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Sunday, 16 September 2007

Dealing with moral panic and why concern with"values' gets us nowhere

Simon Barrow continues to be on target with his commentary on contemporary public debate about morals and values.

I like the following passage from a column that he wrote for the Guardian recently discussing a BBC poll which found that 83% of people in Britain thought that society was experiencing moral decline.

One of the galvanising agents for this used to be religion, something that has clearly shrunk in terms of affiliation and receded as a shaping force in social life in modern Britain. It is interesting, therefore, that while nearly a third of people reject religious purpose as having a constructive role in moral formation, 62% still say it can be a guide for us.

Because "religion", in a plural society, invariably takes many shapes and sizes - a fact that spiritual hardliners and new wave God-bashers alike tend to ignore - it is hard to determine what this actually means, short of a generalised yearning for more "rooted values": things such as a concrete feeling of social obligation to neighbours, personal rather than purely instrumental reason, civility, a sense that freedom requires the cultivation of self-restraint, and the nurturing of traditional commitments (in contrast to "the contract culture").

However it is equally evident that institutional religion (the kind that grew up under Christendom's alliance of church and governing authority) finally failed to deliver such things. By imposing its interests, it took away people's ability to develop a deeper moral sensibility, something that grows out of voluntary mutuality rather than rule-based prescription.

So where from here? The inchoate sense that "something is wrong" soon collapses into a welter of different hypotheses and prescriptions. The clinical psychologist Oliver James terms the problem "affluenza"; John Gray blames too much idealism; Richard Dawkins points accusingly at a tide of irrationalism and residual superstition; Zealous Christians and Muslims believe their way is the only one; and politicians of all parties fail to persuade many of us that they hold the managerial key to a better life in a post-ideological environment.

In these circumstances, trying to reach some theoretical "moral consensus" is increasingly unpromising, and talk of "shared values" rapidly becomes vacuous. What creates commonality is not an idea of "community", which we are then expected to inhabit, but concrete and realisable deeds that point in the directions we want to go. We act, therefore we are.

So, in the face of violence, we need more people willing to experiment with non-violence and take risks for peace. Confronted with selfishness, we need those who can cultivate new possibilities of sharing. To combat xenophobia, we need gestures of hospitality. Instead of waste, we need more people willing to conserve. Where bitterness disables us, we need forgiveness, and so on.

I'm not suggesting that such voluntary "alternative" behaviour diminishes the need for large-scale structural action to combat the gross moral affronts of poverty, war, terror, environmental destruction, sexual abuse, and so on; rather, that a culture of civic action creates the climate for pressing collective responsibility."

This is a passage that could usefully be thought about by leaders from the conservative wings of the Christian church before opening thei mouths in public on the issue of perceived moral decline. Much of their commentary around this topic betrays a wistfulness for a Christendom approach and top down solutions.

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