A moral issue

Two hundred years ago it seems that practically everything was a moral issue; that’s why they were able to hang poor wretches for petty crimes and then sit down to enjoy a hearty meal, content that they had done their moral duty. In most of the South, clergymen preached that slavery was God’s will, buttressing this by extensive biblical quotations. In wide swaths of the North their counterparts preached that it was an abomination in the sight of the Lord, with their own scriptural quotations. Hellfire and brimstone awaited those who contravened God’s will, whatever it was.

Around a century ago or so, something seemed to break. Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry announced an age when confident assertions of morality were liable to challenge. People had sex much as they always had, but were less secretive and ashamed. Hemlines rose like airplanes. Some got divorced and were not ostracized.

It was the First World War, it was the rise of urbanization, it was all the immoral immigrants, it was devilish machines, it was God’s testing of the American people. In any event, moralizers were as likely to be greeted with derision as with solemn respect.

To an extent, the urge to moral condemnation found other channels. Totalitarian Fascism was all but universally condemned as wholly evil, at least after the Fascists made war on us. And of course Godless Communism had always been totally immoral. But domestically, moralizers were fighting a rear-guard action.

But now moralism seems to be making a comeback. Abortion of course is the headline example, but there are plenty of other issues that many see in moral terms. If you feel uncomfortable with people of other races or ethnicities you’re a bad, evil, wicked person. Similarly if you want to deprive Americans of their sacred right to have, carry, and use guns as they see fit. Families split apart over the issue of whether the children should be immunized against communicable diseases.

(To be clear, I’m not in any way either condemning or praising people for opposing [or supporting] abortion, discrimination, gun control, or immunization; I’m only illustrating the prevalence of issues that many people take to be matters of absolute right and wrong, not subject to examination of the evidence or reasoned discussion.)

Morality is expressed in values, and for the last several decades a worldwide alliance of social scientists has been studying values across cultures, and finding some very significant things. It’s called the World Values Survey and ever since the 1980s it has been asking thousands of people around the world probing questions about their values, producing a massive database—big data about what people value. The database is available online for analysis by anyone who has the interest (and industrial-strength statistical software such as SPSS, PSPP, or R).

The WVS provided the basis for a very intensive analysis by Professors Ronald Inglehart (who founded the WVS and led it for a number of years) and Christian Welzel (who now leads it): Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). I have written a review essay, “A Scientific Examination of Modernization.”

Through intensive statistical analysis of the data from responses from tens of thousands of individuals across dozens of societies over a two-decade span, Inglehart and Welzel were able to bring together a profound and compelling picture of the forces and processes that lie at the root of democracy. I cannot begin to do it justice here and even my 6,400 word review essay no more than scratches the surface. (There is also much valuable information to be found by browsing through the WVS Web site.)

By the time the book was written more than 165,000 respondents had each answered more than 200 questions about their values. Naturally, there was huge variation in the results, But analysis of the data showed that a great deal of the variation was accounted for by two scales or axes: what Inglehart and Welzel refer to as the traditional vs. secular-rational and survival vs. self-expression axes.

Traditionalists, in Inglehart and Welzel’s definition, tend to put their faith in God, established authority, and their “tribe” much more strongly than secular-rationalists, who see the course of events as being directed by human rather than divine will and view inherited norms and values with skepticism more than reverence. Traditionalists raise their children to be obedient while secular-rationalists want theirs to be independent-minded go-getters. (Both are frequently disappointed with the results.)

Traditionalists dominate in static agrarian societies while dynamic industrial societies tend to breed secular-rationalists; there aren’t many traditionalists in the upper reaches of Silicon Valley. Most industrial societies tilt strongly toward secular-rationalism but the United States, almost uniquely, is more closely balanced between traditionalism and secular-rationalism.

A good example of the tension in action is provided by Prohibition. It was enacted when America was predominately rural but as urbanization and industrialization spread the forces against it gained strength and it was ultimately repealed in 1933. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi however remained “dry” for a decade or more beyond 1933, and the Bible Belt has a great many dry counties or counties that are dry except for some urban areas that have opted to allow alcohol sales. Sunday “blue laws” are common throughout rural areas. There’s debate about how effective prohibition is in reducing alcohol consumption, particularly local prohibition, but its supporters generally see it as a moral rather than pragmatic issue.

Today we see the traditionalist vs. secular-rationalist tension being played out again in prohibitions of marijuana, of other drugs, and of abortion, as well as in firearms rights. In all of these matters the traditionalist advocates see their positions in moral terms while their secular-rationalist adversaries view them with scorn as blinkered and irrational. It all makes for pretty uncomfortable politics.

And survival vs. self-expression? That’s material for another post.