America the virtuous

Are we in the middle of a moral revival?  David Brooks, reflecting on the decline of family violence, thinks so.

The decline in family violence is part of a whole web of positive, mutually reinforcing social trends. To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago. They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses. They are leading more responsible, more organized lives. A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.

Brooks cites statistics that show a drop in crime overall and in teenage violence in particular; in drunken driving fatalities; in consumption by Americans of hard liquor; in teenage pregnacies; in abortions; in children living in poverty; in teen suicides; even, it seems, in divorce rates.  How can we explain this turn to virtue?  Brooks offers four explanations.

The first thing that has happened is that people have stopped believing in stupid ideas: that the traditional family is obsolete, that drugs are liberating, that it is every adolescent’s social duty to be a rebel.

The second thing that has happened is that many Americans have become better parents. Time diary studies reveal that parents now spend more time actively engaged with kids, even though both parents are more likely to work outside the home.

Third, many people in the younger generation, under age 30 or so, are reacting against the culture of divorce. They are trying to lead lives that are more stable than the ones their parents led. Post-boomers behave better than the baby boomers did.

Fourth, over the past few decades, neighborhood and charitable groups have emerged to help people lead more organized lives, even in the absence of cohesive families.

Brooks’ thesis is most interesting in the context of the general assumption (on occasion shared by this blog) that popular culture is corrupt if not downright vicious, and that the young people exposed to it have no choice but to slide toward perdition.  Maybe not.  My prejudice, I confess, is to believe that anyone who follows the baby boomer generation can only be morally superior to their elders.  Even so, that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle over.  We may hope for higher.

An obvious consequence, though unremarked by Brooks, is that Americans will enjoy greater freedom because of their greater virtue.  Collapsing families, alcoholism, child poverty – these conditions are typified by limits on a person’s possibilities, by a reduced sphere of action.  Overcoming such conditions places the individual on a more dynamic plane of goal-setting and self-command.  If Brooks is correct, there are great things in store for the next generation of Americans.


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