A Matter of Perspective

Tokugawa ReligionMembers of our group house entered into a discussion recently about a possible decline in morality and social discipline in various Asian societies as a result of modernization. The consensus was that those societies are corrupted by the influence from our advanced economic and social order.

Reviewing different Asian countries such as Japan and China, many maintained that moral corruption was the rule when modern social forms emerge. Capitalist commerce, trade and modern communications, it is argued, drain virtue from a people. So a modern national of Singapore or Japan is less moral and less disciplined than one of his or her forebears.

This judgment seems to have its source in observing images of modern entertainment industry and the accumulation of different forms of wealth in those societies. It is extended to ideas concerning a loss of family structure and traditional values.
Observing modern Japan, the sociologist Robert Bellah, who wrote the basic study of religion in early modern Japan, stated that Japan is undergoing a decline in traditional morality as a result of contact with modern economic forms, urban life and growth of cultural options.

In the introduction to his classic study, Tokugawa Religion, he remarks that modern changes in the circumstances of life such as the loss of the traditional Japanese house with garden and collective living space, the removal from the village and its pattern of festivals will undermine particular Japanese virtues of loyalty, commitment, and social harmony.

Yet what we find with recent studies of contemporary Japan of the last two decades is a remarkable continuity of ethical life, family structure and general morality despite remarkable growth in corporations, city life and modern forms of life. Even if the economic circumstances of life change, the underlying structure of Japanese society does not seem to change so easily. Modernity has often been called a dissolver of traditional values, but the core of character formation derived from these values has remained largely intact in Japan. So the fears of a precipitous moral decline seem to have been exaggerated.  The Quest for Mind  

One approach to understanding morality and changes in social life that may apply here is represented by the ideas of the school of structuralism that include Piaget and Levi-Strauss. Structuralism is an approach to interpreting culture that seeks to map out the underlying structure of culture, viewing social institutions, ideas about the world and cultural forms in a set of ordered relations almost in the form of algebraic equations. These underlying structures remain operative under the many different social circumstances brought about by social change and modernity.

To discuss moral decline while ignoring the deep cultural structures of society is to deal only with superficial factors. The cry of loss of traditional values and dismay over that loss is a very old human notion. One can find it in Cicero, who lamented the change in traditional values and cultural norms in later Republican Rome. His cry, ” O Tempora  O mores” sounding the alarm that morals were at risk, was a somewhat exaggerated response to social changes that he didn’t comprehend. He was partly right about the loss of traditional virtues of Rome. However, possession of those virtues would not have saved the Roman Republic that was undergoing stress and strains of changes in economics, strains of empire and shift in family structures that were larger than issues of personal virtue.

The cry was carried down the centuries by many, from political philosophers such as John Adams to the disgruntled elderly of every generation. Many of our reactions to modernity in international affairs are similarly superficial. We react to symptoms, not real underlying changes. Pictures of dance clubs in China or corporate headquarters in Japan deceive us. We must also keep in mind the underlying structures of Asian cultures that include their moral core that persists over time and change. Dangers to morality from social and economic change of modernity are much exaggerated.

Our view of the world would be a great deal more clear-eyed if we could separate changes in other societies from the growth of the modern economy and modern entertainment from issues of social ethics. Indeed, new forms of social thought such as structuralism, outlined very effectively by Howard Gardner in his well-known book The Quest for Mind, lift a burden from our lives by relieving us of the tendency to engage in moral judgments on other societies or for that matter on our own.

If we can examine the changes in those societies objectively, then the issue of the moral state of societies such as those in East Asia becomes more a matter of looking at their core virtues. Japan has great traditions of loyalty, service and gratitude that are to be admired. These virtues are now expressed in the new context of the social system of the corporation and modern politics. Understanding those changes in other countries allow us to find the core of our own ideas of morality in a way that deals with the effect of recent changes in society fairly. We can more easily abstain from looking at this issue through the distorting lens of nostalgia, cynical denunciation or apocalyptic condemnation. This gives us the inner freedom to try to evolve a new way of being moral in the modern world, what many contemporary thinkers call the emergence of “global ethic.” That ethics is still a matter of speculation but openness to such a possibility seems to be an advantage in a rapidly changing world.