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The Independent Online
Moral values

JOHN PATTEN has been having some thoughts on sex. ',' he has rightly said, lie at the heart of education; and 'sex education cannot be exempt from this'. Here is an interesting reversal of earlier notions on the subject. Far from teaching sex without morals, which is what bothers Mr Patten, the old schools preferred to teach morals without sex.

J H Simpson, a pupil at Rugby at the beginning of this century, recalled in his memoirs that in his schooldays 'immorality' meant only one thing. One imagines dire warnings being given, but since the staff felt it improper to mention sex, a euphemism was necessary. When the historian J A Froude, writing in J H Simpson's time, said the ancient Greeks had no horror of 'immorality as such', young Simpson no doubt thought he knew what he was on about.

For Rugby was not alone; and perhaps this is one reason why the connotations of moral tend to be narrower now than they used to be. As so often with euphemisms, the substitute word has simply come to mean what its use supposed to hide.

Mr Patten's unease about morals in the wider sense is hardly original, it is getting on for 2,000 years since Cicero, with his 'O tempora] O mores]', expressed similar concern; and Dean Swift thought the English 'more corrupt in their morals than any other nation'. However, Cicero was talking about ethics; and though the 18th- century idea of morals certainly embraced sex, it embraced many other things besides.

Today, on the other hand, you might say of a conman that he was bent, or that he was corrupt rather than that he was immoral. You might add that you didn't think much of his morals either, when you would be taken to mean he was deceiving his wife.

Of course we still use moral in a neutral way, as in a moral tutor, (who may be no better than we are), moral certainty (which we talk about when we are not certain), or a moral victory (which is how the French see Waterloo).