"Steve Mintz, an ethicist and professor emeritus at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, believes a
cultural problem seethes beneath what prosecutors call 'Operation Varsity Blues,' and that until Americans can admit their moral compass is askew and take steps to fix it, the nation will continue to suffer scandals like this."
“This type of activity…reflects a society where people no longer live by conventional standards of morality," Mintz said. “I can’t imagine any of these parents stopped and thought, ‘Is what I’m doing harming others? Am I taking away a position from other kids who might be more worthy?’ "
The concern for the moral compass is encouraging, but some important questions follow: Why would Americans admit their moral compass is askew? (The moral compass, after all, has a well established reputation as an enemy of pleasure and personal gratification). If someone does admit his moral compass is askew, with what does he set it straight? Conventional compasses only work if they are properly aligned to the earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field is the authoritative force which alone enables the compass to point to true north. When the north-south poles of a compass get reversed the compass must be remagnetized, but how does someone do this if he no longer believes in magnetism? This is the painful impasse. We are in a situation analogous to a group of drifting sailors trying to remagnetize their compasses “in their own way” because they’ve come to think themselves too sophisticated to believe in the power and authority of magnetism. There’s no way around it. They will continue to drift. Chesterton said the chief mark of insanity is “reason used without root.”[i] Likewise, a purely secular approach to ethics is an attempt to establish morality without root.
The article continues:
“This is what ethics is all about — considering how your actions might affect others before you do something, not after the fact, after you’re caught. To look at this one incident in isolation is wrong, in my point of view," he said.
Mintz believes that a creeping moral nihilism, coupled with a widespread belief that few people face serious consequences for ethical wrongdoing, have erased a bright line of right and wrong, leaving in its place a “gray streak.” He said that a deterioration of public discourse is further evidence of the problem, saying “civility and ethics go hand in hand.”
“For many years, we’ve had the Golden Rule, but it’s hard to say that this is still the basic ethical or moral rule in society anymore,” Mintz said.
The problem is, talk of civility and ethics and the Golden Rule is received by many Westerners in much the same way an elderly professor’s talk of the transcendence of reason and the importance of truth as an end in itself is received by a class full of hung over frat boys. Even the best of seeds won’t grow on concrete.
As Jonah Goldberg says in his Suicide of the West, “The truth’s significance is on a separate track from the significance of the story itself,”[ii] and the story (on a very separate track from the truth) which has shaped the Western mind for several generations is that moral magnetism is an oppressive myth created by ancient, scientifically ignorant people who knew not the joys of iPhones and commitment-free sex. In that story, the Golden Rule is important not because it is right, but because it makes for an optimal cost/benefit balance of personal freedoms or because it evokes warm feelings.
For those whose morality is rooted in the reality of God, secular discussions about realigning moral compasses evoke the frustration felt by people sitting high on a branch in an extraordinarily large tree. There is a severed branch lying alone on the ground a few meters away, and crowds begin to gather around the lone branch to engage in passionate, nuanced discussions about the need for people to sit on it and the peace and perspective that could be had if only there were a way to elevate the branch several feet off the ground. The discussions fade out periodically, but when someone in the crowd gets muddy from sitting on the ground or if predators are spotted stalking in the distance, the discussions flare back up and new theories arise on how to raise the branch to sit in elevated safety.
All the while, those in the tree call down to the crowd, “Come up here! You can’t do it that way. Only in the tree will you find safety.” But it is a cosmopolitan crowd, and they dismiss the tree as a myth and those sitting in it as ignorant folks who are either unable or unwilling to understand the brilliant plans for raising the branch. All the while, the mud thickens and the predators draw near.
[i] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 2.
[ii] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, Ch. 5.