Generational attitudes towards values and ethics in Western culture

What follows doesn’t really have a lot of supporting language or framework in terms of organization, so I’ll ask your forbearance while I explain an observation I’ve made and want to expand on.

The popular conception of “The 60’s” is frequently cliche and distorted, conjuring a shift to the left in social and political values on the part of the baby boomers from their more conservative, “greatest generation” nuclear family parents. There’s almost a tendency to want to characterize the era as the point of departure when the renaissance and reformation finally became part of mainstream culture, though I, personally, think that’s overselling it. Yet it’s still significant in so far as the WWII/Greatest Generation was, effectively, the last generation whose values and ethical structure derived almost wholly from political and social authoritarianism.

In a nutshell, the boomers entered a brief period during which they openly rejected their parent’s values, only to shift back to favor them quite sharply, having discovered that radical value shifts are much less easy to manage than merely bringing about change. Put simpler still, they rejected their parent’s values in college, went on to have children of their own, then panicked and attempted to revisit the values they’d rejected (an enterprise engaged with similarly uneven results). Bearing in mind that this is a pretty broad generalization and over-simplification, I believe it’s observably close enough to the truth to be worth examining.

In short, as a culture, we need to learn to examine our own values to determine what they REALLY are (and not what we would LIKE them to be, necessarily, or believe that they SHOULD be) and adapt our ethical/political framework to address them.

Remember my first post, “The Importance of being a good liar“? Poor though it was, it represented an example that speaks to this observation of human nature. Many people are uncomfortable with admitting that they lie (if for no other reason than confession defeats the purpose of lying in the first place) even though they actually do, but where it becomes problematic is when they make choices based on the belief that they do not. This is an example of compartmentalization — when someone’s stated belief contradicts with how they actually behave in the real world — an effective liar must both be aware of the literal truth behind the lie they’ve told as well as the fabricated truth they’ve presented to someone else — one has to keep their story straight. To confuse them is to run the risk of detection or arousing suspicion.

But people do lie. Is it possible to do so ethically? Are “white lies” to protect someone’s feelings, for example, acceptable? What if telling the truth is liable to work against the individual’s interests through no fault of the individual? Can we assign a moral gradient to lies, to demonstrate that some of them, ethically, are less undesirable than others? Is the truth even necessarily the most desirable course of action for every given circumstance?

Consider the case of a developmentally disabled man who was arrested with several credit cards they’d retrieved from dumpster diving. The prosecution charges the man with possession of stolen credit cards and asks the jury to find the defendant guilty — what can the jury do? The charge is unconcerned with the circumstances under which the cards came to be in the defendant’s possession. Even though the cards were never used for anything, the defendant is found guilty and sentenced accordingly. Because you can’t lie on a jury, right? That’s, like, perjury or something. (For the record, a jury may nullify itself in circumstances like these, effectively refusing to return a verdict, but not too many people are aware of it).

All of this comes together to provide some insight into just how convoluted and complex ethical/moral systems can be even just to focus on one potential element. A more authoritarian personality would be inclined to insist that either the ONLY ethical/moral position is that one must provide the truth at all times, regardless of whether or not they personally found this practical or actually did so, themselves, or even hold themselves to this standard with equal rigidity, even though this might expose them to consequences beyond their control which prove damaging to them through no fault of their own. The defendant in the example above would be guilty simply because they should have “known” that credit cards retrieved from a dumpster were likely stolen and that it’s wrong to have them, even where the evidence suggests the defendant had no more concept of this than to provide decoration to an empty wallet with something someone clearly had thrown away.

What about a more abstract ethical/moral value than honesty, however — say something like drinking? While it’s much less predominant at present, there are still people who believe that it’s wrong to consume alcohol under any circumstance — and a quite a few more who consider it undesirable by degree, regardless of whether or not they drink themselves. Consider the case of the individual who believes that to do so is an absolute wrong, however, in spite of the fact that they drink themselves (or are even an alcoholic). It’s not difficult to imagine such a person entering a cycle in which they binge, condemn themselves for their behavior, then attempt to stop drinking — only to fail, at which time the cycle repeats itself. The fact of their failure both underscores the wrongness of the behavior and illustrates their own unworthiness for their inability to lead a moral/ethical life.

