The Liberty to Be Civil


Nation Needs to Fix Its Broken Moral Compass, Study Group Says

Seattle is not an overly friendly city.  It is a civil city, but not altogether friendly.  People from outside mistake the civility for friendliness.
Seattle is full of people who have their own lives to live.  They won't waste their time being friendly.  But they are civil.

- Jonathan Rabin


by Tim Whitmire

New York - Americans can reset the nation's broken moral compass through actions as diverse as turning off their televisions and reforming the tax code, according to a report issued Wednesday by a 24-member non-partisan panel.  The politicians, clergy, academics and activists who wrote "A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths," say Americans must find a way to agree on a public moral philosophy if democracy is to survive.  "If independent moral truth does not exist, all that is left is power," says the report.  "Such a view of reality is, among other things, antithetical to the western ideal of human freedom.  In the long run, it is likely to prove fatal to the project of republican self-governance."

Among those who served on the Council on Civil Society, which took two years to craft the 30-page report, are: US Senators Dan Coats, R-Indiana, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, academics Francis Fukuyama, Cornel West and John J DiIulio, public opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich and Boston pastor Ray Hammond.  The group was chaired by Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The report's recommendations include strengthening obstacles to divorce and reforming the tax code to provide financial incentives to couples who stay married.  It calls on television broadcasters to police themselves by readopting the 8 - 9pm "family hour" and on Americans to turn off their TVs one week a year.  Religious institutions are urged to reassert themselves into American life, while the Supreme Court is chided for trying to create "a society sanitised of public religious influence."  Government is urged to embrace charter schools and school choice, and end state sponsorship of lottery games, which "purvey a counter-civics ethic of escapism and false hope."  Without such changes, America is doomed to continue a long-term moral decline that 67% of the public already believes is well under way.  "As our social morality deteriorates, life becomes harsher and less civil for everyone, social problems multiply and we lose the confidence that we as Americans are united by shared values," the panel writes.

As evidence of the spread of uncivil behaviour, the report cites baseball star Roberto Alomar spitting in the face of an umpire, pop star Madonna announcing she wants to have a baby but not a husband, and political consultant Dick Morris going straight from a prostitution scandal to a lucrative book contract.

The head of the Institute for American Values, which issued the report, said the panel struggled over how to call for a moral revival.  "Democracy's dependence on moral truth was the single most contentious issue," said David Blankenhorn, whose group issued the report with the University of Chicago Divinity School.  Such a claim, he added, "is almost taboo within the academy," where a pragmatic, rights-based view of democracy holds sway.

Elshtain said panellists agreed that moral truths exist, but argued over whether such truths are theological or secular.  Ultimately, the panel adopted the "natural theology" of the nation's founding fathers, who enshrined in the Constitution the belief that, as the report says, "people possess transcendent human dignity, and that consequently each person must always be treated as an end, never as a means."  Americans must abandon the belief "that whatever the free market produces must be valid" and that people "are autonomous units of desires, rights and legitimate values of our own choosing," the report says.  "Only through connectedness can we approach authentic self-realisation," the authors write.

The report is just one of several coming out on the subject.  In June, the Commission on Civic Renewal, chaired by Republican William Bennett and Democrat Sam Nunn, will be finishing its report.  The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, is scheduled to release a book this month on civil society.

Source: NandoTimes 27 May 1998 © and the Associated Press

Regarding Civility

I have two comments.  The first is in regard to the comment "Government is urged to ... end state sponsorship of lottery games, which 'purvey a counter-civics ethic of escapism and false hope.'"  I understand that lotteries bring in money for the state, but that money tends to come from those who can afford it least (see Average Gambler).  However, once opened, that's a door that's virtually impossible to close, particularly with the advent of Internet gambling.

The other comment is in regard to the statement "Only through connectedness can we approach authentic self-realisation."  I couldn't agree more (see Groups Can Be Therapeutic, the next page in this section).  But that connectedness needs to be at least partly physical - studies of animals who groom each other - from fish to primates (and including humans) show that stroking one another causes measurable changes in the amygdala.  I suspect this is one of the major reasons for the hair styling industry as well as the massage industry (I mean the authentic one, but possibly the other kind as well).  My conclusion?  Try hugging someone today - or comb a family member's hair (gently!).  See if it doesn't put you both in a better mood.

