Americans believe that we are getting worse as a country. According to the Gallup Poll 81 percent of Americans rate our country’s values as “only fair” or “poor,” while 77 percent say morality is getting worse. Our view of ourselves has been “consistently negative” since Gallup started polling about this in 2002.
Gallup attributes this to ongoing culture wars. Conservatives don’t like gay marriage, abortion, and so on. Liberals don’t like Trump-era threats to abortion rights, transgender equality and other policies. Each side views the other as a sign of moral decline.
This negativity undermines norms of civility. In the middle of a moral disaster, extremism and incivility become normal. A Republican congressional candidate in Montana allegedly assaulted a reporter this week. And the California Democratic Party chanted “F— Donald Trump” with extended middle fingers.We seem to be in the middle of a rude race to the bottom.
There is much to celebrate in 21st century America: science, technology and human rights.
But are things really worse today? For millennia, prophets and philosophers have condemned their contemporaries. It seems that we have always been going to hell in a hand basket. And yet, we have also made progress.
There is much to celebrate in 21st century America: science, technology and human rights, to name a few. Consider this: despite the problem of fake news, the average citizen has more access to information now than Thomas Jefferson ever had. Would anyone really want to change places with someone from the 19th or 20th centuries?
On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, nearly beat Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts, to death with a cane in the Senate chamber. The cause of the dispute was slavery. Soon enough the Civil War killed over 600,000 Americans.
Would you trade now for then? Would you want to go back even a generation or two, to a world of unapologetic racism and sexism?
The long view of history does not support the claim that we are getting worse. But we modern people are never satisfied. We always want things to be better. We are thoughtful and self-critical. But this makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied.
Discontent drives us forward. This is a world of upgrades and enhancements. We are never good enough. And we fear that things are getting worse.
Our low estimation of ourselves may offer a glimmer of hope, however. We might even claim that self-criticism is a sign of moral enlightenment.
Progress depends on moral critique. Modern people don’t rest on our laurels. We engage in constant self-criticism and we aspire to make continual progress. It would be odd for a modern civilization to say of itself: “Hey, we’ve made it to the promised land—it’s all good.”
The critical spirit is a source of self-improvement. The downside is that this can make us censorious and grumpy.
The critical spirit is a source of self-improvement. The downside is that this can make us censorious and grumpy. We are quick to judge others. Self-criticism is difficult. It is easier to see your neighbor’s faults than your own. But moral maturity demands that we scrutinize ourselves more than we do others.
The critical spirit can also leave us indifferent to our own successes. Complacency is viewed as a vice in the modern world. Complacent people think they have all of the answers. They believe that there is nothing left to learn and no need for improvement. They are comfortable and content.
Complacency is related to self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. Smug moralizers think they have all the answers. They quickly condemn others. But sanctimonious prigs often fail to look in the mirror or question their own values.
At issue here is a question of having the right amount of pride and humility. We ought to be proud of our accomplishments. But we should remain humble and admit that there is work to be done.
An old motto suggests that we ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is a strenuous call to action, which should cause us to strive for improvement. Unfortunately it can also leave us feeling dissatisfied and guilty. We could always be better at doing better.
So once you are through rolling your eyes at the decline of civility and our moral failings, roll up your sleeves and get to work. This world is only as good as we make it.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala