World Affairs
Vol 1, Number 4 (Oct - Dec '97)

Ethical Erosion Of American Society?

By W N Clarke, S J

American society has lost much of its self-assurance about where it is going, and its moral capacity to lead the world. But given the fact that it is still the most open and free of any society today, we must not under-estimate its capacity for bouncing back.

I raise the question of the moral erosion in American culture, first of all, because not only many Americans themselves, but also many others throughout the world, during the last half a dozen years or so, are seriously concerned about it. There has been a widespread feeling that American society has somehow lost its way morally, or at least lost its former self-assurance of where it is going, of its moral capacity for world leadership, and worries whether or not its tradition of moral values and civic virtue has become so dangerously eroded that it can no longer be effectively handed down to its youth. Some five or six years ago its economic elan also faltered, temporarily, due to a number of reasons including the decreasing efficiency in management and productivity, and concern over the weakness of its educational system which, compared to Europe and Japan, might hinder its ability to compete effectively in the new global market place. Americans began to wonder, somewhat anxiously, about their own future.

On the economic front the business community in the last few years has pulled itself together, bitten the bullet, and taken the necessary painful steps to trim down waste and significantly increase its productivity and efficiency of mangement, so that now the United States has become again one of the strongest and most competitive economies, in contrast with the more stagnant economies of most European countries. Unemployment has dropped to the lowest rate in decades, around 5 per cent, the inflation rate recently plunged to near zero, the deficit is being reduced rather than increased for the first time, and consumer confidence, both in their own and the country's future, has rebounded strongly. In a word, the United States seems to have regained its economic elan and self-confident optimism for the near future in the economic domain. But the moral uncertainty and self-questioning remain. And it is important to recognise that this very economic success itself has brought with it its own significant stresses on the cultural and moral dimension of American society. The high competitiveness of this world and the pressure to keep up with the steadily increasing standard of consumerist living has significantly affected the quality of life of most American families; it has forced a large percentage of them to bring in double incomes with both parents working - thus having less quality time to give to their children and each other, not to mention the moral ambiguity troubling so many people due to the steadily increasing gap between the rich and the poor in the US itself and between the richer and poorer countries around the world. In no small measure this is attributable to the purely profit-driven short-sighted economic policies of our multi-national corporations, themselves caught in the competitive squeeze of the new global market.

For this - and for many other reasons, as we shall see - it is not clear in which direction American culture as a whole is moving. That is the second reason why I have put a question mark at the end of my title. The position I am going to take is that there is a profound tension within American society at present, pulling it in two different and conflicting directions. One is the public voice of American culture, dominated by secularism and individualistic, self-centred liberalism. This is expressed both (1) through the popular culture of the entertainment and advertising media, dominated by materialistic consumerism and a self-gratification and a self-centred drive for short-term indvidualistic self-gratification and (2) the official voice of public policy and education expressing a secularistic neutrality towards religion and most moral values. In a word, there is a public voice of secularist, individualistic liberalism, which is self-centred and consumerist oriented.

The second force of private tradition of religious and moral values is still strong. It finds its expression in the private life of a large majority of ordinary adult American citizens and their handing on of these values to their children. Some 90 to 95 per cent of Americans still believe in God and many, at least occasionally, go to church; the United States is still by far the most religious of any developed Western society although the majority of its young people are increasingly ignorant as to the details of what they - or their church - believe. Outside of the more heavily pluralistic and secularised East and West coast cultures, in the so-called "mid-America", church-going is still an important part of American social life. But this religious-moral dimension has become so privatised by the official secular voice that it lacks so far a strong, effective public expression.

These two great opposing cultural forces are at present locked in a struggle for dominating the American soul. The secular drive of self-centred, individualistic liberalism seems to have the momentum at present. But it is not clear which one will win out in the long run. There is a remarkable resiliency in the American psyche; because of their practical rather than theoretical bent, Americans seem to have a way of coming to their senses, of reversing what seemed to be an inevitable drift, just before it is too late. Witness the dramatic economic turn-around of the last few years. It is never wise to write them off too soon according to rigid models of "inevitable" development. Let us now examine more in detail the nature of this conflict of cultural forces. Because of the powerful influence of American culture on the rest of the world today, especially through its more popular projections and appeal to youth world-wide, it should be of profound concern to the rest of the world, especially to India, one of the new centres of cultural leadership in the East. Something similar could easily happen - and in fact seems to be happening - in other parts of the world, both developed and developing.


I. The Drift Towards Moral Erosion

On the negative side, which is unfortunately the side most visible to the outside world, the signs are all too obvious. Let me condense them - with all the imperfections of such broad generalisations - into what seems to me the most troubling of these manifestations.

A. The Voice Of Public Popular Culture

This is the culture expressed by a large part of the public communications media, such as the advertising industry, the general run of popular television shows (the "soap operas") and films produced by the Hollywood style film industry, especially the shows that are exported abroad (the most widely distributed being usually the ones of lowest cultural content, violence, sex, etc.), and the popular half-mindless rock music, especially the so-called "rap" music popularized prinicipally by black singers and often openly extolling violence and sex - so much so that a backlash has now set in from the black community itself.

All of these tend to broadcast a message heavily laced with an implicitly materalistic consumerism, self-centered individualistic hedonism or at least short term self-gratification, including sexual indulgence, and violence - the latter presented both as a means of entertainment by shock value and even implicitly suggested by constant repetition as a quick means of solving annoying problems. Let us take a brief look at each of these.


One striking aspect of American culture at present is the constant barrage of advertising, which fuels the TV and magazine industries and is almost impossible to avoid completely. It tends subtly but insistently to instil the implicit philosophical message that your self-worth and self-esteem are determined by what you have, what you possess, what you consume, coming from outside of you - the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the shows you watch, the music you listen to, and the places you go - rather than by what you are in your interior being and how you express yourself by your actions emanating from this inner self. The French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, has summed it up in his classic analysis (Being and Having); it is the triumph of having over being, ending up in the shrunken vision of the human being as "man the consumer", whose happiness is presumed to lie in the ever-increasing consumption of an ever-increasing supply of external goods, supplied by an ever-increasing production of the same by the impersonal, free market economic machine.

What is at stake is the ultimate meaning, value, and dignity of the human person. What is the purpose of our journey here on earth? To collect as many external possessions as possible along the way? Or to develop the natural potentialities within you as far as possible into a fully mature person, or, if you wish, to unfold the unique image of the Divine within you as fully as possible in this life? The whole classical humanistic tradition, from Aristotle on, would be at home with the first formulation, while most religious traditions with something like the second. The ideal, "man the consumer", is almost exactly the opposite.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to conclude that this consumerism is a special weakness of the American culture, peculiar to it alone. The evidence seems to show that given almost any society where an abundance of material goods becomes available together with the money to spend, a natural human tendency toward consumerism will spontaneously spring up, especially if it has been long suppressed by austerity and deprivation and is stimulated by the visual presentation of skilled advertising. The Wall Street Journal, recently ran a fascinating article entitled "The Global Mall" (June 26, 1997, p 1), reporting the huge growth of the youth population throughout the world, especially in developing countries where by the year 2000 they will constitute one-third of this vast population, who now have more money to spend than ever before and are eager to spend it: The biggest development of the 1990s may be psychographic, i.e., the growing similarity of youth attitudes and buying habits world-wide". They describe the big new shopping malls rising in Indonesia and many other developing countries, where American taste in clothes, music, almost everything, overwhelmingly predominates. Retailers are targetting an age band of 14 and 24 which extends around the globe in a kind of homogenised youth culture of common tastes, dominated by American models. As one store manager said - who himself was profiting from this new consumerism: "What we are seeing is unbridled consumerism".

Reliable surveys indicate that an astonishing 98 per cent of teen-agers around the world with access to a TV set watch regularly the US based MTV show (Movie-TV, a combination of pounding rock music accompanied by dance and other fast paced but fragmented visual images, with little intelligible connection between them, a remarkable image of so much of the teen-agers own fragmented life and emotions). It expresses a rather low and vulgar level of American culture, portraying for a large part of the time an often crude expression of a self-indulgent, anti-authoritarian fantasy world of adolescent self-gratification and emotional self-expression, laced with a tone (and gestures) of sexual "liberation", and sometimes even violence. Yet, this, by now world-famous programme extends all over the world, including Africa and Asia. There is MTV Indonesia, MTV India, MTV Latin America, MTV Asia, etc., and their combined profits soared 300 per cent last year! It is estimated that some 281,000,000 families watch it around the world: 68 per cent in the US, 20 per cent in Latin America, 70 per cent in Asia (MTV or its imitator and competitor, Hong Kong Channel 5), etc. And if the local market cannot afford the price of other popular items like these, such as the second most widely watched programme, "Baywatch", about the California youth beach culture with its gorgeous bodies and high-exposure bathing suits, then cheaper and lower tone ones - including pornographic - are available for distribution only outside the US market but of course carrying the supposed American culture with them.

Popular Entertainment

What I have said above about the worldwide projection of American consumerism through low-level youth-oriented entertainment programme like MTV and Baywatch also holds true, with appropriate adaptations, of much of the run-of-the-mill daily TV shows, especially the weekly "soap opera" series, and also which have a wide following not only among young people but among housewives at home.They project an implicit ideal of individualistic, self-centred, short-term self-gratification, rarely taking the high moral ground, and with a pervasive spirit of taken-for-granted sexual indulgence. They are not exactly promoters of what we might call "virtue ethics". This is not to say that there are not a considerable number of high level educational, cultural and inspirational programmes on American TV across the weekly schedule; but you have to look for them.

An important part of this popular entertainment is found everywhere where youth is. Its general characteristic is that it is "tribal" (not the same as interpersonal) in its beat and in the emotional tone that it generates. As one young person said to me recently, "Rock is going to stay with us, because it is tribal; and we need that as an escape in this highly organised world". That might well be so. But there is also and much of it, too much, where the lyrics and style carry a message still stuck in an adolescent fantasy world of self-centred, narcissistic, anti-authoritarian self-indulgence, often laced heavily with a glorification of sex and violence. This is especially true of the aggressive "rap" versions, with their crude denigration of women and the law, which has now provoked a significant backlash within the black community itself, where it began. They often defend themselves by claiming that their words are only tongue in cheek, nor serious; but their constant repetition cannot help but leave a negative trace on the impressionable imaginations and emotions of the young. For example, you may have read the shocking news story recently "Two Perfect Little Girls Stun France is Suicide" (New York Times, Friday, May 30, 1997), describing the case of two nice little French girls, 12 and 13, who committed suicide surrounded by the lyrics of the American rap singer, Cobain, who himself committed suicide three years earlier at 27. It appears that the girls perceived the "howling defiance of his lyrics" ("I'd rather be dead than cool") and his own suicide as the image of their own imagined alienation from the society around them. There have been at least three other instances of Cobain-inspired suicides, two in the US and one in Italy, but never one so young before. It would indeed seem unrealistic to maintain that rock music has no appreciable effect on its hearers.

B. Sexual "Liberation"

The so-called "sexual revolution" of the late 60s and 70s is the best known expression of this aspect of American culture. Triggered by the ready availability of contraceptives, especially the pill, both men and women, especially the young and unmarried, were freed from the close linkage of sex with the procreation and rearing of children that had been a restraining force in previous societies. This opened the way to the wider practice of experimental and "recreational" sex - not always promiscuous, but at least serially monogamous - freed, so it was believed, from the imminent threat of pregnancy with its resulting burden of parental obligations. Thus, it is estimated that about one half of young people now graduating from secondary or high school" education are already - in the new non-judgmental descripton - "sexually active", though the percentage has suddenly started to drop significantly in the last six years.

This tends to continue till marriage, though more often in serially monogamous relationships. Both, because of the still imperfect state of "technology" in this area and the perennial thoughtlessness of youth, who prefer spontaneity to prudence, one result has been the rapid expansion of pregnancies among unwed girls and young women, with the consequent rapid expansion of both abortion and - more recently - of the number of unwed mother who decide to keep their children and bring them up without a father, especially - but by no means exclusively - among the poorer minority groups. Something like one quarter of teen-age births are now attributed to unwed mothers.

Abortion is of course widespread, both among the married and the unmarried, ever since it became legally available following the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision to make abortion legal up to the third trimester of pregnancy. The U.S. laws on abortion are now more permissive than almost all other Western countries. As a result, there are now over a million abortions a year, most not for serious health reasons but more often for convenience, as proclaimed in the feminist slogan: "A woman has absolute rights over her own body". This is a highly dubious moral principle, since a woman's whole physiology and psychology show forth her natural orientation towards being the host and nurturer of new human life not her own - the only door, in fact, through which a new human person can enter the world with rights of its own like hers.

The stability of marriage, the fundamental school for training children in moral values and behaviour, has also been seriously weakened by the rising incidence of divorce. Ever since "no-fault" divorce became the law for most, if not all, in the US in 1970, the divorce rate has risen sharply from one-third in 1970 to about one-half of all new marriages in 1990. Several well-documented surveys have finally rubbed our noses in the sad fact - at first denied by defenders of one-parent families - that children brought up by a single parent are at a definite disdvantage as regards future financial success, psychological self-esteem and emotional balance, freedom from addiction problems, etc. The propensity toward easy divorce seems too often based on the individualist self-centred, self-gratification principle, "If it's not working or doesn't feel good and can't be fixed quickly, then split".

It also seems to be the case that in close to one-half of US marriages couples have lived together for some time, often for several years, before their actual public commitment to marriage - the main reason being the fear of total personal commitment in an uncertain world without "trying it out first" to see if it works. This is despite the surprising fact, brought out by several independent studies in both the U.S. and Great Britain, that 30 per cent more divorces occur later among those who have lived together than among those who have not. Apparently familiarity by itself does not strengthen commitment; rather the contrary is the case, as traditional religions have always held. To sum up, there has been a significant recent weakening of family and marriage bonds, hence of the basic matrix for cultivating and transmitting moral values to the next generation. This general atmosphere of sexual freedom or "liberation" is implicitly promoted by the popular entertainment media, both film and TV shows, where hopping into bed on the slenderest of pretexts has become a kind of taken-for-granted part of the total entertainment package.

C. The Proneness To Violence

It has has long been recognised that the US is one of the most violent nations on earth - certainly among the developed nations, and among many of the others too - in its incidence of murder and other violent crimes. This is partly due to the old frontier tradition of the self-reliant individual, with his gun and his horse, enshrined in the Constitutional "right of every citizen to bear arms"; partly due to the easy availability of guns (not found in other countries), which is now being curtailed by new gun control laws; partly due to the excessive amount of violence shown on TV and films, most dangerously so on cartoons and other programmes for children. The average child has been exposed to some 2,00,000 violent scenes on TV by age 16. Despite the attempts of many in the industry to deny it, it is now widely agreed upon by psychologists that all these examples cannot help but make an impression on these young still uncritical consciousnesses and leave a dual message: 1) dulling their natural moral revulsion against violence, and 2) suggesting implicitly that violence is an acceptable way of quickly solving annoying problems. As a result we now have the frightening phenomena of 1) children now killing other children, usually with borrowed guns; 2) gang warfare among alienated youths, so that the leading single cause of death among people 14 to 24 years of age is now violence of some kind, including suicide; 3) violent child abuse, principally among young unmarried mothers, including the shocking recent cases (three separate ones) of teenage girls who concealed their pregnancies and then dumped their newly born infants into garbage cans, thus killing them - one even going back into her high school prom to continue dancing with her boy friend, the unknowing father of the child. Too much of an inconvenience, apparently, to their personal self-development plans! So much in our culture is now disposable: diapers, plates, machines, autos, unwanted embryos, etc. Why not also unwanted, burdensome infants who can't yet claim their rights?

D. Drift Toward Moral Relativism

One of the most serious manifestations of moral erosion in American culture today is the pervasive drift toward moral relativism, particularly among the young. Teachers testify that they find this all over, including among students of schools with a religious tradition. This does not mean that those imbued with this attitude are themselves inclined to act immorally, or that they do not feel emotional aversion to certain kinds of behaviour.. But they have trouble with making firm moral judgments for or against any moral position held by any social, ethnic or religious group, or even individual, that is, with declaring anything objectively right or wrong. The politically correct watchword is, "Don't be judgmental!" Several disturbing articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, summed up in John Leo's hard-hitting column in the U.S. News & World Report, July 14, 1997, entitled "Wimping Out on Values", report the general problem that so many students come to college today dogmatically committed to a moral relativism that offers them no grounds to think about cheating, stealing, or other moral issues - what one author calls "absolutophobia"- the unwillingness to say that some behaviour is just wrong. Thus one professor reports that 10 to 20 per cent of his students say they deplore what the Nazis did, but their disapproval is expressed as a matter of taste or personal preference, not moral judgment. As one freshman put it, 'Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong"? Two others in another class just kept repeating, "Who is to say"? "Who is to say"? Another professor reports that her students (in California) have a lot of trouble expressing any moral reservations or objections even about human sacrifice: they find it hard to condemn, for example, because the Aztecs practised it! Moral deviancy is being defined down to zero.

What is at the root of this anti-judgmental phobia? There are several different strands. One is an older philosophical influence, stemming from the European Enlightement ideal, that came in with the new science of the 16th-17th centuries, and which has gradually worked out its implications into the modern secular liberalism, that now dominates political philosophy in Anglo-American and probably in most Western democratic societies today. The first step here was the commitment to the autonomy of Reason, independent of any external authority, religious or otherwise. But since it was soon found that the only transcultural Reason that all could accept was that of modern science with its impersonal mathematical-experimental method, objective normative rationality soon became restricted to the agreement of scientists, with religious and moral values relegated to the realm of private subjectivity. Aside from public scientific consensus, the autonomy of Reason now became the autonomy of the person's own individual reason.

The passage was then easy to the autonomy of his own individual free will. The political, social and economic individualism of John Locke and his followers has a strong influence here. This fundamental principle of the autonomy of the sovereign individual will, as radicalised by modern secular liberalism, is: "I will accept no goals, no values, normative ideals or obligations, religious or otherwise,unless I can myself freely choose them".. What we see here is a dramatic shift over four centuries in the very notion of authority: from obedience to an external source to obedience to an internal source, from transcendent or social to individual, as long, of course, as the one inviolable commandment of liberalism be respected - not to directly harm someone else or infringe on their individual rights.

The latest chapter in this history of ideas is that of Post-modernism and Deconstruction. They have finally turned against the very authority or objectivity of reason itself, even that of science, in what they proclaim as a revolt against the whole "longocentrism of the West", the confidence that human concepts - or the language that expresses them - have any normative fit with reality at all. For Deconstruction, "Reality itself is a text, which has many possible interpretations", none of them normative. This has been summed up with refreshingly frank - but no less alarming - clarity by one of its leading prophets, Stanley Fish of Duke University, when he declared publicly that, "That most I can hope for is to convert you from your opinion to mine; but this has nothing to do with truth or reality". The essence of Post-modernism has been summed up by one of its French founders, Jean-François Lyotard, as "incredulity at any meta-narrative legitimation of first-order narratives"; in simpler language: "You have your story; I have mine. That's all there is there is no super-story or Court of Appeals which can judge or legitimate the individual ones".

These extreme rejections of reason itself as the providers of any normative judgments are already fading away in France and the rest of Europe, for the simple reason that if pushed all the way they self-destruct by undermining the very statement of their own position. They still have some strength, however, in the higher levels of academia in the US, particularly in literature, political science, and some philosophy departments. Though it is never clear how much influence theoretical philosophy has on American youth, still it cannot fail to have some. And it is one of the anomalies of American culture that whereas the vast majority of ordinary people in the US, some 90 per cent or more, still believe in God and at least occasionally go to Church, making it by far the most religious of all the Western developed countries, a very large proportion of the academic elite are alienated from God and critical of religion. Thus surveys reveal that some 40 per of scientists do no believe in God, the same percentage as twenty years ago. This certainly adds to the confusion of the young.

Aside from this more remote philosophical influence from the Enlightenment still at work in modern secular liberalism, there is a much more immediate source for this moral relativism among the youth, one not peculiar to American culture but that now confronts all contemporary, officially secular democractic societies, such as India itself is. This is the increasingly pervasive phenomenon of multi-culturalism, or cultural pluralism within the same country. It starts off with something very good one of the great and hopefully permanent contributions of the democratic spirit now spreading inexorably around the world, both East and West, namely, religious pluralism, with its political expression as freedom of religion in both practice and public expression. The social and cultural reflection of this is tolerance towards all religions, as long as they do not harm others or violate their basic rights. World opinion now judges negatively any society, such as China, that does not commit itself to this ideal of tolerance.

Religious pluralism, with religious tolerence, is fine. But if one does not have a strong religious and moral tradition of one's own to balance this pluralism, then the passage is easy, especially for uncritically-minded youth, from religious pluralism to moral pluralism - which is a different matter entirely. For unless it remains restricted to areas of secondary importance or where different cultures merely have different ways of expressing the same basic values, moral pluralism can quickly pass over into moral relativism. Nothing is really morally right or wrong; it is merely a question of cultural custom and preference. Whatever is customarily done by any cultural or ethnic group, even a very small one, or even by an individual who knowingly and freely chooses it, cannot be morally judged by others. If this attitude becomes the rule, or widespread, in a democratic society, moral chaos is the result, and the dissolution of that society is well on its way. A democratic society cannot survive for long without the support of an extra-political normative moral order, which the democratic political order cannot itself impose on its citizens. Why this close link?

E. Link Between Democracy And A Normative Moral Order

We touch here on a fundamental principle of political philosophy, borne out by the history of political institutions. On the one hand, a democracy cannot survive for long unless there is a basic moral consensus binding at least the majority of its citizens, and to which the majority conforms in behaviour most of the time. Otherwise, life would turn into a jungle, a power struggle between conflicting individual desires and special interest groups, or there would have to be a police state watching every person. The moral code grounding this consensus must be a normative one, and include obligations of commitment to a common good, transcending merely individual good.

On the other hand, democracy as a purely political power, in terms of its own principles of free speech and equality for all, cannot by its own power impose any definite normative moral code on anyone. It has no moral authority of its own. It can allow freedom only within the limits of a basic moral consensus which in itself cannot authoritatively impose. The conclusion follows that the political order, in particular a democratic political order, cannot be independently self-grounding, self-sufficient. It has a built-in dependence on a normative moral order coming from outside its own political order. The source of this moral order all down through history has always been some form of religion, based on a transcendent moral of some kind. For it is not clear that human beings, purely by their own immanent resources, have the capacity to generate a moral code with enough authority to impose itself normatively on all its citizens. The French Revolution was the first political society in history to attempt this by deliberately rejecting any grounding of the political order on religion; but it didn't last long.

There is, then, a structural complementarity between the political order and a normative moral order, usually grounded in some religion, as the necessary substructure of any healthy democratic society. If a culture has a strong, healthy, religious or at least normative ethical tradition, then an officially secular democracy, allowing cultural and religious pluralism, can indeed work. Indeed, as Jacques Maritain, the distinguished French philosopher and political thinker, has proposed, it now present itself as the only really effective form of government for our time, once its citizenry reaches a certain level of education and articulateness - in fact, he is willing to say, it is becoming a moral imperative for any culture that respects the fundamental dignity of the human person, with its fundamental rights and obligations deriving from beyond the State and the political order. This, by the way, is one great strength that Indian culture still has: a strong religious tradition grounding a normative moral code, which supports its own demorcatic political order.

F. The Transmission Of Moral Value In A Secular Democracy

But now the crucial problem forces itself upon us: how are the moral values and civic virtues grounding the democratic political order to be transmitted to the new generations of youth, its future citizens? This is a fundamental requirement for the continuity and ongoing stability of any society. The problem becomes particularly acute for an officially secular democracy, that is, one which proclaims religious pluralism, hence official neutrality towards all religions. That is the case par excellence in the American style of democracy, written into public policy by its declaration of Separation of Church and State. This statute was originally intended, in a society which took religion for granted as a natural component of popular culture, to bar favouritism or discrimination between particular religions, but not at all to discriminate against all religions.

It has evolved step by step, however, in the last half of this century, under the pressure of the dominant political philosophy of secularist, individualist liberalism, to become a subtle discrimination against all religions, relegating religion to a completely privatised, subjective status with no right of manifestation or influence in any public way in any publicly supported institution (hospital, school, public monument, etc.), or voice in public policy. This drift has been ably documented in the significant study of Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialise Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993). This has now been written into precedent-setting legal decisions and consistently supported by the Supreme Court. Yet this was not the intention of the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution.

This by itself would not be so damaging to the ethical foundations of American culture. But by an inevitable drift, nudged along by the deliberate interpretation of secularist legal minds, it has turned into a neutrality that has invaded the moral domain itself, especially in the most damaging area of public education. Since so many moral issues are also strongly sponsored by religious groups, the tendency has been to back off from public sponsoring of any controversial moral position, on the grounds that this might be taken as favouring one religious position over another, or discriminating against atheism, which also has equal rights with positive religions.

The most damaging effect, however, has been in public education, resulting in a tendency toward "value-free" education. It is easy to see how teachers, forbidden to teach any religious doctrines, can tend to avoid taking any clear-cut moral stand on what is right and wrong, for fear of stepping over the sacred line of Separation of Church and State by proposing some moral position that is strongly sponsored by some religious group and also violating the rights of atheists not to have their children's minds polluted by "religious indoctrination". This has led to the so-called "values clarification" technique of teaching, where simply the "facts" are laid out on each side of an issue and the students invited to express their own feelings on the matter and thus "clarify their own values". This has proven such a disaster, especially in sex education courses, that parents all over have protested and often had them removed.

In the face of all this pluralism, not only religious, but more importantly moral, leading to moral relativism, or perhaps worse, moral indifferentism, it is no wonder that American youth tend to be confused about their own religious and moral vision of the universe. The Wall Street Journal too, in an unusually hard-hitting editorial of June 11, 1997, also warns of the "drift into moral chaos" of American Society.

Serious as the problem is, I think myself that these judgments are too negative and pessimistic about the overall state of American culture. There is a large majority of the ordinary American public who still have a fairly strong, though weakening, tradition of religious and moral values. And a large percentage of the apparently morally relativistic young people - once they get out of school and into positions of responsibility of their own, and especially when they marry and have to face how to bring up their own children and what values to pass on to them - quietly drop off much of their moral relativism. Yet how strong is their moral commitment? A recent survey of the new "Generation X", as it is called, now rising, after the Baby Bommers", towards positions of power, revealed that while they did have values, 71 per cent of them confessed that they thought it was not possible to succeed in the highly competitive business world of today without sometimes compromising their values, and that they were pretty much resigned to doing so. Not moral relativism yet, but no uncompromising moral commitment either.

In the face of all this secularism and moral neutrality coming from the public voice of American culture, both its popular entertainment media and its political-legal system, the central problem remains: how to transmit effectively the private tradition of religious and moral values, without which no democratic society can survive for long healthily? If the public education system - and some 70 per cent of American youth go through public education - has abdicated its role of transmission of moral values, as we have seen, what other effective channels are there?

One immediately thinks of the family, the central guardian and transmitter of value in any culture. But another troubling feature of contemporary American culture is the weakening of family bonds and family values. Half of new marriages now end in divorce. Schools all over, both public and private - at least along the East coast -report that some 40 per cent of their students now come either from a single-parent family, a broken home or a dysfunctional family of some kind (not infrequently with either physical or psychological abuse). The chances of effective transmission of moral and family values are not good here.

We must give heed to the element of truth in the sombre judgment of Barbara Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (New York: Knopf, 1996), although I feel it is too pessimistic and unqualified, overlooking the faith communities of both Protestants and Catholics, who still prepare couples for marriage:

Today's young adults, many of them children of divorce, are more ignorant and wary of marriages than any earlier generation in the nation's history. Those who grew up with divorced parents have little practical knowledge of marriage and thus are two to three times more likely to divorce than their generational peers who grew up in married-parent households.

But the problem goes beyond that. There has been a nearly total breakdown in the capacity to transmit a usable body of thought and practice of marriage to the next generation. The cultural infrastructure that once existed to guide and instruct young adults in marriage has collapsed. Today's young adults are slouching towards marriage in a profound state of cluelessness about its requirements and rewards. Many know nothing about marriage other than what they gather by looking around (First Things, August 1997, p 28).

