Last week, conservative pundit David Brooks wrote a column saying that Americans were using certain words less in their writing, and this proved the U.S. isn’t as virtuous as it used to be. For instance, a study using the Google books database “found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.” A second study showed that
general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.
Brooks goes on to write,
So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware…
Well yeah, this is the story he’d like to tell, but he presents no evidence for it, and I’d like to introduce some that suggests the opposite.
- Americans are volunteering more than they did in past decades (source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau), and more high schools and colleges are requiring students to do community service.
- People in the U.S. have been giving money to charity at a fairly consistent rate for the past 100 years. I actually do worry about this declining as fewer people go to churches and other places of worship, and maybe face fewer direct appeals to things like relief efforts or local food banks as a result, but it hasn’t happened yet.
- In fact, in my lifetime, “acts of kindness” have become a shared value not dependent on religion, seen as an appropriate way to respond to a tragedy or celebrate a happy occasion.
- I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the murder rate in the U.S. has been steadily dropping since the 1990s and is may hit a hundred-year low this year. In fact, all violent crime is dramatically declining.
- The teen pregnancy rate has dropped to an almost record low, suggesting that kids in the U.S. today are more responsible than those of previous generations.
Of course, different people measure virtue differently. I see the Boy Scouts’ lifting their ban on gay youth, and states recognizing same-sex marriages, as signs of moral progress, but some see them as evidence of decline.
Mr. Brooks writes as though “individualistic” and “moral” are opposite points from one another on the same axis, an interesting stance for a financial conservative to take. In any case, it’s not true. One can be very community-minded and immoral, such as men who commit “honor” killings, or very individualistic and moral, like many venerated religious figures.
In the end, the frequency with which people use words like “virtue” and “conscience” means very little. Many neutral, self-serving, or frankly hateful actions are described in high-minded ways. Moreover, if I’m understanding it correctly, these Google search engine studies did not take context into account. For all I know, these words may have been used frequently in sentences that discussed a lack of virtue, conscience, and so forth.
In every era, people like Brooks have bemoaned how their society is in a state of moral decline. If they had all been right, we would all be unspeakably depraved by now. The most interesting thing about Mr. Brooks’s column to me is this: why do he and so many other conservatives want to tell that story?