostly conservative writers focused attention on the “eternal flame of Muslim outrage” that made Quran-burning such an explosive act.

This incident came to mind as I read Giles Howdle’s recent column on the assassination attempt against Salman Rushdie. Howdle argues that Rushdie is not responsible for any of the violence provoked by his novel, The Satanic Verses — including, but not limited to, violence directed at his own person.

To support his claim, Howdle points out that Rushdie’s actions, while part of a causal chain that predictably produced violence, were themselves non-violent, and that Rushdie never encouraged or desired violence.

According to Howdle, blaming Rushdie is akin to blaming the victim of sexual assault for having worn “provocative” clothing. Moreover, Howdle contends that placing responsibility for violence on Rushdie instead of the Muslim perpetrators treats the latter as “lacking full moral agency.”

These arguments are compelling, but I wonder if they derive some of their plausibility from the fact that Rushdie is an immensely sympathetic character: a brilliant writer and man of the left, persecuted for nothing more than a witty novel. Jones is a much less appealing figure; and yet, in its essentials, his act and Rushdie’s seem comparable. Jones’ act was non-violent, albeit part of a causal chain that predictably caused violence. While it is debatable whether Jones set out to incite violence, assume arguendo that his act expressed his sincerely held, if deeply bigoted beliefs, and that he merely foresaw the possibility of violence resulting from his act rather than wanting or intending it to occur. Doubtless, Rushdie’s novel is more valuable than Jones’ political stunt; but Howdle’s case does not turn on the value, aesthetic or otherwise, of Rushdie’s work.

If your intuitions about these cases still differ, I suggest it has something to do with your sympathy for Rushdie and aversion to Jones, rather than any consistent commitment to the proposition that those who, through their non-violent acts, provoke others to commit acts of violence as a foreseen or foreseeable but unwanted side effect are not responsible for that outcome.

Consider this thought experiment. Smith is walking briskly to a job interview for which he is already five minutes late. Suddenly, out of an alley appears a man holding a woman at gunpoint, blocking Smith’s path. The man warns Smith that if he takes one step closer, he will shoot the woman. Unfortunately, Smith has to move in the man’s direction if he wants to make his interview. Resolving to set up a college fund for any children the woman might have, Smith takes a step toward the man, who promptly shoots the woman. Here, Smith’s act is non-violent, though it has predictably violent consequences given the man’s credible threat. In addition, Smith does not want any misfortune to befall the victim: if, say, the man’s gun jammed and the woman were able to escape his clutches, Smith would be delighted. Yet surely he bears some responsibility for her death, and in the scenario in which the gun jams, he is still responsible for risking her life. It might be argued that by taking the step, Smith somehow encouraged or incited the man. But if simply doing what will predictably trigger the execution of another person’s threat constitutes incitement or encouragement, then writing, publishing, or not recalling a book in the face of credible threats that these acts will cause violence is also encouragement or incitement.

My point is not that the Smith case is analogous in every respect to the Rushdie case.

Rather, my argument is that we are sometimes partially responsible for other people’s violent acts and the harm that results, even if we don’t encourage or welcome them in any way.

If that’s true, then any argument for Rushdie’s lack of responsibility for the violence that occurred as the result of his novel’s publication needs to be more nuanced. It is not sufficient that Rushdie’s own acts were non-violent and that he did not encourage or incite violence or want it to occur.

What we need, in other words, is a more sophisticated theory of when we are morally responsible for causing others to harm third parties — notably including, but not limited to, situations in which we trigger the execution of another person’s credible threat to harm another. The range of cases is immense.

For example, when a government decides to abide by its policy never to pay a ransom in the face of a credible threat to a hostage’s life, and that decision leads to the hostage’s death, that is not generally considered an outcome for which the government is blameworthy. On the other hand, the media has sometimes been blamed for causing “copycat” acts of violence by publicizing the names or manifestos of mass shooters.

What distinguishes these cases? By carefully examining the differences between cases like these, we can start to build a theory that hopefully better explains our moral intuitions.

There is, of course, an obvious distinction between the Smith and Jones cases on the one hand, and Rushdie’s case on the other: Rushdie himself was a victim. Even if we grant that we are sometimes responsible for harm that others cause third parties, that is not the same as blaming the victim. The question, then, is whether we are ever responsible for self-harm that occurs as a foreseen or foreseeable but unwanted result of our actions’ influence on others.

There are actually two things we might mean when we say that we are “responsible” for this kind of self-harm. The first is that by knowingly running the risk of provoking harm to ourselves, we tacitly consent to the risk, thereby waiving our right against the perpetrator that she not harm us: the “he asked for it” defense. The second interpretation is that by knowingly running the risk of provoking harm to ourselves, we are blameworthy for the perpetrator’s acts and resulting self-harm. Space constraints prevent me from analyzing these interpretations in depth here, so a few general points must suffice.

