From David Gauke railing against cash payments for plumbers, to the prime minister criticising Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs, politicians and public figures can’t stop moralising. After decades of self-interest, ethics are suddenly a talking point again
Not so long ago, it seemed that “morality” was a dirty word, or rather a word whose function was to make sex look dirty. Its primary associations were with groups such as the the Moral Majority in America, which seemed obsessed by the horrors of homosexuality, teen sex, unmarried couples and working mothers. In Britain, the archetypal image of a moral crusader was Mary Whitehouse, a Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells for the nation.
Now, however, it seems morality has been taken back from the moralisers and has once again become the high ground from where public figures look to command. On Monday Treasury Minister David Gauke said it was “morally wrong” to pay tradesmen in cash to avoid tax, following in the footsteps of his party’s leader, David Cameron, who called Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance “morally wrong”. Cameron made his remarks having himself been recently tainted by the charge of immorality by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who said it was “not moral” to ignore victims of recent financial disasters “while the rich can go sailing along in their own sweet way”.
Over recent weeks, we have heard the Labour MP Margaret Hodge tell the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that the BBC allowed tax arrangements which were not “morally right” and political activist Peter Tatchell claiming that the International Olympic Committee had “abdicated its moral responsibilities” by not agreeing to a minute’s silence for the 40th anniversary of the murders of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics. We have seen François Hollande set up a cross-party government committee to look into putting more morality into French politics, read Anthony Seldon, Wellington College’s Head, bemoan the lack of a “moral compass” in British public schools, and heard leading American public philosopher Michael Sandel continue to decry the moral limits of markets.
If you had fallen asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, a decade or so ago, all this talk of morality might well strike you as, well, wrong. Inspired by respect for diversity, fear of “cultural imperialism” and a kind of democratic relativism, for some time it was considered arrogant to judge the morality of others. Who are you to say what’s right and wrong? Isn’t that just your opinion?
What has changed is that it has finally been accepted that we can’t function without values. (Indeed, the very project of avoiding moral judgments itself rests on the firm belief that they are wrong.) But the suppression of morality-talk has served another very good purpose: the language itself is being used differently, as if it needed time in retreat in order to purge itself of its puritanical associations. It left the stage muttering about people shagging each other and strode back on later lamenting how the privileged are screwing the masses. Look at how the uses of moral language have been pressed into service in recent weeks and you’ll find that they do not concern mere private behaviour but the point at which individual actions have consequences for wider society. Morality has recovered its political dimension.
So why is this happening now? There are several possible reasons. One is that moral shoulder-shrugging is much easier when times are good. “Each to his own” is an attractive philosophy when you own plenty and fully expect to get even more. Similarly, it’s less distasteful to see people getting filthy rich if you’re getting more comfortable too. But when the economy came crashing down, the scales fell from our eyes and we saw more clearly that society’s spoils are not being fairly shared, and that many of the rich are simply high-rollers gambling with our cash. The only reasonable response to this is a moral one. The only language that is up to the job is moral language.
However, even before the crash, the ground was being prepared for the return of morality. As far back as the 1970s, the sociologist Ronald Inglehart suggested that as material wealth increased and people became more economically secure, their attentions would turn to their non-material needs, such as for autonomy and self-expression. He saw us entering a period of post-consumerist disillusion, where we look for things that are meaningful, not just fun, expensive or fashionable.
Inglehart possibly underestimated the extent to which people would continue to lust after ever more unnecessary consumer goods, and the ingenuity of capitalism to encourage them to do so, but there was clearly some truth in his hypothesis. There is widespread dissatisfaction with rising material prosperity as a goal in itself and a yearning for something more.
Hence the boom years created their own moral unease, a discomfort with our material comfort. Among the “something mores” people looked for were experiences rather than objects, and various vague forms of spirituality. Few were explicitly looking for a greater sense of moral purpose, but once people start looking for the deeper, more serious things in life, eventually they are going to have to grapple with the distinction between what is good and true and what is corrupt and false. At that point, morality enters the picture.
We have also needed to revert to moral ways of talking to do justice to the major global issues facing us. There are many examples of this. Take poverty and disease in the developing world. When I was growing up, the main lens through which to see these issues was charity. Helping others was good, but it was voluntary and individual. But as decades of aid failed to end poverty and eradicate disease, it became increasingly obvious that there were structural issues at work, that debt and trade restrictions were core parts of the problem. There was no other way to describe this than injustice. The morality of global inequality stopped being purely a matter of the individual charitable donor and her conscience and entered public discourse with a political dimension.
