Archbishop strides into moral maze

The New Commandments
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The Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered a stern warning on the state of the nation's private and public morality. Speaking in the House of Lords yesterday, he appealed for a return to the bedrock of the Ten Commandments and their "rich moral legacy".

Dr George Carey's latest moral campaign, which began with an interview in the Independent last month, has attracted widespread attention.

Yesterday, however, he demonstrated the difficulties of preaching certainty to a fast-changing world. When asked on Radio 4's Today programme about the royal family and adultery, he equivocated. Pressed with the question "People say, shouldn't the Archbishop say that adultery is wrong?" he replied, with what sounded distinctly like a touch of moral relativism, "I do not want to go into that."

The Archbishop's equivocation suggested that he, too, is following more than the Ten Commandments - among the more liberal rules used by modern Britain, ''thou shalt not be too judgemental of others'' is an important one. Today's church speaks little of hellfire and is more at ease with the gentler doctrines of forgiveness and turning the other cheek.

Even so, the Archbishop's words may touch a national chord. A Gallup poll published yesterday offers a snapshot of collective moral anxiety. Three-quarters of the population believe that too much moral choice is left to individuals, and that society is less moral than it was 50 years ago.

What this poll could not reveal, but social historians have shown time and again, is that it is a part of the natural human condition to imagine we are in a perpetual moral decline. Each generation tends to believe that children are worse than their parents. The myth of some golden age 50 years or so ago, when society was much better, has always been with us.

Yet a recent survey found that most people could remember only four of the Ten Commandments. We may still live by many of the fundamentals of the Judaeo- Christian tradition, but other modern values clash with the old world of the Bible.

In particular, the Enlightenment introduced ideas that struck at the very heart of the biblical world of fixed moral certainties, attacking the moral universe of the dark ages - feudal, deferential, superstitious. The language of rights and democracy sits uncomfortably with ancient beliefs in the virtue of obedience.

Tolerance and understanding are modern, post-Enlightenment virtues that jar with Old Testament moral damnation. So does the idea of an inalienable right to pursue happiness - a word notably missing from the Ten Commandments.

Some of our new commandments are born of modern moral history. Nuremberg showed the danger of following national orders. After Freud other aspects of the old morality came crashing down. Honouring your father and mother has been replaced by a duty to cherish the child above all else, thereby focusing less on duty than on self-fulfilment: selfishness is no longer unequivocally bad.

Freud made simple blame more difficult, for once we understood the catastrophic effect of a damaged childhood, it took the edge off good, old-fashioned responsibility for sin.

The causes of wickedness became clouded by psychology. These days, the sins of the child are often, rightly, blamed upon the father.

Greed - covetousness - condemned in the commandments, became the business ethic of the Eighties, renamed as the virtue of "enterprise".

So what are the modern moral precepts, the guy-ropes of public and private behaviour that sustain us in our search for certainties? Independent writers have collected some that seem to resonate as wise statements of our common beliefs, in a post-religious world.

"All men are created equal" - Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" - Jesus Christ

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" - Edmund Burke

"No man is an Island ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind" - John Donne

"The ballot is stronger than the bullet" -Abraham Lincoln

"Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" - John Fitzgerald Kennedy

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it" - Martin Luther King

"The world has enough to meet everyone's need; not everyone's greed" - Mahatma Gandhi

"A degree of austerity is not only desirable but essential" - Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life

"To thine own self be true" - William Shakespeare

"Forgiveness is the key to action and freedom" - Hannah Arendt

"Always let your conscience be your guide" - Jiminy Cricket

Carey's crusade, pages 4-5