As with responsibility for provoking others to harm third parties, it seems unlikely that we are either never or always responsible for self-harm in either of these senses.

The idea of holding sexual assault victims responsible for their perpetrators’ actions is morally repugnant, but this may be best explained in light of our attitudes and expectations related to sexual violence, rather than some general moral principle barring liability for self-harm in all cases. Again, it seems that we need a more nuanced theory than “the victim is never responsible.”

Despite the foregoing, I am confident that blaming Rushdie for the violence his novel provoked is morally perverse. However, as I hope to have shown, we need better arguments for why this is so.

Winning Graciously and the Problem with Empathy

photograph of Joe Biden speaking with microphone with American flag in background

In his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden placed a strong emphasis on national unity and reconciliation. “For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance,” Biden said in between bouts of cheers and honking car horns. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.” Biden presents himself  as a president for all, a message which many Democrats and centrists have wholeheartedly embraced as a path to ending, in Biden’s words, a “grim era of demonization” (though he did not specify who or what exactly has been demonized, or whether one side of the political divide is more blameworthy for this demonization than the other).

In the wake of his victory, celebrations have erupted across the globe. People in blue Biden-Harris t-shirts dance in the streets of New York, and across the Atlantic, fireworks are being set off over London. While this outpouring of joy feels well-earned, it’s worth considering what attitude the left ought to take towards Trump supporters going forward. One of the central questions of ethics, famously taken up by T.N. Scanlon in his 1998 book, is what we owe to each other. Many Democrats are wrestling with this question now: what obligations do those on the left have toward their (somewhat) vanquished political foes?

On the one hand, gloating over the defeat of an opponent seems more likely to sow further division than mend bridges. This is primarily a practical consideration for politicians and legislators. As political scientist Ian Bremmer points out, the Republicans may still maintain their hold over the Senate, depending on how the upcoming election in Georgia turns out, so a commitment to compromise and teamwork between both sides will be key going forward. In a tweet, he suggests that “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump. Empathize with them.”

However, many on the left are pushing back, citing an inextricable problem with the brand of amnesiac empathy Biden encourages. Karl Popper’s famous “tolerance paradox,” inspired by observations of facism in Europe in 1945, states that,

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Unfettered tolerance contains the seed of its own destruction. An America that is truly for all, for both Trump supporters and the far left, cannot help but destroy itself. The solution, it seems, is for the tolerant to commit to uplifting the downtrodden and disenfranchised while opposing those groups that perpetuate structural violence, a kind of qualified tolerance. Biden’s call for reconciliation may ultimately feed into the pernicious logic that allows for good people “on both sides,” though it seems unfair to preemptively attribute such reprehensible moral equivocation to Biden’s fledgling administration months before he’s even been sworn into office.

So, do we strive for unity which may elide the very real struggles of the disenfranchised, or sink deeper into mutual estrangement, which risks stagnation in the aim of moral purity? The reality is that many of us have no choice but to compromise with one another, to enact change step by step rather than in a glorious blaze of revolution. Political compromise may constitute a moral compromise, but it may pave the road for a future where such concessions are less difficult to make. This may feel like a deeply unsatisfying approach to those long ignored by mainstream political discourse, and it doesn’t always address the deep hurt victims of structural inequality have faced for centuries in this country.

Regardless of the difficult road that lies ahead, this is a moment where celebration is warranted. In particular, Biden’s stance on climate change and immigration are a source of hope for many across the globe, though it is still to be seen whether or not his administration can enact substantive change within our deeply fractured system. But once the euphoria wears off, Democrats and Republicans alike will have to reckon with Scanlon’s question in the tumultuous months to come.

MAGA, Morality, and the Paradox of Tolerance

photograph of "Coexist" bumper sticker in back window of a BMW

In the last week, three incidents across the country highlight the central tension in the structure of the principle of tolerance. A crucial aspect of liberal society — societies that aspire to allow for a plurality of perspectives on what constitutes a good life — is that these perspectives must respect one another’s right to pursue their different visions of a good life. For a society to permit many valid ways of living, some form of toleration of those different lives must be a basic principle. When one value system considers a good life to include a restriction (such as in diet, type of relationship, clothing, or career options), those who disagree can live without the restriction while still acknowledging the restriction within that group. If another value system prioritizes a certain sort of pursuit (such as ritual, career, relationship goals, etc.), value systems that disagree can passively allow them to get on with their valued pursuit and simply not join in. Liberal societies assume that many different views on such matters are reasonable (and inevitable), and the need for tolerance will naturally arise. However, some particular conflicts between value systems don’t allow for passive acknowledgement and coexistence.

