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?