SOCIAL and intellectual conditions on the brink of the 21st century have evolved in such a way as to force many serious moral thinkers to question whether such elements as civility and respect for individual and minority rights can even survive. A broad range of thinkers now ask: Can moral arguments meet aggressive new modes of money, power, and pressure? Can they face the curious blend of indifference and brutality found after the cold war?
In the United States the old moral consensus characterized in the 1950s by scholar Will Herberg's landmark book ``Protestant, Catholic, Jew'' has been shattered. More diverse voices have been allowed to speak as a result. Yet common ethical standards, agreement about right and wrong, are lacking. Given a demanding world of bottom lines and 57 channels, moral criteria may seem a bygone luxury; some ``just don't want to hear about it.''
Yet the results are already evident in day-to-day life: In the corporate world, downsizing has soured the finer loyalties many employees once felt. The lust for sensation written off some years ago as the high spirits of youth now defines much of popular culture: Watch TV any night. Harper's Magazine recently published a ``debate'' on whether it is acceptable for professors to sleep with their students. Cynicism has become a cultural style; political power is legitimized not by merit but by media ``spin control.''
Violence is at record levels; juvenile gun homicides doubled between 1985 and 1990. At a Memphis church last month President Clinton argued that if Martin Luther King Jr. reappeared, he would say he did not ``live and die ... to see 13-year-old boys get automatic weapons and gun down 9-year-olds just for the kick of it.'' Likewise, across the Atlantic, a genocide in Bosnia is tearing apart Europe's conception of itself as a haven for modern liberal values.
The vacuum is also evident at the highest levels of criticism: Yale professor Stephen Carter's new book, ``The Culture of Disbelief,'' analyzes a secular elite in American law and politics that shuts out and ``trivializes'' evidence of religious faith or spiritual conviction. Even Vaclav Havel, whose writings on truth inspired a revolt against communism, notes, ``We are going through a great departure from God that has no parallel in history.''
As a newspaper founded on Christian moral principles and Biblical insights, the Monitor finds there are more than enough spiritual resources to meet today's challenges. Extraordinary individuals and decent people are found on every hand; more will wake to challenges facing a moral worldview. But an honest appraisal must point out certain larger tendencies in societies that, if unchecked, may define the future in a manner ultimately hostile to basic freedoms.
* Intellectual directions. Sociologist James Q. Wilson argues that the ``moral sense'' scholars used to speak of with confidence needs to be restored. The most popular new underlying philosophy on campus today is a post-modernism that argues there is no way to make moral determinations. It even suggests that the question ``What is good?'' is outmoded. As James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia notes, ``Intellectual standards of right and wrong, of the good society, or of end purposes, telos, are rare. In this post-modernism everything is treated as just a matter of preference. Moral questions are seen as nostalgic; the way to deal with them is to change the subject.''
* International trends. Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes ``the cold war is over but ... the former crisis of the meaning of life and the spiritual vacuum (which during the nuclear decades had been deepened from neglect) stand out all the more.'' Fascism and nationalism are not abstract concepts but powerful intoxicants; they are finding acceptance not only in Eastern Europe, but across wide swaths of the globe. Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade argues that this new era in Europe is not a ``triumph of democracy'' but a chance to expose the West as weak and corrupt. The unimpeded ethnic-cleansing orgy in Bosnia is a direct challenge to the moral view the West holds of itself. Mr. Solzhenitsyn himself, long a nationalist, now says a ``full respect for the precious pluralism of world cultures'' is needed.
* Social fabric. Simplistic as it sounds, do we treat our children as precious? Robert Coles points out that family today is discussed mainly in economic terms or as ``highly politicized matters of gender or family style.'' Ignored are fundamental moral questions: ``How do we learn to hand to another generation the old virtues of civility and thoughtfulness toward others - virtues such as compassion, honor, truthfulness, worship, of ideas and ideals larger than the self?''
Like David against Goliath, moral and spiritual values offer a different kind of power and testify to a higher dimension to life. If the world is to hold more for our children than brute power politics or Malthusian survival, a moral dimension can't become irrelevant or a luxury.
It is the central issue.