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The Theory of Moral Ecology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Although scholars use the term moral ecology and commentators frequently employ environmental analogies in depicting the cultural milieu, the profound implications of such formulations remain unexplored. This article provides the first systematic analysis of the theory of moral ecology as a philosophical, empirical, and practical construct. It applies environmental thought, particularly insights from the “tragedy of the commons,” to the moral and cultural realm. It suggests that the concept of moral ecology is a compelling depiction of genuine human dynamics. Corroboration flows from the way the theory of moral ecology synthesizes a vast empirical literature on media violence, family decline, and gambling into a parsimonious nomological formulation.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1998

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25. The National Commission, 1969, concluded that national violence rates rise after a violent newscast or program.

26. The teen school killers of 1996–1998 were all obsessed with violent pop culture and apparently patterned their behavior on such movies as “Natural Born Killers” and “The Basketball Diaries,” violent videos such as “Mortal Kombat,” and the violent lyrics of “gangsta rap.” See Timothy Egan, “From Adolescent Angst,” and Pearson, Mike, “The Price American Society is Paying for Violent Films,” The Washington Times, National Weekly Edition, 20–26 April 1998, p. 36.Google Scholar

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29. George Gerbner may have been the first to use the term, but others have found the Mean World Syndrome a useful model, including Murray, “Children and Television Violence,” and the large research team for Mediascope, which described it as “increased feelings of victimization.”

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31. The District Attorney of Oklahoma County, Bob Macy, cited a dramatic reduction of reported rapes when the city cracked down on the previously thriving sex industry, including porn shops. Interview with author, 1995.

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34. See Promises to Keep, ed. Popenoe, David, Elshtain, Jean Bethke, and Blankenhorn, David (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996),Google Scholar and Bennett, William, Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 1993)Google Scholar on evidence for serious decline; and for the opposing position see Stacey, Judith, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’: A Response to David Popenoe,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 55 (08 1993),CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kain, Edward, The Myth of Family Decline: Understanding Families in a World of Rapid Social Change (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990).Google Scholar

35. Consider births out–of–wedlock. Those who see disturbing trends cite figures from National Center for Health Statistics, which reported that 32% of all U.S. births in 1996 were out–of–wedlock. Those who are less troubled note that only 8% of children were living with an unwed mother, according to the 1996–97 Statistical Abstract of the United States. Both figures can be correct because the latter averages new births with the extant population and excludes children born out–of–wedlock whose custodians ultimately marry, or who live with their father, grandparents, or others.

36. Popenoe, in “American Family in Decline.”

37. Arland Thornton, “Comparative and Historical Perspectives on Marriage, Divorce, and Family Life” in Promises to Keep.

38. Lawrence Stone is author of Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660–1857 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).Google Scholar The quote is from a syndicated column by Parker, Kathleen, “Parents Leave Void in Kids' Lives,” The Daily Oklahoman, 1997.Google Scholar For the alternative view that family changes have been more gradual over time see Mintz, Steven and Kellogg, Susan, Domestic Revolutions: A Social history of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988). Though Mintz and Kellogg argue that the family stability of the 1950s was exceptional, their conclusion that families in the future will be “small and fragile” (p. 237) tends to substantiate the concerns of others.Google Scholar

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41. Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Miles To Go: A Personal History of Social Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). In chapter 3 Moynihan draws upon empirical studies of the adverse impact of out–of–wedlock births to coin his celebrated term “defining deviancy down.”Google Scholar

42. The National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, in “Teenage Births in the United States: National and State Trends, 1990–1996” (30 April 1998), reports that between 1991 and 1996 teen birth rates declined nationally and among all subgroups. Yet since most of the decline was among married teens, this did not result in a corresponding decline in the rate of out–of–wedlock births. A much publicized later report on declining birth rates among single African American women similarly found no effect on the proportion of births out–of–wedlock. Thus, even apparently successful efforts to increase contraceptive use or sexual abstinence have not reestablished the marital norm. See Holmes, Steven A., “Black Birthrate for Single Women is at 40–Year Low,” The New York Times, 1 July 1998, p. 1.Google Scholar

