Our Morality Rulebook Gathers Dust in Today's Culture

An Occupy Wall Street activist stands at the foot of Wall Street in the financial district during the one-year anniversary of the movement in New York September 17, 2012. Reuters

Last month, thousands of people gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a civil rights demonstration called a "Moral March." As someone who has spent this past year writing a book on modern morality, I was struck by the use of the word—it was in the service of a call to action.

The word "morality" is derived from the Latin mores. The Greek equivalent is ethos and is the basis of the term "ethics." Morality changes when a way of thinking disappears; and, while no single generation can claim a peerless contribution to moral behavior, in my parent's time morality was a rulebook. Some parts of that rulebook were enshrined as decent behavior and others were implicit. Sins were laid bare and bad behavior had far-reaching and lasting consequences.

That is no longer the case.

What were clearly designated ethics have been blurred: in politics, with our leaders, for whom we have less and less respect but are willing, more and more, to accept that their bad deeds have mitigating factors; with the Wall-Street-take-all mentality in business, where it has become difficult to define cheating, lying and stealing; in popular entertainment, with morally prismatic antiheroes operating in a stylish gray zone; and in our daily lives, whose churning technology grants permission to act in ways we would not necessarily act without it.

So pervasive is bad behavior these days that we are rarely shocked by it; and, on the rare occasions we manage to find our disgust, it's upon discovering that it's not a single person, not even a few people, but an entire company (think Volkswagen) or an institution (choose any one of the banks that were fixing Libor) that has deceived us with its shamelessly unethical behavior.

If morality is what we expect of ourselves, ethics is what we expect of others. Ethics exist to bind people together by providing behavioral consistency and solidarity. Contrary to our self-affirming expectations, morality and ethics are dictated by a given society at a particular period of time, and that qualifier denies them a universal truth. My grown son's take on morality hasn't been instilled by me as his parent as much as it was dictated by the profound changes occurring during the course of his relatively young life—changes brought about by advancements in technology and science I don't fully understand and my own parents couldn't have imagined. My parents could not have imagined, for example, that the change agent for sex would be the Internet and a proliferation of its foot soldiers, mobile devices. Nor could I have predicted that the same technology would create a digital reality where prejudices are able to spread and take root to prevent facts from being facts.

Modern-day philosophers chart moral perspectives from a system of moral absolutism to one of moral relativism. The former is based on the belief that various principles ought never to be violated; the latter, that a given action does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance. My belief system resides with the former—the "that's the way it has to be" version of reality. This is to be expected: I am of a certain generation.

Until recently, a generation was measured in 20-year increments, but, now, generations are more typically defined by the impactful factors during shorter and shorter time periods. The age I am has placed me squarely in what Henry James called "the land of the lost freshness," and I am hardwired with the moral absolutes shaped during the course of my old-guard upbringing. Determined that I am not to be held back in the writing of my book by a self-preserving perspective, I enlisted a group of twentysomethings to discuss their views of morality.

This generation seems to possess the ability to recognize a flexible concept of morality that exists in the broader scope and consideration of people, current events and social power. Few hesitate to question the status quo of organized groups, be they religious, businesses or governments. They told me that the world today is one of less bad options. And then they told me something I was grateful to hear: that, despite the fact that America has showcased its worst self this past year, they still believe that our resourcefulness and our collective sense of decency—call it morality if you'd like—will prevail.

Eden Collinsworth is a former media executive and an author of a forthcoming book, Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business. She can be reached at edencollinsworth@gmail.com.