Is America's moral fabric disintegrating? The popular answer is ``Yes.'' Given the levels of poverty and crime among the nation's ``have-nots'' -- and of self-indulgence and petty dishonesty among the ``haves'' -- the problem would seem to be serious. ``The lack of a moral belief system,'' wrote sociologist Daniel Bell in the mid-'70s, ``is the cultural contradiction of the society, the deepest challenge to its survival.''
Why should the nation now find itself in such anguish over its values? Some blame science and technology, or the inertia of bureaucracies, or excessive materialism, or apocalyptic fatalism. Others see the challenge to morality as a side effect of some otherwise positive developments: the increasing equality of women, a deemphasis on child-rearing, the shift toward an information society.
Whatever the cause, the challenge is popularly seen as having intensified suddenly during the last two decades. Now comes an instructively different assessment. In a compact and thoughtful book published last month (``Challenges to American Values: Society, Business, and Religion''), social historian Thomas C. Cochran takes the long view.
``The `crisis' of the 1970s and 1980s,'' he writes, ``is not something sudden and revolutionary. Rather, it represents an accelerated increase of problems that in less obvious forms have challenged Americans for more than a century.''
To build his thesis, Professor Cochran starts by examining the values of the early colonists. In marked distinction from their European ancestors, they possessed, he says, a keen sense of individual initiative and responsibility. They revered such ideas as self-determination, private rights, material success, belief in an immanent God, and had a strong preference for physical activity over intellectual contemplation.
In part, these were frontier values, required by a people whose lives were highly migratory and who regularly had to make and leave friends and communities. In part, too, they were engendered by what Cochran calls a ``topless Colonial society'' in which many of the best positions -- in the military, the government, and the church -- were reserved for the British. For the colonists, he writes, ``the roads to prestige were essentially in land, including urban real estate, or trade.'' That fact, he says, accounts for another enduring American set of values: respect for businessmen and lack of regard for those with government careers.
Late in the 19th century, however, these underlying values began to be challenged in several key ways:
A sprawling, railroad-building nation began developing huge public and private bureaucracies, where new values -- such as conformity and a desire to please one's superiors -- ran counter to the ingrained American values of individuality and equality.
Science, especially the psychological studies of William James and Sigmund Freud, questioned the objectivity of reason, so that gradually, says Cochran, ``the older American moral values of abstinence, frugality, and saving were challenged by a wider acceptance of promiscuity, high consumption, and living on credit.''
As the proportion of urban dwellers swelled (from 15 percent of the populace in 1850 to 40 percent by 1900), it became clear that urban poverty was not simply sin made manifest. Some form of social welfare was necessary -- however much that went against the American grain of self-reliance and independence.
Religion, which on the frontier seemed to emphasize its social function above its spiritual purpose, began to lose its authority. By the end of the Civil War, Cochran writes, ``the American standard of living began its century or more of rivaling Christian doctrine as the ultimate sanction for any course of action.''
All in all, a fascinating analysis. It makes clear the fact that the nation's moral fabric is not suddenly being shredded by some new eruption of forces. It's being challenged by a clash between different sets of values. On one hand are those that are traditional, inherited, and explainable by history. On the other are those, newly evolved, that arise out of shifts in our institutions, environments, and habits.
A helpful analysis? Yes, indeed -- although Cochran sets forth no solutions. But his comments suggest that America's moral lassitude cannot be cured simply by moving backward to a fabled golden age of probity. Many of the frontier values are well lost: restlessness, waste of resources, distrust of intellectual activity, suspicion of the arts. Some of the new ones -- scientific questioning, conformity for the sake of cooperative progress -- are well won.
And some of the enduring American values -- generosity, respect for women, an open sense of friendship -- never disappeared. They are still there to build upon. The real challenge, then, would seem to be to keep moving ahead, to keep working to forge a set of values that combines the best of the traditional with the finest of the forward-looking. A Monday column -- 30 --