How America Became Bad (2023)

How America Became Bad (1)


In a culture without moral education, generations grow up in a morally indeterminate and self-referential world.

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Översion of the pastTwo questions have been bothering me for about eight years. The first is why have Americans become so sad? The increasing number of depressive illnesses is well known, as is the increasing number of hopeless deaths caused by drugs, alcohol and suicide. But other statistics are just as worrying. Since 1990, the percentage of people who claim to have no close friends has quadrupled. The percentage of Americans ages 25 to 54 who were not married or living with a romantic partner rose from 29 percent in 2019 to 38 percent in 1990. A record 25 percent of Americans 40I never married. More than half of Americans say no one knows them well. The percentage of high school graduates who reported "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" increased from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.

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My second related question is why have Americans become so evil? I recently spoke with a restaurant owner who said he has to kick a customer out of his restaurant once a week for being rude or rude - which has never happened before. The head nurse at the hospital told me that many of her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become violent towards them. In 2020, hate crimes reached the height of heinousness and reached a 12-year high. The homicide rate, at least until recently, has skyrocketed. The same applies to the sale of weapons. Social trust is shrinking. In 2000, two-thirds of American households donated to charity. in 2018 it was less than half. The words that define our horror-smelling age:conspiracy,Polarization,mass shootings,Damage,safe spaces.

We are in a kind of emotional, relational and spiritual crisis that lies behind our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy. What are your news?

In recent years, various social observers have offered different stories to explain the rise of hatred, fear and despair.

Technology History:Social media is driving us all crazy.

History of Sociology:We no longer participate in social organizations and are more isolated.

Demographic history:America, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country, and this change is causing panic among millions of white Americans.

Financial history:High levels of economic inequality and insecurity have created fear, alienation and pessimism among people.

I agree with all of these stories to an extent, but I don't think any of them are the most profound. Sure, social media has negative effects, but it's present all over the world - and the mental health crisis isn't. Additionally, the rise of despair and hatred has overwhelmed many who are not active on social media. Economic inequality is real, but it does not fully explain the scale of social and emotional breakdown. Sociologists are right that we are more isolated, but why? What values ​​lead us to choose a lifestyle that makes us lonely and unhappy?

The most important story about why Americans have become sad, alienated, and rude is also, I think, the simplest: We live in a society where people are no longer trained to treat others with kindness and respect. Our society has become one where people feel entitled to let their egos run wild. The story I will tell is about morality. In a healthy society, a network of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—help shape people into benevolent and responsible citizens, those who can stand up for one another. We live in a society that lacks moral education.

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Moral education, as I will use that rigid term here, involves three things. First, to help people reduce their ego. How to control evolutionarily inherited selfishness? Second: imparting basic social and moral skills. How do I welcome a neighbor to my community? How to disagree constructively? Third, helping people find meaning in life. Moral institutions represent a set of ideals. They offer practical ways to live a meaningful existence:So you can dedicate your life to serving the poor, protecting the nation or doing charity.

For most of its history, America has been awash in morally-shaping institutions. Its founders had a low view of human nature anddrafted a constitution to mitigate this(even if it confirms this humble view of human nature by presenting a documentary steeped in racism and sexism). "In my opinion, men are a very poorly constructed species of being"wrote Benjamin Franklin, "because they are generally easier to provoke than to appease, more likely to injure each other than to repair, and much easier to deceive than not to deceive."

If such flawed, self-centered creatures were to govern themselves and be decent neighbors, they needed some education. Some 150 years after its founding, Americans have been obsessed with moral education. In 1788, Noah Webster wrote: “ThevirtuesMen are more important to society than their ownskills; and for this reasonHerzthey must be cultivated with greater diligenceKopfProgressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1909 that schools teach morality "every moment of the day, five days a week." Hollis Frisell, president of the Hampton Institute, an early childhood school for African-Americans, said, "Character is the main goal of education." Moral and spiritual values ​​continue to be the top priority in education."