Measuring Morals: Researchers Ask If Americans Are Cheating More Often -
and What Can Be Done about It

by Laura Secor

"In corporate America today," declared former Vermont governor Howard Dean in last Sunday's Iowa debate, "this president has turned a blind eye to morality.  We have lost our moral compass in this country..."  Dean might well have taken a leaf out of a provocative new book by David Callahan.  In The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (Harcourt), Callahan argues that while conservatives crow about family values and sexual morality, their fiscal policies have created a culture that not only permits but encourages immoral economic behaviour.  Thanks to the deregulation of the market, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the over-emphasis on material values, Americans more and more frequently take the quick, dishonest route to wealth, writes Callahan, who runs the public-policy think tank Demos.  "It is just too easy in this society for cheaters to float seamlessly upward, seeing few downsides along the way," he maintains.  We cheat on our taxes and our SATs, we lie on our resume, we overcharge our clients and customers, and from there it is a short leap to the sorts of business and investment fraud that swept America in the 1990s and exploded with scandals like Enron and WorldCom.

But Callahan's is just one of a cluster of recent books on how people make moral choices in everyday life.  What motivates our choices?  Is it reason?  Emotion?  Biological instinct?  Social norms?  Is the moral satisfaction of doing right enough to tempt us away from the material rewards of doing wrong?  Economist Robert H Frank argues that in fact we do the right thing more often than we rationally should, while a group of Harvard education researchers, who talked to young professionals in depth about the ethical choices they make in their work, concluded that too many of them deceived themselves about the significance of the compromises they made.

That Americans cheat more than they used to sounds like an impossible hypothesis to prove.  And yet, Callahan's book is thick with convincing examples.  In the legal world, for instance, it was once possible to become a partner at a major law firm on the basis of honest hard work.  But the shape of the profession has changed, he argues, with fewer people able to reach its pinnacle and more money for those who do.  Partners make their fortunes on the backs of associates who work punishing hours and have little chance of advancement.  Under intense financial and professional pressure, and with little contact with or personal loyalty to their clients, associates chronically overestimate their billable hours.

Similar pressures impel athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs, accountants to cook the books of valued clients, and ordinary people to under-report their income to the IRS.  Two baseball players Callahan cites estimate steroid use among players at 85% and 60% respectively.

Not only are the monetary incentives to cheat often enormous, the penalties for doing wrong are frequently negligible or nonexistent.  White-collar crime is rarely severely punished (former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow's recent 10-year sentence notwithstanding).  No one will be socially ostracized for stealing cable service - as 10% of Chicago households do, according to one study - or pirating music online.  In high schools where students compete fiercely for admission to the Ivy League, teachers and parents often turn a blind eye to academic fraud.

Across the board, laments Callahan, we have created a social context in which cheating has become both a rational choice and one subject to little moral censure.  "Simply put," he writes, "we have a nastier, more cut-throat set of values than previous generations did.  As the race for money and status has intensified, it has become more acceptable for individuals to act opportunistically and dishonestly to get ahead."  America needs a new social contract, Callahan concludes, as well as more individuals unafraid to be "chumps" if they are honest when others aren't.

In more everyday situations than not, as it happens, we do choose to be chumps - or to "incur unnecessary costs," as Cornell University economist Robert H Frank prefers to say.  How and why we choose to do right is the subject of What Price the Moral High Ground?  Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments (Princeton), the latest contribution by Frank, author of The Winner-Take-All Society and Luxury Fever.

Doing right can be as simple and small as leaving a tip in a roadside restaurant where you'll never be seen again.  Rational-choice theory - the hypothesis, popular in economics and political science, that we behave in ways that efficiently serve our self-interest - can't explain such behaviour.  Nor can it explain why we make anonymous gifts to charity, return lost wallets to strangers, or choose to work for modest pay at socially useful jobs.

