Moving from Theory to Practice

Lesson 1: Topic 7 of 19

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Ethical systems and moral values vary widely, and frequently change. Case in point, ours is a debt-based, global economy, but it’s been so only for the last several decades, ever since Richard Nixon decoupled the US Dollar from the gold standard. Prior to this, debt was almost universally viewed as bad, to be avoided as much as possible. Laws against charging interest on loans – called usury – were widespread in early American history, and in Europe prior to that. Usury is now defined as charging excess (or “predatory”) interest rates, but during the Middle Ages (and still in Islam to this day), usury meant charging any interest at all. We note that banks are generally exempt from anti-usury laws, further complicating things. But the point here is that debt and usury both used to be considered immoral, unethical, and sometimes criminal by the vast majority of peoples in multiple societies. But now numerous investors, think tanks, and policy experts repeatedly remind us that debt is good. Indebtedness hasn’t changed, just societal attitude toward it has.

Here are a few more small examples of how American ethical standards have evolved over time:

  • The 8th Amendment to the Constitution, added in 1792, outlawed “cruel and unusual punishment.” From the very beginning of the American Colonial period up until that Amendment was passed, and for decades afterward, placing people in stocks, public flogging, and even execution for the crimes of witchcraft and homsexuality were neither unusual, nor were they considered ‘cruel.’ But those punishments definitely are seen as excessive and morally inappropriate now.
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  • Public schools were established in America in the mid-19th Century. From their inception, they began each school day with public prayer and Scripture reading, but 100 years later two rulings (Engel v Vitale and Abbington School District v Schempp) put a stop to that. Support for prayer and Bible reading in public schools has been plunging ever since; almost a third of Americans now say it is wrong. 

  • US Presidents from Lincoln to Eisenhower made a practice of inscribing personal notes in the flyleaves of Bibles and handing them out to troops deploying for battle. In 2013, things had changed so much that seven senior military officials, including four generals, were reprimanded for unethical behavior – specifically, for discussing their religious beliefs with guests at the Pentagon while in uniform.