There are two potential reasons for these limitations: first, one could claim from a purportedly objective perspective that a value system was unreasonable and therefore didn’t qualify for respect or tolerance (say, it caused undue harm to its members or was based on certain empirical understanding the consensus rejected). Second, and of particular relevance this past week, society could be concerned that the value systems of some threaten either the possible pursuit of others’ good lives, or the continuation of society itself. This second form of concern with tolerance leads us to the Paradox of Tolerance, and three recent events highlight how such concern arises.

On October 9th, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, put up signs on windows outside the College Republican club’s meeting room. The student used painters tape to label Trump an ignorant sexist, racist homophobe, and bigot. She calmly continued to put up the signs after a university employee approached and seemed to say, “Yeah, I’m sorry, you can’t do that.” The G.O.P. Badgers posted a video of the exchange on twitter calling the protesting student an example of the “intolerance from the left.” The student attempting to highlight Trump’s intolerance of women, non-cis people, non-straight people, and non-white people itself was labeled as morally problematic for being intolerant towards those supporting Trump. (The College Republicans made a statement standing behind the president in response to the protest). UW tweeted regarding the incident, noting that policies ban the posting of unapproved signs, and saying both that the university supports students’ right to free speech and civil discourse around political issues, and that the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards is reviewing the incident and will follow up as appropriate.

After a Trump rally in Minneapolis on the 11th of October, protesters removed the red MAGA hats from attendees’ heads and burned them. Groups supporting anti-war policies as well and women’s and immigrant’s rights had been protesting since the afternoon. At around 9:30pm, there are videos of the MAGA hats burning in a small fire, and at around 10pm, some protestors were seen chasing an identified Nazi. These acts of protest against the positions represented by Trump supporters have made some people hesitant to purchase or wear the hats in public. A city employee in Madison, WI, was asked not to wear a MAGA hat to work in May. These protesters are actively attempting to make it uncomfortable to be publicly associated with positions like Trump’s or his supporters. They are not tolerating a political position.

Last week, Ellen DeGeneres attended a Cowboys NFL game seated next to former President George W. Bush, and later defended her friendly demeanor throughout the game despite their differing political views. Bush not only advocated for the PATRIOT Act, which eroded civil rights in the US, he began wars that led to human rights abuses that now the majority acknowledge were unjustified. On top of his war crimes and his actions that led to thousands of deaths and countless instances of torture, Bush was an outspoken advocate for curtailing LGBT+ rights. Ellen defended her friendly interaction with the former president on her show, saying,

“Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean, ‘Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter.’”

This unqualified call to kindness is in line with the principle of tolerance and the value of public civility. However, it doesn’t acknowledge that there might be any constraint on those values. We could consider the constraints to take three forms:

First, DeGeneres’ tolerance of Bush’s repeated denial of LGBT+ folks like her the human rights straight folks like him have enjoyed brings to mind the famous James Baldwin quote: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” This standard for the limit of tolerance is rooted in justice and human rights. A value system should not be tolerated if it doesn’t equally respect the humanity of all. Tolerance here has a substantive constraint: in order to qualify for tolerance, a value system must respect the right of humans to exist. (Some of Bush’s policies failed to do this, as do some of Trump supporters’ positions now.)

The second constraint on tolerance is perhaps the most well-known in philosophical circles. Karl Popper coined the Paradox of Tolerance: “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” A society, according to Popper, that tolerated intolerance would end up destroyed by the intolerant party. Therefore, acting against intolerance is a collective act of self-preservation. The intolerance of Trump supporters, Bush, and Trump, according to this standard, is potentially society-destroying and cannot be tolerated.

John Rawls has a less strong view of intolerant groups, not believing they necessarily threatened the existence of society. Therefore, it is only when intolerant groups do reach this threshold of threat to the preservation of society that there is justification for not tolerating the intolerant. The principle of tolerance must be upheld, according to Rawls, in more scenarios than for Popper. Each value system or group would be judged based on its actual impact on the health of the society overall. If tolerating the presence or activity of a group or individual didn’t suitably threaten society, then we should tolerate it. In the case of the UW Madison protester and the MAGA hat burners, some have judged it is dangerous for Trump supporters to feel comfortable in our society. Whether Rawls would agree is unclear.

What is most clear, perhaps, is that the object of the Madison and Minneapolis protests, as well as the object of DeGeneres’ kindness, are themselves intolerant. The possibility of having a purely tolerant society is off the table. When the discourse becomes about whether or the extent to tolerate these intolerant views or groups, it is important to note that we are debating the application of our paradox, not simply worrying about having an intolerant view ourselves.

In Understanding Catholicism’s Satan, A Struggle over Symbolism

Arturo Sousa, the Superior General of the Society for Jesus (Jesuits) recently said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo that, “we have formed symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil.” His words seem to imply that Satan is not a real being, but just a symbol; the devil would be more akin to Lex Luthor than Adolf Hitler, i.e., a fictional character.

Continue reading “In Understanding Catholicism’s Satan, A Struggle over Symbolism”