Who's to say what's right and wrong?: John Patten wants morality back in the school curriculum, but is this practical in an age of diverse values? - Dangers of deprivation

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The Independent Online
John Leeson, chairman of the British Humanist Association

THERE'S great concern within the British Humanist Association over both moral problems and economic deprivation. They're very much linked. It's through employment and associations made at work that people derive a lot of meaning for their lives. If there is unemployment, people's self- esteem tends to suffer and we would regard self-esteem as extremely important. We also see the breakdown of local communities as an important factor in reducing respect for people and property. But I would also listen to the argument that people in the Thirties were poorer in absolute terms than most poor people in society today, yet there was less social disruption.

As far as teaching moral behaviour is concerned, the humanist perspective is simple. And that is that people do have an inbuilt moral sense, or an ability to get on with one another, largely through equating the worth of the other with oneself.

We would look at moral education in the same simple sense. If young children are naughty, you don't say: 'You'll be eternally damned if you don't do this, that or the other,' because they just wouldn't know what you were talking about. Not having God in that equation, in that educational context, is simpler. The humanist way of educating is to do with teaching self-respect and self-esteem in order to maximise the role of conscience, together with an awareness of how one must act towards others to give them those same benefits. This reciprocity, the idea that human beings are responsible for themselves and others, is fundamental to the humanist value system.

Part of education for life is to teach people how to live with themselves and each other. But you don't achieve anything worthwhile without the discipline to apply yourself consistently to an objective. Discipline has to be learnt and it has to be taught.