Retired scientist Dr Bob Brockie recently penned the enclosed article for this blog.

In these often contentious and gloomy times it’s always heartening to encounter some good news.


The illusion of moral decline.

Is the world becoming more immoral?

This month, two American psychologists launched their scientific article with the following quote: “The social fabric appears to be unravelling. Civility seems like an old-fashioned habit, honesty and trust like a relic from a former time . . . The foundations of moral life have collapsed, concluding with the dark dawning of the modern day”.  The psychologists then  tell us that the Roman historian Pliny wrote this 2,000 years ago.

In Nature journal, Professors Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert report on their massive surveys of over 12 million people in sixty countries, asking about moral decline. They find that over 80% of people think the world is going to the dogs.

The psychologists analysed millions of opinions gathered over earlier decades, and millions more opinions of present-day Americans. Many were asked – How often have you carried groceries, shopping bags, or suitcases for a stranger? Have you recently helped somebody across a street?   Have you given directions to a tourist?  Were you treated with respect yesterday, or in the past? How would you rate moral behaviour with that 10, 20, 30 years ago? Participants were asked about their thoughts on changing goodness, kindness, honesty, and respect.

The scientists found that nearly everybody thought their own moral behaviour and that of their contemporaries was beyond reproach. Other people born since the day of their birth were the problem, especially the younger generation.  Pessimism was shared equally by country, race, age, sex, religion, educational level, and parental status.

Is there any truth in this?

The professors suggest that two biases skew people’s thoughts – faulty memory and media negativity. Many studies show that people are quite selective in their memories, remembering positive events from their past but forgetting negative memories.  As a result, they’re inclined to remember a rosy past and compare it with today’s supposed wasteland.  Old Livy certainly felt so.

The media is also partly to blame because the public seek bad news. The mass media indulge this tendency by focusing on public crises and people behaving badly. “If it bleeds, it reads” is an old newspaper adage

The professors conclude that the idea of moral decline is an illusion.

In reality, humanity is becoming more civilised.   Fellow American psychologist Steven Pinker shows that the scale of wars, slaughter, subjugation, slavery, cruelty, torture, murder, and rape, have all declined over the world in the long and short term, while minorities, women, and animals are better respected than they once were.

Professors Mastroianni and Gilbert argue that the illusion of declining morality may have disturbing results. Governments and churches could waste scarce resources trying to reverse an imaginary trend.



Societies are built with men dressed in armour and collapse with men looking at themselves in mirrors.

Yes, it is true that in aggregate individuals are becoming less immoral. This is best evidenced in the gradual decline in homicide rates over the last four hundred years (see Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime by Manuel Eisner, Crime and Justice, Vol. 30 [2003], pp. 83-142), among other measures. What people are becoming, however, is more amoral. This is due to ever more state intervention in people’s lives, which in turn denies ever more people the moral space they need to make moral choices. Hence, I presume, why the psychologists above have resorted to asking such questions as whether one has helped a stranger cross the road, or with directions, or with their shopping bags, to formulate their measure of morality. Small but meaningful benevolent acts for strangers constitutes only a very small part of what it means to be a moral person.

Moral and immoral actions necessitate freedom to choose. Today, there is less freedom to choose when it comes to the moral realm. For example, who one gives financial assistance to, or serves, or sells to, or provides a platform for—these choices are increasingly being taken away from the individual and instead dictated by the laws of the welfare state, which has an agenda to protect the so-called rights of the consumptive class rather than protecting the authentic rights of those who produce.

I recall in 1960’s Britain when the Beatles came out, they all wore suits, played and sang well, and when they’d finished, they lined up and bowed to the audience. My parents and grandparents thought they were terrible and that society was going to hell. Perceptions all skewed by something they were taught? Mind you, when my kids were coming up and watching AC/DC, Metallica and others, I felt a bit strange about allowing them to see that stuff. But, they grew up to be lovely people and now listen to death metal or something. It’s a generational malady that’s been going on for thousands of years it seems. There’s nothing funnier than folk.

My granddad, viewing earth’s worn cogs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in his house of logs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in the Flemish bogs.
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in his old skin togs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
There’s one thing that I have to state –
The dogs have had a good long wait.

Weak men make bad times, bad times made strong men, strong men make good times, good times make weak men. They eternal cycle it seems.

Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’.
We, their sons, are more worthless than they;
so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.

These were the words of Horace, writing 2050 years ago. There is nothing new under the sun.

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