The world has changed so much that traditionally good things now often show negative consequences, while formerly "bad" things are seen in a much more positive light. For example, it used to be that transforming wilderness into roads, cities and arable land was a sign of progress. Nowadays, there are so few virgin forests left that most people would agree that they should be preserved at all cost. Similarly, in previous times sex outside marriage was viewed as an inherently dangerous phenomenon, responsible for spreading diseases and destabilizing families. Presently, thanks to the use of antibiotics and contraceptives, extramarital sex is seen as rather innocuous, and a matter of personal preferences rather than a danger to society. Recently, the spread of AIDS has made irregular sex dangerous again, but that might change once more with the development of an HIV vaccine.
Scientific and technological innovations continuously create new questions, which the traditional value systems cannot answer. For example, the preservation of human life seems a universal value, valid for all times and ages. Medical science has discovered many ways to keep people alive who would otherwise have died. But when the suffering becomes too great, would it not be better to let the patient quietly die, rather than artificially prolong a miserable life? There are no ready-made answers to such problems.
Many religious people see genetic manipulation of living organisms as evil, since it implies humans playing the role of God. Others see it as merely a more efficient way of doing what people have always done: selectively breeding plants and animals in order to increase farming productivity. The fact is that traditional religious teachings have nothing to say about the issue. None of the great prophets could have foreseen the discovery of DNA splicing. Therefore, you can hardly expect their writings to guide you in the matter.
Most people agree that drugs which create a chemical addiction are evil, since they they tend to destroy individuals and families. Few are aware, however, that new electronic technologies, from virtual reality computer games to direct brain stimulation, have the potential to produce even stronger forms of addiction. Eventually, rules controlling the use of these technologies will have to be established. Again, there is no ethical system that can help us in formulating such rules.
The potential of science and technology to create new ethical issues is infinite. Every new discovery can be used for good or for bad. But how do we decide what is good and what is bad? Postmodern fragmentation has eroded all belief systems: religion, culture, philosophy, even science, have all been reduced to a jumble of bits and pieces without universal value. Different groups advocate different values. In a democratic, multicultural society the prevailing attitude is one of "live and let live": everybody has the right to his or her own opinion, as long as it is not imposed on the rest of the population. But this creates a dangerous situation, where selfish, neurotic, or even criminal behavior can be justified on the basis of idiosyncratic rules. Self-proclaimed "prophets" and preachers commonly start their own churches, with the main intention to extort money from credulous followers. Given the freedom of religion, it is very difficult to control such parasitic organizations. Who is to say whether one religious system is more worthy than another one?
The absence of a shared value system, of a consensus about "dos" and "don'ts", has profound effects on individuals and society. The absence of goals makes that many people lack a sense of direction. They desperately search for meaning, for a mission they could devote their life to. Different religious sects and cults have arisen to cater for that need. But the world views they propose are severely restricted, and often dangerously detached from reality.
Others look at kings, presidents or religious leaders for guidance. But these leaders too have lost their sense of direction. Moreover, because of the rapid changes and growing complexity of society they have much less control over the course of events than people think they have. The result is a general disenchantment with political and religious institutions. It seems that politicians the world over have reached record lows in popularity. People's satisfaction with governments and supranational institutions is universally poor.
In reaction, many turn their back on society and its institutions. The increased permissiveness, resulting from the erosion of traditional "don'ts", has made it easier to experiment with unorthodox activities. Many of those, such as use of soft drugs, computer hacking and hooliganism, take place in a twilight zone, where the border between crime and "normal" behavior has blurred. The climate of nihilism and despair fosters even more radical reactions, like terrorism, drug addiction or suicide. The growing inequality between rich and poor moreover has increased the temptation to make money quickly but illegally, through corruption, tax evasion, theft, or the trafficking of drugs, arms or people. Because of the easier movement of people, information and goods and the increasing complexity of society, law enforcing institutions find it increasingly difficult to control such criminal behavior. It is not surprising then that, after a long period of decrease, crime is again on the rise in many parts of the world.
Often the reaction of society is to try and turn back the clock. Politicians regularly advocate a return to law and order and a re-establishement of traditional family values. In its more extreme form, this conservative backlash can take the form of religious fundamentalism, or of extreme right, xenophobic movements. The problem is that the clock cannot be turned back. There simply is no traditional value system capable to guide a fast moving and complex society like ours. Artificially imposing an outdated morality is likely to make things worse. It would create a growing class of outcasts: individuals, families, organizations or ideas that simply don't fit into the model. The danger is that this may appeal to a public looking for scapegoats: if the problems can be blamed on immigrants, one parent families, pornography or the Internet, no deeper explanations seem to be needed. Yet, the only way to really get a grasp on the problem is to develop a new system of values, adapted to a world of complexity and change.