Both mother and father now work in the majority of American families. The united family dinner, where the whole family, parents and children, would traditionally gather together strengthening bonds of family unity, is now more often than not a thing of the past. Neither parent, certainly not both, seems to have the time available for their children that is needed to effectively transmit family moral values and traditions of behaviour. Nor, in the absence of support from school or family, can the churches be expected to perform this role effectively on their own. Clearly this is the Achilles heel, the central weak spot in contemporary democractic culture in the US. But let us now look at the other, more positive side of the picture.


II. The Private Tradition Of Religious And Moral Values

We have seen that the public voices of American culture, coming through the popular entertainment and advertising media, and the political-legal-educational system, lean heavily toward secular ideals and the nourishment of consumerist and individualist short-term self-gratification drives, pervaded by an atmosphere of ethical relativism. But there is quite another private side to this same culture, which lacks effective public voice and influence,but is nonetheless quite real and still healthy, even if not robustly flourishing. This is the long-standing tradition of religous and moral values that has inspired and moulded American society from its beginnings. It always surprises people to learn that the US is the most religious and church-going society in the Western developed world (save perhaps for Ireland), with 90 per cent of its people believing in God and at least occasionally going to church. (There is, however, an unhealthy gap here between the majority of ordinary people and the academic and media elite, more so, it seems, than in most other countries).

There is also, it seems, though it is harder to check this, a still fairly strong tradition of personal moral values and behaviour, somehow passed on to children. This is particularly evident in the vast middle part of the country, the so-called "mid-America", lying between the more secular-spirited, effervescent and self-advertising sophistication of the East and West coasts with their large cities, suburban sprawl, and disproportionate multi-culturalism. Family bonds, values and traditions are stronger and more stable here than in the more volatile culture of the coasts. And they make it clear - always a shock to New Yorkers - that they do not want to be like New York, or Washington, or California. One middle-aged woman who came from the strong German family-oriented culture of the upper mid-West (Minnesota) told me that when she first came to live in San Francisco she thought she had come to another planet. In the last ten years or so they have begun to find more effective ways of giving public expression to their views and exercising their influence. Fundamentalist and other conservative Christian groups, especially in the South of the US, now have their own radio and TV networks. The conservative Christian right has very recently developed a surprisingly effective political action strategy, with significant influence not only in national elections but especially in grass-roots local politics, school boards, etc.

In the area of sexual behaviour among the young, too, a significant new trend seems to be gathering strength against the former ideal of "let it all hang out" sexual freedom, sex for fun, without commitment. The figures are startling. They show how dangerous it is to write off any generation of Americans as irremediably "lost". The National Centres for Disease Control report that 59 per cent of high schoolers in 1989 had had sex, but has dropped to 54 per cent in 1990, 43 per cent in 1992, and, according to the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., dropped again to 36 per cent in 1994 - a 23 per cent drop in only five years! Students are forming clubs promising abstinence from drugs and sex before marriage giving their members peer support and sharing strategies on "how to say no without hurting the other person's feelings".

UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, which surveys 2,50,000 incoming college freshmen every year, reports that whereas 52 per cent in 1987 said casual sex was acceptable, only 42 per cent in 1996 agree. One of the main reasons is that women, who had first adopted the Playboy philosophy of liberated sex (sex without commitment), "gradually began to realises that it was a bad bargain. If girls give sex in order to get love, while boys give love in order to get sex, dumping free sex on the market drove the cost of love through the roof. Female bargaining power was demolished. Girls had to fling enormous love at boys in desperate attempts to buy the smallest units of love. One teenager told a friend of mine: I slept with Rick last night. Do you think he likes me"? "(Frederica Mathews-Green, "Now for some Good News," First Things, August 1997, 21-23). Imagine asking anxiously if someone likes you after you had already had sex! So girls have been rediscovering the power of "no". Adult men too are joining "Promis-Keepers" clubs, dedicated to living up to their obligations, keeping their promises", as husbands and fathers.

The incidence of murder and other violent crimes has dropped significantly in most large cities over the last two years - 25 per cent in New York City, to the surprise of everyone - and is still dropping, so that it does not appear to be merely a temporary blip in the statistics. The annual murder rate in New York - though still alarming compared to the rest of the world - has recently dropped to below 1,000 for the first time in decades. This has significantly changed the safety image of New York, for example, both for tourists and prospective students (as well as for their parents) who now tend to look on the city more as a creative challenge than a chilling risk.

A strong new moral voice has also appeared on the public media, that of Laura Schlessinger, whose radio show, vigorously denouncing "wimpy" non-judgmental moral relativism, now reaches some 20 million listeners and is broadcasted around the world. Her book entitled, How Could You Do That?:The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience (Harper Collins, 1977), is now a national bestseller. Some devoted fans even sport Laura Schlessinger tee-shirts, coffee mugs, etc to proclaim their support for a robust morality (Cover Story in U.S. News and World Report, July 14, 1997, p 48).

