Last month Britain was shocked by a wave of looting sprees across the country, starting in London and spreading around our other major cities. For three nights shops were broken into, properties were set ablaze, and innocent citizens were terrorised.
The events have prompted a rash of new policy ideas, and theories abound on what’s broken and how we fix it. Most prominent among those ideas is David Cameron’s belief that the country is undergoing a moral collapse.
“Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?” he asks. “Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences.”
I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m not sure that’s how morality works. There’s always someone barking about moral decline, as this article from the economist shows, juxtaposing quotes about the recent riots with those from decades past.
“Over the past twenty years or so, there has been a revulsion from authority and discipline” is one quote from the Brixton riots of 1981. “There has been a permissive revolution… and now we all reap the whirlwind.”
There are moral absolutes, however unfashionable it is to say so. Around those however, is a more fluid public conscience of cultural norms and expectations. The moral high ground is on the move, and at any one time certain aspects will be in decline, and other in the ascendancy.
For example, there’s little doubt that we live in a more selfish society. Isolated in our consumerist, competitive individualism, backstabbing is acceptable and even celebrated in plenty of TV programmes. Our sexual ethics are on the move, again part of a consumer culture that values the personal right to choose above all else. We want to keep our options open, and relationships are looser, more fragile and conditional, our families weaker.
At the same time, awareness of our global humanity is growing, and most people feel at least a certain degree of responsibility towards others in distant parts of the world that would have been unimaginable in the past. The last three decades has seen the emergence of environmentalism, with a distinctly moral edge. Most people would agree that the exploitation of the earth is wrong, a laughable sentiment in the age of industrialisation.
Our tolerances are changing. Young generations are less racist, more comfortable with differences of gender and sexual preference. The words we consider rude change – our grandparents object to swearing, and we bristle at their ethnic prejudices.
Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour changes all the time. Nobody uses the expression ‘one for the road’ any more – drinking and driving is reprehensible. Stealing music on the internet though, that appears to be unquestioned by millions. Plenty of people appear genuinely surprised when a record label pushes through a conviction every once in a while.
Some things appear to be cyclical. When I first moved to Britain I was shocked at how relaxed people were about drinking, with excessive drinking commonplace, regardless of age. It didn’t used to be like that, apparently, in recent decades. Go back a little further, and you find that drunkenness is a British tradition – see the gin palaces. Speaking of which, the same is true of sex. We may be more permissive now than we
were during most of the 20th century, but there was a time when one in five women in London was a prostitute.
So perhaps morality is more of a moving target than it might initially appear. Things decline and are corrected by new laws, public awareness campaigns, spiritual revival, or grassroots movements like the temperance movement or rational recreation. A traumatic event can change a culture, as the First World War did, closing the door on religion for many a scarred soldier. 9/11 was another, suddenly justifying things like torture rendition or wars of aggression that would not have been contemplated before.
At any given moment, some cultural norms and expectations are waning and others are emerging. I don’t think we’re necessarily in a complete moral decline, although I wish David Cameron well in trying to redress some aspects of our public morality that have slid too far.