Morality - the ups and downs

The social fabric appears to be unravelling: civility seems like an old-fashioned habit, honesty like an optional exercise and trust like the relic of another time. One famous social commentator has claimed that “the process of our moral decline” began with the “sinking of the foundations of morality” and proceeded to “the final collapse of the whole edifice”, which brought us “finally to the dark dawning of our modern day, in which we can neither bear our immoralities nor face the remedies needed to cure them”.

All very apt not only to the Roman historian Livy, who wrote those words 2000 years ago, but also seemingly apt as a description of our society now. We have endless scams and hate-speech on the internet; in the political world we have a former American president charged with felonies under US espionage legislation, Johnson not willing to face up to the finding of the privileges committee that he lied through his teeth (and other orifices) to Parliament about partygate and now, for good measure, the former First Minister of Scotland arrested in connection with ‘accounting irregularities’.

In response, Trump and mini-Trump trumpet their innocence of the trumped-up charges against them. Everything is a conspiracy to do them down, whether by the establishment, judges or the shape-shifting Blob. But are things actually worse now and going rapidly downhill?

As illustrated by Livy’s remarks, there is always a tendency when looking back to give our own past a rose-coloured hue. But there is now a study, carried out by researchers at the Universities of Columbia and Harvard, published last month in Nature, which suggests that this is not really the case.

‘Morality’ refers primarily to people’s treatment of each other, and ranges from the altruistic to the barbaric. But Livy was not talking about the extremes - the heroic deed or heinous crime that few people ever perform or experience. He was complaining about the ways in which ordinary people behave in their daily lives.

Do modern people, like Livy, believe that their contemporaries are less honest and kind than they used to be? Do they think their neighbours are less generous and less helpful, that their co-workers are more likely to treat each other disrespectfully and betray each other’s trust?

Annual surveys have been asking people about their perceptions of changes in these everyday moral qualities since at least 1949 in the USA, but the full survey data had not before been systematically analysed. Researchers have now carried out a meta-analysis using 177 surveys over a 70-year span from 1949 to 2019. These asked fresh cohorts of just over 3,000 respondents each year if and how they thought other people’s morality had changed over time.

Typical questions included: “Do you think that over the last few decades our society has become less honest and ethical in its behaviour, more honest and ethical, or has there been no change in the extent to which people behave honestly and ethically?” and “Right now, do you think the state of moral values in this country as a whole is getting better or getting worse?”

On 84.18% of the questions, the majority of participants reported that morality had declined. And the proportion of participants who reported moral decline was not significantly influenced by the year in which the survey was administered, which means that US Americans have been reporting moral decline at the same rate for as long as researchers have been asking them about it. And so did our forebears, going back for millennia. So then we ought now to be at the Gates of Hell.

The common-sense response to the whole idea of continuous decline is that it is unconvincing. And other parts of the research confirm this. Because for decades, researchers have also been asking people to report directly on the moral values, traits and behaviours of themselves and their contemporaries in the present: “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” or “Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?” or “During the past 12 months, how often have you carried a stranger’s belongings, like groceries, a suitcase, or shopping bag?”

If, as people claim, morality has been declining steadily and precipitously for decades, then those people’s reports of the then current state of morality should also have declined over the years. But no, people’s reports of the current morality of their own contemporaries are stable over time.

Morality itself is something which does in fact vary with time and circumstances, as can be seen in the way we look back on some of the horrors of empire. And we need only to look back at Lloyd George to see a precursor of Boris Johnson. But our behaviour overall? And in terms of murders and crime generally, surely themselves immoral acts, we have seen a marked reduction over the centuries. This is mainly as a result of the introduction of a sensible legal system with state enforcement, as Steven Pinker has pointed out.

But if our treatment of each other has actually improved, why do people think we are on a downward slope? The researchers suggest two much-studied psychological mechanisms working in tandem.

Firstly, numerous studies have shown that human beings are especially likely to seek and attend to negative information about others (the village gossip?), and mass media indulge this tendency with a disproportionate focus on people behaving badly. People may therefore encounter disproportionately more negative information about the morality of ‘people in general’, and this ‘biased exposure effect’ may help explain why people believe that current morality is relatively low.

Second, numerous studies have shown that when people recall positive and negative events from the past, the negative events are more likely to be forgotten, or even be misremembered as their opposite and will also be more likely to have lost their initial emotional impact. This ‘biased memory effect’ may help explain why people believe that past morality was relatively high. Working together, this would produce an illusion of moral decline.

If a correct explanation, then these biases would be expected to be less strong in the case of people we know well – our friends and relatives. And in further research it was confirmed that when participants were asked to assess the morality of people in their personal worlds, the perception of moral decline was reduced or even reversed. Participants also reported increases in morality when asked about certain specific issues on which social progress has clearly been made: for example, 59% of (American) participants reported improved treatment of African Americans and 51% reported improved treatment of people with physical disabilities.

So then when faced with something clearly at odds with their basic perception, people are willing to allow for exceptions. This does not however take us far enough - because the politicians play on our distorted perception of reality. In 2015, 76% of US Americans agreed that “addressing the moral breakdown of the country” should be a high priority for their government.

The United States faces many problems, from climate change and terrorism to racial injustice and economic inequality - and yet, most Americans believe their government should devote resources to reversing a wholly imaginary trend. And if low morality is itself a cause for concern, then morality which is not just believed to be at a historic low, but believed actually to be declining further can be a very powerful call to arms.

Leaders who promise to halt this illusory decline, to 'make America great again', can increase their electoral appeal, which is very important when seeking any means to gain power (again), and this in the hope of protecting themselves from their own misdeeds. Sound familiar?

12 June 2023

Paul Buckingham

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