The programs of moral education that shaped the cultural landscape throughout this long period of history came from all sides of the political and religious spectrum. school textbooks, e.gMcGuffeys Eclectic Readersnot only did he teach students to read and write. They taught etiquette and told stories to illustrate good and bad behavior. In the 1920s, WEB founded Du BoisA magazine for black children,Book of Brownies, had a regular column titled "Judge," in which he gave young readers advice on manners and morals. There were thriving school organizations with morally sound names that would sound antiquated today—the Courtesy Club, the Savings Club, the Junior Knights.

Outside of the classroom, there were many other groups: the YMCA; the Sunday school movement. scouts and guides; the Settlement House movement, which united rich and poor to serve the marginalized; Aldo Leopold's rural ethics, which extended our moral concerns to the proper care of nature. professional organizations that enforce codes of conduct; Trade unions and employers' associations, which not only improved workers' protection and wages, but also upheld certain standards of respect for the working class. And of course, in the late 19th century, many Americans were members of churches or other religious groups. Religious belief alone does not always make people morally good, but living in a community, giving heart to transcendent love and basing its value system on caring for the weakest - usually does.

Arthur C. Brooks: Make yourself happy - be kind

The German-rooted approach to education adopted in Scandinavian societies in the mid-to-late 19th century had a huge impact on America. it was calledEducation, which roughly translates to "spiritual formation." Based on an idea by Wilhelm von HumboldtEducationThis approach gave faculty full freedom to place moral development at the heart of the university's mission. In schools across Scandinavia, students studied literature and folk cultures to recognize their own feelings, hurts and weaknesses and thus become the complex human beings needed by modern society. schools inEducationThe tradition also aimed to determine one's responsibility towards the world - family, friends, nation, humanity. Start with the soul and get out.

TheEducationThe movement inspired the "Big Books" programs that sprung up at places like Columbia and the University of Chicago. They were based on the belief that reading and meditating on the most important works of world literature would be the key to a fuller life. Meanwhile, discipline in the small things of everyday life - formal dress, even for shopping or playing - was seen as proof of honesty: proof that one could rely on someone when the big challenges came.

Much of America's moral education was based on the ethos expressed by the headmaster of the Stowe School in England, who wrote in 1930 that the purpose of his institution was to raise young men who would be "acceptable to the dance and the wreck." priceless". The US National Institute of Moral Education was founded in 1911 and published the "Children's Code of Morals" containing ten rules for real life. In the early 20th century, Mount Holyoke College, an all-women institution, was an example of an intentionally dense moral community. When young Frances Perkins studied there, her Latin teacher noticed a certain laziness about her. He made Perkins spend hours conjugating Latin verbs to develop self-discipline. Perkins began to appreciate this: "For the first time I realized my character." The school also encouraged women to pursue morally ambitious paths. "Do what no one else wants to do. Go where no one else wants to go,” demanded the school's founder. Holyoke has introduced women to a life of ministry in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Perkins, who was to become the first woman in a presidential cabinet (Franklin D. Roosevelt), was enthusiastic there.

Read: Students' broken moral compass

These different approaches to moral education have two premises in common. First, training your heart and body is more important than training your rational brain. Some moral skills can be taught in the same way that academic subjects are taught through books and lectures. However, most virtues are learned on the way to learning the art, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a cohesive moral culture—a community of shared values ​​whose members strive to earn mutual respect.

How America Became Bad (4)

Another basic assumption was that concepts such as justice, good, and evil are not a matter of personal taste: there is an objective moral order, and human beings are creatures who habitually sin against that order. For example, this view was central to the way the civil rights movement thought about character building in the 1950s and early 1960s. “Instead of some progress in wisdom and decency, man finds himself faced with the ever-present possibility of a swift return not only to animal husbandry, but to a calculated cruelty that no other animal can practice,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Elsewhere he wrote, "The power of sinfulness is such a persistent quality of human nature that it can be restrained only when the social unit is endowed with moral and physical strength."

