When I was young, success was not being rich but being a person of good repute: honest, hardworking, and willing to help others. We were taught stories in school about how presidents should be honest and of good character: stories about how George Washington confessed about cutting down the cherry tree and Abe Lincoln walking 3 miles at night to return 6 cents he had overcharged a customer.
Also, we held religious stories in common, like how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven. Yet now we have elected a rich man as our President, an inveterate liar and serial adulterer, who even stiffed the contractors who built his hotels and casinos. Nevertheless, somehow, he is revered by much of working-class America and applauded by religious conservatives.
This decline in morality is the result of many factors. Two immediately come to mind. The first is moral relativism, advocating an “anything goes” attitude, personified by Trump and his supporters. Interestingly, back in the 1960s, it was the conservatives who were blaming liberals in our universities for promoting such decadence.
However, those college professors were not advocating that facts don’t matter. What they were saying is that when you look closely at a text or a society, it soon becomes apparent that the truth people see depends on where they stand in society. A current situation that illustrates this divide is Black Life Matters protesters versus the police: Each side makes a different claim on what is true.
Of course, 1960s hippies have always been blamed for pursuing an “anything goes” morality. But one could make a strong case that we were experimenting, searching for a new caring, person-centered ethics, as opposed to the existing patriarchal model that dropped atomic bombs on Japan and killed millions of peasants in Vietnam.
Another signal event that helped usher in our moral decline happened 50 years ago this month when Milton Friedman, a leading economist, wrote a seminal essay that the New York Times Magazine called the “free market manifesto that changed the world.”1 In essence, he said forget about morality and ethics. In no uncertain terms, he asserted that business should not concern itself with the welfare of its workers or society at large; its sole responsibility is to make money. His call to arms spread like a virus.
Spurred on, in part, by his manifesto, the 1980s became known as the “Decade of Greed,” personifying avarice and an anything-goes attitude, according to the National Review.2 Meanwhile, our society continued to become more secular, with fewer people going to church. I don’t know if that is a lagging or leading indicator.
The contagion has now spread until it is the only game in town. Everything has become transactional. Forget the Golden Rule: if a transaction is profitable to a company or individual, go for it, no matter what the consequences to others.
From this brief history, it is evident that Trump is not the cause of our downfall, but a symptom of a distressing trend. I’ve been mulling what has gone wrong and what can be done to reverse the trend. Retrieved from dusty history, I came across a remedy: The Sovereignty of the Good, by Iris Murdoch, first published in 1970.
Murdoch, a novelist and moral philosopher who recently died at the age of 100, fought against cultural relativism. She looked back in time to her mentor, Plato, who believed in ultimate reality—but thought most people could only access it in low resolution, as shadows on the wall.
This transcendental reality, Murdoch says, is The Good, something we are all familiar with “by instinct…[t]he ordinary person understands some things are better than others.”3 But to fully appreciate the good, she agreed with Plato: one must work at it, as you do with any other endeavor. For example, to become good at mathematics: you must be introduced to the principles and practice them. All our religions recognize this need for practice.
Murdoch writes there is “a place both inside and outside religion for contemplating the good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people.”4 The most important thing we must do is to get outside our anxiety-ridden minds: “to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.”
“Our ability to act well when the time comes,” she says, “depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.” For this reason, we should meditate, with a “just and loving gaze,” upon those things that appear to be good and beautiful.5
For the sake of my soul, crying out from the cauldron of incivility in which we find ourselves, I have pledged to follow Iris Murdoch toward her vision of the good.
3 Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Great Minds) (p. 95). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
4 Ibid. p. 99