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Why Old Ethics Matter to the Future

Mal Fletcher
Posted 11 June 2013
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Hardly a week goes by in which we don't learn of some new psychological condition.

Consult almost any Sunday newspaper and you'll read about some previously unrecognised malady of the mind which needs attention or cure.

The American Psychiatristric Association publishes a regularly updated manual which is used worldwide as a key guide for diagnosing disorders. More than a few of the most recent additions can be attributed to our reliance upon new technologies.

Alongside recognised disorders we seem to be developing a growing list of unofficial pseudo-conditions. In the spirit of this often maddening yet ubiquitous trend, I venture to suggest the introduction into mainstream thought of a malady called historophobia.

The term already has a somewhat limited meaning and recognition within tight academic circles, but I'd like to broaden its application to mean the fear of all things traditional.

How often do we hear in public debates words like these: "His/her views belong to the 1950s. They have no place in today's world"?

There is usually little reason to object when this type of argument is used in discussions about political or administrative procedures. Late last year, for example, Deputy PM Nick Clegg defended his plans for flexible parental leave, saying that current rules "may have made sense in the 1950s but do not today".

More and more, however, this line of argument - if it warrants that label - is being applied to debates about social morality. Here it deserves to be more carefully scrutinised.

Whenever lobbyists and others opt for this approach, they are calling upon an assumption within postmodern society which is so common that it is often accepted as self-evident truth.

The supposition is that almost all moral notions held before a relatively recent point in history must be taken with a huge grain of salt. More than likely, their longevity means that they shouldn't be take seriously.

To this way of thinking, "traditional" has become, at least in terms of social policy, another word for anachronistic.

Yet in terms of moral questions, traditional views need not be either irrelevant or outdated - or for that matter unkind, judgemental or uncaring.

Indeed, in an age in which change sometimes seems ready to overwhelm us, it can be argued that we need to refer more, not less, to proven moral systems. We need to reference things that don't change if we're to negotiate and add value to the tsunami of change that's going on around us.

There are a multitude of examples available which illustrate this point. Throughout much of the world, experts continue to search for answers to the current malaise that is stifling many market-driven economies.

Ethicists such as Harvard University's Michael Sandel are calling for societies to rethink their entire approach to the market. They advocate a return to a more moral rather than purely pragmatic outlook.

The market may serve us, Sandel argues, but it must not be allowed to define us. Some things in life are devalued when we attach a monetary price to them. Only a vigorous debate about ethics - which is, after all, applied morality - can keep us from losing sight of this.

A similar debate is opening up within education. This week, the Sunday Times reported on a study among head teachers in English state schools. Fully one third believe that schools are failing to develop moral standards in their students.

One quarter say that schools are not establishing values in their students and 40 percent believe that schools are not developing "the whole child". Head teachers specifically cited the decline in religious assemblies and sporting activities as reasons for the latter.

This week, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) called upon British politicians to renew their commitment to the family and fatherhood. According to its most recent report, there are now a record three million children living in lone parent households.

About one million children in the UK have almost no meaningful contact with their fathers and family breakdown costs nearly £50 billion per year. On top of that, of course, there is the much more important cost to children, who are more likely to suffer from a range of social and psychological problems.

The pressures on families today are arguably deeper and more widespread than they were in the 1950s. Yet relatively few would argue that we might not benefit from a return to some of its put-the-children-first values.

Indeed, without saying it in so many words, the CSJ appears to be doing just that - as are newspaper editors. Today's Times editorial calls for a return to an appreciation of the extended family, where mums and dads are surrounded by committed relations and so are "more likely to withstand social shocks".

Meanwhile, our society is trying to come to grips with the horrific situation of girls who are groomed for sexual slavery from a young age. At the same time, the shocking murder of five-year-old April Jones, motivated as it was by sexual deviancy fed online, highlights the growing problem of child porn on the internet.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called upon Google and similar search engine companies to block all pornographic material that features children. Nobody accuses Mr Cameron of having values and views that hark back to the 1950s, for most people recognise that in this instance holding to those values might be a very good thing.

There is no doubt the children were abused in the 1950s - and before. Often, in a culture that was then either more inclined to disbelieve children or to sweep such problems under the carpet, the offences went unreported.

Yet there is no evidence that either child pornography or child sex slavery occurred then at anywhere near the level they have reached today.

The emerging debate about the PRISM project in the US - which tracks emails and phone calls of citizens - and its likely impact within the UK also raises questions about ethics.

Facing all of these and a host of other social challenges, we are reminded that no society can survive without reference to some system of established, traditional and proven morality.

All societies have at their heart certain shared beliefs about what is right and proper in terms of human behaviour.  Some of these beliefs are so long held that they become an unconscious part of the cultural heritage.

Healthy societies recognise, celebrate and hold onto proven moral systems. Their respect for these values is passed on to emerging generations, who build on the present a platform for the future.