At best, civil rights activists from this prophetic tradition knew that they could be corrupted even while serving a noble cause. They could be arrogant because their cause was righteous, hardened by the hatred of their opponents and proud to claim power. The king's strategy of nonviolence was an attempt to both reveal the sins of his persecutors and curb their inherent sinful tendencies. "What gave King's leadership and rhetoric such compelling force," argues historian George Marsden, "was his fundamental belief that moral law is embedded in the universe."

There are some obvious things to be said for the ethos of moral education that has dominated American life for so long. It reigned alongside all kinds of hierarchies that we find rightly abhorrent today: white vs. black, male vs. female, Christian vs. Jew, right down to homosexual. And the emphasis on morality has not created perfect people. Moral education does not make men angels - it tries to make them better than they would otherwise be.

Furthermore, we would never want to go back to the education methods that have dominated for so long and are rooted in so many rootsyou shouldn't do thatand what a shame there is racism and sexism in all of this. However, sound accounting must recognize that emphasizing moral education means focusing on an important question—what is life for? — and teaching people how to deal with the inevitable difficulties. A culture that invested in building character helped people become more resilient, giving them ideals to hold on to in difficult times. In a way, the old approach to moral education was, at least in theory, egalitarian: if status in society was based on character and reputation, a farmer could earn dignity as easily as a banker. This ethos strongly influenced self-centeredness and narcissistic manifestations. It contained practical advice on how to be a good neighbor and a good friend.

And aftermostly passed.

The turning point came right after World War II, when people were facing the horrors of the 20th century. One group, represented by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, argued that recent events have highlighted the spread of human depravity and the dangers of tribalism, nationalism, and especially collective pride. This group wanted to intensify moral education and place greater emphasis on humility.

Another group, personified by Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, focused on the issue of power. The problem of the twentieth century, members of this group argued, is that the existence of rigid hierarchies of power leads to oppression in many areas of life. Many felt that we needed to free the individual from these power structures. People are inherently good and we can trust them to lead to self-actualization.

In the decade following World War II, a highly successful series of books bore witness to the work of Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebmanmental calmness (1946): "Do not be afraid of your secret impulses." People can trust the goodness within them. His book went beyond thatNew York TimesBestseller list for 58 weeks. In the same year, Dr. Spock's first parenting manual. books likeThe power of positive thinking(1952). According to this ethos, morality is not something we develop in communities. This is facilitated by connecting with our authentic selves and finding our true inner voice. If people are inherently good, we don't need moral education. We just need to let people connect with each other. Organization after organization abandoned the activity of moral education and entered the realm of self-discovery. For example, in the mid-1970s, the founding ethos of the Guides changed: "How can you reach more?"G? what isGI think so? what isGFeel;" asked the Boy Scout Handbook.

According to education historian B. Edward McClellan, in the 1940s and 1950s, schools began to move away from moral educationMoral Education in America"By the 1960s, conscious moral education had all but disappeared," as teachers "paid more attention to their students' SAT scores and middle-class parents struggled to find schools that would give their children the best opportunities." Colleges and Universities". The postwar period saw similar changes at the college level, notes Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School. The "research ideal" replaced the earlier humanistic ideal of educating the whole student body. Kronman says that as academics specialized, the most important questions became: “What is the meaning of life? How to live a good life? I have lost the ground beneath my feet. Such questions have become unprofessional for a scientist and even inappropriate.

Read: Benefits of character training

In one area after another, people have come to the conclusion that moral reasoning doesn't really matter. Psychology's sphere of influence grew, particularly in family and educational matters, and its vocabulary provided the framework for "almost all public discussions" about the moral life of children.This was observed in 2000 by James Davison Hunter, a well-known American researcher of character education. "For decades, the contributions of philosophers and theologians were silent or absent." Psychology is a great profession, but its goal is mental health, not moral development.

Some feared this ethical privatization from the start. "If the good, the right, and the truth are only what man wants to 'invent,'" wrote Walter Lippmann in his 1955 collection:Essays in Public Philosophy"Then we are outside the traditions of politeness." His book was maligned by establishment figures such as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The demoralization of American culture continued.

