Our Morally Stressed Culture

Today I came across research that prompted me to consider a rather nasty question: Is our culture so stressed and dysfunctional that we are swiftly becoming incapable of acting morally?

The first warning note was sounded by Notre Dame Psychologist Darcia Narvaez who posted a paper on The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense on her Psychology Today blog. Narvaez writes:

(E)mpirical research demonstrates how early experience and caregiver-child relationships influence the development of community-minded maturation. Our work shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy, and depend on the affective quality of family3,4,5 and community support.6 Today, child rearing practices and family supports (or lack of) in the U.S. are undermining the development of the moral sense.

As indexed by a recent UNICEF study of child well-being in 21 rich countries that ranked the USA 20th in family and peer relationships and 21st in health and safety,7 by the growth of childhood problems,8,9 and by the burgeoning prison population,10 American culture may be deviating increasingly from traditional social practices that emerged in our ancestral “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA). 11 Empathy, the backbone of compassionate moral behavior, is decreasing among college students.

Among the many problems she cites are harsh child-rearing practices that lead mothers to let a child cry rather than providing comfort, lack of touch and social support for infants, formula feeding instead of breast-feeding and a lack of free play by children.

The second disturbing bit of work comes from Florida State University Psychology Professor Roy Baumeister. In his presentation at the Edge Foundation conference, he describes self-control as the “moral muscle” that makes it possible for people to co-exist. His experiments indicate that this muscle can get as overworked, exhausted and broken down as an overworked bicep.  If self-control (and it seemed to me, Baumeister was also saying that if an individual) becomes exhausted, then he or she has a greater tendency to act immorally. At least, that’s what happens in Baumeister’s lab.

Given the amount of stress on us as individuals, and the amount of self-control we have to exercise to get through each day, I wonder if it’s possible that as a culture, we’re wearing down our moral abilities in the same way that we seem to be wearing out our bodies.

Baumeister does not come to this conclusion. He doesn’t even discuss this as a possibility, at least not in the material I saw. But his work combined with Narvaez’ concerns do raise questions in my mind. If Narvaez is right, and we’re not giving our children what they need to become moral adults, and if Baumeister is right that the great moral muscle of self-control can break down, then what kind of a society are we creating?

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4 Responses to Our Morally Stressed Culture

  1. dianesilver says:

    In response to my comment on her blog, Narvaez reports on research showing that we, as a society, are already unable to act ethically.

  2. This resembles the traditional lament about how kids today are so much worse than they were in earlier generation — a complaint made by adults for millennia, I believe. I am therefore more than a little skeptical, especially when the words “traditional social practices” creep into the discussion. It might be that one thing the researchers are seeing is a shift to new social practices that actually correct some of the prejudices ingrained in the old ones. Of course, those new practices may have their own ethical flaws.

    I am sure that overpopulation and the fast pace of life we demand in the US cause us lots of stress. I’m stressed by the sheer volume of people around me, and I live in a place that doesn’t have a large number of people per square mile. But having read a lot of history, I don’t see a whole lot of moral and ethical behavior in the human past, either.

  3. dianesilver says:

    Agreed, Nancy. My first thought in looking at Narvaez’ paper was that it was going to be the same old argument about sparing the rod spoiling the child. However, her position in at least this paper appears much different. I don’t see that she’s arguing for a return to discredited old prejudices. She’s arguing that we’re crippling the ethical muscles of our children by failing to love them enough. We’re not providing enough comfort, or even enough time to play in an unstructured way. She also makes a point to state that mothers aren’t to blame, but instead to argue that we’ve forgotten to get others besides the mother involved in child rearing. I haven’t read all of her work, and so may be misrepresenting her total point of view, but this piece is provocative.

    As for Baumeister’s work, I don’t know how much an experiment in the artificial environment of a lab mirrors real life. At the very least, his work points to the possibility that human beings can become morally exhausted by their environment. If there is any validity to what he says, then the shape of our culture may well impact our ability as human beings to act morally.

    Bottom line: I think you’re right to be skeptical, but I also think that this work may well be pointing to something.

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