Moral behaviour is not irrational, however, Frank insists.  The challenge is to define self-interest in a manner capacious enough to accommodate the real motives for people's choices.  Frank does this with a mixture of Darwinian science, psychology, and flexible common sense.  Like many critics of rational-choice theory, Frank trains his attention on what is known as the prisoner's dilemma.  Two people are separately informed that they must choose to either cooperate with their unseen partner or defect.  If both cooperate, both receive $2.  If both defect, neither receives anything.  If one cooperates and the other defects, the cooperator receives nothing, and the defector receives $3.  The rational choice - the one that affords the possibility of winning $3 rather than $2 - is to defect, but experimental subjects cooperate nearly as often.  Frank's studies show that people base their choices on what they think their partners are likely to do.  And with a little bit of exposure to one another, his subjects predicted fairly accurately who would cooperate and who would defect.  That accuracy increases the better we know each other.  It is not irrational to cooperate - in fact, some 75% of Frank's subjects did so - if the chances are pretty good that we have chosen our partners wisely.

But Frank uncovered a curious exception to this cooperative spirit: his own peers.  He hypothesised that economists would be more likely to defect, because rational-choice theory would lead them to expect others to behave selfishly.  Sure enough, when he conducted the same experiment with undergraduate economics majors, 60% defected.  Frank's outlook may seem more optimistic than Callahan's, but his results actually bolster Callahan's observations.  That is to say, we base our behaviour partly on trust.  And if we really do live in a society that tolerates and predicts cheating, we are that much more likely to cheat.

Although neither Frank nor Callahan propounds a simplistic rational-choice model, both assume that for the most part reason guides our choices, and guides us toward universally shared goals, whether these are material or, in Frank's Darwinian sense, mere survival and reproduction.  Frank offers a place for the emotions in his model, but they are subordinate to reason.  Sympathy and guilt evolved to help us make choices that are in the long run rational, he argues, even if in the short term they compel us to override what appears to be our most rational option.  But isn't it possible for emotions to be ends unto themselves?  Might we make rational choices to avoid negative emotions and seek positive ones, whatever the impact on our material self-interest?

Similarly, Callahan's argument hinges on the expectation that people make moral choices based on material desires, and that shifting economic arrangements have produced a greater tendency to cheat.  By and large, he supports this claim.  But some of the cheaters he profiles don't quite fit the mould.  For example, he attributes journalistic fraud, like that of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, to the same lust for profit as securities fraud.  But journalism tends to be a poorly paid profession, rarely chosen for its riches.  Ambitious journalists are more likely motivated by the promise of fame and prestige - rewards that deregulation has affected not at all.

In the forthcoming Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work (Harvard), Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, and researchers Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, and Deborah Greenspan capture the complex and often abstract values that shape people's professional goals and guide their decisions.  Following a series of in-depth interviews, the Harvard researchers assessed the degree to which young professionals in three fields - journalism, genetic science, and acting - were willing to compromise their own ideals to achieve success.  Fischman, Solomon, Greenspan, and Gardner are concerned less with prisoner's-dilemma-style moral questions than with the struggles of their subjects to be true to themselves despite homogenising pressures from above.  A journalist for a suburban paper, for example, attends the funeral of a local 16-year-old basketball star, then returns to the newsroom to be told that he must slap his story together quickly and turn his attention instead to the death of a celebrity, John F Kennedy Jr.  According to Gardner and his coauthors, "Bill was torn between his journalistic values and those of his editors.  He felt a responsibility to report on the young athlete's funeral because it `meant so very much to the small community of people' to whom he was reporting."

Geneticists in the study report that their advisers sometimes pressure them to release partial findings, in order to get a jump on competing scientists.  Actors struggle to decide whether or not they should accept roles they consider demeaning to women, for instance, or to their race, or to play a role as a director envisions it even when the actor's vision is starkly different.  The researchers found that the geneticists were the most likely to succeed in reconciling their values with professional expectations; the journalists were the least so, and seemed the most unhappy with their jobs.  (Jayson Blair was supposed to participate in the study, but he never showd up.)  Some members of all three groups rationalised making ethical compromises early in their careers, on the assumption that later on they would have more and better choices.

