Kenny raised a good question about my assertion yesterday that the proliferation of lawyers was due to a general lack of trust in our culture:
Why it is that everyone sues everyone over everything, and didn't used to? What changed, and how can it be changed back? (*Note: obviously the problem is not the lawyers per se, although they make a convenient symbol, and I really do think their sheer numbers are a cause as well as an effect. But there is a larger context. I'm just not sure what it is.)
What caused our culture to degrade? Well, even that's a loaded question, because it contains the implicit assumption that our culture is getting worse rather than getting better. Many people point to greater gender and racial equality in the last fifty years and think, on the whole, that we're getting better. (And some people will argue whether even that has happened. But hey: a woman and a black are frontrunners in the presidential election. Something has definitely changed.)
But looking at the loss of trust, as evidenced by the proliferation of lawsuits and divorces, let's just say something degraded. What happened? I think the answer may surprise you, coming from a geek: technology happened. Specifically, information technology happened: telephones, television, computers, and the Internet. That, and automobiles.
The beginning of the end of trust came with mobility.Â For the vast majority of human history,Â everyone lived in pretty much the same place, and with the same people, forÂ their entire lives. Everyone in the village or town knew everyone else, and were highly dependent on each other. In such a context, trustworthiness was exceedingly important; if you screwed over your neighbor, that neighbor and everyone else would soon know about it, and that would have both an immediate and a long-lasting implication for your quality of life. If village excluded you because they didn't trust you, you would not only have a miserable time, but your very survival might be threatened. Everyone had strong incentives to both trust and be trusted; you couldn't just write off the blacksmith who cheated you, and go down the road to some other blacksmith -- there might only be one blacksmith for miles around. SoÂ the community would bring strong pressure to bear on people to conform to basic standards of trustworthiness.
AsÂ humans' potential for mobility increased, soÂ did their dependence on others decrease. If you ruined your reputation in one town, you could always move on to the next one and start over. For the last several hundred years mobility was possible but extremely difficult -- if you wanted to move on to another place, you pretty much had to be a literal pioneer and go into the wilderness. Even as late the 1800's, you effective sphere of socialÂ and economic life was tightly circumscribed. The automobile changed that range extremely quickly; suddenly vast mobility became commonplace. Moving from town to town became the norm, and one's effective range for daily interactions was magnified by several orders of magnitude. In a world with automobiles every individual has vastly more potential economic and social partners, and so one's dependence on any particular relationship diminishes significantly. People become strangers to their own neighbors.
The limits of the geography, already pushed far back by the automobile, were utterly banished by electronic communication media: telephone, television, and the internet. It was within my lifetime that these technologies went from merely existing to being utterly ubiquitous. The most profound effects of the communication media were:
Acceleration of mobility, by expansion of national and global trade. Now it is not only possible to deal economically with distant people, but impossible not to deal with distant unseen people.
More and more human interaction has become virtualized -- that is, we don't communicate face-to-face anymore. Our net of relationships has both expanded and diffused: we have more relationships with somewhat less depth than before.
All these technologies have gradually increased our capacity for constant immediate gratification. Extremely diverse forms of entertainment and information are readily available to anyone, anytime, and with almost no interaction with another human being. It used to be that almost every form of human entertainment was primary social: music, dance, drama, poetry, games, and stories were activities directly shared with other people in the immediate community. No longer -- in fact, these media and the economy they have spawned have made it possible for people to live out their entire lives in almost complete isolation.
The massive amount of freely exchanged cultural information has undermined traditional sources of moral authority. Kenneth Gergen detailed in The Saturated Self how exposure to different religions, cultures, and values has generally diluted the authority of one's own culture and the moral codes it imposes. A certain amount of relativism, and its accompanying confusion, are inevitable when one is mobbed daily by a thousand contradictory opinions.
For a while I think the culture was able to coast on some of its momentum from previous generations. Very rapidly, though, the culture is losing its collective moral memory. People no longer have a clear conception of why we ever had restrictions on sexual behavior, or why cheating or breaking the law is bad.
The sum result: we don't treat our relationships with the same care as before, because in a modern world we don't need them as much. Or, at least, we don't think that we do. Our technologies have created vast wealth and opportunity, so much so that we are threatened with being smothered by it, lost in decadence.
I'm curious about one of your statements: "People no longer have a clear conception of why we ever had restrictions on sexual behavior". I admit, I'm one of those people not very clear on this, and would like to know what restrictions you mean and what benefits they confer.
So is your conclusion that we are sliding toward decadence, and that technology is largely to blame? My own non-systematic observation is that those communities cut off from technology and the modern world are most prone to xenophobia, dogma, superstition, and cruelty toward women and minorities. Should we not be celebrating the decline of the "collective moral memory" premised on tribal and ingroup/outgroup thinking, and embracing the new opportunity (that technology enables) for a universal understanding of human interaction?
In touching upon Justin's point above, it should be noted that those "restriced by sexual behavior" were almost exclusivley women, especially if they were to get pregnant outside of marraige. Women were, and to some degree still are, the ones held to a double standard when it comes to sexual behavior. Women were, and still are, expected to be the ones to draw lines, create boundaries, to say "no" even when they might want to say "yes," to "wait for the ring." Even one of the slang phrases for an unplanned pregnancy outside of marraige used to be "getting caught." But guess who was caught! Not the man, the woman. The consequences of sex outside of marraige, or whatever consitutes restrictions on sexual behavior is that the consequences are very different now. Me, a single parent that had a child out of wedlock, (although within a relationship that later fell apart), is simply (I hope) not judged the way I would have been even 30 years ago. And I, for one, am incredibly grateful that I can have a good job, attend church if I want to, make friends with neighbors, not have to lie about my past, my ex, my relationship, pretend I was married, or have a child not labeled a "bastard" or shunned and on and on. And if it is technology that has helped this change come about, then YAY. So much of "morality" is tied up with religion, some for good some for bad. And sometimes religion has very little to do with reality.