Now substitute the relationship between diet, exercise and body image for alcohol.

This adds greater complexity, still, as while we’re still very inclined to believe that being overweight is a byproduct of “gluttony” and “sloth”, it is not at all difficult to show instances where diet and exercise are not the sole contributing factors and worse, in the US, obesity is, in fact, the norm. This in spite of the fact that there is a multi-billion dollar industry obsessed with these two subjects and in relative terms, the tendency to judge someone negatively for an unhealthy diet or lack of exercise is greatly diminished over someone who has roughly equivalent problems with drinking.

Nor does the problem with the tendency to compartmentalize and rationalize moral/ethical values break down solely as a conflict between dogmatic, religious authoritarianism and secular liberalism, simply because while religious authoritarianism continues to have an influence, “secular humanism” seldom breaks down as neatly as left-right political characterization. Consider the individual who, although they have no tie to any religious institution whatsoever much less attempts to peruse anything like a formal doctrine, continues to claim that they are religious and hold a set of self-selected ethical/moral values based on a generalized impression of religion. Or the individual that openly rejects religion in any form, yet whose values are not appreciably different from those of the Judeo/Christian ethics of their community nor any more deeply considered than the act of rejection itself.

From this, we can begin to get a grasp of just how complex and convoluted it can become to truly attempt to realign one’s moral/ethical values — or even necessarily be aware of what they really are. Since the depth of introspection and the tendency to punish failure and reward success when one does align with a chosen framework both encourages us either to avoid introspecting or to rationalize/compartmentalize inconsistency in favor of reward, the likelihood of ever emerging as a broadly practiced exercise is reasonably small. So the likelihood is that even though one might greatly improve on their own consistency and produce results that we might broadly agree are “right” or “good” or simply “moral and ethical”, the majority is unlikely to undertake the same process themselves, and subsequently even the introspective individual will continue to confront a world where there are radical disconnects between what people claim to believe and how they actually behave.

And it goes without saying that merely telling them that they should (or must) kind of defeats it’s own purpose.

None the less, it also demonstrates that there’s a great deal that can be done to improve matters and what the obstacles to improvement are.

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  • Comments (2)
    • nusz
    • May 15th, 2011

    most of this is why i pick telepathy as my hypothetical superpower. which wouldn’t be particularly practical unless i also held a judicial or executive office of sorts…

    • Uriel
    • May 16th, 2011

    It is a conumdrum. Folk generally pick up the flavour paper/magazine/show, that agrees with their viewpoint, and state it has proved them right. Science has shown again and again how our brain “ignores” information which doesn’t tally with our viewpoints.

    I think the only way forward is forgiveness and attempting to release people from their own insecurities. And yet business ackowledges that the best work is gained from folk who are at least somewhat unhappy. And most advertising operates on the same principle.

    Oddly enough, in the late sixties and early seventies, advertising began to fail because not everyone wanted the idyllic white picket fence and 2.4 kids. But the PTB then took their cue from the “hippie” generation and began to target their “individuality” – remarkably successfully. Even today that multi-million selling product has been designed solely for “you”.

    I know this leads back to another previous post of yours regarding advertising but it also extrapolates the sense of self versus an idealised social structure. Knowledge is key, but some folk reject it, because then they have to alter their behaviour. Most people have a sense of right and wrong, and of course know when they transcend them, but they just become better at building the barriers that allow their transgressions. And if you can gain like-minded followers then might becomes right.

    I do think some of the western cultural shifts, for example shifting perspectives on sexuality have been positive, but it’s easy to see why the state/church still holds sway, years of indoctrination allow it be remain persuasive. Also being judgemental is in our natures. It’s the lazy way to say look how perfect I am.

    Again, I never know the source but a great, paraphrased quote “An fool wastes his intelligence on proving himself right. A clever man uses it to seek the truth.”

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