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Are We Morally Bankrupt - A Look At American Ethics and Morals

Dan has long been interested in politics, particularly in the field of ethics, and has served his community in the past.

Is America Morally Bankrupt?

A good question, and there will inevitably be a very wide range of answers and reasons for those answers. Some will answer based on their religious beliefs, some will answer based on a desire for socialism and redistributing the wealth of our nation and some answers will be based on old, outdated concepts that never should have been included in a moral code in the first place.

As a nation, we are most definitely not morally bankrupt. We give more to the helpless or those in need than any nation on earth. We can and do show an enormous amount of compassion for people suffering from an illness or accident. We continue to promote the highest levels of ethics as we perceive them.

Nevertheless, we are on a downward slope as a group and as individuals. On the surface we claim a high ethical standard, but seldom make even a good faith effort to maintain the ethics we claim. It starts with the little things, the hidden actions that we hope won't be discovered, but almost inevitably progresses to a way of life and these things are all too soon rationalized as being OK. It often starts with actions that we don't even recognize as being unethical or only very marginally so.

Take a moment, please, to consider the following short paragraphs - to think about them and to perhaps let others know what you think.

Old Idaho State Penitentiary.  Most of us know someone that has lived in such a "home"

Old Idaho State Penitentiary. Most of us know someone that has lived in such a "home"

We Enact Laws, But Don't Follow Them

An enormous percentage of our population is in jail or prison. The US Government reports that 1 out every 142 people are currently incarcerated, and other sources indicate that nearly 3% of Americans have been in jail at one time or another. This means that someone you know has probably been to jail at some time. That's a little hard to fathom - that nearly everyone knows someone that has done something serious enough to warrant jail time.

On top of that are the millions that are convicted each year of offenses not severe enough for jail. Speeding, for instance - as a group we have decided on speed limits, but how many actually follow them? Or do we all violate them "just a little" and hope we get away with it?

The list is almost endless here - it is against the law to smoke marijuana in most states (although that is slowly changing) but millions upon millions do it anyway. It is against the law to text while driving in most states, but that doesn't stop us from putting others at risk of death by doing it. It is illegal to drive drunk, but a DUI is perhaps the most common severe violation on the roads. It is illegal to drive a motorcycle or ATV in many areas, but tire tracks and ruts tell a different story. It is illegal to offer or accept bribes, but thousands of politicians and cops do just that every day (changing "bribe" to "campaign contribution" might make it legal, but never right).

Does this sound right to you? To follow all the laws that your society has enacted that you like or don't care about and violate the others? To violate laws intentionally, but just enough that you can get away with it? Is this a part of our ethical or moral structure now - that we have implicitly agreed to live together as a society (one that requires laws to function) but refuse to follow the laws we don't like?

Padlocks have been around for many years, but never so prevalent or necessary as now.

Padlocks have been around for many years, but never so prevalent or necessary as now.

While more varied marriages are now considered to be moral, you have to wonder how long this or any other marriage will last today.

While more varied marriages are now considered to be moral, you have to wonder how long this or any other marriage will last today.

Immorality As Commonplace Actions

We seem to have become a nation of people that commonly perform actions that we know are immoral or unethical - we just don't care anymore. Consider the following examples:

