This is part of our Mind of Academics series.
I struggled both long, and, yes, hard, to come up with a clever joke to introduce today’s academic “research”, which claims there exist a set of people who falsely believe morality is declining. Yes. It seems an increasing number of non-academics think it’s growing worse out there, and has been for a long time; but, ackshually, this is not true. Say the academics.
All my powers failed me trying to make this funny. Nothing I tried beat the joke the academics devised.
Here’s the setup:
Participants in the foregoing studies believed that morality has declined, and they believed this in every decade and in every nation we studied. They believed the decline began somewhere around the time they were born, regardless of when that was, and they believed it continues to this day. They believed the decline was a result both of individuals becoming less moral as they move through time and of the replacement of more moral people by less moral people. And they believed that the people they personally know and the people who lived before they did are exceptions to this rule. About all these things, they were almost certainly mistaken.
The pause before the punchline:
With that said, the illusion of moral decline seems to be a robust phenomenon that may have troubling consequences.
For example, 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 well-documented problems, from climate change and terrorism to racial injustice and economic inequality—and yet, most US Americans believe their government should devote scarce resources to reversing an imaginary trend.
Morality is not declining, say these academics, because the people who say it is declining have been saying it a long time. And grumpy old men are just as grumpy now as ever. Therefore, it can’t really be getting worse.
But given more people are saying it’s getting bad, means it’s getting bad, and growing worse. Which it couldn’t be, because it’s not worse.
Sometimes a joke is so good, you say the punchline in a different way, and keep the laugh going:
The illusion of moral decline may be one of the reasons people do not depend as much as they might on the kindness of strangers—an act that might well ameliorate the illusion itself.
One more? Or are you laughing too much. Well, lets’ risk it!
If low morality is a cause for concern, then declining morality may be a veritable call to arms, and leaders who promise to halt that illusory slide—to “make America great again”, as it were—may have outsized appeal.
You can now see why I failed. Nothing could be funnier than that.
All right. Calm yourself. We still need to figure out why these academics thought everything was swell, except for the increasing number of people who disagreed with them.
It can’t be that people have been saying it’s growing worse since the late 1940s, for the simple reason that it might indeed have grown worse since the 1940s. Culminating, some say, a bit over a week ago with our rulers hanging a flag of immorality out the White House window.
The academics also can’t count in their favor the constancy of grumpy old men and decrepit harpies pining for the good old days. Because those days may indeed have been good, or better.
It can only be, then, what these academics count as instances of immorality don’t match what the people they interviewed think is immorality.
That is the case.
Some of this was the result of an on-line survey, which we’re always asked to distrust when the surveys produce displeasing results, but asked to like when the results are pleasing. (In order to participate, people had to pass a quiz: they had to know the right answer to whether “eating turkey is not associated with Halloween”. These are some funny guys.)
Our researchers asked questions like how “‘kind, honest, nice and good’ people are today” compared with anywhere from ten to twenty years ago. Answers which, as we’ve seen, can’t help answer the question whether morality really is declining in the way people think.
So they add theory, like this:
…biased exposure to information about current morality may make the present seem like a moral wasteland, biased memory for information about past morality may make the past seem like a moral wonderland and when people in a wasteland remember being in a wonderland, they may naturally conclude that the landscape has changed.
But there can’t really be biased exposure; there can only be aspects of exposure. For instance, things might be just as nice in your own neighborhood as they ever were, as it seems in my own, which is a local bias. Or we might at the top be on a satanic slippery slope greased with the blood of children hacked up to satisfy the urges of perverts in thrall to “gender theory”, which is a national bias.
Or there might have appeared on the White House lawn two topless trannies, ogled by Biden, one a man pretending to be a woman and the other a woman pretending to be a man. Worse, we may be asked to swear that their delusions are not delusions.
Which, I think, is a clear indication morality is decreasing.
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