July 13th, 2009

Not as you would expect the Bishop of Barchester, but the usually lucid British Orthodox Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (London Times, June 26):

..what has gone wrong in society as a whole? I believe we have lost our traditional sense of morality…

When it comes to personal behaviour we have now come to believe that there is no right and wrong. Instead, there are choices. The market facilitates those choices. The State handles the consequences, picking up the pieces when they go wrong. …

Concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour have come to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Emotions like guilt, shame, contrition and remorse have been deleted from our vocabulary, for are we not all entitled to self-esteem? The still, small voice of conscience is rarely heard these days. Conscience has been outsourced, delegated away. So, in place of an inner code, we have regulatory authorities.

Is there any actual evidence to justify this stylish wailing? The scandal over expenses in the British House of Commons concerned an institution with exactly 646 members. The financial meltdown was engineered by a handful of clever, greedy idiots in a handful of banks and brokerages. AIG for instance had 116,000 employees in 2008; but the main damage was done by its London derivatives unit, with 377, and the majority of these must have been mere executants not principals. The same surely holds for Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, RBS and Northern Rock. So why isn’t the narrative: a gang of greedy fat cats trash the casino again, rather than: it’s everybody’s fault, woe is me?

Sacks’ claim that “we have now come to believe that there is no right and wrong”, that most people have lost a moral frame of reference, is absurd.

A survey conducted in 2007 (n=2,000) by the conservative cultural warriors at the Culture and Media Institute reports that only 6% of all Americans, and 16% of the despised “progressives”, agree with the situationist notion that “In every situation, people should behave however they feel comfortable and not be tied down by subjective judgments of right and wrong.” The overwhelming majority try to live by a more or less flexible moral code. That’s unsurprising; so did the Nazis. Only stage villains cry with Milton’s Satan “evil, be thou my good”. Sacks doesn’t cite any authorities more recent than the 1960s, but there’s now a big and solid academic literature (see here and here) on values: and, yes, people do have them, even in godless Europe.

Rather than ignoring narrow morality, popular culture seems to me obsessed by it quite as much as the CMI. Consult the agony columns of teenage and women’s magazines; the relationship-driven plots of TV soaps; and confrontational reality TV like the (British) Jeremy Kyle Show, in which delinquent young dads and their two-timing doxies volunteer for comminations at the hands of the very judgmental presenter. What’s changed is that cases are presented as moral dilemmas, with solutions to be thought through, not looked up in a book. Quite right too. That’s what upsets Sacks as much as the CMI: respect for the unvarnished moral authority of parents, rabbis and bishops has gone. The Protestant Reformation’s principle of individual conscience has won, well beyond the bounds of Christianity.

Are people behaving worse than they used to? This is both a straightforwardly empirical question about actions – is there more brutality, dishonesty, adultery, sodomy, idolatry, big-Endianism and whatnot about; and a mixed empirical and ethical one about values – have people’s internal norms changed and if so should we approve of the direction of change.

Culture warriors typically fail to recognise the distinction. The Culture and Media Institute notes that standards of sexual morality on say premarital sex are, in their term, “slipping”, but they don’t adduce any evidence that behaviour has changed. Supposing we should worry with them about premarital sex, the percentage of young Americans who engage in it has actually been stable in the mid 90s for four decades, and the median age of first encounters has only dropped by one year in the same period. The big change has been that values have caught up with reality. Rates of serious violent crime have been going down for a decade. On adultery and dishonesty – still generally disapproved of – who knows? The property bubble showed mass stupidity, not mass dishonesty. The drive for gay marriage suggests that among homosexuals bathhouse promiscuity is on the decline, and proves a remarkable value shift in this subpopulation towards bourgeois respectability. It’s all a bit fragmentary, and as they say “more research is called for”, but certainly not evidence of a massive slide into vice, whatever your frame of reference.

The Culture and Media Institute inveighs against the situationist laxness on teenage sex of the Dear Abby advice column. It is itself very discreet about divorce: for the same reason, that the customers won’t stand for a hard line. I can’t resist pointing out that the current norms of American teenagers on premarital sex, and of their parents on divorce, are closer to practical Islam (counting the ingenious Shia wheeze of temporary marriage) than to Utopian biblical Christianity.


A side-issue is raised by this curious statement of Sacks’:

I do not mean that we are less moral than our grandparents. We care about things they hardly thought about: world poverty, inequality, global warming and the loss of biodiversity. We are more tolerant than they were.

But note this: the things we care about are vast, distant, global, remote. They are problems that require the co-ordinated action of millions, perhaps billions of people. The difference we as individuals can make to any one of them is minimal. That does not mean they are not important: they are. But they are issues of politics, not of morality in the conventional sense.

Huh? Sack’s religion, and through it mine, classically based morality on the Golden Rule. This dissolves Sacks’ utilitarian antinomy between the individual and collective spheres – the believer must act as if her actions made a difference; knowing also that in fact, though the social mechanisms may escape us, example matters and tipping points exist. If we all take our glass to the recycling bin, it’s because a few green freaks started it a few decades back. So do good, noisily, and God may provide.

But the classical Judaism of Leviticus and Hillel developed in a functioning if turbulent polity, not just a community. It was rabbinical Judaism, after the disasters of the revolts against Rome, that of necessity focussed its great mental energies on developing a code of life for a community outside the political life that was permanently barred to it. (You could say the same of Pauline Christianity; but a couple of centuries later, Christianity was strong enough to reenter political thought, as with Augustine, long before it gained the power to persecute.) Sacks’ thinking is steeped in this great but narrow tradition; his dismissal of the moral importance of collective action is still I fear partly stuck in the ghetto.

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