  • Fifty years ago we didn't lock our homes or cars - we didn't have to. Now, you are inviting disaster by that action, and it won't be the career criminal that steals. It will be someone just passing by that sees that nice Ipod on the seat of your unlocked car and grabs it. Construction job sites are a huge attraction; literally tons of valuable merchandise disappear each year as well as small hand tools owned by the workers. Growing up 50 years ago our (unlocked) home was broken into just once - by a 4 year old neighbor looking for a playmate. Now, two of my grandchildren had their new bicycles stolen within a week of Christmas - left outside overnight instead of locked away in the garage they didn't stand a chance. What has happened that petty theft as increased to such phenomenal levels?
  • Banks and stores now have to chain up their 25 cent pens at the counter or they disappear in such quantities that it affects even large businesses. Stores must spend tens of thousands each year to keep their merchandise from disappearing out the door under someone's coat. Do we think that it's OK to steal if the theft is small?
  • We intentionally, and without caring, put others at grave risk while benefiting little or nothing ourselves. This, of course, refers to driving drunk, driving while texting, or other actions that have grimly proven to kill innocent people. Few of us would pull out a gun and shoot someone because they interfered with our inane conversation with a third person; is there really that much difference between that and raising the risk of their dying by a considerable amount because we just have to send a text message right now?
  • There are very few of us that haven't been taught that plagiarism is wrong - it is not only immoral but illegal as well. Yet this single writing site, HubPages, has articles like this one stolen each day and published elsewhere without permission. These are not isolated incidents - it happens thousands, if not millions of times daily and this writer spends hours each month filing claims against such thieves. Plagiarism is a constant problem in the learning institutions of our country, and teachers are constantly failing students for doing it. Is theft of intellectual property then no longer immoral? Or have we become so jaded and lazy that we just don't care any more?
  • We don't keep our word very well any more. Most married couples have promised to "love and cherish" forever. Not until they get tired or bored of their mate. Now we can't expect every marriage to succeed for a lifetime, but with a divorce rate of over 50% it would seem that few people actually intend to even try anymore. Or have you ever promised to call someone without having the slightest intention of doing so? Our politicians make promises that they know very well they won't or can't complete - why are they not called on it? We make promises to our children just to shut them up with no intention of following through. We make promises even to ourselves while knowing we will fail to keep them (quit smoking, new years resolution, lose weight, etc.). What's happened here?

None of these are big things in themselves, but they all point to the same thing - we really do know the difference between right and wrong, moral or immoral - we just don't seem to care much about our personal integrity any more.

Shoplifting, whether an expensive TV or a candy bar, has become epidemic in this country.

Shoplifting, whether an expensive TV or a candy bar, has become epidemic in this country.

Do Unto Others

Do unto others as you would they do unto you - the so called "golden rule" of morality. Most people put that particular moral code fairly high on their list, and so they should. It is the basis for most moral codes concerning interpersonal relationships or dealings and nearly every culture has a form of it. Simply treat other people the same as you would like to be treated. The golden rule has been a part of human society for a long time, and is even referenced in the books of Matthew and Luke in the bible.

So how do we do there? Well, we insist that gay marriage (that doesn't affect straight people at all) not be allowed because we don't like the idea for ourselves or because our religion forbids it for us. Demanding that others submit to our personal beliefs in how they should live their lives is common and is, as our society continues to diversify in its belief systems, growing. No one wants someone else defining how they should live or believe - why do we do the same thing?

We demand, under force of law, that others pay for our government through "sin" taxes and other taxes that target politically weak groups that benefit little or nothing from these taxes. Things like motel room taxes or enormous cigarette taxes. The traveler using the motel doesn't benefit from the new city park paid for from room taxes, and the smoker doesn't benefit any more than a non smoker from government services purchased from his cigarette taxes. Would we like to be in such a targeted group, forced to pay extra for public services to benefit all? No? Why do we do it to others then? The "earmarks" our congress is so fond of are another example of this - get the rest of the country to pay for a new museum for us, or a new bridge we would find convenient. Those earmarks are under constant attack as immoral and wrong, but they somehow keep popping up. We all want our "goodies" to be paid for by someone else and will legislate it if possible.

Fox News reports of an incident where a Pagan Mom found her child bringing home a bible from school. Told that the school would make available any religious literature donated by anyone, she took a box of Pagan spell books to the school for any child that wanted one. Strangely enough, the school policy very promptly changed to not allowing any religious literature to be given out. Why is it that we are more than willing to promote our own faith to captive audiences in schools or government, but don't want anyone else doing it? Recently, the Idaho state legislature opened the session with its first Hindu prayer - several senators walked out, "making a statement" that while prayer from their own religion was wonderful, no other beliefs need apply. Do we consider what it would be like on the other end of such misguided policies - did we treat that mother as we would like to be treated? Was it ethical to belittle or disparage another's religious beliefs simply because they don't match our own? Somehow, our personal religious beliefs trump any morality issue we have all too often.

