As a student of history, I have been trained to consider what we can learn from an expanse of time at altitudes that transcend the moment. To be clear, we must deal with the flames at our feet; ignoring them means tomorrow may never come. However, if we are to have any claim of authorship of our future, we must lift our eyes, hearts, and minds to consider new possibilities and opportunities. Otherwise, we are forever victims of circumstance. The time is now to lift our perspective to shape a new destiny.
I have written extensively about the cycles of American history. Born in crisis, our history suggests we then move to a period of objectivism, then liberalism, then idealism, and crisis again. We are at the end of our fourth period of crisis in American history, what I termed the “Age of Deceit.” What comes next—a new era of objectivism—has been characterized in the past by terms such as unity, reason, inclusion, pragmatism, tolerance, risk aversion, stability, containment, self-reliance, standardization, meritocracy, frugality, humility, redemption, secularity, family, and community.
Every period of objectivism varies to reflect the nature and consequences of the immediately preceding crisis. Historically, these consequences have emanated from economic and physical destruction. The periods that followed the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II were periods of objectivism. The next fourth period of objectivism will be different. Yes, there has been economic and physical destruction during the Age of Deceit that spanned the wars we waged in the Middle East, to the Great Recession, to the pandemic; but, this time, there has been an unprecedented degree of moral destruction as well. Among other things, the term “empathy” must join those above to set a new destiny—a new era—of objectivism.
Although deceit was the common denominator that I chose to characterize the period of crisis we are now leaving, the moral transgressions ranged a spectrum of violations of those things we might consider under the umbrella of “good.” In addition to our many deceits, we were also selfish, greedy, reckless, conceited, and profoundly narcissistic. Our calculus excluded morality; it began and ended in a transactional modality measured principally in dollars and seldom considered effects beyond ourselves—across extended peoples, places, or time.
Ironically, but also consistent with history, one might expect that morality would have been a primary consideration in the era just passed since periods of late idealism and early crisis are marked by high religiosity. After all, aren’t religions known for their high morality? The answer, of course, is that the values religions promote are, but the institutions and organizations formed to support them fall victim to the same things other institutions and organizations do: compromising their principles in the name of self-preservation. Organized religions compete for adherents just as private enterprise competes for customers. Doing good—meeting moral commitments—are often the first victim of competition.
Of the values all world religions hold is the idea that we should treat each other as we wish to be treated ourselves; the so-called Golden Rule. However, there is another tenet of morality we must both recognize and embrace if we are to transcend this crisis and deliver ourselves to a much better place—to a destiny of objective morality. It to, is taught by most, if not all world religions. I call it the principle of moral reciprocity. It is the idea that we are as strong as the weakest among us, as wealthy as the poorest among us, as safe as the least secure among us, as healthy as the sickest among us. This principle is they key to solving many of our problems; those that collectively fall into the basket of concerns we call inequality. And, it is a prerequisite of achieving the loftiest objective of all: a sustainable culture of integrity.
To secure a future of objective morality we must change two things: where we focus our eyes, and how we measure success. Where we end up, whether we are driving a car, or plotting a path to a new destiny, largely depends on where we focus our eyes. We go where our eyes tell the brain behind them to go. The brain then commands the body to coordinate its capabilities to get there. The other element is how we measure success; when we have arrived at our destination, be it a place or an outcome. In the Age of Deceit, we measured our success in dollars and personal gratification. It should be no surprise, then, that we are in the mess we are in as a society. I believe it can be argued we don’t even have a society today.
For the most part, this shift in perspective is understood by our current president, Joe Biden. Against extraordinary structural impediments, President Biden is trying to take us to a period of objective morality. The good news is forces tend to move us in the direction of objectivism following periods of idealism and crisis. In many ways, we are given little choice to correct our path if we are to survive. We have that going for us. Our eyes will naturally focus on new destinations out of the basic desire for self-preservation. However, embracing the principle of moral reciprocity is anathema to where we have been for the last three decades. This will be a formidable challenge.
Curiously, organized religion could play a positive role. The decline of religiosity in America could be addressed by a new appeal to the so-called “nones” that claim no religious affiliation by appealing to their sense of morality as defined by the Golden Rule and the principle of moral reciprocity. Organized religion—to save itself—must authentically and sincerely embrace morality again. If it does, it will be the first time since it supported civil rights and rallied against the war in Viet Nam in the 1960s. Since then, it has mostly spiraled into the abyss of its current irrelevance. It followed our descent into depravity rather than saving us from it.
As individuals, we must also set our sights on new horizons. If we want stronger families and communities, why do we continue to stare at our federal government and national media? We need to assure we each take responsibility for where our feet stand each and every day. We need to point at ourselves to assure a new destiny. We need to ask our neighbors how they are doing. No one will, or can, lift us up if we don’t make the effort ourselves. Good and bad are both contagious. It is up to us to see which one spreads.
A life lived in a state of objective morality has many benefits. Today, given from whence we have come, it may just be the key to our very survival, and the prosperity—both material and moral—of many generations to come.