43. Though scholars are somewhat divided, lowering legal barriers apparently did contribute to increased divorce rates. Paul A. Nakonezny, Robert D. Shull, and Joseph Lee Rodgers find that no–fault divorce laws had a “significant positive effect on the divorce rate.” See The Effect of No–Fault Divorce Law on the Divorce Rate Across the 50 States and its Relation to Income, Education, and Religiosity,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57 (05 1995): 477–88.CrossRefGoogle ScholarGlenn, Norval D., however, contests the data in “A Reconsideration of the Effect of No–Fault Divorce on Divorce Rates,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (11 1997): 10231030;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Nakonezny, et al. contest his analysis in “The Effect of No–Fault Divorce Legislation on Divorce Rates: A Response to a Reconsideration,” 10261030.Google Scholar

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49. In Michigan, State Representative Dalman argued that people “must begin to see the connection between divorce and other problems,” such as poverty and juvenile delinquency. Johnson, Dirk, “No–Fault Divorce Is Under Attack,” The New York Times, 8 February 1996, A8.Google Scholar The Louisiana Legislature approved a law providing for a “covenant marriage” option, which is viewed as a cunning way to make couples think anew about the marriage commitment. Sack, Kevin, “Louisiana Approves Measure to Tighten Marriage Bonds,” The New York Times, 24 June 1997, p. 1.Google Scholar

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71. The idea of social capital as a positive externality is made by Putnam, Robert in “The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life,” The American Prospect 13 (Spring 1993): 3442.Google Scholar

72. King et al., in Designing Social Inquiry, suggest that social science research should seek to derive as many observable implications of a theory as possible.

73. On children see Louv, Richard, Childhood's Future (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990);Google ScholarBlankenhom, David et al. , eds., Rebuilding the Nest (Milwaukee: Family Service America, 1990);Google ScholarFuchs, Victor R. and Reklis, Diane M., “America's Children: Economic Perspectives and Policy Options,” Science, 3 (01 1992): 4146;CrossRefGoogle ScholarCarnegie Commission Report, Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992);Google Scholar and National Commission on Children, Rockefeller, Senator Jay, Chair, , Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991).Google Scholar The quote is from Ernest Boyer, commenting on the findings of the Carnegie report. See Boyer, Ernest, “America has Orphaned Its Young,” Los Angeles Times, 8 12 1991, M5. While noting economic forces, these reports also cite the family and moral environment.Google Scholar

74. Applebome, Peter, “Children Score Low in Adults' Esteem, a Study Finds,” The New York Times, 26 June 1997, A12.Google Scholar

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76. 1997 Index of Social Health: Monitoring the Social Well–Being of the Nation,” Miringoff, Marc L., Director, Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, Fordham Graduate Center, Tarrytown, New York.Google Scholar

77. James Q. Wilson's ecological analysis of the link between social disorder and crime—the so–called “broken window” thesis—has guided numerous successful community anticrime efforts. See Wilson, James Q.Kelling, George L., “Broken Windows,” Atlantic Monthly 249, no. 3 (03 1982): 2938.Google Scholar

78. Lawrence Dodd, “A Transformational Perspective.”

79. Wilson, William Julius, When Work Disappears (New York: Vintage, 1996).Google Scholar

80. Sandel, Michael, Democracy's Discontents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

81. Michael Novak admonishes corporations to avoid promoting messages that undermine sustaining virtues in Toward a Theology of the Corporation (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1981),Google Scholar but there is little evidence they have heeded his exhortation. In The Fire of Invention (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), Novak suggests that corporations foster civil society by producing wealth, contributing to civic causes, teaching sturdy virtues, and checking the overweening state, but he does not refute evidence that certain corporate patterns can undermine family cohesion and community vitality.Google Scholar

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83. Theodore Lowi exhibits this tendency in The End of the Republican Era (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), chap. 6, in which he envisions “statist” local conservatives enforcing a virtual police state on women.Google Scholar

84. This was how Hardin phrased the remedy in “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

85. See, for example, Berger, Peter L. and Neuhaus, Richard John, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, 2d ed., edited by Novak, Michael (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1996);Google Scholar and Democracy and Mediating Structures: A Theological Inquiry, ed. Novak, Michael (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1980).Google Scholar

86. Anderson, Terry L. and Leal, Donald R., Free Market Environmentalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).Google Scholar

87. As argued by Smith, Fred L. Jr, president, Competitive Enterprise Institute (1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036), a think tank that challenges the command assumptions of environmental policy.Google Scholar

88. In addition to her syndicated radio program, Laura Schlessenger offered her remedy to moral confusion in How Could You Do That?!: The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience (New York: HarperCollins 1997)Google Scholar and The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life, with Vogel, Stewart (New York, HarperCollins, 1998).Google Scholar

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