The Rise and Fall of Morality

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The Rise and Fall of Morality

Fairness-based morality judges right and wrong based on impartiality and it frowns on bias and prejudice/ Photo By rawpixel via 123RF


What is morality? This can be a hard question to answer because depending on who you ask, you might get different answers. There does not seem to be a moral absolute among different cultures, groups, and societies. A more pressing question to ask is, are we living in a world that has objective laws of morality where you should love your neighbor, be kind to them, and respect the rights of others?

Values such as care, safety, and compassion are more important today than during the 1980s, according to Since the start of the 20th century, the respect for authority has fallen and judging right from wrong based on loyalty to country and family has risen. Based on Google Books database, there are trends in moral priorities throughout the century.

How to understand these changes in morality is an interesting case. Morality is neither monolithic nor rigid. According to Moral Foundations Theory, there are five moral grammars that each their own set of virtues and vices.

What are the five moral grammars?

Purity-based morality

This is based on ideas of piety and sanctity. When this standard is violated, the reaction is disgust and the delinquents are often regarded as unclean.

Authority-based morality

This is based on duty, social order, and deference. Those who show disrespect and disobedience are seen as violators.

Fairness-based morality

This judges right and wrong based on impartiality and it frowns on bias and prejudice.

Ingroup-based morality

This holds loyalty to family or nation at high regard and those who veer away from these are seen as immoral.

Harm-based morality

This morality values care, safety, and compassion. Suffering, cruelty, and mistreatment are seen as immoral.

Different people use these different moralities in different degrees. Those who are in politics may want to invoke purity, authority, and ingroup loyalty. Women will tend to endorse harm-based morality.

Values such as care, safety, and compassion are more important today than during the 1980s/ Photo By melpomen via 123RF


Historical change in moral concepts

People today vary in the way they view morality. Moral psychologists, however, have mostly ignored how moral thinking has changed through time. As cultures evolve and societies advance, the way that people think about good and evil has also changed.

One suggestion is that there is de-moralization. This is where societies have become less prudish and judgmental. We have become more accepting of others, irreligious, rational, and scientific in approaching matters that are right and wrong.

Another narrative talks about re-moralization wherein our culture becomes more censorious. There are more things that affect, offend, and outrage us. The extremes of political debates reveal that there is too much righteousness.

Morality is an extension of culture. Culture came first and then came morality. As a culture evolves, so does morality. This can be a good thing because this means that a group knows the importance of morality. However, there are certain instances wherein one's understanding of murder is different from another. For example, there are some cases where murdering someone from another group is justified and heroic.

The most common platform to see how cultural shifts happened is through Google Books database, where more than 500 billion words are scanned from digitized books, and can be a good source of information.

Based on studies done on English language books, it was revealed that there was a decrease in "us" and an increase in "me." Studies in Chinese books also revealed a similar decline in words during the past decades.

Researchers have looked at the frequency of a set of words such as "kindness," "honesty" and "conscience" over the 20th century. As predicted, those words showed a significant decline in popularity which means that they became less popular and less culturally salient.

Morality Study

In a study done by Melissa A. Wheeler, Melanie J. McGrath, and Nick Haslam, they explored changes in 20th century morality wherein each of the five foundations was represented by a set of virtue and vice words. Also included are terms such as “good”, “moral”, “righteous”; and “bad”, “evil”, and “wrong”.

The team of researchers extracted the relative frequency of each word for every year. The one that has the highest frequency was scored 100 and then the words in the set were averaged. Over time, there have been broad changes in each form of morality.

The basic moral terms became scarcer in English books during the 20th century. But there was a rebound in about 1980 which can prove the re-moralization theory.

The 1980s is seen to be a period when moral concerns were popular. What caused this is unknown. Some might relate it to the election of conservative governments in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as Australia.

Others might attribute the popularity to the rise of political correctness while the rise of harm language can be related to culture wars in the early and mid-century war time.

The research done has its limitations because books are only about a certain culture. The English language books are more American and less British since it is impossible to differentiate these in Google Books. However, this research goes to show significant cultural transformations. The way we perceive right and wrong today is different from how it was perceived back in the days.