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The End of Moral Standards
In the Negative World, character no longer counts like it used to
There have been a number of recent sex scandals in the Republican Party. For example, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Trump advisor Corey Lewandowski, both married, have been reportedly carrying on a years long affair. Noem has long touted her support of family values. I mercifully won’t regale you with the rest of these scandals, though I wrote about one other recently. The Democrats have some of their own colorful candidates, but they typically don’t bill themselves as champions of family values.
None of these people are likely to suffer much politically on account of their actions, a sea change from the past. (Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, I expect affairs to continue to be somewhat frowned on as there is something primal about our reaction to cheating).
Sex and the Negative World
These scandals an example of the transition to what I’ve called the Negative World. This is part of a framework I developed to explain the decline of the status of Christianity in American society over the last 60 years. As that status declined, society has gone through three eras I call the positive, neutral, and negative worlds.
Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
Neutral World (1994–2014): Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored. Being publicly known as a Christian has neither a positive nor a negative impact on one’s social status. Christianity is one valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral norms retain some residual effect.
Negative World (2014–Present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order.
In my first published version of this framework back in 2017, I directly linked these eras to three different presidential sex scandals.
Positive World: In 1987 it was reported that Colorado Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair with a young woman. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race.
Neutral World: In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and the public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.
Negative World: In 2016, NBC tried to pull an October surprise on Donald Trump by releasing an audio of him on the set of Access Hollywood saying crude things about women. It was a 48 hour blip of a scandal and he went on to victory in November.
The Negative World is often seen, rightly, in terms of how it affects conservative Christians. However, it has pervasive impacts in society, too. One of the Negative World’s effects is the destruction of any sort of moral or behavioral standards in society.
The best example of this is in fact the election on Donald Trump as President. In the Positive and Neutral Worlds, it is unlikely that someone like Trump could have won the presidency. He would have been seen as simply morally unqualified for office. In the Negative World, morality doesn’t matter anymore.
That’s not to say there are no standards. There are still legal standards (though even here, the connected are now able to get away with a lot). And ideological crimes are a greater threat than ever. But there’s little consequence to any sort of moral or behavioral transgression as would have previously been understood.
We’ve been shifting in this direction for a while. The great sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote in 1998:
In our post-1960s obsession with social justice among class, ethnic, and racial (as well as gender) categories, we have witnessed a steady decline in personal morality. Today, it is far worse to be accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-black, sexist, or elitist than to be known as a consummate liar or adulterer. The J-word and the B-word are now more taboo than the F-word, which is now firmly ensconced in liberal living rooms. But, after all, ideological purity has always replaced personal morality in revolutionary ages; perhaps personal morality depends on the existence of a certain degree of moral order.
Trends in the evangelical church mirror those in society, I might add. The only “mortal” sins it recognizes are ideological - and they are conveniently the same exact ones as secular society.
There’s a great irony here. It was the left which, under the auspices of personal liberation, tore down all the norms and standards in society that would have prevented the rise of someone like Trump. Without them, we wouldn’t have him. I would not consider such figures an anomaly any more.
The Social and Political Implications of the End of Moral Standards
This shows that the impact of the Negative World is pervasive, and will affect society well beyond conservative Christianity.
We see in this example the end of moral standards as above. There’s basically no more basis for holding people accountable for what would have in the past been considered moral transgressions. The rules of society have changed.
This is affecting everything, not just sexual norms. Declining trust levels, younger people saying that it’s ok to break the rules to get ahead, various college admissions scandals, the soaring numbers of students claiming to be disabled, ballooning executive pay, scientific fraud, increasing shamelessness of all varieties, and surely much more besides all derive from this. To say nothing of the more outré elements of our government and society.
Combined this with the downscale shift in the Republican electorate, and we will increasingly see a GOP that, as several people have observed, looks like the Jerry Springer Show. This will especially be the case in the “MAGA” movement. This may well create a positive feedback loop that pushes the GOP more downscale, as upscale people turn away from it - not because it’s immoral but because it’s low class.
It also puts conservatives who would prefer there to be traditional moral standards in something of a dilemma. There’s little near term prospect of putting the genie back in the bottle. This means the idea of only voting for candidates who meet a certain moral standard, as was commonly argued was the right thing to do in back in the Neutral World of the 1990s, is no longer tenable. There simply won’t be such options in many cases - not even in the Republican Party. Affairs and such were always common in GOP land, but previously there were incentives to hide them. But no longer. Nor will getting indignant about things like affairs make much difference.
