Is moral decline in the United States real? A massive section of Americans believe so, but Mark Mellman, a political strategist writing for The Hill, contends otherwise, claiming moral decline to be a myth.
“If morals had been steadily declining, even for the last 70 years, let alone the last 2,000, we’d all be living in some Mad Maxian dystopia,” Mellman writes in a recent column. In fact, he implies that morality is on the rise in the United States, citing Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker’s basic thesis that “[m]orality is actually increasing.”
How does Mellman justify this? He cites a study by Columbia University’s Adam M. Mastroianni and Harvard University’s Daniel T. Gilbert, where morality is characterized vaguely as being “kind, honest, nice, and good” with a particular focus on public tolerance.
However, Mellman and his colleagues are making a preposterous argument. An embrace of social liberalism’s focus on toleration and vague politeness does not constitute a moral system. Morality relies on a duty to something greater than oneself, whether that be to the society one lives in or, in religious traditions, to God. Thousands of years of Western civilization confirm this—which Mellman handwaves away without much thought.
Mellman’s op-ed and the study it cites are incapable of gauging moral decline, since Mellman’s own morals are entirely divorced from what most people understand traditional morals to be. By avoiding what most people think morality means, Mellman circumvents any allegations of decline and claims global moral ascent based on trite notions of “progress.”
America’s Moral “Vital Signs” Show Problems
By contrast, a March 2023 Wall Street Journal poll offers real insight into the decay our society is experiencing. Patriotism, social institutions, and even child-rearing—each a value most Americans embraced historically—are all deemed unimportant by most Americans now, and the trajectory continues downward.
Other statistics support this poll’s findings. Military recruitment, which relies on a patriotic populace, is more challenging than ever, with many 18-29-year-olds unwilling to serve. Church membership is at all-time lows, removing a crucial outlet for real, tangible community. Birth rates among the younger generation have been declining for a decade; parents who do bring children into the world find their parenting undermined by social justice fads.
Moral Breakdown has Wide-Ranging Consequences
The core values that once defined American society are disappearing. Even if there has been some increase in kindness or tolerance, this would not be nearly enough to compensate for the total disintegration of America’s moral framework. If Americans are unwilling to maintain the moral fabric upon which societal cohesion hinges, what is kindness or tolerance good for?
The breakdown is obvious to anyone who bothers to look. Homelessness runs rampant in major cities throughout the United States. Students and faculty at our very own University of Chicago are regularly mugged; sometimes, they are heavily injured or even killed by criminals—yet a vocal segment of students have taken up defunding the police as their banner for years. Defense of our own cities and a duty of care to every member of the polity, once understood as the obligations of every good citizen, are scarce found in these hubs of civilization.
Meanwhile, social cohesion deteriorates every day, devolving into partisan squabbling with no regard for fellow citizens on the other side. Progressives may wax lyrical in praise of “tolerance,” but they have surprisingly little tolerance for their political enemies—or even campus Jews.
Societal decay is not an “illusion” as Mellman claims— it is unmistakably real. Mellman and others may delude themselves with survey data trivialities, but the truth is that the many virtues that once held this country together have lost their strength or disappeared entirely. Politeness or acceptance can only go so far when no one knows the bounds within which they are meant to interact.
The United States simply cannot go on like this. A reckoning is on the horizon: something has to give in the battle between shallow morality founded on acceptance and a deep, abiding morality based on the age-old values that built our civilization. Early signs of chaos are present, festering below the surface.
For the good of America and the moral health of its people, positions such as Mellman’s cannot be taken as a given. We, the people, cannot and should not lose our vigor in defending the morality that has preserved the United States and advanced us to this level of civilization.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.