- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

It is no secret that many Americans harbor grave worries about the current moral state of the nation. We lose sleep not just over the terrifying world situation, but also over what appears to be a chaotic domestic scene.
The child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church, the Enron-Arthur Andersen debacle, the proliferation of Internet child pornography, the high rate of divorce and teen pregnancy, rap songs such as "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," high school shootings, a $14 billion dollar pornography industry, anthrax contamination, steroid injections of cattle, environmental ravages, obscene accumulations of wealth, are just a few of its symptoms.
But not to worry. It turns out, according to this new book by Elliot Turiel, Chancellor's Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley, that the rumors of moral decline in the West have been greatly exaggerated.
In "The Culture of Morality" Mr. Turiel explicitly pits himself against contemporary observers who have expressed alarm at the decline of such fundamentals as the stable two-parent family, academic standards, and good character. He questions the validity of the arguments of observers such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, William Bennett, and James Q. Wilson, who have argued that we have lost our clarity about moral matters. And he casts a doubting eye on communitarians who insist that we risk losing the fundamental bedrock of democracy community as we become increasingly devoted to purely individualistic pursuits and self-gratification.
Mr. Turiel tries to show, instead, that we cannot make sweeping judgments about the moral condition of a society. He associates analyses of community decline like those put forth by Amitai Etzioni in "The Spirit of Community," Robert Bellah et al. in "Habits of the Heart," and Robert Putnam in "Bowling Alone," with the over-generalizations of earlier social scientists who drew too neat a line between Western individualism and non-Western collectivism. "Overarching characterizations," in his view, are all the same.They miss the "heterogeneity of social thought, the multiplicity of influences on children's development, and the variety of types of social relationships experienced." They also fail to acknowledge resistance to the dominant ethos.
Mr. Turiel thinks most understandings of moral behavior is fundamentally flawed because they do not realize individuals are often motivated by imperatives that do not involve morality but originate in other "domains" like social convention and personal life. Further, he believes it a common mistake to equate morality with accommodation to the existing social order and "internalization of the norms, standards, and practices of society."
Mr. Turiel briefly takes up Freudian, behaviorialist, and Durkheimian theories of conscience formation, faulting each of them for suffering from too much emphasis on accommodation to existing moral standards and on the role of emotion in individuals' moral decisions.Mr. Turiel dispatches with the notion of guilt in Sigmund Freud's thought, for instance, as an undue emphasis on the role of "negative" motivation for good behavior.Similarly, he dismisses the arguments put forth by James Q. Wilson in his book "The Moral Sense" as focusing too much on the role of biology and early childhood experiences, as well as on the importance of the two-parent family in the forging of the basis for ethical sensibilities.
Mr. Turiel draws instead on those he sees as offering a more "positive" basis for morality, such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg.
Mr. Turiel thinks individuals are guided less by deep-seated emotional and psychological impulses than by the conscious exercise of reasoned judgment. What matters most is the context within which individuals "construct" moral judgments about "welfare, justice, and rights."
Moral values and beliefs are not simply imposed by parents or other authorities.Instead individuals undergo a complicated thought process in a "multifaceted" social world, influenced by their experiences, including interactions with those around them. They do not passively accept what they are taught but make judgments based on their sense of competing claims from different spheres of experience and even help to shape moral understanding, sometimes to change unjust social arrangements.
Certainly the notion that making moral decisions is a complicated process involving weighing competing claims and the details of a particular context is a valid one. But Mr. Turiel clearly confuses that process with the actual formation in infancy and early childhood of moral conscience, the basic psychological mechanism that lays a foundation for all subsequent decision-making. And his reiteration of the idea that all decisions by individuals are embedded in a complicated network of relations and conditions ends up undermining any sense of the fundamental importance of achieving moral clarity. The upshot is exactly the kind of murky situational ethics that pervades contemporary America and alarms social critics.
Despite his concern with context, the bulk of the examples Mr. Turiel marshals to illustrate the importance of complexity and context in the ways individuals reach moral judgments and to refute the claims of moral decline in the West involve women in repressive non-Western nations. Ostensibly, he does so to illustrate that for people experiencing social oppression morality might consist in rejection and not acceptance of the dominant values of their society.
In one case, women in a Moroccan harem violated the rules when they furtively listened to the radio when their menfolk left the compound.Mr. Turiel thinks such evidence shows how people at the bottom of the social hierarchy use subversion or deception within an unjust system and thus exhibit their capacity for independent moral judgment. His point is that their decisions might go against prevailing cultural values but not constitute immoral behavior.
While they are sometimes moving, Mr. Turiel's examples constitute a straw horse. For instance, clearly the women in the harem were not making a moral decision, only one that broke an unfair rule. The obvious moral violation here is their deprivation of rights, justice, and dignity in a system in which they were being kept like prisoners by virtue of being born female. But Mr. Turiel uses examples like these to show instead that judgment is exercised within a complex set of circumstances.
Mr. Turiel accuses contemporary observers who worry about growing moral relativism of believing that morality is about accommodating the individual to society and having no way of thinking about the exercise of judgment in an unjust situation. In such a situation, he believes, going against dominant values can actually constitute valid subversion, as in the case of physicians who falsely report diagnoses or symptoms so that insurance companies will cover the costs of their patients' treatments. He thinks that such subversion can result in social change as in the case of the American civil rights movement, in which leaders such as Martin Luther King questioned the church for its role in perpetuating racial discrimination rather than accommodating themselves to its dictates.
But again Mr. Turiel confuses conventions and morals. The success of King's movement was exactly that it held society up to a transcendent and consistent moral standard.The movement's courageous appeal to conscience toppled injustice. It is not clear how acts of everyday "subversion" would translate into social change as Mr. Turiel suggests they can in a world that has little room for, and no conceptualization of, moral conscience.
The critics of American moral decline are talking about Americans in a particular time period: the present. Ours is decidedly different from the repressive regimes that rightly disturb Mr. Turiel. By failing to make any distinctions, he risks casting any pressure to accommodate to a moral order even in the benign and crucial form bestowed by parents and civil society in a democracyas the same as acquiescing to a repressive state.
While Mr. Turiel believes that his view that notions of justice exist in every society take him out of the moral relativist camp, he seems to equate all forms of moral order and lionize all forms of deviation. What looks like moral inconsistency, he says, is just "variations in the application of different judgments to particular contexts."
Anyone who has committed a morally questionable act of late would do well to read this book. In its focus on situational complexities and contingencies and competing claims, it loses sight of any clear distinction between right and wrong, providing another handy excuse for succumbing to the ever-present temptation to behave badly.
In the very real moral crisis we face, this is just what we do not need.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, professor of history at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, is author of "Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Movement" (Norton, 2001).


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