Or take the environment. There has always been a moral aspect to green thinking, but for years, in perception at least, it was based around rather nebulous and dubious ideas such as respect for nature as a thing valuable in itself. When people thought of greens they thought of Friends of the Earth, with its suggestion that the object of concern was the big rock we live on, not the people who inhabit it.
Over the past decade or so, however, green politics has been based more on tangible harms to real people, present and future; from the poor who will bear the brunt of rising oceans, to our generation’s children, who may have to cope with food scarcity and a harsher climate. And once again, if you want to articulate what is wrong with all this, only moral language is up to the task.
Much as the return of morality is to be welcomed, it does carry with it certain risks. One is that when governments find themselves unable to control the economy and run public services, they look to present themselves as guardians of other things: if your vote cannot halt economic decline, perhaps you can be persuaded to use it to prevent moral decline instead. It is perhaps no coincidence that the longer the coalition has been in power but apparently incapable of turning the economy around, the more moral rhetoric we have seen coming from it. Much as we might complain that politicians are not just there to increase national wealth, the idea that their main role is to protect our moral virtue might seem even scarier. As the Labour MP Austin Mitchell said about the kind of low-level, cash-in-hand tax avoidance condemned by Gauke: “There would have to be large-scale surveillance to stop it. You can’t control people’s morals like this and it is best not to try.”
This also points to the danger of skewing moral priorities. Mitchell said that Gauke was “unnecessarily moralistic” and focusing on “petty stuff” rather than massive tax avoidance. That does not necessarily mean that Gauke was wrong to say tax evasion is immoral, merely that in a world of much bigger sins, it is not so immoral as to be a major priority. And there is always a risk that governments, or even lobby groups, can create a kind of moral panic about an issue which is not critical, but which diverts our attention away from more serious wrongs. Cynics might think that trying to turn the spotlight on builders and plumbers is using just this kind of tactic to take the heat off financiers and politicians.
The most fundamental problem with morality’s return, however, is that society still lacks a sense of where it comes from and who is qualified to make claims for it. Not coincidentally, the decline of morality in the latter part of the 20th century paralleled the decline of respect for the authority of the church, as we stopped looking up to clerics as moral authorities. Now that we find ourselves compelled to talk about morality again, it does not seem clear to whom we should turn for guidance. Public reaction to recent pronouncements by politicians suggests that we are deeply sceptical about their claims to speak for what is moral. “Can’t quite believe I am reading about a politician saying the words ‘morally wrong’ out loud,” is typical of the online responses to Gauke’s comments. Scientists are sometimes treated as though they are qualified to pronounce on the morality of what they do, but their expertise is not ethical and in any case, there is now as much suspicion of the horrors science and technology might unleash as there is respect for the white lab coat.
One reason why we are not sure about where to find moral wisdom is that there is no clear, shared understanding of what exactly morality is. The idea that it is a set of rules prescribed by an authority, usually religious, has been understandably rejected. What should take its place is the idea that morality concerns the ways in which our social interactions affect the welfare of others. If what I choose to do is not in my own best interests, that may be imprudent but it is not morally wrong. But if what I do makes life worse for others, merely for my own gain or for no good reason at all, that is immoral.
It may sound obvious but, in one important respect, it radically changes how morality has often been understood. Morality becomes essentially social, not personal. And because it is social, that means the only way to deal with it is socially. So we shouldn’t be looking for new moral authorities to replace the church. Rather, we should see public moral issues as requiring a negotiation between all of us. That conversation does not value every voice equally, but for final decisions to stick, they have to reflect a kind of social consensus.
However, if radio phone-ins, online comments and tweets sent to television programmes are anything to go by, we are nowhere near ready and able to raise public discourse to the level required for this. And so the danger is that we will either fall back on the old authorities or allow new moral leaders to emerge who may well base their pronouncements on little more than populist sentiment. Angry mobs are most dangerous when manipulative rabble-rousers make them feel that every drop of their indignation is righteous. We have remembered that a proper sense of morality is essential, but we also need to be mindful that a misguided one can be deadly.