Imagine that you are driving towards New York City, and you are aiming to go visit the Empire State Building as thousands of people do every year. As you are driving down the highway, you see the Empire State Building growing bigger, so you know that you are getting closer. However, after making a few turns, you notice that your target is getting smaller and smaller. You seem to be driving farther away from what you are aiming for.
What do you do?
Clearly, if your target is to be one of those tourists hovering around the Empire State Building to ride an overpriced elevator, you are going to turn your car around and get back in the right direction. You recognize that you made a wrong turn, and you need to get back on track. If you continued watching the Empire State Building become smaller in your rearview mirror while fully intending to arrive there, I would be justified in seriously questioning your navigational skills.
It would seem ridiculous to understand that you are going in the wrong direction but to willfully continue moving in that way.
That seems to be what American society is doing today. In a recent article from Gallup, editor in chief Frank Newport pointed out an interesting trend in American morality. American values are shifting away from their traditional Judeo-Christian roots. That should not be surprising or controversial whatsoever. Something like premarital sex which was seen as largely culturally unacceptable a few generations ago is essentially normal in high schools and colleges around the country today. It is not the case that the world was perfect by any means 100 years ago, but there was a certain cultural regard for traditional values that does not seem to hold true today.
In the same article however, Newport mentions that 72% of Americans believed that moral values are on the decline in our country. Assuming that we want our moral values continue to get better (a.k.a. move towards the Empire State Building), then if we seem to be moving away from that ultimate target, why do we continue to move in that direction?
Let’s follow the logic. Our morality is shifting in a certain direction. We feel like we are also moving in a decline. We do not want to see our moral values decline presumably. Therefore, it seems to make sense that we should change the direction of our moral shifting since the way we are going seems to be bringing about the decline that we don’t want.
Why do we keep doing it?
The heart of the problem seems to be worship of the individual. Newport mentions some of the things specifically that are bothering people about the current state of morality, and most of them are individual problems.
“When we asked Americans a few years ago to talk about what was wrong with moral values, many responded by talking about the lack of consideration of others, deficits in the public’s compassion, personal accountability, respect and tolerance; greed, selfishness, dishonesty — in addition to things such as the change in family structure, lack of religion, lack of morals (a somewhat tautological response) and fairly small percentages who mention sexual promiscuity, abortion and gay marriage, specifically.”
All of these problems seem to come about because of our natural selfishness. We have become a society that immediately needs to gratify our own desires at any cost. For example, think about the mentioned lack of compassion. If we thought more about others and not ourselves, we would be more compassionate. However, we don’t want to do that because we need to look out for number one. If we weren’t so worried about our own personal gains, we would be more honest. If I am better off because I cut a few corners, that’s fine because it is my own personal desire. We would be more honest if we did not worship ourselves. We have created a society that puts our individual whims in the driver’s seat. It is possible to justify anything when morality is determined by the individual.
What does this mean for apologists?
I think there is power in this research. CS Lewis wrote about the Tao as a type of innate morality that has been shared across culture and time for some reason. There is something innately human about not murdering other people for example. Perhaps this is evidence of that. Even though we live in a society where morality seems to be moving in one direction, people are uncomfortable with that direction for some reason. Maybe they are uncomfortable with it because it goes against what they naturally are inclined to understand.
If you are trying to get to the Empire State Building, you don’t knowingly drive in the opposite direction. It simply doesn’t make sense. If we feel that society is moving in the wrong direction but we continue to go in that direction, why would we expect to get any closer to our target?