Does decency have a future? Or are values on the way out?

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The Independent Culture
WE ARE disposed towards pessimism, a feeling that we should prepare for the worst even if experience tells us that it does not always happen. In terms of morality most of us suspect that we are headed for some sort of collapse in the next century, an ethical chaos inaugurated by the magic roundness of the year 2000. So the first thing to be said when we consider the ethics and ethical questions of the future is that it ain't necessarily so. Our capacity for good and bad will not change overnight, and the old alliance between custom, dogma and law that guides most human conduct is not suddenly going to dissolve.

But there are things that will change and that will place enormous strains on the ethical apparatus that we have inherited for FROM? the liberal thought of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is as if we were preparing to string up the Wright Brothers' first flying-machine in a wind tunnel designed to test supersonic jets. It is difficult to predict where the stress fractures will occur, but with the pace of change there are bound to be some.

Take the genome project, the great endeavour to map all human genes, which will be one of our most important legacies to the next century. The benefit of being able to identify, and thus avoid, genes that pass on cancer or schizophrenia will be accompanied by unnerving choices about the lives of people who have not yet lived. Should we be able to extinguish the possibility of a life, which, however imperfect or curtailed or blighted , is none the less a life, a unique and still magnificent consciousness? Such decisions seem likely to be faced by individuals alone, well before any body of law is formed to guide them, and we will expect these pioneers to rely on their consciences to make choices which are right. But what is good and what is bad in these circumstances is very hard to determine. How can a scientist weigh the potential anguish and bliss of a schizophrenic's existence? The answer is that he can't: he is simply not equipped to assess the quality of a life which does not exist. Yet he will be required to make these calculations. [COULD CUT WHOLE OF THIS LAST PARA?]

Gene research will provide us with daunting choices - choices which have never been conceived of before and which were certainly not in the minds of the ethical thinkers of the past. We are already beginning to experience something of this bewilderment with medical advances today. By the next century the pace of discovery in medicine will easily outstrip our ability to finance general availability of expensive new treatments. How will we decide who lives longest and who lives best? Will the £1m cancer treatment be given to the child who has yet to live her life, or the father who has a family to support? And who will benefit from the research being conducted in California into ways of slowing down the process of ageing?

One of the compelling developments of the past 30 years has been the triumph of individualism - we have liberated our sex lives, challenged the restraints on individual gratification and flown in the face of all the rules which were once accepted without a murmur. It has been an extreme conclusion of Byron's romantic rebellion, in which self-expression and passion counted far more than the conventions of a society. How long a society can contain this is anyone's guess, but we seem to have done quite well so far, even though the institutions of most liberal democracies are under serious attack.

Beside this development has been the tendency in most branches of 20th- century philosophy to explode the old verities. We can no longer rely on the givens of history, language, logic, morality and religious belief. The systems which seemed so certain at the beginning of the century have all been picked apart, cleverly shown to be based on false assumptions or to contain internal contradictions. The process was taken to the limit by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who both delighted in demonstrating that no text could have a single certain meaning, and that the most revered literature, history and philosophy could be interpreted any way you wanted. It is the ultimate liberation, but one which is vertiginous in its implications, because both thinkers dare humanity to join them a world without fixed meanings.[cut 2nd 1/2 of this sentence?]

Thls environment is not conducive to moral thinking, which by its nature requires codification, a set of injunctions about human conduct which have a more or less universally accepted meaning. Clearly, if you can demonstrate the subtle contradictions of a rule, then the rule has little value and people are unlikely to follow it. So it will be fascinating to see what sort of ethical equipment we take into the next century and whether there will be an attempt by traditonalists to revert to old ethical systems, or to invent new ones that will somehow be protected against the corrosive forces of deconstruction.

Traditionalists, by which I probably mean conservatives, feel that this is an important battleground for the 21st century. They believe that we are indeed heading for a moral collapse where duty and a sense of community will be overwhelmed by individualism. They point to a new generatlon growing up in Western societies which is worryingly free of moral standards. It is not that the kids are bad, it is just that they have no sense of right or wrong and that their intellectual capacity for considering such things has been impaired by the babble of modern culture and emphasis on self-expression.

Ethical questions have always been difficult to separate from political thinking, because the way people conduct themselves affects governments, and vice versa. TICK What we will see in the 21st century is a threat to liberal democracy by the authoritarian models emerging in such countries as Singapore, where there is much economic but very little personal freedom. The only way of resisting this movement will be for the old alliance of custom, dogma nd law to resist challenges to its authority at the same time as adapting to the rapid changes of the next century. We must believe that a liberal democracy can also be a moral society. That is why the study of ethics is so important.


n In 1968, 1.6 million people regularly attended Anglican? churches. In 1992, 1.2 million did.

n In 1955, 83 per cent of adults said that they had attended Sunday School as children. In 1989, 14 per cent of under-15s attended Sunday School.

n 30 years ago, seven out of 10 people in Britain thought that a gentleman's word is his bond. Today only two out of 10 think so.

n One man in 20 and one woman in 50 admit to having committed adultery in the past year.

n 67 per cent of the population have given money to charity in 1995. In 1994 - before the National Lottery - the figure was 81 per cent.

n The average Briton gives £2.50 a month to charity.

n 12 per cent of British adults attend religious services (other than weddings, funerals, etc) at least once a week; 22 per cent never do so.

n 8.3 million British adults define themselves as active members of some religous denomination, compared with 9.6 million in 1970.


n Teach your children the values you believe in. If you don't, there is no guarantee that anyone else will.

n Learn from the past. Ours won't be the first society to have experienced apparent social disintegration. Consider how values have survived and revived through other periods of godlessness and cynicism.

n Don't despair. Moral panic usually makes things worse.

n If you're concerned about ethical standards, try to improve your own before worrying about other people's.

n Remember that democracy is the worst possible form of government, apart from all the others.