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America in Decline: Disease Is Bringing Down the Giant

Our nation is sick and the doctors seem unable or unwilling to offer any cure. The symptoms are easy enough to spot, the disease is spreading rapidly, and the prognosis clear. Are we to stand back and watch the patient die?

Our disease is the great cancer of humankind – greed. We have ignored the warning signs because we seemed so healthy. Now, it is doubtful that we will be able to stop it. Our greed has metastasized – spread in its most virulent form to all parts of our society and therein taken root. Our only hope is to find it wherever it is rooted and attack it with progressively more damaging treatments. Cancer isn’t cured without risk, pain, suffering, and costs. Our greed will be even more difficult to cure.

Let us be clear: this disease is not someone else’s. It has infected every single one of us. Some have it worse than others, but we are all infected. It has been spread through every popular channel: the media, our schools, our churches, our parents, and our friends. It is so much a part of our government that it would seem the only way to separate greed and politics would be total amputation. Unfortunately, no such choice exists. Greed is central to our economy and is the core “ethic” of our business world. Without greed our nation will collapse.

Thus, we cannot simply remove it or negate it; we must replace it. In order to do that we must fully understand what it is and how it works. We must know how we “caught” it, how it spreads, and it’s mechanism for survival. We cannot and will not survive this disease unless we become aggressive, determined, and persistent. Our best weapon in fighting greed is knowledge, but knowledge alone is not enough. We must care enough to will our nation back to life. This will be difficult since one of the major symptoms of greed is the lack of caring about anything other than one’s self.

There is a need for a broader understanding of greed. Greed is the selfish and excessive desire to achieve happiness through acquisition or possession of unneeded things, power, or wealth. A primary offshoot of greed is avarice – covetousness leading to hoarding, betrayal for gain, and theft. But greed encompasses much more. In psychological terms, greed is the corruption of ethics that arises when we expect to experience more pleasure from acquiring an object of desire than from behaving ethically: the expected reward will be greater than the guilt we anticipate. From this it is apparent how dangerous it can be for a society to minimize ethics.

In the balance (or battle?) between greed and ethics we have favored greed without consciously choosing to do so. Indeed, if we were to ask people which they think is more desirable almost everyone would say ethics. But when it comes to choosing and acting we almost always favor greed. There is a simple inescapable conclusion: we have lost our ethics.

To avoid confusion, we should briefly discuss ethics and clarify what is meant by the term. “Ethics” are morals applied to circumstance, usually in the form of rules or guidelines. It is the explicit reflective science of duty and goodness whereby society determines how it will distinguish between right and wrong conduct through establishment of rules, principles, and practices intended to direct will towards morality.

The tension between greed and ethics is clear: no rational or objective system could hold that the selfish and excessive acquisition of things or power is ethical. The psychology of greed begins with a lack of ethics and ethics are based upon circumstance. If we create or foster circumstances where ethics are lacking, greed will always prevail. There are two pillars of greed:

In American culture our ethics have become diffused, diluted, and distorted. We began with a stout ethical system that evolved with our growth, but as our society has become increasing diverse and complex, our ethics have devolved. Criminals are given prestige, wealth, power, and even TV shows. Some are elected to high office. Even if our ethics would condemn the rewarding of criminals, the fact that we routinely permit such takes away the impetus to act ethically.

Equally damaging is our general failure to hold elected officials, the wealthy, or those with power accountable for misdeeds, failures and crimes. Nothing could demonstrate this better than the recent bout of bonuses given to executives who led their companies into failure. Equally telling was the fact that many of them and their associates felt that payment of those bonuses was “fair”.

We have Senators and Congressmen taking millions and millions of dollars in bribes from health care and financial industries (and their cronies) while making decisions that directly benefit those companies – and that’s accepted as normal and ethical. We have “journalists” who take kick-backs and bribes from industries so that they will report about them favorably. Doctors take bribes from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe their medicines. Business leaders routinely steal from their companies who steal from their customers. Our judicial system is overrun with frivolous and ungrounded lawsuits encouraged by lawyers who cheat their clients and their opponents. Fewer and fewer professions can claim any real “ethical standards” other than those printed on plaques to be purchased by their members merely for “show”.

Our personal and social ethics have suffered as well. As workers, we expect more for doing less. As employers, we lack any sense of loyalty to our workers. As parents we abandon our children at rates that should shock us – and when we stick around to raise our children we wonder where they get their values. Our media is so dominated by decadence, violence, and bad examples that we should rate most of it as “X” – or simply turn it off. Instead, it is increasingly profitable and influential. Our schools now rarely  function as places of inspiration and motivation. Instead they struggle to keep control and manage a positive outcome. And our churches… well I’ll let them define their own issues and failures[1].

America is in decline, locked in a downhill spiral of ethical decline that leads to greater and greater greed. Our greed transcends the obvious and the ordinary. Our copious consumption (beyond our needs) has depleted precious resources and polluted the environment. We have squandered our national wealth and produced a debt that our children may never be able to re-pay. If they manage to recover from our excesses, it will happen because they manage to restore or re-create the ethical foundation that we have lost. How difficult it is to look into the eyes of today’s youth and see a realistic expectation of a better future. How difficult it may be for them to forgive us when they are old enough to understand our foolishness and greed.

It will be far more difficult to save America than it was to destroy it. Sure, America remains a strong and vibrant nation full of good people who love their country. But far too many of them are merely riding the wave created by their parents and grandparents. Far too many have fallen prey to the same greed and avarice that started the decline. And far too many of the greediest have entrenched themselves in positions of power to permit quick or easy solutions.

How easy it is to say that the solution is obvious and simple – that all we need to do is to restore the ethics of the past. Even if that was possible, it wouldn’t work. Our ethics must evolve as our society grows and changes. The values and beliefs of the past will simply not work in this world. Of course, we cannot and should not try to start from scratch. Many of the ethical principles from our past remain viable and necessary. Some are readily adjusted to newer circumstances. But many need to be created, tested, and adjusted to work in this new world. For example, we need a new environmental ethic that we can share with our children and with all the children of the world. It should be obvious that our ethics about abortion and end-of life need clarification.

For thousands of years we have discussed and studied ethics. For over a century we have known about the evolutionary ethic[2] and its applications[3]. Indeed, John David Garcia explained that human directed evolution of ethics is the only rational alternative to our extinction[4]. However, we treat ethics as some side issue that only matters in academic discussions. We don’t teach about in our schools, we don’t care about in our media, and we don’t practice it in our homes. This failure will result in the death of our country and eventually the extinction of our species.

We are unquestionably at a “tipping point” in our history. Our nation’s leadership in the world has not been based upon our military strength, our financial power, or our “democratic principles”. Those attributes were built and based upon our ethics as a nation and as those decline, so will we. Our vision for our future must no longer be based upon the results of evolved ethics[5], but upon the advancement of our ethics. Without ethics as a focus and priority, greed will prevail and our decline will continue.

[1] And if they won’t, consider the billions – yes, billions – of dollars that the Catholic Church has spent to settle claims stemming from the unethical (or criminal) behavior of their leaders.

[2] Thomas Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics” 1893

[3] See John David Garcia, various works available free at http://www.see.org/garcia/pubs.htm

[4] See “The Moral Society: A Rational Alternative to Death” and “Creative Transformation” by John

[5] Our “policies” are a result of our ethics; so we will fail to create workable environmental policy, energy policy, foreign policy, economic policy, educational policy, or any other policy unless we develop better ethics.




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