The Decline of Morality Since Caveman Times

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 15 2008 4:00 PM

The Decline of Morality Since Caveman Times

Last week, David Brooks wrote that current patterns of borrowing and consumption reflect the moraldecline of the American people. This argument raises severalinteresting questions. First, has there ever been a time when opinionleaders did not fuss about moral decline among the masses?Second, if those leaders have been right, does that not mean that themoral fiber of the community has been steadily declining since cavemantimes? I don't want to denigrate our remote ancestors, who were nodoubt good people in many ways. But they would need to have beenpelt-wearing, credit-card avoiding saints, if the Brooks-style moralcritics were all correct.

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Third, if morals have not steadily declined since cavemantimes, which seems highly likely, why is it that opinion leaders neverseem to celebrate an improvement in morality? After all, if we are noworse than the cavemen (which seems likely), and there have been moraldeclines in certain periods (which is possible), then there must havebeen moral improvements to bring us back up to caveman level as well.Even when indicators such as out-of-wedlock births or drug usage orcrime improve, as they do from time to time, opinion leaders neverattribute the improvement in behavior to moral betterment. If creditcard use increases, it is because of a decline in morals; but if creditcard use declines, it is because of an improvement in the law or thespread of information or some such thing untainted by moralistic talk.Why this asymmetry?

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I can't think of any good reasons. Perhaps opinion leaders haveshort memories. Brooks has forgotten about such epochs as the GildedAge; indeed, his condemnation of greedy financiers is even creakier andmore archaic than his condemnation of the feckless masses they haveswindled. Maybe these opinion leaders have trouble thinking of thingsto say, and warnings about moral decline receive more attention thancelebrations of moral renewal. Or perhaps morality has never declined;what happens is that moral rules change from time to time, and peoplewho like the old way think that morally neutral changes in social normsmust be symptoms of moral disintegration. Did caveman make the samemistake and reminisce nostalgically about the moral integrity of theirmonkey ancestors?

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law. Follow him on Twitter.

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