Just how widespread are the effects and staying power of all the above signs, it is hard to evaluate. But American society is still the most open, free, and resilient of any society today, and is capable in the quickest shifts in public opinion. It may well be that there is a significant re-awakening of the moral voice of the "silent majority", that is, fed up with the venality and inaction at the high government levels, with the professed moral relativism of so many of the youth, and with the encouragement of it by the educational elite, not to mention the popular entertainment establishment. The tension and struggle between the two great influences in American culture is still lively and ongoing, it is by no means yet committed to one inexorable outcome. But the great central problem and challenge remains: the effective transmission to the upcoming younger generations of the older American tradition of religious and moral values still alive and fairly strong in the private lives of the majority of its ordinary citizens. Is this still possible, and if so, how? Can this prevail against the strong public voices pulling in the opposite directions? The answer is not yet in for American culture, just as it is not yet in for many other leading societies today, both East and West, which either already have or will soon have similar problems. Is this perhaps one of the gravest problems facing the new pluralism that is fast becoming the order of the day all over our world, with both its positive and negative aspects? In what direction does the solution most probably lie for American culture? Let me hazard a guess.


III. Possible Solutions To The Problem

In view of the economic pressure on families to accept the need of a double income -both parents working - it is not clear how families are going to be able to cope with the problem of the transmission of values to their children all by themselves. The public schools - and a large number of private ones too - have at present been forced into an educational policy of moral neutrality as well as religious neutrality ("value-free education").. Religious pluralism rightly requires no favouritism to any particular religion. But that is not the same at all as moral pluralism or relativism, at least as regards the basic common values. There is no reason why we have to put up with that.

A distinction must be made between religious and moral pluralism. It is not easy, but with goodwill and a commitment to the moral health of our country and our children, I see no reason why parents cannot organise and make their will known through school boards, political pressure, etc, to the effect that they wish to have education in basic moral values made a key part of the curriculum of their schools. This need not be done just by lecturing or direct indoctrination, but by the classic method followed in all of the great cultures of the past i.e., by character formation through stories and examples of admirable moral characters in action, whether real or the product of creative literary imagination, whom young people are naturally drawn to admire and imitate in a word, the principle of "exemplary persuasiveness".

As Aristotle himself warned long ago, young people learn ethics not by abstract teaching or reasoning, like mathematics, but by first watching good people acting, by seeing what virtuous people look like in the concrete. Examples can be brought in from different religious and cultural traditions, to show the basic similarity in the moral teaching of all great religions. In the cultural transmission of values, both moral and religious, it seems that the story always comes first, and only after that the critical reflection of philosophy and technology to clarify it, to condense it into more easily remembered formulas, and to defend it against misinterpretation and attack. (See William K Kilpatrick, "Moral Character; Story-Telling and Virtue", in Psychological Foundations for Moral Training and Character Development, eds. R Knowles & . McLean, University Press of America, 1986).

The fundamental challenge that American society - and more and more the rest of the world too - must now face is how to hold on to religious pluralism without sinking into moral pluralism; in a word, to reconcile in creative tension - hopefully even in harmony - religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism together with firm commitment to a normative moral order - all this supported by a public political consensus of commitment beyond self-centered individualism to a larger common good. (Helpful suggestions on how to do this may be found in Andrew Shanks, Civil Society, Civil Religion, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

Will American society be able to bite the bullet and rise to this momentous challenge, both for its own sake and as an example to the rest of he world, or merely stand by, a fretful but ineffectual spectators, as the mass of its people slide deeper into moral erosion, towards moral chaos, as is the pressing danger in Russia today? We can hope, and pray, and speak out.


IV. Challenge To India And The Rest Of The World

The same basic challenge that American culture is trying to meet - with the outcome still in the balance - is now confronting not only India but all the major nations of the world with cultural pluralism as part of their social structures, particularly if they have a democratic form of government. That is, how to reconcile cultural, ethnic, religious, pluralism without radical moral pluralism. No society, especially a democracy, can long endure without the consensus of the majority of its citizens to some normative moral code, within the bounds of which cultural diversity can flourish, outside of which it quickly degenerates into a jungle of conflicting special interests enveloped in moral chaos. But since democracy itself is not a religion but a political order, it seems to lack the moral authority on its own to impose such a normative moral order on its citizens. The problem is then: how to insure the establishment - or more realistically the preservation - of such a moral order and the transmission of its basic values to the upcoming generations of its youth, especially if the majority receive their education from public schools not under the guidance of religious traditions? Perhaps the only way is that the government itself organises its resident religions to agree on some such basic moral code which then is made part of the public educational legacy itself. If some practical solution is not found, our youth will grow up into moral barbarians let loose to prey on an already all too vulnerable world.