Morality vs. Societal Values in the 21st Century


Morality is no different in the 21st century than it was in any of the centuries past.  Morality has always been based on the right thing to do.  The right thing to do has remained the same over the millennia.  It is embedded in our conscience.

However, societal values and laws relating to ethics interpreting the right thing to do are different today than they were centuries ago because these moral guidelines fluctuate with the government, ruling class, free time, and the education of the citizenry.

Let’s start with determining what “the right thing to do” is.  Whenever you feel that hiccup before you take an action or whenever you feel a tinge of guilt while taking an action, you know this is not the right thing to do.  Remember Jiminy Cricket in the Walt Disney movie, Pinocchio, and how he and Pinocchio were instructed to always let their conscience be their guide?  Even when we know the right thing to do, we can rationalize or talk ourselves out of doing the right thing with little difficulty.

But society interprets “the right thing to do” through laws and ethical codes.  So how does society determine what the right thing is?  I believe that a fair and just society can use either one or both basic methods for making this decision.  The first is what individuals think, and the second is what others think.  Ideally, the law should coincide with one or both of these ethical perspectives, but that is not always the case.[1]  Many governments, including totalitarianism, impose arbitrary and capricious laws and codes on citizens.

Subjective ethics are relative to the individual.  This theory is common in America, a country of immigrants from a variety of cultures with differing ethical values; however this subjective theory has inherent weaknesses because of our humanness.[2]  Objective ethics, also called rational ethics or moral absolutism, deems actions right or wrong based on a consistent objective test.  It imposes a duty on all citizens to refrain from violating the rights of others.[3]  Sometimes, it is the better approach.

The closest objective test in law I could find was included within the elements of negligence.  A legal duty must first exist between the parties to establish liability through negligence.  As mentioned above, the duty in objective ethics is to refrain from violating the rights of others.  The next element is a breach of that duty.  This requires the actor to meet the standard of care, which in many cases is what a reasonable person would or would not have done under the same or similar circumstances.[4]  In other words, would a reasonable person believe this was the right thing to do?

For example, you are shopping at Kroger’s and you haven’t eaten for five hours, so you are tempted to take a grape and pop it in your mouth.  Nobody would miss one grape.  What is the right thing to do according to 21st century society?  Well, let’s apply the subjective test.  The majority of people in today’s society would not have a problem with this.  Most would rationalize that nobody would really be hurt by the loss of a one grape.  The store would still sell the bunch of grapes, and the purchaser would never know the difference because each bunch of grapes had a different amount of grapes anyway.

In earlier centuries, stealing a grape would have been different from stealing a horse only by the value of the item taken.  But clearly, the moral and right thing to do would be to not take the grape no matter what century you lived in at the time of the decision.

What happens when we utilize the objective test in the 21st century?  Let’s employ the quantum of proof required for negligence just like we learned in law school.  In a civil case, the burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence also known as “more likely than not” and “greater weight of evidence.”[5]  A case under the Civil False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. 2729, somewhat analogous to our determination whether an act is the wrong thing to do, also uses this burden of persuasion.[6]

Let’s first examine the preponderance of the evidence test.  If the scales are just a little lower with the weight of evidence on the side of this being the right thing to do, then it is the right thing to do.  We would have to examine all the evidence and place it on the scales of justice to see where the scales tip.

In this case, we have evidence indicating that taking the grape would be good for the decision-maker because it would stem the hunger until the groceries paid for get home.  We also have evidence that there will be little to no harm to Kroger’s or the ultimate purchaser of the grapes.  The theft of a grape would not be worth prosecuting since the value is so low.  Where do the scales tip in this instance?  A reasonable person would not consider the taking of a grape as the wrong thing to do or, in other words, the decision to take the grape was the right thing to do after examining all the circumstances.

In certain situations, you may find that the scales seem fairly balanced.  That is when we examine the “seven steps.”  These seven steps should be taken to determine if any of them tip the scales.

The magnificent seven are:

  1. Examine your “gut” feeling.  The NCIS “Gibb’s gut” is used.  If your “gut” tells you that the action is not right, then more than likely it is wrong.  This “gut” feeling could tip the scales for you on the side of deciding not to take that action.
  2. Take the “CNN test.”  You can substitute any newspaper or television news report for CNN, but you need to determine if the action could create “bad press.”  If you fear the action could lead to a problem with the media, you should, at least, run it by your public affairs experts.
  3. Examine the pragmatic angles.  If the action is not practical, then why gamble with it?
  4. Res ipsa loquitur – “the thing speaks for itself.”  This is an evidentiary rule that permits some degree of evidence from an inference of a breach by the outcome.
  5. Burden of persuasion is on proving that it is the right thing to do.  A tie goes to proving that it is the wrong thing to do.
  6. Err on the side of avoiding gray areas in the law.
  7. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

In this case with the single grape, how would the application of the seven steps work out?  Examine the seven potential tipping points.

