We are all very conscious of the ways in which the mores or the values in our society have changed over our lifetimes. To take an obvious example: the matter of abortion. Go back to the 1940s and abortion was broadly seen as a sordid crime whether it was a wealthy person getting herself out of trouble, or whether it was an illegal backstreet abortion. Today you would not be surprised to find the most respectable and moral person supporting the right of women to have abortions.
Of course divorce has been with us for many decades, but we may feel that what was once a rare tragedy, has now become common – almost routine. We wonder whether most of our fellow citizens make their marriage vows with a silent reservation: “as long as we continue to be happy together”. But then of course many of our fellow citizens don’t get to the altar because cohabitation has become so common, and is perhaps more honest if people are unwilling to make an unconditional commitment.
But I am kicking at an open goal: the morality of sexual activity provides the obvious examples. So let’s just touch on other possible areas.
Thou shalt not steal. No indeed, our society will not tolerate the housebreaker or the pickpocket. But how about the person who doesn’t declare casual income for tax? Or the supermarket which will reduce the contents of a familiar item — trying to fool customers into not noticing that the price has gone up? Has our society become slacker here?
Bearing false witness, envy and greed, care for the reputation of others – these all bear examination. And what interests me is not that we, and our society, are all – and have ever been – sinners. It is the way in which our moral values change. None of us is an island, and we know that we are all susceptible to being influenced by the morals of our society. We must be aware, not just of how the morals of society have changed, but the extent to which our moral assumptions have changed with them.
But changing moral values is not a one way street. Think of the way that we treated “fallen women”. Our society was prepared to immure many of them in homes for the mentally retarded. Political correctness covers a number of areas. How we laughed at its over-sensitivity! Do you recall the state official in Washington who had to resign because he had used the word “niggardly” in public? But a little self-examination may show that you, like I, are much more circumspect about causing offence than we were in our youth. And think it right to be so.
Now, I am hoping to write in due course about the way that moral values change in society, and the extent to which we find, perhaps in retrospect, that we have changed with them. I am afraid that I look back with shame at some of the views I held as a young adult, which I would now be the first to repudiate.
So I would be much helped if you would contribute examples, from your own experience, of moral values which have changed for better or worse during your lifetime. And to what extent, if any, your own moral judgments have changed in concert.