Monday, February 26, 2007

The problem with moral nostalgia

As someone who studies society and is interested in matters of religious faith, I get irritated by what I call moral nostalgia.

I'm not against nostalgia, per se, though having come of age in the late 70s, early 80s I don't have much to be nostalgic about (disco?). Moral nostalgia, however, holds that things used to be more moral, more right than they are now. The Christian version of it says that American society used to be more "moral" and "Christian". Expressed negatively, America is undergoing sever moral decay and who knows if society will survive. For a hilarious example of moral nostalgia (from Trrish).

Here's the problem with moral nostalgia... it's just plain wrong. Not a little wrong, a lot wrong. Sure some things have changed for the worse, but a lot more things have changed for the better. This is demonstrated in a series of social indicators complied by Michael Kruse. He makes a compelling case that 1981 was the worst year in recent history and that things have been getting better since then.

So, in the past quarter century, things have gotten better in terms of less poverty, longer life expectancy, less crime, less suicide, less abortion, and fewer high school dropouts.

Things are getting better. Deal with it.


Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for this post, Brad. Remember conservative, moralistic William Bennett and his Index of Moral Indicators (like the Index of Economic Indicators only with things like abortion, unwed motherhood, crime, etc.)? I always wonder how he explained that most of these indicators either rose or declined only slightly in the Reagan years but declined sharply during the presidency of immoral Bill Clinton.

The Times yesterday summarized some GSS trends. Immoral behavior like crime might have declined, but attitudes have gotten more tolerant on sex, homosexuality, and drugs (at least marijuana). Religious ideas and behavior (belief in the after life, praying) have pretty much held steady.

Michael W. Kruse said...

Thanks for the link.

I don't think the changes can be linked to political administrations. There was a bump in crime and murder from the late 1980s to the early 1990s that was highly concentrated in urban neighborhoods and was highly related to the crack cocaine epidemic. Most indicators improved from the early 1980s through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations.

Jay mentioned sexuality and that was the one area where there has seemed to be a problem in terms of rising cases of STDs and children born outside of a two parent arrangements. Outside of that, most indicators show moderate to significant improvement. The really interesting sociological question to me is why is there such a perception of things being so bad? I find this widely shared disconnect between reality and perception fascinating.

Brad Wright said...

I agree Mike that the really interesting question here is the disconnection between perceptions and beliefs. In my criminology class, students are always surprised that crime isn't at an all-time high.

My guess is that results from the culture of fear (e.g., Glassner's book)

You bring up a good point Jay about beliefs versus behaviors. Sometimes I think that Christians focus on changes in moral beliefs to the exclusion of other moral outcomes (e.g., life expectancy)

kent said...

Have you read Gregg Easterbrook's book the Progress Paradox? he says the same thing. It is good.

kent said...

Have you read Gregg Easterbrook's book the Progress Paradox? he says the same thing. It is good.