Morality and the Market: Values, Ethics and the Need for a New Social Contract

Morality and the Market: Values, Ethics and the Need for a New Social Contract

October 1, 2004
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Americans are famously concerned about values and personal morality. The United States ranks among the most religious of all the advanced industrialized democracies, and it has frequently experienced eras of intense moral introspection. The past several decades have been such a period, with heated debates over issues like abortion, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, and prayer in schools. Today, opinion polls show considerable public concern about the moral state of the country. A May 2004 survey by Gallup found that an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans hold a negative view of U.S. moral values, and 77 percent believe that things are getting worse.

While moral issues have heavily shaped U.S. electoral politics, these issues have generally been framed very narrowly in the political sphere. Some thirty years ago, conservative intellectuals and politicians moved aggressively to establish a near-monopoly on values discussions amid what Francis Fukuyama has called “the Great Disruption,” namely the breakdown of the traditional family and rise of feminism and individualism. The Great Disruption played out in very personal ways for Americans, and was experienced by many—especially white men—as a full-blown social crisis. Conservative leaders adroitly leveraged the crisis to weaken the appeal of liberalism. They separated working-class voters with traditional values from a
Democratic Party that, in Spiro Agnew’s words, favored “acid, amnesty and abortion.” And, in a broader assault, they convinced large swaths of the public that just about any government program was apt to spawn social pathology. The harsh discipline of the free market was offered by conservatives as more than just a path toward greater prosperity. It was presented as a savior of America’s moral character.
 
Today, progressive and moderate reformers have a chance to reframe national debates over values by highlighting a new moral crisis. This crisis infects nearly every part of American society, from education to sports to business to a myriad of professions. It often plays out in intensely personal ways and it deeply troubles Americans. The crisis is the rise of a “cheating culture” in the United States.