I an no fan of David Brooks so was really surprised to read an article from him (in the New York Times) that I have some agreement with. Are progressive beginning to wake up to what they have done? We have many problems in society today, far more than we used to have, and the reason for this is that we are degenerating through adopting too many bad ideas. I first came upon this theory some time ago when I read Heather MacDonald’s book “The Burden of Bad Ideas”.
Mr Brooks doesn’t actually go too far into the mechanics of how we ended up like this, but he does explain it very well in philosophical terms. I don’t agree with all of it, but I do agree we need to kick moral relativism to the kerb and re-institute virtue.
The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?
Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.
People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.
History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.
Every parent loves his or her children. Everybody struggles. But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.
This is the part of Brook’s article that particularly appealed to me. The complete article is here.