  1. Your “gut” may be telling you that there are no real consequences to third parties.
  2. There will be no “bad press” because there is no potential for this being a violation of criminal law.
  3. Practical value of eating this grape to satisfy hunger is greater than problems encountered even if caught.
  4. A single grape makes little noise for itself.  It carries little significance in the scheme of things.
  5. The preponderance of evidence is that a reasonable person would do this and consider this the right thing to do.
  6. There is no legalistic gray area.
  7. If this appears to be a problem, then it is a problem.  This is where the 21st century ethics will not find this as even appearing to be a problem, while earlier centuries would find that the theft of anything would create the appearance of a problem.

And here is the tough part.  Even if the scales are level, the burden of proof has not been met, and you cannot take or recommend taking that action.  In other words, you cannot say that it was a “tie,” allowing you do nothing.  It doesn’t work that way.  Even if the scales are barely tipped to the side of not taking the action based on your “gut” feeling, the decision has been made, and you must argue to not take that action.

Who Makes the Final Ethics Decision?

Is there a judge or jury to decide the case for you?  Or is the decision entirely up to you?  Wouldn’t that be great if you could decide what the wrong thing was?  You could rig it so that you could never do the wrong thing.  All your choices would be spot on, dead center, right on target.  But if you “ain’t the king,” you are going to be second guessed by everybody.  Do I really mean everybody? Yes, I do, including: your supervisor, your co-workers, your secretary, your friends, your parents, your wife, your kids, and even your dog on bad days.

If your supervisor came into your office and asked you to change your opinion because it went against what the company wanted to do, how would you handle it?  Would you comply or would you refuse to change your opinion?  Would you apply the subjective test and rationalize that it wasn’t that big a deal to cave in to the boss?  Live to fight another day.  Or would you examine the situation using the objective test and present a logical argument to take to higher officials within the company, including checking with Public Affairs on their take on the issue?

When I was teaching the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) as an Air Force JAG to combat pilots, I always asked them to make their decisions after employing the “CNN Test.”  You can insert any news media in place of CNN, but CNN was big back during Desert Storm.

What did I mean by the “CNN Test”?  Any choices by pilots to fire or not to fire would be examined under the scrutiny of world opinion or the “CNN Test.”  What would the world think about this decision?  How would it appear in the newspapers tomorrow?  There was always the thought that in war, “you gotta do what you gotta do.”  We wanted the pilots to return safely from every mission, so if somebody were attempting to obtain a firing solution on them, they needed to fire immediately.  But if they had time to think through situations like in selecting targets, they should think about the consequences of world opinion.

Now, why should we care about what other people thought?  We are number one aren’t we?  We are more important than other people.  Who cares about other people’s opinion?  Well, we should care because society benefits from people doing the right thing.  We should place a high priority on doing the right thing and following laws.

 21st Century Decision Making

An eighty-year-old grandfather told his grandson that there was a battle going on between two wolves inside us all.  One was an evil wolf, filled with anger, jealousy, hate, greed, resentment, lies, and a huge ego.  The other was a good wolf with joy, love, peace, kindness, humility, truth, and empathy.

The grandson asked which wolf would finally win.  The old man leaned back and smiled, “The one you feed.”

I present 21 questions for the current century.[1]  I will first give the societal value answers of this century and then I will provide what I believe the moral answers should be.

