Faith and Reason: Democracy depends on a moral system: Digby Anderson opens a new series on the Loss of Virtue by arguing that the importance given to social order, on which law and policing depend has been subverted and neglected

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN and the US have more than their fair share of crime, collapsed families, urban decay and disaffected 'minorities'.

Whatever other considerable merits capitalism has, the partial and heavily regulated version of it in these two countries clearly does not guarantee social order. Nor do parliamentary democracy, extended mass education and the rule of law which we also enjoy. Even with a sophisticated criminal justice system and a comparably well-funded police force crime in Britain soared in the Eighties.

In fact a moment's thought is sufficient to see that law and policing, far from creating social order, depend on it. The courts and the police could not possibly manage a population in which the majority were criminal. They are able to get on dealing with the still small minority of criminals because most people most of the time are law-abiding.

The majority polices itself with conscience and informal social controls. Parliamentary democracy, law and capitalism itself depend on the moral system. They require workings of trust, honour and service which no number of legal contracts could replace.

Such reasoning would have been conventional throughout the first half of this century. Every sociology textbook then would have had a chapter or a whole section on the moral system giving it similar importance to that accorded the political or economic system. But since the Fifties the importance of that system has been under attack. The assault on virtue - head-on, by subversion and neglect - has all but removed it from intellectual and still more political discourse.

Scan the speeches of politicians, the White Papers and other policy documents and you will find that the old language of the virtues has been censored out with a comprehensiveness which makes the more recent meddlings of political correctness look trivial.

In discussion about schools, juvenile crime or divorce, you will seek in vain for mention and sophisticated use of prudence, fortitude, self-control, honour, duty, service, trust, fidelity, respect, discretion, manliness, providence and civility.

What is policy about today? What are its ends and justifications? It is mostly not about ends at all but means, bureaucratic efficiency, accountability, cost-benefit ratios. All this is suffused with an insipid utilitarianism and vague assertions about the public good. The mixture is then sprinkled with a thin dressing of what passes for morality, the endless repetition of the word 'caring' and hopes that we can 'be positive', 'affirm' each other and anything that moves and indeed 'move forward together'. Mr Major in Britain and Mr Clinton in the United States were elected on just such a mixture. They offered the vision of a gentler, kinder, softer society. The old elaborate, highly differentiated language of the virtues was replaced by values fit only for soap-suds.

Yet, the evidence is as strong as it ever was that social problems are in significant part moral problems. To explain why one low-income family manages to lift itself out of poverty and another on the same income becomes dependent on social security, one has to look at the families' structures: the relationship between voluntary single parenthood, poverty, juvenile crime and educational failure is now well established. One has to look at the families' budgeting, their borrowing habits, the way low incomes are shared and spent as between husband and wife.

Welfare dependency is to do with character, with the way money is spent, with moral decisions as well as the level of state handouts or, as they are euphemistically described in progressive-speak, 'resources'.

Crime, especially such behaviour as the rioting in Newcastle or Los Angeles may indeed be fuelled by disadvantage and urban decay but what stops the majority of youths from rioting has nothing to do with conditions and everything to do with self-control and fortitude. The total crime figures cannot be linked simplistically or exclusively to poverty or lack of 'resources'.

Poverty was far worse in the late 19th century when crime was much lower. Crime figures follow much more closely a quite different social variable and indicator: crime has risen as Sunday School attendance has dropped.

The staggering levels of illiteracy and innumeracy which persist in Britain after 11 years of state schooling may be due in part to the the wrong techniques of instruction - too progressive or too traditional according to your fancy. But learning and teaching to read and count are not just technical matters. They require on the parts of teacher and pupil diligence, conscientiousness, and perseverance when rewards seem distant and the whole business is not much fun.

More generally 'welfare' cannot be divorced from goodness. To function requires virtues on the parts of those who receive it, those who work with them and those who pay for that work.

The assault on virtue was originally driven by scientism - a hostility to all that is not positively scientific. More recently it has been propelled by the new obsession with 'rights', especially minority rights and citizens' rights. Much 'rights' talk is suffused with a moral relativism which refuses to make judgements for instance between the deserving and undeserving poor or between normal and perverted sexual practices. All must be 'affirmed' in their rich cultural diversity as of equal worth and equally entitled to government recognition and funding. The relativists insist social policy must be morally neutral if it is to be tolerant.

Their idea is as appalling as it is illusory. Their society would be one with no moral character or direction. And it is based on a mistake. Tolerance is not the abdication of judgement. On the contrary, it is precisely allowing that behaviour of which one disapproves. You cannot have tolerance without disapproval.

The mark of a civilised society is not one which refuses to make distinctions but one which while approving and disapproving, leaves the disapproved behaviour and idea in peace as long as they do no substantial harm to the whole.

It also has to be said that one impulse for the assault on virtue was that many ordinary people had come to see it as narrow, restrictive and boring. They wanted to be free to do what they wished in their personal lives. It looked great fun then, this liberation from virtue.

Today, surrounded by the debris of broken marriages, crime, self-inflicted disease, loneliness and social confusion, the old morality looks rather more attractive. But the road back may not be open. Not only would it be humiliating to re-tread those steps but many among the intellectual and political elite are now so morally illiterate, so sunk in relativism that they would not recognise an absolute virtue if they fell over it.

Digby Anderson is editor of The Loss of Virtue: moral confusion and social disorder in Britain and America (Social Affairs Unit, pounds 15.95)