On the other hand, simply pretending this doesn’t matter and behaving in a purely realpolitk manner can put people in the position of defending the indefensible, like the trashy behavior of various elected officials. While tactical alliances with the tacky may be a necessity in the world of politics, how much of this can people be expected to endure?
Speaking of getting indignant, we will see that those who continue to pontificate about the importance of moral standards in political affairs or voting will increasingly be doing it out of a desire to manipulate the portion of the electorate that still cares about such things. For example, they will shriek about Trump’s character, but rather than an even handed commitment to character in public affairs, they just want to try to peel off his votes. I think you will find that virtually all of the people who engage in this themselves partner with and affirm others whose personal character, behaviors, and beliefs are at odds with their own nominal moral standards. It’s almost inevitable that this will be the case, because an attempt at a truly principled commitment to retro moral standards means we’d never be able to do much of anything in society. And, of course, many on the left who level such critiques actually applaud the destruction of moral standards that would have previously been a barrier to people like Trump.
Rebuilding a Moral Economy
For those who would prefer some type of moral or behavioral standards in society, this is certainly unsettling. Again, it’s also not obvious what to do about it.
In my view, we should assume that people are going to come to various good faith positions. Trying to force everyone to alight on a single approach is not appropriate.
I start from the position that the responsibility for the negative consequences of the collapse in moral standards lies primarily with the people who tore them down. I’m not listening to anyone from the left or Never Trump work who shrieks and demands that I line up to denounce Trump or some such. He is their problem.
People constantly want to manipulate you into caring about what they want you to care about, rather than what you care about or what is important to you and yours. In most cases, this has little to do with the public good, and is mostly about trying to dupe you into advancing their own personal or institutional goals.
We should also recognize that the social rules of society have changed. I have before suggested that culture warring is becoming obsolete. This is one reason. There is no more “moral majority” in society. In fact, the majority of society doesn’t want to go back to the old moral rules. They like their personal freedom. We see this, for example, in the way that the anti-abortion movement is having to grapple with the fact that the majority of the public wants abortion to be legal at some level.
Certainly, there are some culture war type elements where the right is mostly aligned with the popular position. The woke mode of engagement on race is very unpopular. As is transgender athletes in girls sports. But these are debates over new rather than old ideas. And they don’t have anything to do with personal morality, behavior, or character.
I support people continuing to engage politically on social or cultural issues. At the same time, this requires a recognition of what today’s society is and what most people actually believe.
Because society has rejected the previous moral rules, those who which to live by some sort of code have to create a new moral community in which to enforce them. Modern Orthodox Judaism is a good example of a moral community that lives by its own standards and practices apart from the mainstream of society without withdrawing from that society.
For Christian groups, this will be very difficult. Something like “evangelicalism” is simply too broad to form a moral community. And my impression is that they too have been downgrading moral standards, adopting a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on pre-marital sex, for example. It’s not even obvious that an individual church could do this. Such communities, or attempts at creating them, would potentially be network based and emerge from social relationships. Or would be created as intentional communities like the Bruderhof.
Small scale moral communities can actually be decisive in society. Nassim Taleb talks about this with regards to what he calls the minority rule. He uses the example of how a large amount of the food in our supermarkets is certified kosher, even though only a very small number of people keep kosher. But that minority of Orthodox Jews absolutely will not eat non-kosher food, whereas non-Jews will happily eat a quality kosher product. So companies have an incentive to make as much of their food kosher as possible.
Obviously there will be many cases in which the cost or pain to the mainstream will be so high that it won’t comply with the demands of a minority, but don’t underestimate what a motivated minority can accomplish. There’s some research that suggests that if only 10% of a population strictly adopts a belief, that’s a tipping point at which the rest of society will adopt it.
Even without a tipping point, moral communities can still be powerful. The Quakers are a Christian example I’ve mentioned before. In 19th century England, which was the land of shady dealers and “caveat emptor”, people sought out Quakers to do business with because they were known to be trustworthy. They didn’t lie, steal, or sell products they knew were dodgy. They were, as one person put it, a “moral mafia.”
But for the minority rule to even plausibly come into play, that requires that you actually have a unified minority that functions as a moral community.
I would suggest that the shift to the Negative World augurs much for more trying to create this moral community and less culture warring.
But as I said, in an uncertain time, other people are going to draw different conclusions. The important point is to recognize the cultural shift in society. The era of moral standards in public life is basically over.
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