Saturday, 11 June 2016

What Happened to our Morals

What Happened to Our Morals?

There is a line in the film Sabrina where someone says of the multi-milli0naire: “He thinks morals are painted on walls and scruples are Russian currency”

Now this attitude is not just the province of the likes of the men and women who tipped us into the GFC, but have permeated our whole society. Personal morals, and the sort overarching moral scruples that can make company directors, executives, union officials and “ordinary” workers say something like: “This may be clever, it may be legal but it is immoral: I will not do it!” is rarer than diamonds.

A friend recently posted on facebook a speech by someone I had never heard of before: Rabbi Lord Sacks as he was accepting the Templeton Prize. Sachs was, far more eloquently than me, predicting the fall of the West if we did not change. One of the essential changes was to recreate a personal morality. The whole speech is brilliant and can be found on

Let me give you some excerpts: (emphases mine)
... we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian but it is this: A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.
That is what Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with licence, the freedom to do what we want. ... It’s what Washington meant when he said, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” And Benjamin Franklin when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And Jefferson when he said, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”
At some point the West abandoned this belief. When I went to Cambridge in the late 60s, the philosophy course was then called Moral Sciences, meaning that just like the natural sciences, morality was objective, real, part of the external world. I soon discovered, though, that almost no one believed this anymore. Morality was no more than the expression of emotion, or subjective feeling, or private intuition, or autonomous choice. It was, within limits, whatever I chose it to be. In fact there was nothing left to study but the meaning of words. To me this seemed less like civilisation than the breakdown of a civilisation.”

He then said he finally worked out what had happened in society. Morality had been “outsourced”.

a) Moral choices were outsourced to the market; good was what gave us what we wanted now, bad was what frustrated our desires.

b) The consequences of our moral choices were outsourced to the State.
As for the consequences of our choices, these were outsourced to the state. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes: failed relationships, neglected children, depressive illness, wasted lives. But the government would deal with it. Forget about marriage as a sacred bond between husband and wife. Forget about the need of children for a loving and secure human environment. Forget about the need for communities to give us support in times of need. Welfare was outsourced to the state.”

c) Internalised “right and wrong” externalised:
As for conscience, that once played so large a part in the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics”.

These changes, says Sacks, seemed to work for a while – even a generation or so – but their failure was inevitable, and their failure brought on the following problem (among other problems!):

When you do, (delegate moral responsibility) you raise expectations that cannot be met. And when, inevitably, they are not met, society becomes freighted with disappointment, anger, fear, resentment and blame. People start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far left seeks a utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace. These are all fantasies, and pursuing them will endanger the very foundations of freedom. Yet we have seen, even in mainstream British and American politics, forms of ugliness and irrationality I never thought I would see in my lifetime. We have seen on university campuses in Britain and America the abandonment of academic freedom in the name of the right not to be offended by being confronted by views with which I disagree.”

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.”

I think this calls us to action! To find out what motivations and attitudes made our societies great: The Bible, the statesmen and moral thinkers whose works have survived the test of time. These are the ideals we need to re-introduce.

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