The Virtue of Decency

DONALD DEMARCO

In the 1937 film Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable shocked a nation of moviegoers when he said to Vivien Leigh, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a dam.”

In retrospect, the shock is particularly difficult to fathom because the word “dam” (not “damn”) refers to a printer’s measure, hence to something of little worth.

In 1940, Bertrand Russell’s appointment to teach philosophy at the City College of New York was revoked because of his views on sexuality. One magazine epitomized the broad public outrage against the appointment when it described Lord Russell as “a desiccated, divorced, and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity.”

While we can take some measure of pride today for being more tolerant and less prissy, we have reason to wonder whether we have become so jaded that nothing at all shocks us any longer. Hugh Hefner and others have dedicated their careers to convincing their public that lust has nothing to do with shame. After Madonna and Howard Stern, adult videos and escort services, royal and presidential scandals, is there anything left that has the power to provoke in us a sense of moral outrage?

Miami virtue?

William Bennett’s recent book, The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, sounds an alarm to awaken people to the dangers of becoming morally numb. For too many people, sexual shenanigans that should shock people are systematically transposed into entertainment fare. What was once morally outrageous is now merely good copy. It is “Miami Vice” we want to watch, not “Miami Virtue.” And many seem to live according to the maxim that vice is nice, but virtue can hurt you.

Washington, DC’s mayor, Marion Barry, was photographed smoking crack cocaine. After his release from prison, he was promptly reelected. His drug habits were more cool than shocking, more amusing than outrageous.

Woody Allen’s 1989 movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, is about how to hire a hit man to “take out” a nagging mistress without ruffling your conscience or compromising your social status. Taking a woman out once referred to showing her a good time. Times have certainly changed. The deeper question is: “Has moral man changed in the process?”

Uncommon decency NCOMMON DECENCY

To a significant degree, virtue has now acquired a bad name. For the young, it seems to be the opposite of having fun. For older people, it appears to be a symbol of lost values that politicians exploit for partisan advantage. For young and old alike, it seems to be a set of arbitrary values that one benighted generation tries to impose on the next.

Do we have an innate moral sense that can never be eradicated? Or can we become so desensitized that nothing can ever shock or offend our moral sensibilities? Is common decency a fundamental virtue? Or is it merely a passing product of social conditioning that fades into oblivion as culture becomes more “enlightened”?

Candle in the wind

James Q. Wilson, who teaches at UCLA, believes that one of the greatest needs of our time is to get back in touch with our moral sense. He closes his book, The Moral Sense, with these words:

“Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon of light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed, and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.”

It is difficult to read this passage and not think of “Candle in the Wind,” Elton John’s moving tribute to Lady Diana. While it may very well be that the world’s reaction to the tragic ending of Diana’s life was oversentimentalized, there is a deeper truth that may give us hope. Human life is fragile and transitory. Like a candle, it is so easily extinguishable. The “winds” that threaten life are brutal and irrational. So too can power and passion, greed, and ideology be brutal and irrational. We are outraged when we see this taking place. The public outpouring of grief and affection over Lady Diana’s passing assures us that we do have an operative moral sense. We are moved, and powerfully so, when we witness the unfairness of irrational forces snuffing out a beautiful life. We do not cheer for the hurricane.

Tolerable outrage

Our moral sense, including our sense of decency, is still intact, though it is at times obscured by the accumulated debris of layer upon layer of tabloid-type entertainment. We must revitalize our capacity for moral outrage without becoming unduly intolerant, while enjoying forms of entertainment that do not make us jaded.

Decency is still a virtue. It is the ability to recognize and rejoice in things that are delightful and wholesome. It is also the capacity to be shocked when confronted with anything that is truly shocking. It is the sense of what is proper behavior and what are suitable standards for personal and artistic expression.

Leglislating virtue

Though decency is at least regulated by law, it should be most strictly ob served by men. Traditionally, people have believed that the vast majority of human beings could be relied upon to be decent enough to behave decently. Legal regulation was assumed to be more unnecessary than unwise — the law, of course, being a poor substitute for virtuous behavior. And thus it should be. Decent behavior should be inspired not by law, but by our own sense of decency.

The commonest way in which our sense of decency is assaulted in the contemporary climate is through vile language. But there is never a season for vile language to be generally acceptable. The words of a 17th-century poet, W.D. Roscommon, still apply:

Immodest words admit of no defense,
For want of decency is want of sense.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Decency.” Lay Witness (June 1999).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.

THE AUTHOR

Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 LayWitness


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