America’s moral health

by Bob Schwartz

We are right to be concerned about the troubled mental health of Americans. This is a human problem that has always been with us. In these times, it seems that it may be getting worse, that we may be paying closer attention to it, but happily there may be more ways of addressing it.

An equal concern should be the troubled moral health of Americans, at least some Americans, some in the spotlight, some with power, some who are our neighbors.

If you think that moral health is easier to address than mental health, think again. We don’t have once-a-day pills, once-a-week sessions, available programs and practices to improve moral health.

Assessment of moral health is not that hard. There are subtle areas, but there are also very clear ones.

Lying, for example, can include some fine distinctions. Spies lie for good causes. People lie to spare the feelings of others. But for the most part, the self-serving failure of truth is not a positive value.

Yet we are seeing Americans denying, defying and discarding truth more regularly than ever. Examples abound. The fact is that the previous president, the most prominent and powerful person in America, by reliable account made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office for four years.

This isn’t just about liars or lying, though there’s plenty of that going around and featured. It is about the basics of common-sense no-gray-areas morality—and its absence.

Assuming there’s a problem with moral health, what is the treatment? Religious people have firm guidance (see, for example, 9th Commandment), but there are fewer of those people, fewer among the ostensibly religious who follow that guidance and are instead morally selective. Those looking to philosophy also may get some help, but the help may be equivocal and harder to process. And if the number of Americans interested in religion is dwindling, the number who spend time and effort on philosophy remains pretty small.

So what do we do if there is a moral health problem, maybe even a crisis? The first step is the same one for all help programs: Admit we have a problem. Easier said than done, since many are convinced that America is the most moral country on earth because its people are the most moral people on earth. Contrary evidence explained away or ignored.

Beyond that admission, what else? Maybe religious leaders can double down on the moral components, pointing out to congregants that claiming religion and failing morality is pure hypocrisy. Maybe philosophers can inveigle their way into the public conversation more loudly, making the case that examining our moral lives is an essential element of life. Maybe Americans will listen and learn. Maybe. Or maybe not. We don’t know.

What we do know is that moral problems don’t go away on their own. They have a tendency to grow, not to shrink. It is human to think of ourselves, it is human to want to think the best of ourselves, it is human to avoid the hard work and discomfort that moral wrestling involves. But we must do the work if we want to get better.