Magazine article The Futurist

A Shift in Moral Authority

Magazine article The Futurist

A Shift in Moral Authority

Article excerpt

Individuals are increasingly demanding moral freedom.

An unprecedented values shift has swept into American society since the 1960s: People have begun to make moral decisions based on their own needs, rather than deferring to traditional religious and governmental sources of authority, according to social scientist Alan Wolfe.

"Never have so many people been so free of moral constraint as contemporary Americans," writes Wolfe in his book Moral Freedom, a survey of what the U.S. population thinks about traditional virtues such as honesty, loyalty, forgiveness, and self-restraint. As people demand the right to decide ethical and spiritual issues on their own terms, they are redefining the social context for moral decision making. "A world of restraint is being replaced by a world of possibility," writes Wolfe, who is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College.

The idea that an individual might chart his or her own moral course is still a foreign concept in most societies, where tradition demands that people restrain their self-interest for the sake of the public good, and accept the authority of religious and community institutions as an absolute guide to what is right and wrong. Social order has depended upon the willingness of people to follow their conscience, not their desires.

That era is fading. In the United States, the gradual rise of democratic thinking led to the assertion of political and personal power in the 1960s--especially in the civil rights, antiwar, and sexual liberation movements. People began to demand personal satisfaction at the expense of the strict conventions imposed by institutional authorities. We haven't been the same since. As Wolfe describes it:

We simply no longer live in a world in which women are encouraged to stay home and raise their children, government's word is to be trusted, teachers can discipline as well as instruct, the police enforce laws against what is considered immoral conduct, and religious leaders are quick to offer--and their parishioners are quick to accept-unambiguous prescriptions for proper Christian conduct. Now women will want for themselves a greater say in how they ought to live, employees will look for jobs that give them some say in the work they do, churchgoers will ask questions and not just receive answers, young people will manage their own sexuality, and political leaders will take moral instruction from voters rather than the other way around. …

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