Manners and Morals

Manners and Morals

Democracy and Values

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I brought up the questions of democracy and freedom in my previous blog. As some of the comments pointed out, however, bringing democracy and freedom to any situation is not easy. You can discuss that on so many levels.

I’ll just talk about a simple aspect of “democracy”: freedom from tyranny and the rights of individuals to equal opportunity. It is certainly the right of children to develop with freedom from the dictates and oppression of higher authority. They have the right to be who they are and develop their abilities and interests. And to develop freely there needs to be equal opportunity for everyone. Every child must receive the same access to the means of healthy and stimulating development. I think we all agree on this (or at least pretend to agree on it!). All children should live in societies where they are granted rights and opportunities.

No one can claim that there exists a society in which equality and justice prevail absolutely. But I think it would be safe to say that historically speaking, compared to centuries ago, children enjoy more rights and opportunities now. I’d say this relative improvement is not just limited to the “free” countries of the West. It’s somewhat global.

In Iran I’ve often heard the older generation quip: “When we were young we were supposed to ‘respect the elders.’ Now that we’re old and it’s our time get respect we’re supposed to ‘respect the children.’ What a raw deal…!”

I think it is also safe to say that there has been slow progress toward democracy pretty much globally. Rigged and corrup as a lot of elections in many parts of the world are, for instance, still you can’t deny that making voting a commonplace demand of people is still better than nothing. I’d consider that progress!

So here we are, more democracy and freedom for everybody. But I think we would be kidding ourselves to think that just because more people have their rights protected now and there is more equal opportunity than in the past that we necessarily live in better societies. I think what improves a society is the choices people make in what they do with their freedom and opportunity.

Years ago I taught college in the Bronx, New York. My students, in their late teens and early twenties, were already complaining about the younger generation. “These kids coming up now,” they would say, “are all thinking they will become millioners before they’re thirty.” My students, so young themselves, often talked about how shocked they were at the materialism of the “younger generation.” “Money is the only thing they value,” they’d say.

Values. That’s just what determines what people do with their freedom and opportunity.

According to my students the younger kids saw their greater opportunity in life as the chance to become millioners before the age of thirty. I won’t talk about how misguided and in fact delusional those kids were. The real problem, as both my students and I saw it, was the younger kids’ inability to come up with any other thing to do with improved opportunity than make lots of money.

So if the individual, living in a democratic society, has all the rights and opportunities required for making lots of money – does that improve society?

Unfortunately that’s exactly what a great many politicians want us to believe. Remember “ownership society”? It was supposed to be the culmination of the dreams and aspirations of the Founding Fathers. It was quite cynical and dishonest, really. It’s enough to remember that it was the sub-prime mortgage that was being sold through the ownership-society talk. And in fact the present economic decline is very much tied to the usury and thievery of banks through their “sub-prime” lending to gullible individuals.

I bring up this example to make the point that the right and opportunity to make lots of money – whether on the small level of the individual or the huge level of banks – is not enough to ensure a society worth living in – or safe to live in.

We’ve got to have other values at work in a society than the worship of money. Our freedom and opportunity must be applied to other endeavors in life than the accumulation of wealth. In fact, it seems that as more and more people have greater freedom and opportunity in the world the more important it is that those rights be guided by sound values.

Imagine a world in which everyone has the right and opportunity to do what they want and all they want to do is make lots of money. It would be even a more dog-eat-dog world than the one we live in already. I think it would be an entire waste of rights and opportunities, a mockery of freedom and democracy. So the more freedom and democracy spreads, the more we need to talk about values.

And the question most relevant to this site is, What values must we transmit to our children that are worthy of the rights and opportunities they enjoy?


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