  1. Why be good?
    21st century: There is no good reason to be the good wolf, so do what you want.
    Morality: Your conscience is a moderate, moral compass, telling you to be good.
  2. Is it ever permissible to lie?
    21st century: Yes, lying is permissible in many cases.
    Morality:  Your conscience permits lying only in moderate amounts, when it is beneficial to the listener.
  3. What’s wrong with gossip?
    21st century: Nothing.
    Morality: Your conscience tells you it is wrong when it is not done in moderation and harms others.
  4. Do you have an obligation to be healthy?
    21st century: No, you can do what you want.
    Morality: Yes, your conscience lets you know that you should live a temperate life and remain healthy so you are not a burden on others.
  5. May I take a grape while shopping?
    21st century:  Yes, because it doesn’t hurt anybody.
    Morality: No since quantity is not the issue in morality; moderation does not permit murdering of an infant because of their size; theft is theft and murder is murder.
  6. Is it wrong to make as much money as I can?
    21st century:  No, although this is changing as capitalism loses out to socialism in this century.
    Morality: you should live modestly and make as much money as you need to survive, avoiding greed.
  7. What are my obligations to the poor?
    21st century: None, although this is changing as capitalism loses out to socialism in this century.
    Morality: You should take care of the poor by teaching them to fish rather than giving them fish.
  8. Can we do better than the Golden Rule?
    21st century: Do unto others before they do unto you.
    Morality: Do more for others than you would do for yourself.
  9. Why can’t I just live for pleasure?
    21st century: You can.
    Morality: Your living for pleasure must be moderated by your conscience.
  10. Why can’t I date a married person?
    21st century: You can as long as the relationship is consensual.
    Morality: Because adultery runs afoul of your conscience and is not temperate sex.
  11. Are jealousy and resentment always wrong?
    21st century: No, these are human emotions that should be accepted.
    Morality: They are wrong when they are not controlled and you keep feeding them.
  12. What are the rules for respecting privacy?
    21st century: You have little privacy under capitalism and no privacy under totalitarian rule (socialism generally degrades into totalitarianism); both extremes in government take away your privacy.
    Morality: The Golden Rule applies to rules of privacy.
  13. What do I owe my aging parents?
    21st century: Nothing.
    Morality:  Your conscience will guide you to providing what your parents reasonably need.
  14. Should I help a suffering loved one die?
    21st century: Yes, if it means one less person on social security and an early inheritance.
    Morality: No, find a way to relieve their suffering other than killing them; murder is murder.
  15. Is “genetic enhancement” playing God.
    21st century: There is no God.
    Morality:  No, it is playing Hitler; genetic enhancement is a dangerous tool that extremists could misuse.
  16. Is conscientious objection a moral right?
    21st century: Yes, anybody can claim this right.
    Morality: It is a reasonable right based on our freedom of religion and convictions, but this right cannot be claimed for spurious and disingenuous reasons; conscientious objection must be done in moderation, following the conscience.
  17. Is it always wrong to fight back?
    21st century: You have the right to fight back as long as you aren’t going against the government.
    Morality: No, you can even go against the existing government if it is a bad government that does not support the citizens of that country; non-violent revolution is permissible.
  18. Should the death penalty be abolished?
    21st century: It should be permitted, especially for revolutionaries and crimes against the state.
    Morality: Yes, it is murder and thus is not permitted by our conscience.
  19. Is torture ever acceptable?
    21st century: Yes, it allows the government to obtain important information.
    Morality: No, it goes against the very fiber of our morality.
  20. Do animals have rights?
    21st century: No, humans are more important than animals.
    Morality: Yes, humans are animals, and your conscience tells you that all animals have rights.
  21. Why should I recycle?
    21st century: Because it is what everybody else is doing.
    Morality: Because it is the right thing to do.


Have you ever looked for a book on moderation?  There aren’t many.  Have you ever wondered why?  My guess is because the extremists are the squeaky wheels who are always getting the grease to get their books published.  Extremists also have better sound bites for television interviews.  Furthermore, extremists make better headlines and will sell more newspapers and books.  Extremists excite you, energize you, and win you over to their powerful magnetic force.

Moderates are boring because all they want to do is stay in the middle of every argument.  They are the weak force.  But have you ever thought about how difficult remaining neutral really is?  When you have two extreme forces tugging at you, it is actually extremely hard not picking a side.  As the magnetic field strengthens, you generally are drawn to either the north or south poles.  No wonder the world is becoming more polarized with moderates becoming an endangered species.

When we make decisions, we are generally influenced by extreme positions.  Our two-party political system is an example of how two opposite sides polarize America.  Moderate parties generally do not win elections.  However, my conclusion is that people should utilize moderation in making choices in life.  The “Golden Mean” of Aristotle, the “Middle Way” of Buddha, and the “Balanced Order” of Confucius are the heart of virtue ethics.

The 21st century societal value answers to the 21 questions were not moderate.  But the morality answers tended to be more balanced.  That is not to say that the morality answers were perfect.  Any human answers are flawed by humanness, which is found in us all.  But moderation is perhaps the best goal that we as humans can utilize to achieve a heightened sens of morality.

