Dacher Keltner
Psychologist, UC Berkeley

Dacher Keltner Discusses the State of Morality in America

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The Berkeley professor charts the moral decline of a nation.

Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner is a social psychologist who focuses on the prosocial emotions, such as love, sympathy and gratitude, and processes such as teasing and flirtation that enhance bonds. He has conducted empirical studies in three areas of inquiry. A first looks at the determinant and effects of power, hierarchy and social class. A second in concerned with the morality of everyday life, and how we negotiate moral truths in teasing, gossip, and other reputational matters. A third and primary focus in on the biological and evolutionary basis of the benevolent affects, including compassion, awe, love, gratitude, and laughter and modesty. Professor Keltner is Co-Director of The Greater Good Science Center and the author of Born to Be Good.


Question: What indicates a moral decline in the United States?

Keltner:    I’d put my finger on 3 that really reveal at this broad level the decline of our, not only are the moral standing of our culture elsewhere but also the just the social fabric of our culture.  One, UNICEF’s study 2004 rank the social well-being of children in 21 industrialized nations, and this is in terms of their happiness and their health and their connection with friends and physical health, and we ranked 20th out of 21, and so if cultures are judged by how they take care of vulnerable individuals, we are not fairing well.  A second is the literature on trust.  Trust is this amazing glue of social bonds, facilitated by oxytocin, vagus nerve, regions of the nervous system we study and the degree to which American citizens trust each other has dropped precipitously in 15 years.  Now, this is pre-Obama and I’d suspect there’s been a boost, a significant boost, and third, all the data on where our culture stands in the eyes of other cultures is unequivocal and we have dropped, we plummeted as a nation to respect in the past 8 or 10 years.  So, those are pretty strong indicators of where we are.

Question: Is our moral decline connected to a loss of religious life?

Keltner:    I see spiritual tradition and spiritual organizations as derivative of something more basic that we’ve lost which is what people like Confucius and other and what you see in streams of Buddhism have really cultivated which is an everyday set of intuitions and ethics that build up strong communities and these are things like, you know, just the rudiments of respect toward others, being affectionate, you know, we’ve talked about it today, being complimentary, sacrificing yourself for others, those are all things that evolution has designed us to do and regrettably when I look at those indicators of our poor cultural health, I put my finger on the decline of emotions like gratitude and compassion and reverence in our culture.

Question: Are anti-depressive drugs a sign of our moral slide?

Keltner:    As an empiricist and as a scientist, I’d want to see the data and I know that a lot of the [end-things] I-do-drugs work and so you have to take, have faith in that, and you also have to know, you know, the prevalence of the depressions and the anxieties in our culture today, and in many cultures and how powerful those conditions are.  You want things that can mitigate those symptoms in the short term, so my take on the rise of those particular drugs is that we have to meet these cultural anxieties in some fashion but again, you know, by the way, I problematize that, you know.  It gets too easy.  We start medicating kids with young nervous systems, with untested drugs.  That’s bad news and that I worry about and if my daughters, one of my daughters had a real kind, a deep source of anxiety or a depression or early depression, I’ll do everything that’s possible before turning to drugs.  I think they’re symptoms of, you know, the isolated age we live in and there are easier ways to return to a deeper sense of connection.