On the face of it, this sort of research has little bearing on the sort of moral reasoning Frank analyses or the political culture Callahan critiques.  But if there is one relevant insight the Harvard study provides, it's that most of us conceive of our self-interest in a manner neither purely material nor obviously adaptive.  There are genetic scientists who believe their work is guided - and ethically bounded - by God.  Most actors know they have chosen lives of poverty and obscurity, but feel an emotional calling to the stage that overrides all else.  Veteran journalists speak passionately about their commitment to the First Amendment, even when it places them in a profession with modest financial rewards and pervasive frustrations.  If such commitments - spiritual, emotional, political, idealistic - are not easily explained as rational, so much the better.  Because if Callahan is right that it has become increasingly rational to cheat in American society, the best hope to reverse that trend is for Americans to stop listening to reason.

Laura Secor is the staff writer for Ideas; © Globe Newspaper Company

Source: 18 January 2004

There could be another explanation...

Tolstoy and the Beltway

by Gregg Easterbrook

Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness
A Report by the President's Council on Bioethics

Next comes the prospect of ever-better pharmaceuticals, able to alter us in ways that grow seductive.  Suppose, for example, that biotechnology devises compounds similar to Prozac, but without side effects; huge numbers of grumpy people would take a harmless pill that improved their mood.  (The people around them may insist that they take it.)  Suppose biotechnology devises compounds similar to Ritalin, but without side effects; why not give it to kids to improve their schoolwork, or for that matter to adults to improve job performance?  Not only do test scores rise for most children who take Ritalin and similar drugs, but adults with no relevant symptoms who take these compounds also do better on intelligence tests.  Suppose biotechnology develops quasi-steroids that have no ide effects: will even the Olympics be able to hold its ground against muscle-enhancers?

Though there will always be some people who would rather be their true spiky selves than their sunny pill-improved selves, advanced biotechnological compounds may end up common as aspirin.  Assuming that such drugs can be engineered, millions of people will have trouble resisting them.  How many will be persuaded by the arguments of lonely intellectuals that a society without sadness is not a human society, nor a humane one?  Millions more will pop such pills for arms-race reasons: if the competition at college or the office is snarfing down high-tech molecules that increase alertness, mental prowess, and cheerfulness, won't you have to keep up as well?

Beyond Therapy asks a haunting question.  Suppose there were a harmless biotech drug that could erase the memory of trauma - whether something awful such as witnessing violence, or something common such as the death of a parent.  For the minority who develop clinical symptoms after trauma, a memory-erasing compound would be an act of mercy.  But most people who experience trauma do not develop clinical symptoms; they agonise, they cry, they have trouble sleeping, but they maintain normalcy.  Beyond Therapy supposes that most people are better off struggling with trauma, or even being rendered wretched by it, because this brings fullness to our humanity.  "Sorrow, courageously confronted, can make use stronger, wiser and more compassionate," the report suggests.

More specifically, if there were a totally safe memory-deletion drug, should Holocaust survivors swallow it?  The report answers that they should not; better the nightmare, but also the wisdom, of sorrow.  This, Beyond Therapy believes, is not only a concern for the full humanity of the individual, it is a concern for society as a whole.  The social memory of sorrow is an essential feature of a shared moral world.  Suppose a harmless memory-deletion drug had existed in 1946, and all Holocaust survivors ha freely swallowed some.  They would have slept better in the intervening years, but the world might have become much worse for everybody, for a reason that is not hard to see.  "Memory and mood altering drugs pose a fundamental danger," Beyond Therapy concludes, both to our current understanding of human happiness, and to the ability of the future to fear the past.

Source: The New Republic [excerpt] 15 January 2004

Maybe the reason people seem to be modifying their moral compasses is that life is easier than it used to be - not harder...

See also:

bulletFraud Is Everywhere - A study by economists Paul Zak and Stephen Knack in the latest issue of the Economic Journal finds that trust is closely related to a country's wealth and has a crucial impact on growth prospects...
bulletHigh School Student Survey - The Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth found that 92% of the 8,600 students surveyed lied to their parents in the past year; 78% said they had lied to a teacher, and more than 25% said they would lie to get a job...
bulletStrategic Planning Session (further on in this section) - Pay Attention Or Pay! (a cartoon)

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