The consequences of morality

By Bruce Walker
web posted January 8, 2001

Liberals continually confuse causes and consequences. Statistical analyses of the inmate population of prisons shows that these individuals are much more likely to be illiterate, physical and mental ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, and chronically unemployed than the average member of society. What does this indicate to liberals? Better education, more drug treatment programs, and vocational training will reduce crime rates.

They view crime (and other types of immoral behavior) as the natural consequence of bad schools, poor medical and psychiatric care, inadequate drug treatment, and poor economic conditions. There is, of course, a connection: illiteracy, physical and mental health, substance abuse, and economic wealth being are siblings with criminality. All these bad effects are the result of immoral behavior.

This proposition is true only in the same, broad statistical sense in which liberals describe the "root causes" of crime. There are countless individual examples of good people lacking access to schools, suffering from diseases of the body and mind, becoming addicted to medication, tobacco, or other chemicals without intending to do so, and being ill used by employers and others in the marketplace. Sometimes particular events will overwhelm even the strongest people. The trauma of war, the ravages of age, and incredibly bad luck pop up throughout the history of mankind.

Luck, however -- whether good and bad -- tends to even out over time and numbers. If luck did not settle into predictable trends, the casinos of Las Vegas and the old, reliable insurance companies would go broke fast. In most individual lives, good and bad luck tend over a lifetime to average out the factors of luck, and in societies this averaging of luck uniformly reaches very stable levels. The fact that those in prison also cannot read well, use debilitating drugs, and cannot get good jobs are all related to an underlying moral weakness.

This truth is very unfashionable these days, just as Victorian values were much despised during the 1960s. The general attitude reflected in maxims like "Honesty is the best policy" or "Genius is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration" implies a control over one's destiny that most liberals find uncomfortable. The predecessors of us moderns knew better. The New World is a perfect example of how virtue is the cause, and not the effect, of other pleasures in life.

Immigrants who crossed vast oceans to trek to the wheat fields of Alberta and Minnesota or railroad projects that spanned a rough continent or the garment districts of crowded cities often lacked everything except diligence, honor, and grit. All North America offered was the power to let their own character shaped the course of their lives and the lives of their children. It is an old, proud story that few today really appreciate.

Chinese men who lacked not only literacy but also even a common written language and theological viewpoint as the predominant culture rose up in long, lonely years to prosperity and respect. Jews escaping ghastly pogroms and speaking thick, Yiddish accents likewise rose up and up an up. Italians, Poles, and Irish -- each firmly Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region, achieved individual greatness in a bewildering variety of different areas.

This process is usually viewed as "clawing one's way to the top" and, unfortunately, we who love liberty often reinforce that notion. But that is only half the story. Strong moral forces were much in play as well, and the manifestation of an underlying moral outlook on life was indispensable to success.

These moral forces cannot be legislated or prosecuted or subsidized into existence; they are the sum of many individual and voluntary decisions to reach for the light, to purse the noble, to work for better lives. The interior quality of this moral steel in the lives of those who traveled long and dangerous journeys for the New World is clear, because the material conditions of life were usually grim. What types of moral steel?

Reverence for family was vital in nearly every immigrant group. Respect for knowledge, even when it was hard to learn English or find time to study or even see an immediate benefit to learning, produced scholars, physicians, and scientists. Honesty within immigrant groups and with the general population was critical as well; Italians, Jews, and Chinese each had organized crime, but individual members of those groups were overwhelmingly law-abiding and trustworthy.

Morality also reduced alcoholism and sexual promiscuity, with the inevitable detachment from healthy, long life that those vices bring. People who stayed married and raised families not only lived longer, but accumulated an abundance of different types of wealth: financial, emotional, and social prosperity.

The sense of community that older people recall with nostalgia from a small farming town or the ethnic neighborhood of a big city is really a reflection of the moral component of decent lives interacting. Who today considers those stretches of urban areas infested with crime, drugs, and prostitution fondly? The difference between the ugly places today and the happy places of earlier days is not material, it is moral.

Schools worked because people wanted them to work. Charities were the creatures of moral men and women committed to relieving the effects of bad luck in individual lives, and because the purposes themselves were honorable these private charities often worked. A sense of citizenship existed, even among people not yet citizens, because of a decent sense of gratitude for the chance to make a new life. These men and women who were committed to values, and who were willing to fight and die for these values, made their shared world better.

What happens when personal morality comes after the natural products of moral behavior? The sad lives of children born to wealth, but not to goodness, is an old story. Money does not buy happiness, but happiness, honor, and purpose do produce money. Hired sex, paid friends, bought power, and purchased celebrity drive lives into the sewer fast.

On a larger scale, when peoples forget that goodness is the source for good things in life, then men like Hitler infest prosperous, educated, and sophisticated nations and these men first destroy the ethical foundation and then the physical foundation of the nation. What is worse, when people lose their moral compass, then they begin to see goodness itself as a disguised evil. Efforts to promote moral conduct in others is seen as "hypocritical" and "phony" which was the philosophical attitude of Weimar Germany (or Imperial Japan or Communist China today).

When people view peace, prosperity, and power as the ways to make societies good, then they have subconsciously adopted the mindset of the National Socialist. If the reason why criminals commit crimes is poverty, ignorance, and sickness, then the outlook of the Nazis seems legitimate.

The SS did not kill millions of Jews, Poles, and Gypsies because of German indigence, illiteracy, ill health or -- that most odious of all liberal false values -- inadequate German "self-esteem." They chose a destructive course -- a course that ultimately became self-destructive -- because of utter indifference to those moral values which bind our hearts and minds to positive actions. Like all other wicked men, the Nazis chose crime.

Once we realize that ethical behavior, constructive attitudes, and commitment to truth are values that transcend adversity, and that without these values the highest pinnacle of our achievement is one short step from the abyss, then we can "solve" our social problems as quickly as our immigrant ancestors rose from nothing to everything in less than a lifetime. ESR

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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