As the 20th century progressed, words related to morality began to appear less and less frequently in national textbooks. According to a 2012 study, the use of a group of words associated with virtue has also declined significantly. He was among themMuta(65 percent reduction),gratitude(58 proc.) ihumility(55%). For decades, researchers have asked incoming students about their life goals. In 1967, about 85 percent said they were strongly motivated to develop a "meaningful philosophy of life."in 2000, only 42 percent said so. Being rich has become the number one goal in life. In 2015, 82 percent of students said well-being was their goal.

In a culture without moral education, generations grow up in a morally indeterminate and self-referential world. In 2008, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and a team of researchers surveyed young adults nationwide about their moral lives. One finding was that respondents gave little thought to the issue of ethics. "I've never had to make decisions about what's right and what's wrong," one young adult told researchers. "My teachers avoid controversy like the plague," many teenagers said.

The moral instincts Smith observed in his sample follow a pattern that the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called "emotivism":What seems right to me is moral."I would probably do what would make me happy in any situation.",explained one of the interviewees. "Why in the long run yes." As another put it, "if it's morally good to do it as long as you don't get caught, then it's not really against your morals, is it?" Smith and his colleagues emphasized that the respondents are not bad people, but have never been taught moral vocabulary or moral skills because they live in "morally very thin and tainted worlds."

Most of usThose who saw the process of discouragement taking place thought the result would be boring moral relativism and vacuous consumerism:You will and I will.It didn't happen.

"Ethical communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy," writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt.A righteous spirit. When you grow up in a culture without a moral structure, you become fragile inside. You have no moral compass to guide you, no fixed ideals to which you can pledge unreserved allegiance. “Who has oneWhyLiving with almost anyone can endureHowwrote psychiatrist (and Holocaust survivor) Viktor Frankl, paraphrasing Nietzsche's famous saying. These withoutWhythey dissolve when storms come. They begin to suffer from a sense of moral emptiness, which Émile Durkheim called "lawlessness."

It is too much to expect people to build themselves a satisfactory moral and spiritual life by looking within themselves. A culture that leaves people morally naked and lonely leaves them without the ability to treat themselves with dignity. Public trust is declining in part because more and more people are untrustworthy. This creates the masses of what psychologists call "vulnerable narcissists." We all know great narcissists - people who worship themselves as the center of the universe. These days, the most common characters are vulnerable narcissists – people who are also addicted to thinking about themselves, but often feel anxious, insecure and withdrawn. They are extremely sensitive to rejection and look for signs of disrespect. Your self-esteem changes. Their insecurities about their inherent worth fuel a cycle of mistrust, shame, and hostility.

“The breakdown of solid moral frameworks always leads to separation, alienation, and estrangement from those around you,” Luke Brederton, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, told me. The result is the kind of sadness I see in the people around me. I know young adults who stumble, drop out of school, and move from one mental health center to another. After a talk I gave in Oklahoma, a woman asked me, "What do you do when you don't want to live anymore?" The next night I had dinner with a woman who told me her brother had killed himself. three months ago. I mentioned these events to a group of friends during a Zoom chat, and almost half of them said they were suicidal in the family. The statistics paint a bigger picture: the number of suicides has increasedincreased more than 30%.According to the CDC, since 2000

Sadness, loneliness and self-mutilation turn into bitterness. Social pain is ultimately a reaction to feelings of rejection – being invisible, not being heard, disrespected and bullied. When people feel that their identity is not recognized, the experience is registered as injustice – because it is. People who have been wronged often lash out, looking for ways to humiliate those they believe have humiliated them.

Lonely times aren't just sad times. You are brutal. In 19th century America, when many single young men crossed the western frontier, one of the things they did was shoot each other. As the saying goes, pain that is not transformed is transferred. People become harsher, defensive, suspicious and hostile. The pandemic has worsened the situation, but anti-social behavior is still high even after the lockdown ends. And now we have fallen into a vicious cycle: bullying leads to humiliation, and humiliation leads to more meanness. Social life is becoming more and more brutal, both online and offline.

