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What Happened to America's Moral Climate?

Scholars and other thinkers ponder whether people know right from wrong and can reshape a shared moral center.


Early in the last century a young man's letter home showed his priorities. "Father," he wrote, "you suggest that the greatest benefit from college is to be found in . . . habits of intellectual diligence and application. I am nonetheless putting my chief emphasis on the study of right and wrong."

A lot of people might say that a letter like this, by a Princeton University freshman in 1928 and quoted last spring at the 10th anniversary of the school's Center for Human Values, would never be written today. But the fact is, it just might. Over the last five years, at least 10 centers with a focus on values and public life have sprung up at university campuses across the country, many of them including the study of religion as an inseparable root of moral decision making.

Moral life, both public and private, seems to top the list of concerns we all share. And as a rush of books by ethicists, religion sociologists and philosophers surfaces in stores, it's clear that one worrisome question dominates: Can we tell the difference between right and wrong anymore?

A lot of people don't seem to think so. They may trust themselves, but not the idea that their values will be reflected in the public arena.

"Something is seriously wrong in the country today," said 75% of the nation in a Gallup-organized poll released in March after a rash of school shootings. "The country's moral climate is on the wrong track," said 55% of those asked by the Princeton Survey Research Associates at the end of the Clinton administration.

Should the execution of Timothy McVeigh be televised? No, said 78% of those asked in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll in February. But it will be televised on closed circuit television for survivors and relatives of the victims. Just about everybody expects some hacker to get a tape of it into the public's hands.

The remedy seems clear to most people. Forty-nine percent told Gallup pollsters in March that they believe government and society can help mend the moral environment. That in itself is a shift in attitude--away from the "me" generation toward the start of one that begins with "we." As scholars and thinkers track the trend from a variety of perspectives, the question they're asking is: How can we learn from where we've been and reshape the moral climate?

"I see a lot of groping," said Wade Clark Roof, a religion sociologist at UC Santa Barbara. "We're not even sure what is public and what is private." Roof has tracked the baby boomers' religious and spiritual practices for 20 years. Two years ago he picked up on their wish for a shared moral code in his book, "Spiritual Marketplace" (Princeton University Press). They saw it as something the country lacked.

Roof found that boomers, many of them now in their 50s, are reconsidering their famed insistence on personal freedom and the right to privacy. Those priorities don't fit well in debates about assisted suicide, gay partnerships and Internet ethics, for example. "People are starting to look beyond a simple public-private split," Roof says. "We see that moral life involves both, and they are linked. People are looking for public manifestations of a private commitment to morality. The problem is, we don't exactly know how to do this."

To him, the president's Faith Based Initiative is an example of the sort of issue that needs to be objectively aired. "We can't any longer say, 'Here is government and over there is religion,' " he says. "We need to come together in a public forum. The initiative asks, 'How can government and religion work together in a pluralist society?' "

Roof says that boomers are ready for a change. "We have to recognize the need for limits to our individual freedom." At UCSB, where Roof is chairman of the religious studies program, he is currently raising funds for a center for religion and public life. One main purpose of the center will be to address the ethical issues of the day.

"So much of the past has been formed around freedom and rights," he says. "Now the concern is with shared life. We need to consider the rules about getting along, about holding up moral ideals to young people. Can we have a conversation about this?"

Philosopher Jonathan Glover looks at contemporary morality in the context of the past hundred years. As he sees it, the decline of religion and universal moral laws played a major part in a global collapse into violence, and only a return to personal responsibility and respect for the rights of others will bring relief. "Humanity, a Moral History of the Twentieth Century" (Yale University Press) is his harrowing vision of war, genocide and unresolved rage. Sounding weary and shaken, he picks through the rubble looking for shards of useful refuse with which to rebuild.

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