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The short and long of this powerful and important moral rule is that we generally do a poor job of following it.

La Justice, from the late 1700's.  The book has "God, The Law and King" on one page and the golden rule on the other.  This "rule" has been recognized for a long time.

La Justice, from the late 1700's. The book has "God, The Law and King" on one page and the golden rule on the other. This "rule" has been recognized for a long time.

Is it really all right to deny others the same rights we enjoy, based solely on our personal religious beliefs?  In effect, demanding that everyone else conform to those beliefs?  The Golden Rule says no.

Is it really all right to deny others the same rights we enjoy, based solely on our personal religious beliefs? In effect, demanding that everyone else conform to those beliefs? The Golden Rule says no.

The Bottom Line Of Morality Bankruptcy

When it comes to the end of the day, when we begin to add it all up, one of the things that must be considered is that moral concepts and structures change. They never remain static for very long, and when we try to compare our current moral acceptance to that of the past we must remember this. Slavery was quite moral in the past, while a beach bikini would have shocked great grandma nearly to death. Racism was not only rampant, it was quite accepted as a very moral attitude and when the Christian majority impressed their belief on the nation by printing the words "In God We Trust" on our money in the 1950s it was considered quite appropriate, as was inserting the words "under God" into the pledge of allegiance to our country. Spousal and particularly child abuse was common as both were often beaten savagely in a "necessary" effort to maintain control. Women in particular were second class citizens if considered a citizen at all.

None of these would be considered acceptable today and we have come a long way from the (now) misguided attitudes and ideas of the past. In this respect our nation has become far more civilized, and we have a much superior moral structure.

The problem is that all too often we only pay lip service to these great morals that we proclaim to be important to us. When push comes to shove, when the chips are down, we revert to mistreating anyone and everyone that gets in our way. We shoplift from stores (steal) simply for the adrenaline high we get. We demand that others live their private lives as we think they should, and don't care one whit what they think. The very leaders of our great nation lie to us on a daily basis, and the corporations we support with our hard earned money seek to deceive us with nearly every ad they put out (think small print that no one reads and that older people can't even see). As a society we enact tax laws designed solely to make someone else pay for what we want. The state of Idaho recently completed a multi-million dollar renovation of their statehouse, paid for 100% from cigarette taxes collected from a small minority of the population. And they're proud of making that small, politically weak, minority pay for a project to benefit everyone in the state!

Moral? I think not. Advertisements that are intended, and work hard, to induce us to believe something that is not true is a lie whether the actual words are true or not. Political lies are the same; spinning the truth to give a false impression is a form of lying even when the actual words are still true. So called "sin" taxes such as alcohol or cigarette taxes are nothing more than a transparent attempt to force others to live as we think they should, while also gaining "free" money for the benefit of the majority.

We can proclaim moral superiority to our ancestors in the morals we claim to be ours, but not so much in how well we adhere to them. We have a long way to go in that respect yet, and it seems to be getting worse. Like the laws we don't approve of, morals are for everyone else - not me. It's too much work and much too difficult (and restrictive) to do what I know is the right thing to do. In this respect at least, we are indeed morally bankrupt. We desperately need to do more than just talk about how great our moral structure is - we need to actually follow the guidelines therein.

Our own "morality bank" is not empty yet, but it's going downhill.  Can we refill it?

Our own "morality bank" is not empty yet, but it's going downhill. Can we refill it?

What do you think?

© 2012 Dan Harmon

Readers Views

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on September 01, 2015:

I agree, and feel that the entitlement philosophy is a part of falling morals. We're all too happy to require others to take care of us, but don't like it when it is OUR pockets that are emptied to take care of others. Whether it is the pork barrel spending or welfare for someone too lazy to earn their own way it is simply wrong.

Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on September 01, 2015:

Great analysis and synopsis of the current American condition. America seems to go from a can-do, independent culture and society with the knack of resilience and reinvention to being absorbed in victimology, entitlement, and a need for excuses and a rescue me mentality. You are correct in your premise that 50 years ago, Americans had a firmer moral code and a sense of responsibility, particulartly self-responsibility. Now, that have all but disappeared. Responsibility and accountability seem to be a 4-letter word. It went from ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country to ask not what you can do for your country but ask what your country can do for you. A sad state of affairs really.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on June 13, 2014:

Unfortunately, perceived spiritual needs of mankind are all too often put ahead of morals and ethics. Concepts resulting in such things as the crusades, the inquisition, Jihad, witch hunts and, more currently, gay bashing often take priority, with the result that the overall morals of that society fall. Far better and more important is to put our physical house in order; only then can we worry about the spiritual side.

Sanxuary on June 13, 2014:

I believe spiritual maturity is always defeated by Earthly purpose. You have to meet your spiritual needs first before Earthly purpose can have value. For example you can not hold a job that robs people all day, treating people like slaves and attend church and call yourself a spiritually mature Christian. You have to give up on this World first and then find a way to live here, until you leave this place.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on January 17, 2014:

Many of the biblical sins are in fact no more than reasonable rules to live by, at the time. The prohibition against pork, for instance - pork and carry diseases transferable to man and it requires special treatment to make sure it is safe.

Others came from the male demand for power, relegating females and children to a lower status and little more than property. And some came from a desire to maintain national power - rules for taking and keeping slaves for instance.

The bottom line is that many of religions, and specifically Christianities, morals are no long either appropriate or acceptable today. Man must make his own morals and ethics to live by. And you're right - people have to be taught morals. We are not born with a built in set; the difference between cultures makes that pretty plain.

Sanctuary on January 17, 2014:

I find it most puzzling that a lot of people consider good, ethics and morals as to always pertaining to God or Religion. In studying this paradox I often come to the conclusion that good people regardless of belief. Often desire the same rules or ideas of what is good and what is evil. In most cases regardless of faith we basically arrive at the same conclusion as to what is right or wrong. Cause and effect or bad results always eventually produce a bad out come. Only in defending a lack of common sense, selfishness, greed or stupidity do we pull the God card in and use it as defense to defend free will. The Bible only speaks of bad decisions and things called sins. Humanity is the one that determines ethics and laws. Oddly in the Religious realm we find bad decisions created into sin with severe penalties and some defy interpretation. Regardless of both sides regulations exist to claim the title civilized and to even be a nation. Ethics were made to remove a conflict of interest and to protect purpose. A teacher dating and grading your child's school work stands a good chance of destroying a fair system. Morals are the requirements to become mature and to maintain the ethics or rules to the system. That's right, believing in God requires practice in order to not fail or to over come so called bad decisions or sins. If murder is against the law people have to be told. Then people have to learn what to do when they feel like killing someone and over come such bad ideas. Even if it was not against the law I am pretty sure it would have a very negative impact on what we call society. We would be living in a pretty brutal World and no one would be arguing much about the death penalty. The only difference between sin and bad decisions in the argument is that sins are cumulative. A bad decision only needs to be corrected or not repeated. A sin leads to one bad decision after another if it is not recognized and dealt with. A deadly sin is one that will affect your entire life and the life or lives of others. In the end the Bible is right because regardless of belief we live are lives seeking good or evil. No morals or ethics is the practice of not practicing anything at all. You can not even create a Social Norm without some format or rules. Even unspoken rules to be a part of anything are required to create a norm. We are hard wired and even people living with out rules have some idea of good and evil. The real argument is what is free will and how do we protect the free will of all people? A secular society that allows all people to practice their own sanctuary is what we all should want.

Beth37 on January 14, 2014:


"Your comment is rather short."

Thank you HP's. Sometimes a smiley face is all we really had to say.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on January 14, 2014:

Then yes, I'm in shock. Never though that would happen - that we would actually agree on something, LOL.

Beth37 on January 14, 2014:

Close enough!

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on January 14, 2014:

Do we? I find abortion to be a moral issue, all right, but not perhaps the way others do. The key question to me is when the fertilized egg, the zygote, becomes a human being. At that point abortion, except in very rare cases, becomes murder and is immoral.

