It’s Rousseau’s Fault

One of the great tragedies of the 1960s was an erosion of American morality.  I don’t mean sexual morality only.  Certainly, that was eroded (as we see all around us), so much so that by now, a half-century later, very little of the old sexual morality remains.  But the erosion was more profound than that.

For in order to get rid of the old sexual morality, our moral revolutionaries, rejecting the Christian basis of morality, announced the discovery of a new basis.  They announced that an enlightened modern morality can be summed up in two rules: (1) the personal liberty principle, according to which we are free to do whatever we like provided only that we do no evident and tangible harm to non-consenting others; and (2) the tolerance principle, according to which we must tolerate whatever others do provided they do no evident and tangible harm to non-consenting others.

Now, these two principles will lead, and are leading, and have led, to many moral disasters, and not just sexual disasters.  The triumph of “tolerance” that we have seen in the last half-century or so makes it easier for us to tolerate crime and criminals, which in turn makes it easier for criminals to steal and murder.  Many Americans now go so far as to glorify criminals.  I am sorry that George Floyd was killed by a cop in May of 2020.  I am even more sorry that Mr. Floyd, a felon and drug addict, was then falsely glorified as something of a saintly man.  More recently we have had a spate of public prosecutors who have announced that they will be “soft” on prosecuting members of the criminal class.

But that’s not what I wish to write about today.  Instead, I want to discuss the decline in what has been called “small morals,” that is, good manners.  (I think it was David Hume who first came up with this expression.)

In a well-ordered society, good manners “trickle-down” from the best people to ordinary people, who in turn try, more or less successfully, to imitate these “aristocratic” manners.  If the people at the top of society have truly good manners, the society as a whole will tend to be mannerly.   Think of George Washington, a gentleman who from his youth was preoccupied with the need to practice good manners.  Washington has been a great model of manners as well as morals for Americans from his day to ours.

In America today, at least among many young people, the “trickle-down” transmission of manners has been replaced by a “percolating up” transmission.  Instead of imitating the good manners of the best people, we increasingly imitate the bad manners of the worst people.  This is most obvious among many young blacks who, though non-criminal themselves, imitate the sloppiness, the vulgarity, and the obscenity of lower-class black gangsters.  But it’s more and more happening among whites as well.

*

I blame all this (as I tend to blame most things) on the 1960s.  One of the great new beliefs of that era, a belief that is unfortunately still alive and well today, was a belief in the value of “authenticity.”  You had to “be yourself,” to “do your own thing.”  That was the great virtue.  The vice opposed to it was phoniness, and there was something phony about good manners, something inauthentic.  They were so artificial.  Ugh!  They obliged me to do X, Y, and Z even though X, Y, and Z didn’t flow from any deeply rooted desire of my nature.  To be polite and courteous when I didn’t feel like being polite and courteous was a betrayal of my “true self.”

Of course, not everybody (thank God!) felt this way.  But enough did to give a certain unmannerly flavor to the era.  And many still do feel that way.  I suspect that Donald Trump, who came of age in the 1960s, is one of them.

I said that the belief in authenticity was a new belief.  Well, that’s not quite true.  It goes back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and his elevation of sincerity (his word for what we today would call authenticity) to the rank of a great virtue, perhaps the supreme virtue.  Rousseau is often called, and rightly so, “the father of Romanticism.”  The Romantic era placed a great emphasis on feeling, as opposed to the Enlightenment stress on reason.

Although the Age of Romanticism has long since faded away, the romantic virus has not disappeared; it lingers in our cultural bloodstream.  We see it today in the imitative admiration many young persons have for the bad manners of lower-class gangsters.  For gangsters are authentic, are they not?  In order to “be themselves,” they reject middle-class phoniness, do they not?  How can we not admire their style, much though we would hate to become victims of their criminality?

We also see the romantic virus in our widespread respect and admiration for transgender persons.  A boy feels he’s a girl.  A girl feels she’s a boy.  We must respect those feelings, for feelings are manifestations of our true self.  Those kids are only trying to be authentic.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that Hitler and the Nazis (sorry to mention them but they’ve become our only moral reference point) were romantics.  Go to YouTube and look at Hitler giving a speech.  He is expressing his feelings – feelings of furious anger and murderous hatred, to be sure.  But they are feelings, and from a romantic point of view that’s the important thing. Hitler was (or at least appears to be) authentic.  The anger and hatred were manifestations of his true self.

We should also remember that romanticism has had a good side: after all, there was Wordsworth.  I don’t know, however, if he and his gentle followers outweigh the other side. Just now, to judge by our manners and morals, it seems very much not to be the case.

 

*Image: Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1763 [Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Geneva, Switzerland]

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David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.

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