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Moral Rot, part 4: the survey

Defined a few terms, presented the general argument and examined one of the premises. Time to step back a little and see what others are saying about Moral Rot.

There isn't much, at least academically. Moral rot is mostly a political concept. Discussing degradation of any kind is a great way to score a few points in a debate. Our task, however, is not to win a debate, but rather to understand an idea. And there appears to be something way more interesting about moral rot besides the practical political value.

Let's just dive in!

A quick note before we look at these statements. The goal is to qualify the meaning and extension of the moral rot concept. While each statement is a commentary criticising the current US administration, the political content is irrelevant in this context. I am happy to include comments concerning moral rot from the other side of the political spectrum, so please leave links in the comments, and I'll amend the post to include them as they help shape the general idea of moral rot.

Now, let's dive in.

What eats at America — and so its place in the world — is moral rot: unrelenting blight that emanates from on high.

Roger Cohen, NYT, 2018, full article

This idea relies on the authority of leadership. Our leaders guide our moral direction. So, when we see things going wrong, we must look to the wrongs or the rot of our leaders, clear out that rot, and replace it with strong, Good leadership. Whether this is a fair characterisation of the dynamics of leadership is up in the air, but the idea that the moral direction of a nation or a person relies on the the seat of agency is certainly a powerful point of view.

Third, we can now see climate denial as part of a broader moral rot. Donald Trump isn’t an aberration, he’s the culmination of where his party has been going for years. You could say that Trumpism is just the application of the depravity of climate denial to every aspect of politics. And there’s no end to the depravity in sight.

Paul Krugman , NYT, 2018, full article

Krugman has the opposite view of leadership: our leaders are representations - not authors of - the moral character of the nation. In this way, the bad bacteria rises to power and eats away at the Good because of the weakness of the group. This not only scores points in the debate - removing the authority from an authoritarian could be an effective way to poke the bear - but also relays the probabilistic nature of moral rot. It is isn't necessary that we allow bad leaders into power, but the likelihood that we get one increases as we allow the moral character of the group to degrade over time.

That is sick, and now Trump is the commander in chief and the sickness is deep inside our walls, a moral rot infesting the very people who fear the immigrants our President up crime. Harry Siegel, NY Daily News, 2018, full article

This comment reveals something closer to the core of what it means to rot. Any thing that can rot must also have the capacity to rot. A plastic chair won't ever rot, while a plum will rot, and if it's next to an old banana will rot even sooner. In order for an entity to experience moral rot, it must exist under a condition of being able to rot. According to Siegel, there are a group of people with a high propensity to rot, and rather than having spores cleaned out now and then, they are currently laden with new spores accelerating the growth. This idea reveals the entropic dynamic of rotting especially within a thing that should be capable of resisting entropy, or capable of negentropic action.

Something is eating us alive from the inside, S.E. Cupp, CNN, 2019, video

Cupp has been outspoken on the concept of rot, using it as a highly effective and entertaining rhetorical concept in many of her enthralling panel discussions and video editorials. I am at pains to state the problem more clearly. This is the reality of moral rot: as if through quantum tunnelling no matter how many defense mechanisms we support, some nasty pieces will make their way deep, settle, and grow.

And finally, The Bible!!! Here are three translations of the same passage:

Proverbs 28.2

When there is moral rot within a nation, its government topples easily. But wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability.


By the transgression of a land many are its princes, But by a man of understanding and knowledge, so it endures.


When a land transgresses, it has many rulers,

but with a man of understanding and knowledge,

its stability will long continue

The key term is “transgress”. What does it mean to transgress, is there a structure to transgressing, and why does transgression have harmful effects?

First, the harmful effect is that there will be many rulers/leaders. In contemporary democracy, the warning may sound weird. We have MANY rulers, and we swap them out all the time. In a way, proverbs 28.2 could be read as supporting a kind of monarchy, or fascist regime. The contradiction quickly clears up when we replace the idea of a specific leader with a founding concept like “rule of law”. But it also introduces a new problem.

If we are currently in a state of moral rot, then there must be a transgression by our leaders or of the governing principle. Can one cause the other? Does a rotting leader induce rot in the principle? Or does transgressing the principle allow rotting leaders to obtain the seat of power? Does the leader come to power already rotted or does the system corrupt the leadership?

Unfortunately, the answer to each question is: yes. Which means there’s a complex in play. Multiple causes, interacting effects, and feedback loops. We can’t simply dig out the little bits of rot or restructure the system. Instead, we need a way to manage transgression.

“What is transgression” and “how do we manage it” concern the next several posts.

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While moral rot has roots in the Bible and the origins of documented western philosophy, allusions, references and fear mongering inducing the concept are alive and well in mainstream channels today.

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