Monday, February 20, 2012

It may be legal but is it moral?

Thomas Friedman has attracted criticism from some quarters for contrasting Boomers and their “situational values” with their parents' generation which, he says, maintained "sustainable values.” Those who experienced racial or gender discrimination in earlier decades know how unevenly those values were applied. 

America is a far better place today. We live in a more open, inclusive, and democratic society. One example: In 1967 in the Loving v. Virginia civil rights case, the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute. Today, the state leads the nation in black-white unions.

Boomers led the fight for equality for women in the workforce and other areas. And they have been at the forefront on important issues like care for the environment.    

But as a Boomer myself, I take seriously Friedman’s comment on the financial crises of recent years: “If there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of 'baby boomers behaving badly' - a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids."

Friedman may overstate the case. My generation has contributed enormously to human progress and many of my peers have dedicated their lives to great causes.  But the financial meltdown was the result of too many people – particularly Boomers – living by situational values. Much of the disastrous activity in the financial world may not have been illegal but it was certainly unethical and irresponsible. 

Paul Abrams wrote recently in the Huffington Post: “Wall Street mavens may be coming around. Years after they decimated the economy, they are beginning to realize that they need to change not just the error of their ways, but also the way of their errors. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, now supports increasing taxes on the wealthiest earners, including increasing capital gains and dividends' taxes. Same for Home Depot's Ken Langone.”

But Wall Street was not alone in its irresponsibility. Millions of Americans were living beyond their means to satisfy desires for instant gratification. And beyond the issue of financial irresponsibility, we Boomers have often bent the rules in other areas. We were eager to change the world for the better but less eager to accept the necessary personal disciplines.

Boomers rejected the restrictive morality of earlier generations. Interestingly, statistics show today’s teenagers are misbehaving a lot less than their parents. Drug and alcohol abuse is much lower; even the percentage of 15-17 year-olds who have had sex is down. Boomers embraced moral relativism. We focused on self-fulfillment, believing that “if it feels good, do it.” What comes naturally must be OK. Many broken marriages and wrecked lives and careers were the consequence.   

But should what comes naturally be our guide?  As science writer Matt Ridley notes in Nature Via Nurture (in paperback, The Agile Gene) “A greater tendency to violence is…innate in the human male. That does not make it right...To base any moral position on a natural fact, whether that fact is derived from nature or nature, is asking for trouble In my morality, and I hope in yours, some things are bad but natural, like dishonesty and violence; others are good but less natural, like generosity and fidelity.” 

The Boomer generation and the ones that followed have made tolerance a preeminent value.  But tolerance alone can’t hold societies together. Without objective moral standards, how can anyone claim that one value is better than another? Paradoxically, commented Rushworth Kidder in Ethics Newsline, “as moral relativism grew in strength, so too did a countervailing social consciousness,” a desire for shared universal values for human rights, for rights of women and codes to stop corruption. Relativism is therefore in conflict with widely acknowledged social values of respect, equality, and honesty.

In our legalistic society in the US, we tend to push the envelope of what can be done within the limits of the law. But just because something is legal does not make it right or moral. Can we embrace shared, sustainable values based on trust and integrity for a world that works for everyone?

1 comment:

  1. On a related note - it may be "my right", but when I exercise "my right", will my actions be moral in the eyes of God?

    I will say this about "objective moral standards" - who gets to decide? There was a time when many felt that marrying someone of another race was immoral. I'd like to think that we learned how limiting and hurtful that belief was. I'm not suggesting an "everyone decide for themselves" answer - left to our own devices, we will deceive ourselves and justify our own desires. I think that the answer comes from a God who speaks deep within us. I believe that the deep inner speaking is hear in our conscience.

    Relative morality may refer to the hierarchy of values. If someone has ever told you "Oh, that haircut looks terrible on you", they were honest, but they were not kind. I agree that relative morality can become an excuse to dismiss bedrock moral principles, but unexamined "objective moral standards" can miss the bedrock as well. When we stop to listen to our conscience, we can find the bedrock deep within.

    David Blethen