When you put people in a moral vacuum, they will try to fill it with the best they can. In recent years, people have tried to do thisFill the moral voidwith politics and tribalism. American society is hyperpolitical.

David Brooks: America is experiencing a moral upheaval

According to a study by Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy research at the American Enterprise Institute, young people who are single are seven times more likely to be involved in politics than young people who are not. For people who feel neglected, invisible and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them an intelligible moral landscape: the line between good and evil runs not through the center of one's heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil.

Manichean tribalism in politics seems to give people a sense of belonging. For many years, America seemed to be dominated by a culture of ultra-individualism. But these days people are quick to identify with their group: Republican, Democrat, Evangelical, Black, LGBTQ, Southern, Patriot, Progressive, Conservative. People who feel isolated and threatened resort to completing their identity.

Politics seems to give people a sense of justice: a person's moral standing is not based on their behavior but on their position on the political spectrum. You don't have to be nice. You just have to be liberal - or just conservative. The stronger a group's claim to victimhood, the more virtuous it is perceived to be, and the more secure its members may feel about their innocence.

Politics also offers an easy way to develop a sense of purpose. To maintain morality, it is not necessary to feed the hungry or sit with the widow. You just have to experience the right emotions. You pretend to be involved in political life, feeling real anger on the other side. That real anger building up in your stomach shows that you care about this country. The culture war is a struggle for the meaning of life.

Politics overwhelms everything. Churches, universities, sports, pop culture, and health care are engaged in a series of battles that are really one big war - red vs. blue. Evangelism was once a faith. Today it is primarily a political identity. College liberal arts departments studied literature and history to explore the human heart and mind. Now, at times, they seem to be solely concerned with politics and systems of oppression based on race, class, and gender. Late night comedy shows have become political talk shows. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died needlessly during the pandemic as people saw the virus through the lens of political struggle.

This is not politics as it is commonly understood. In sane societies, people argue about distributional policies: How high should taxes be? How much money should be allocated to social programs for the poor and the elderly? We have shifted the focus from a politics of redistribution to a politics of recognition. Political movements are fueled by resentment and the feeling that society does not respect or recognize me. Political and media figures stage dramas in which one side is emotionally validated and the other is emotionally shamed. A person practicing a recognition policy does not seek to raise funds for himself or his constituency. trying to admire myself. He tries to fill the hole in his soul with politics. Not working

The politics of recognition does not create community and connection, especially in a system as mired in structural dysfunction as ours. People join guerilla clans in search of kinship, but end up a lonely group of isolated warring factions who simply follow the same orthodoxy.

When you ask politics to be the main source of meaning in your life, you are asking more of it than it can handle. Attempts to escape sadness, loneliness and lawlessness through politics only end up being transported into a world shaped by fear and anger, through a sadistic pursuit of dominance. Sure, you came out of a moral vacuum - but you landed on the destructiveness of moral warfare. Recognition politics has not created a happy society. When asked by the General Social Survey about their level of happiness in 2022, 20 percent of Americans answeredrated it as the lowest– In 1990, only 8 percent did.

Read: Longest study of human happiness proves key to a good life

America's Founding Fathers studied the history of democracy dating back to ancient Greece. They have learned that democracies can be very fragile. When private virtue fails, the constitutional order collapses. After decades of lacking much moral education, America has become a place where more than 74 million people have become familiar with the morals and presidential candidacies of Donald Trump.

Even in dark timesSparks of renewal appear. A documentary about Mr. Rogers was released in 2018won't you be my neighbor?had been issued. The video showedFred Rogers in all his simple goodness– his small acts of generosity. his display of vulnerability. his respect and even admiration for every child he met. People wept openly when they saw the film in the cinema. In times of conflict and danger, the sight of radical goodness was incredibly moving.

The series will be released in the summer of 2020Awning LassoPremiere. In describing his goals as a football coach, Lasso could list the championship he hopes to win or some other traditional measure of success, but he says, “To me, success is not about winning and losing. It's about helping these young people become the best version of themselves on and off the field."