Unfortunately, a revolution generally does not lead to the reinstatement of morality.  Typically, it leads to a new government with new laws, which more than likely will be based on something other than morality, subjective ethics, or objective ethics.  The new leadership will have its own self-interests to serve.  Even communistic revolutions, promising power to the people, have ended up with totalitarian governments taking away everything from the people, including their lives.

Perhaps, this is why morality should be the choice of the people rather than societal or governmental values.

[1] Gordon W. Brown, Paul A. Sukys, and Mary Ann Lawlor, Business Law with UCC Applications, 8th Ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 3 and 8-9.

[2] Brown, 4.

[3] Brown, 7.

[4] Richard A. Mann and Barry S. Roberts, Smith and Roberson’s Business Law, 9th Ed. (New York: West Publishing Company, 1994), 175.

[5] Roger C. Park, David P. Leonard, and Steven H. Goldberg, Evidence Law, A Student’s Guide to the Law of Evidence as Applied in American Trials, 2nd Ed. (St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2004), 93.

[6] Brian C. Elmer, et al., Fraud in Government Contracts (Washington, D.C.: Federal Publications Inc., 1993), 3-15.

[7] Many of these questions are found in “Moral Decision Making: How to Approach Everyday Ethics” by Clancy Martin, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  The answers are my own.

Ethics for Unethical People

This subject title may seem a little strange initially, but after you think about it, it should start to make sense.  Ethical people may need to examine their values and polish them occasionally, but as a general rule, they do not need training in ethics.  Of course, it does not hurt those who attempt to do the right thing to become further emboldened by like-kind citizens who espouse actions following the tenets of integrity above all else, including life and power and riches.  But the individuals who really need ethics training are those who are unethical.  To them, self enrichment and empowerment are more important than ethical values. 

Many years ago, a lady was approached by a needy gentleman, who offered her $2.00 to spend the night with him.  The lady, greatly offended, told him that she was not that kind of a person.  He would find the prostitutes up the street several blocks away.  He stroked his gray beard and then offered her a million dollars to have sex with him that evening.  Her eyes lit up and she said, “Why, sure.  There’s a hotel we can use on the next block.”  The man reflected further and said, “Well, now that we know what you are, we just need to negotiate the price.”

We all would like to think that we are ethical people.  If you polled thousands of people off the street, over 80% of them would tell you that they were ethical most of the time.  This really translates to their ethical values are only tested about 20% of the time.  Over the course of a normal day, you are busy handling common problems, most of which do not involve testing your ethical values. 

But the truth is that most of us are like the lady who was insulted with a small temptation to show her true unethical leanings.  The reality is that the majority of people are unethical when it comes to dealing with tremendous temptations to do the wrong thing or significant consequences for doing the right thing.  We are drawn to the million dollars like a bug to a bug zapper.  We will take the least painful path even if it means doing something bad.  How many people would rather die of starvation rather than stealing from a farmer’s field?  And even more, how many people would let their child die of starvation rather than stealing from the farmer?

So, who should receive ethics training more:  the ethical student or the unethical student?  I think the answer should be clear.  There is much less value in training somebody who is already ethical to be ethical than in schooling somebody who is unethical.  The degree of difficulty is certainly greater in reaching an unethical person, but successful results are so much more gratifying.

How do you reach and teach an unethical person to turn them from the dark side to doing the right thing when nobody is looking?  Well, it starts with a cost-benefit analysis.  When an unethical person is caught doing the wrong thing, there are consequences because our society pretends that unethical people are in the minority.  Rules and laws are imposed in society because without them, we would clearly see that the majority of people are unethical.  The majority would take care of themselves even if their actions hurt others.  The laws are written to provide punishments that hopefully will deter the selfish mean spirits in our world. 

As society’s legal system breaks down, so that criminals are optimistic: (1) that they will not be discovered, (2) but even if they are found, there will not be sufficient evidence to make a case against them, (3) but even if a case is made, they can have it overturned on appeal, (4) but even if it is not overturned, they will obtain a reduced sentence or will be paroled, and (5) even if they serve their full sentence, they will meet some like-minded people who can assist them with their continued life of crime.