But finding that point is a thorny question and I'm not sure at all I'm qualified to answer it.

Beth37 on January 14, 2014:

Do we actually agree on the abortion issue? I am in shock.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 12, 2012:

That hurts, doesn't it. Especially now, in an election year when we must listen to a pack of liars and decide which one we want for a leader.

Bah! I would rather see my dog in the capital. At least he's honest

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on March 10, 2012:

Excellent and thought provoking hub. I sadly agree with your beliefs here. I have such a hard time listening to the politicians lying to us without even flinching. I hit many buttons on this hub.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 03, 2012:

I think you're correct - when we accept these obviously immoral (by our professed standards) people as our role models it does nothing for us. At least nothing positive.

We may have a great moral code, but if we don't follow it then we may as well not have it.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on March 03, 2012:

I think we took several giant steps in the right direction, but somehow we lost our way.

When the people we respected and traditionally see as role models, ie. politicians, Police, Priests, Teachers, Sports men and Bankers, turn out to be, well let's just say no better than they ought to be, and invariable gets away with it, what message does it send to society? And where do society go for moral guidance? Who do we truly respect these days?

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 03, 2012:

But of course we make up our morals as we go along - it's how we improve the morality structure as a whole. The change in treatment of women is a good example - what was quite moral in the past is not accepted today. We made new rules for society. This can often work well, as there are few moral absolutes such as the golden rule, that are almost universally accepted. One only has to look at different cultures to find different morals, and it isn't always apparent which one is the "right" one.

The problem is that, as you say, "it feels good, so do it". We don't put a real effort into raising our children any more, preferring to hold two jobs to buy toys rather than spend time with our kids and instead let the babysitter and schools do the raising for us. We make laws that no one has intention of following, giving rise to a general feeling that laws are for everyone else. Far too often, just as you say, we do not respect private property, either stealing it or damaging it with no effort to fix what we have broken.

We know better than this is most cases, but won't put out the effort to do what we know is right. We want more toys so we ignore the responsibility of raising our children. It's fun to shoplift and gives an adrenaline rush, so we do it. If we're hidden and hit another car, we just drive away. No one condones these things, but we do them anyway because we're too lazy or "it feels good".

Again, our morality code isn't poor, we just don't bother to follow that code. The result is that we walk along the cliff of moral bankruptcy and will find ourselves falling over that knife edge if we don't change our attitude.

Davesworld from Cottage Grove, MN 55016 on March 03, 2012:

To do this justice requires a hub length response, but here goes with the short version. I was speaking of "moral relativism" which I think is the underlying problem. We, as a people, have abandoned absolute in the misguided belief that we can make it up as we go along. This has resulted in the collapse of the American family, an ever increasing disrespect for law and order and utter disdain for private property.

I don't advocate returning to the days when women and minorities were treated as second class citizens. But the "if it feels good, do it" mentality has made of mess of things.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 03, 2012:

That kind of fits in, doesn't it? We may know better, but do it anyway because we simply want to.

I don't know that I would agree with being amoral (without morals), though. In many ways, as mentioned above, we are superior to our ancestors. At least we now consider abolishing slavery superior to having them, and treating women as equals as superior to "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen" to mention just a couple.

Davesworld from Cottage Grove, MN 55016 on March 03, 2012:

We have become an amoral people. There are many reasons for this decline, chief among them is the 60s cry, "if it feels good, do it."

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 03, 2012:

Thank you. I had not realized that the problem was so widespread, although I suppose I should have. America is not so different as Europe in general, after all.

It is sad, and I'm afraid that in a handful of years, we could really cross that line in moral bankruptcy, not just skirt the edge of it.

Little Nell from Somerset, UK on March 03, 2012:

Reading from this side of the pond I strongly agree with these sentiments and with only a minor shift in emphasis could easily apply this to Britain. In my lifetime we have gone from a situation in which houses never needed locking to spending a fortune on security and we accept video surveillance and intrusion in our lives that involve losses in freedom and privacy that would have scandalised us twenty years ago. a good thoughtful hub

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