Here is a description of moral education in two sentences.Awning Lassois about a serious, happy, and apparently good-hearted man who enters a world that has become cynical, immoral, and manipulative, and episode after episode, despite his own problems, offers those around him the opportunity to show more compassion for their weaknesses and fears, and to be one another gentler and wiser. Despite bans and political grudges, it has become a cultural touchstone and the most-watched show on Apple TV+.

Although our public lives are morally bare, which is part of their elemental nature, people want to feel respected and respected, and they need to feel that their lives have moral purpose and purpose. People still want to build a society where it's easier to be good. So the questions we face are quite simple: How do we build ethics-shaping institutions for the 21st century? What do we need to do to build a culture that helps people become the best version of themselves?

A few key elements immediately come to mind.

A modern vision of character building.Old fashioned character building models were hopelessly gendered. Men should show an iron will that will help them overcome stubborn passions on their own. Women should retire to a world of feminine refinement, lest they be corrupted by evil influences and base desires. These types are no longer valid.

The best modern approach to character building is described in Iris Murdoch's bookThe Reign of Good. Murdoch writes that "there is nothing worthwhile in life except trying to be virtuous." For her, the moral life is not defined only by great acts of courage or sacrifices in epic moments. Rather, the moral life is something that goes on all the time, treating people with care in the complex situations of everyday life. For them, the essential moral act is to give "just and loving" attention to others.

Usually, he argues, we approach our days with a self-centered, self-centered outlook. We see and judge people in ways that please our ego. We degrade, stereotype, ignore and reduce other people to supporting actors in our own consuming personal drama. But we become morally better, he continues, when we learn to see others deeply, when we learn to give them the patience and care that makes them feel seen, heard, and understood. It's the kind of attention that implicitly asks, "What are you going through?" and tries to get an answer.

I become a better person the more curious I am about the people around me and the more adept I am at seeing things from their perspective. As I learn to treat you with patience and love, I will try to treat you well. According to Murdoch, we can "grow by looking".

Compulsory social skills courses.Murdoch's character-building formula is based on the simple act of paying attention:Am I taking good care of you?It also emphasizes that character is formed and displayed by treating others with consideration. This requires not only a good heart, but also good social skills: good listening. How to disagree respectfully. How to ask for and offer forgiveness. How to patiently cultivate friendship. How to sit with someone who is grieving or depressed. How to be a good conversationalist.

These are some of the most important skills a person can have. However, we do not teach them. Our schools take years to prepare students for job skills, but offer little guidance on how to be fair in everyday life. If we want to build a decent society, primary and secondary schools should require their students to take courses in these specific social skills, thus preparing them for coexistence. We could offer lessons where we learn how to be a good listener or how to build friendships. The late feminist philosopher Nel Noddingsdeveloped a whole pedagogyon how to care for others effectively.

A new core curriculum.More and more colleges and universities are offering courses in what might be called "How to Live." Yale has one called A Life Worth Living. Notre Dame has one titled "God and the Good Life." The related honors program for freshmen at Valparaiso University in Indiana involves not only holding formal discussions of ideas from the Great Books, but also performing a musical performance based on their themes. Many of these courses do not provide students with a formula, but introduce them to some respected ethical traditions—including Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, and Enlightenment rationalism. They bring students into contact with thinkers who have studied ethical issues extensively, from Aristotle to Desmond Tutu and Martha Nussbaum. They maintain various specimens that should serve as models of the good life. They clearly put the most important questions of life on the table:What is the dominant passion of your soul? Who are you responsible to? What are my moral obligations? What do I need to make my life meaningful? What does it mean to be a good person in today's world? What are the key issues we need to address in relation to new technologies and human life?

These questions conflict with the ethos of the modern university, which is based on specialization and the transfer of professional or technical knowledge. However, these are the most important courses that the university can offer. They should not be on the sidelines of academic life. They should be part of the required core curriculum.

Intergenerational service.Most of our lives we follow the logic of meritocracy: life is an individual path to success. It is to pursue your own interests.