In our time, we've become enamoured with novelty. This is partly due to our growing engagement with the world of communications technology, a world in which constant upgrading is the order of the day. The quest to own the latest, fastest and most beautiful gadgets has taught us to replace old things just because they're old.

We replace last year's model with whatever is sparkly and straight-out-of-the-box-new this season. We do this in spite of the fact that the older model may have features its more recent counterparts do not.

Gradually, our approach to technology becomes our approach to morality. We become so enamoured with the next big thing that we lose sight of the value of holding onto anything that was not invented in the past year or so.

Surely, a new moral code must be superior to a traditional one? Don't talk to us about moral systems that have worked for generations, or even millennia; we want something fresh and custom made just for us.

Sometimes, of course, the collective consciousness needs to change as we recognise and begin to grapple with injustices in our midst.

Yet the most constructive changes come not when we ignore or neglect traditional morality, but when we align, or realign, society's established mores with a higher - and sometimes older - form of morality.

This has been the rallying cry of many of history's most celebrated social activists, who've reshaped their world for good.

Where trade involving slave labour was once considered acceptable practice in British business, a normal part of corporate culture, activists led by William Wilberforce called Parliament and the wider culture to answer to Christian morality.

In their worldview, core moral precepts should be set not according to the changing whims of public opinion, but in alignment with the almost self-evident, yet easily compromised, verities of a moral universe which reflect the character of its Creator.

The same basic worldview was regularly and vigorously cited by American civil rights activists. The most famous of them called upon the nation not only to "live up to the promise of its creed" but to move toward "the Promised Land" of racial justice and equality under God.

Even the semantics of their demands for change borrowed heavily from the long-held traditions of applied religion and its role in shaping morality.

Of course, Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jnr. both acknowledged that religious texts had been used to justify the very evils they were fighting against.

Yet they also saw with prophetic clarity how these texts had been de-contextualized, twisted and misinterpreted - sometimes by sections of the institutional church - to serve powerful sectional interests and lobbies within society. (The push to "deconstruct" old ideas is no new thing.)

These and hosts of other archetypal historical activists did not call their societies forward into some "new morality". On the contrary, they rejected outright the idea of there being any next step on a ladder of moral evolution.

Their call was for a return to already established and proven mandates, which they believed would last because they reflected the immutable purposes of God.

They were adamant that social moral systems worked for the common good and the betterment of society only when they served that higher moral purpose.

Likewise, Mother Teresa became a powerful symbol for the defence of human rights; yet she steadfastly refused to be known as a human rights campaigner. She loved to remind journalists and presidents alike that she saw in the poor an opportunity to serve Christ and his cause.

Her adopted nation had over centuries developed a moral culture, informed by religion, in which the poor and wretched were not only abandoned to their fate, but were seen to be deserving of it.

In her own quiet but fiercely determined way, Mother Teresa called the prevailing morality to yield before a higher standard, which she believed was exemplified in the example and teaching of Christ.

There are, of course, great examples of social reform from outside the religious fold.

Ghandhi, the preeminent lead of Indian nationalism, first came to public notice in South Africa, as a lawyer who fought for the civic rights of Hindus and Muslims alike.

In his later role as an agitator for change in his homeland, he rejected politics based upon religion - in part because of abuses under the British regime - and sought to represent all religious groups equally.

Through his practice of strategic non-violence he led India to independence and inspired civil rights movements worldwide. His morality could not be described as "new" in any meaningful sense. He demanded that Britain recognise the transcendent human values it had historically espoused.

Nelson Mandela is another prime example. His self-sacrificing commitment to an oppressed people brought world attention to their cause.

Whilst in prison, Mandela was heavily influenced by the non-violent approach of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He gradually renounced the use of violence as a primary means for change. (In showing personal forgiveness, he also admitted to being influenced by the preaching of Billy Graham.)

Instead, whilst still in prison, Mandela began to hone his considerable political skills and personal charm as agents for change. These, along with his remarkable personal story and the sacrificial work of fellow activists, enabled him not only to lead his people out of institutional oppression, but to fashion the seeds of a truly rainbow nation.

In this he was ably supported by passionate clerics like Bishop Tutu.

These heroic activists for human rights did not challenge social ills in the name of some ill-defined and unproven "new" morality.

They demanded a return to an even more primordial sense of right and wrong, which precedes the modern state. Their call was for a more not less traditional moral system.

They saw injustice not as a sign that moral evolution must occur, but that long-forgotten and sometimes universal moral standards must be re-applied within recalcitrant societies.

Obviously, the fact that something is traditional makes it neither necessarily right nor helpful. But what we seem to be moving toward is a tendency, perhaps because it suits sectional interests, to abandon all traditional morality out of hand, simple because it has been around a long while.

Sometimes the fact that something has a long pedigree, especially within freedom-loving societies, might be seen as evidence that it works and is worth preserving.

What’s your view?

Do traditional moral systems still have any relevance today?



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