Age of virtue: New books hold out the hope of a kinder, juster society

Boyd Tonkin samples the New Compassion – and discovers that it gives us a surprisingly easy ride
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The Independent Culture

I have heard the emotional mood-music of Britain in spring 2009. It croaks, but in the nicest possible way. When Bob Dylan gave the Co-op his approval for "Blo-win' in the Wind" to rasp away behind the TV ad that flogs not a single product but the blessed mutual itself, he lent an old tune to new times.

Warmed-over Sixties idealism joins heart-on-sleeve benevolence to soothe recovering – or redundant – high-spenders as they adjust to austerity. The age of bling feels an aeon away. Buy-to-let mortgages? Weekend breaks abroad among the servile poor? Consumer capitalism itself? It wasn't us, officer – you must be looking for some else. Goodwin's the name, we think.

Cometh the hour, cometh the books. When a shower of titles descends on the same patch of national consciousness, it looks as if publishers have exercised the dark arts of commissioning with singular foresight. If only. Since works of any weight take time, the sudden arrival of a shelf-full of homilies and treatises that offer to guide us into a wiser, kinder world cannot be written off as a knee-jerk response to crisis.

With uncanny consistency, social moralists such as Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett (The Spirit Level), Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (On Kindness) and Peter Singer (The Life You Can Save) are chanting from the same non-sectarian hymn-sheet. Some focus on government action to reduce inequality as a boon for all; others on the private as well as public benefits of taking care and doing good. All share and spread the belief that acquisitive egotism, and the chasms and conflicts that result, not only breaks communities but makes misery for rich and poor.

The New Compassion (to slap on a glib label) assumes that we are hard-wired for co-operation and mutual aid, and that we suffer if economics or ideology shoehorns us into an unnatural selfishness. The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, £20) tallies a vast network of statistical studies from 23 developed nations to argue that "more equal societies almost always do better" for every citizen. Equality helps the affluent as well as indigent because our "species thrives on friendship and enjoys co-operation and trust". Just at the moment when Darwin's intellectual aftermath has come under anniversary scrutiny, a tide of warm-hearted but hard-headed prose scorns the legacy of "Social Darwinism". In On Kindness (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), Phillips and Taylor are kind about most sources they cite – from Hobbes to Freud. But even their forbearance runs out when it comes to Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene" theory, and his belief that heroic acts of altruism have to overcome innate selfishness: "The speciousness of Dawkins's diagnosis ... is matched by the absurdity of this solution". Disbelievers in natural kindness can expect no mercy here.

This tide began to flow before the current downturn struck our shores. At the height of the New Labour debt-and-property boom, psychologist Oliver James found an eager audience for his philippics against consumer greed, Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist. Around the same time, Lord Richard Layard of the LSE led a pack of "happiness" peddlers who enlisted social research to demonstrate that, for personal and collective well-being, more will usually mean worse. That cohort of anti-materialists agrees with the present batch in proposing that enough is as good as a feast. All the new moralists could take as a motto the lines from Euripides' Electra that begins The Spirit Level: "Once a man be done with hunger, rich and poor are all as one".

With the heads of an entire society throbbing in post-boom hangover hell, how can social thinkers sell the virtues of restraint and reciprocity? By and large, they re-package duty as desire. Being good – in personal and/or political action – will make us happy; happier, indeed, than the pursuit of private ends. At the heart of The Spirit Level lies the claim – backed up by the evidence from dozens of investigations - that "living in a more equal place benefited everybody, not just the poor". Apart from the social savings of reducing crime, addiction, and mental or physical illness to the levels in relatively equal Sweden or Japan (two of the book's regular touchstones for the good society), it maintains that "Almost everyone ... would prefer to live in a safer and more friendly society".

As they link our capacity for selflessness with sexual desire, Phillips and Taylor treat kindness as a type of libidinous force that the modern mania for self-reliance and egotism will tend to repress. "Kindness ... not sexuality, not violence not money – has become our forbidden pleasure". Much of The Life You Can Save (Picador, £14.99) by leading "green" philosopher and ethical campaigner Peter Singer busies itself with the practicalities of private giving to help alleviate world poverty and prevent avoidable deaths. But he takes time to recommend the delights – and the health gains – of regular donation, quoting the Buddha: "Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy."

The comic relief in this chorus of compassion comes from former heavy-metal writer Seb Hunter. In his How to be a Better Person (Atlantic, £12.99), he reports in slapstick but far from cynical style on his escapades from two years of volunteering for good causes. Hunter concludes that "giving really is receiving", and likens his dive into unpaid work free of the profit motive to "breaking through clouds into blue sky".

We learn that altruism delivers a warm glow that no costly mind-altering substances could ever match. None of this benevolent bunch has much time for traditional post-Victorian do-gooding, with its chilly connotations of hair-shirt self-denial yoked to head-shaking disapproval of the feckless poor. "Kindness allied to power degenerates easily into moralistic bullying", as Phillips and Taylor argue as they survey the origins of the welfare state. Perhaps inevitably, moral and social virtue is now marketed to the shop-till-you-drop generation as a natural high.

So the hole at the heart of this new virtue comes to look like the idea of sacrifice. True, Wilkinson and Pickett's policy prescriptions for shrinking inequality do imply steeper taxes and lower personal consumption. But the dividends in contentment and security, they think, would be princely.

In asking "How far does our obligation to the poor go?" and then giving answers that raise the bar high, only Peter Singer really breaks with the everybody-wins mentality that seems to drive the New Compassion. Yet even Singer, whose book abounds with case-studies of hard-core philanthropy such as the "50 per cent league" who pledge half their income, fights shy of arguing for gifts that really hurt. In spite of his contempt for luxury yachts or Italian old masters as trophies of opulence, Singer with his "realistic approach" never truly demands that anyone suffer much to meet the needs of strangers.

In sum, the new apostles of altruism offer us a pretty cushy ride. Wilkinson and Pickett's "Spirit Level" society might feature fewer designer brands and overseas jaunts, but a companionable Utopia of safer streets, friendlier neighbours, unstressed jobs and longer lives would keep us happily at home. The quasi-erotic kindness of Taylor and Phillips promises the thrill of forging new affections and connections. As for the likeable and unpretentious Seb Hunter, he has innocent fun at the Oxfam shop, the homeless drop-in centre and the hospital radio. Even the potentially severe Peter Singer closes with a memory of the New York campaigner Henry Spira, a friend who – nearing death – said that "basically one wants to feel that one's life has amounted to more than just consuming products and generating garbage".

It looks as if the post-crunch advocates of social virtue seek to switch the points of self-gratification from a negative to a positive track. Fair enough: how many honest readers, seeking the good life at a lower cost, would want a self-harming solution? Complex societies have been shaken by the eruption of a cult of sacrifice in times of trouble. The craving for mass suicide exposed across Europe as war broke out in 1914 reminds us that modern citizens may suddenly yearn to throw it all away. If the new routes to a caring, sharing community hide a secret selfishness, that might prove to be our salvation. Rather the woozy wail of Bob's harmonica than the drums of collective hate.