There must be at least two stages in life where a person has the opportunity to escape meritocracy and live according to an alternative logic - the logic of service: you must give in order to receive. To find yourself, you must lose yourself in a common purpose. The deepest human relationships are gift relationships based on mutual care. (An obvious pattern for at least some aspects of this is American military culture, which also values ​​honor, service, selflessness, and character in supporting a cause greater than ourselves, and Americans of all ages and backgrounds come together and become strong social bonds .)

Such sabbaticals could take place at the end of school years and at the end of working years. National outreach programs could bring younger and older people together to collectively respond to community needs.

These programs would allow people to experience a way to focus on others and develop practical moral habits: how to work with people who are different from themselves, how to show up day after day when progress is slow. How to be generous and work hard.

ethical organizations.Most organizations have two types of goals: moral goals and instrumental goals. Hospitals treat the sick and at the same time they want to make money. Newspapers and magazines inform the public and also try to generate clicks. Law firms advocate for their clients and try to maximize billable hours. Non-profit organizations aim to serve the common good and raise money.

In our society, commercial or utilitarian goals tend to overshadow moral goals. The hospital management is pressuring the doctors to increase the number of patients so that they can charge higher fees. Journalists are encouraged to write articles that validate readers' biases in order to climb the most-read lists. Entire companies fall into an optimization mindset where everything is done to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Moral renewal will only happen if we have leaders who clearly, forcefully and credibly represent both goals.This is how we develop financially, but alsoThis is how we learn to treat each other with care and respect. So we give up a portion of our financial gains to better serve our higher mission.

At the beginning of my career as a TV punditPBS News HourI was working with host Jim Lehrer. Each day, with a series of small gestures, he signaled which behaviors were appreciated and which were unacceptable. In doing so, he subtly established a set of rules and practices that still exist today. He and others built a complete and coherent moral ecology whose way of being was internalized by most of the people who worked there.

Politics as a moral enterprise.An ancient form of immorality haunts the world today. Authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping embody a kind of amoral realism. They exhibit a mindset that assumes the world is a cruel, dog-eat-dog place. Life is a competition to grab what you can. It comes down to power. Morality is a luxury we cannot afford, or simply a deception used by the elite to hide their lust for power. It's okay to vote for lying and corrupt people as long as they are unscrupulous bastards on our end. The end justifies the means.

Those of us who reject these authoritarians espouse a philosophy of moral realism. Yes, of course people are selfish and life can be hard. However, over the centuries, cultures have established rules and codes to encourage cooperation, build trust, and improve our lot. These include personal moral codes so that we know how to treat each other well, moral codes that help prevent corruption in the workplace and public life, and principles of a liberal world order so that nations can live in peace and security within their borders.

Moral realists struggle to defend and modernize these principles and standards—the claws of civilization. Moral realism is based on some basic principles. Character is Destiny We can either elect people who strive to embody the highest standards of honesty, courtesy, and integrity, or we can elect people who violate those standards. Stachism is an art of the soul. The laws we make shape the people we become. We can structure our tax rules to encourage people to be entrepreneurial and save more, or we can structure our tax rules to encourage people to be fraudulent and wasteful. Democracy is the system that best enhances human dignity. Democratic regimes delegate power to the people and try to shape the people to take responsibility based on that trust. Authoritarian regimes seek to create a world where the powerful do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Look, I understand why people don't want to talk about ethics in public. Many of those who do this are self-righteous simpletons or evil hypocrites. And all this is just the beginning. But healthy moral ecologies do not emerge spontaneously. They must be planted and nurtured by people who think and speak in moral terms, who try to shape and instill moral behavior, who understand that we must build moral communities because we are all selfish and flawed. Moral education is best when it is humble. It means equipping people with skills and habits that will help them pay attention to others in complex life situations. This means helping people behave in a way that makes them feel included, seen and respected. This is very different from the way we treat people today - in a way that makes them sad, lonely and rude.

This article appears onSeptember 2023Print version titled "How America Got Mean." If you purchase a book through a link on this page, we will receive a commission. Thanks for the supportAtlantic.


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