So ethics training is for unethical people and it starts with consequences.  For example, a greedy corporate officer may looks for unethical ways to make more money, but he knows that if he is caught, it will end his career with the company and he would lose his “golden parachute.”  He knows that there are also ethical ways to make more money and there is no risk of jail time.  The Mafia has moved from unethical practices to legitimate business tactics, following the law.  Having a corporate culture that emphasizes core values like integrity and honesty is becoming the thing to do because it makes for profits from other companies that want to do business with you and from customers who are comfortable doing business with an honest company.  It is similar to “going green” on environmental issues because it actually is more profitable and is less risky than violating environmental laws.         

America, Disposable Society in Land of Entitlements

I met a young man, who just started working in a furniture store.  He was amazed at how many Americans purchased new furniture to replace perfectly good old furniture.  They either sold the furniture, which in some cases was only two years old, or they declared it as a charitable contribution.  He also told me that he was on welfare for a year, but he took a job that paid less than his entitlements because he didn’t feel good about himself and he was getting bored.  This young man is the exception.  Most Americans are more than happy to take the money and make no legitimate effort to get a job, certainly not one that paid less.

So with one story, I have pretty well summarized what is wrong with America today.  We have become a disposable society in this land of entitlements.  Many years ago, Americans made their possessions last and if there were problems, they fixed them.  Today, if something goes bad, you just replace it.  And don’t worry about the costs because you are entitled to anything you want.

Unfortunately, this same philosophy carries through to marriages, jobs, and, in some cases, lives.  In other words, if you don’t like your life, you kill yourself.  But you don’t do it quietly at home.  You plan it out and kill as many others as you can before killing yourself, at least making a big name for yourself on your last day on earth.  If you don’t like other people’s lives, you kill them.  That’s how it’s done in all the blood-soaked video games that are branded in kids’ minds.  Killing is as common as breathing.  Just look at our recent history of mass murders in schools and movie theaters.

And our new culture tells us that we don’t have to work for anything anymore.  It will be given to you.  Expectations are out of control.  Everybody wants to be paid a large salary for doing nothing.  Everybody in America is entitled to a big house and car and new furniture.  The old belief that you had to work for these things is out the window.  Even religion has fallen into this pattern, so that you simply believe in Jesus and you are entitled to heaven.  You don’t have to do anything other than believe.  We’re entitled to anything and everything.  And the worst part of this philosophy is that if people don’t receive these entitlements, they become angry and may kill those who get in their way and block them.

We want to take action because we feel helpless.  So, we pass new gun laws.  So, we tighten security in schools.  But these are reactionary steps that will have little effect on what is happening in America.  So, what is happening in America?

America is changing.  It’s moving from an ethical, hard-working culture to an immoral, disposable society that believes it is entitled to anything and everything.  Is there any way to stop this?  Yes, but it has to be a proactive change at the source, not a reactionary modification downstream.

It all starts at your home.  Parents have to put aside their careers long enough to instill moral values in their children.  Children have not been encouraged to develop a strong work ethic or even common, basic ethics.  And parents have to lead by example.  Children are lost in today’s environment without any good role models, including their parents.  Yes, you can blame it on the poor education system in America, but first look in the mirror at home and see if you have failed your children.

So, let’s all look at the man in the mirror and start by changing his ways.

Education in America Is Failing

Our education system gets an “F.”  But since nobody, including the federal government, has to sign the report card and there is no detention hall, no changes are on the horizon.

Currently the US is ranked 17th in science and China is projected to take the lead over us in this field.  We were at the top of our game in 1969 when our astronauts landed on the moon and then got back home.  That was about 43 years ago.  There is no certainty that we could do that today.

What happened?  It was four decades of decadence.  Our education system has failed us.  We used to cater to those students who showed brilliance and creativity.  Then, we started catering to those students who were disruptive and weren’t interested in learning.

Many studies, including science, should focus on creative thinking or finding unique ways to solve problems.  American education today has a goal to teach only basic concepts.  Teachers are lecture-oriented and do not provide an environment for innovative thinking.  Teachers must satisfy metrics and carefully avoid upsetting any of the disruptive students.  Failure is acceptable under these conditions because the main goal is to avoid creating any waves or missing the average metric marks.

A standard curriculum with teachers being accountable to only deliver the basics and nothing more is a recipe for failure.  There is no challenge to the teachers or the students to go beyond being average.  The goal today is “to just get by.”

If America wants to compete in the world economy, we must change our education system to make it creative and challenging.  As an instructor of  business law classes, I had the students go through mock trials and also create their own businesses, which encouraged the students to incorporate the principles of business law into the practical world of business and law.  It was interesting to note that even the disruptive students became interested in the projects and participated as much, if not more, than the other students.