Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
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We are a photographic negative of the 1950s

I ran across this quote in Andrew Sullivan's weblog:

"When you look at the state of modern morality, it's hard to avoid the impression that it's a sort of photographic negative of the morality of the 1950s. Back then, well nigh everyone smoked and drank. The great majority of citizens thought that sexual promiscuity was shameful, that abortion was a form of murder, that homosexuals were pathetic freaks, that bastardy was a disgrace and that black people were morally inferior to whites.

                            John Derbyshire, National Review Online

I had never thought about it that way, but Derbyshire is correct... to a point. He's exaggerating some things: women smoked less in the 1950s than they do now, and fundamentalist Christians probably didn't drink more, or less, than they do presently. And my parents certainly didn't believe that "black people were morally inferior to whites." But he's right in that many widely accepted positions of what is socially acceptable seem to have turned around 180 degrees. (A funny example of this: FrontPage's spellchecker doesn't even recognize 'bastardy' as an English word. Of course, it is, and has been for hundreds of years.)

But he's making one huge mistake, or at least omission.

As an exercise for the reader, what is it? What is he missing? What's the huge elephant in his parlor that Derbyshire is not seeing?

I'll update this post with my own interpretation, tomorrow.

BTW, the rest of Derbyshire's column is very witty and fun to read, but quite intolerant of any views on social behavior and sexual  morality that differ from his own. His basic thrust, as far as I can tell, is that we all ought to fuck less and drink more. Blah. I think you could make as good a case for fucking more and drinking less.

And a much better case for keeping one's nose out of how one's neighbors lead their lives, whichever they choose to do. This kind of writing, literate and clever, but also whiny and dogmatic, is why I let my NatRev subscription lapse a year ago, and started reading The Weekly Standard instead.

Update, 6/8/01: What Derbyshire's missing—or perhaps deliberately ignoring—is that what he's referring to as 'modern morality' are (mostly) matters of private behavior. What is unchanged since the 1950's, and probably since the 1050's, are the ethics of public behavior, of our interaction with others. Things that were unethical to do to someone else then are still unethical now: theft, fraud, assault, murder, rape. In fact, these things are unethical in every society we know of. Humans universally agree that they are unethical, with limited exceptions in time of war.

In fact, I think you can make a case that things such as alcohol and tobacco use and consensual sexual behavior aren't really matters of 'ethics' at all, but rather matters of health, or aesthetics, or personal values. Ethics, if you take this view, properly concerns only one's relations with others. One's personal behavior, that affects no one else to any significant degree, would have no more ethical content than one's choice of dinner entree.

I don't think I've ever heard this idea stated before, but it appeals to me. If we take this view, then Derbyshire is basically bemoaning a change in the aesthetics of personal behavior since the 1950's, which he's welcome to, even if I disagree with him on a lot of it. But it doesn't have anything to do with ethics or morality.

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