Julian Baggini: Is generosity a luxury we can't afford? Frankly, I don't buy it

Share
Related Topics

The latest British Social Attitudes report offers an annual opportunity for commentators to jump to conclusions about the precise ways in which the country is going to pot, for that is always how its findings are interpreted. This year, the headline theme is selfish individualism.

People accept that there are housing shortages but oppose new developments in their area. The proportion of people supporting tax increases to improve health and education has halved in nine years. The number of people willing to pay much higher prices to protect the environment has fallen from 43 to 26 per cent. If the rich want to pay for better private health and education, more and more of us are happy to let them do so, whatever the consequences for social equality. And so it goes on.

There is an easy explanation for this. In hard times, people see worrying about others as a luxury they cannot afford. We may all be in this together, but we're planning to get out of it alone. However, there is something fishy about this, since the last time we were supposed to have had a "me generation" it was in the Eighties boom, not a bust. "I'm alright Jack" has turned into "I'm not alright, Jack, so don't expect me to help you". Poor Jack gets fobbed off whatever happens.

The more complicated truth is that many things shape our choices and whatever some old-school Marxists may still insist, economics is only one driver, not an all-powerful determiner.

Of course, circumstances play a major role in shaping values. Experiments have shown that even trivial, momentary mood-changers, like being in a hurry or finding a coin, can affect people's dispositions to help strangers in distress. Given that, it would be extraordinary if feeling under more long-term pressure, or as though your job were at risk, did not alter the way we responded to the needs of others.

But values are also moulded by social norms, and in recent years there has been much more widespread distrust of government and business. That, coupled with a growing belief that over-reliance on the state has a deleterious effect on society, would go a long way to explain increasing reluctance to pay more in tax or prices on the promise that it's all for the common good, rather than the benefit of politicians and company directors.

However, what I find most alarming is not how specific attitudes have changed, but that they change so much at all. This suggests that a lot of people's principles have very shallow roots and are unable to withstand even the slightest economic or social pressure.

There is not enough of the philosophical literacy required to make thought-through judgements about values, nor the psychological literacy required to counter many of the cognitive, self-serving distortions that allow us to justify our selfishness and prejudices. Without these firm bases, sound values will always be vulnerable when hard times provide an incentive to throw inconvenient ones out of the window.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?