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

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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.

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