Changing morality  

Donald Trump has said things about women which are quite disgusting. He says that it was all 10 years ago and so, whilst regrettable, does not represent who he is now.  He was of course only an adolescent of 60 years of age at the time and now is a mature 70.  His supporters say that all men speak like that when they’re together in the fabled locker room. I’m not sure what sort of people the supporters are, but they do not represent the people I know.  Certainly there are men (and I would guess women) who would talk about the opposite sex differently when with friends of the same sex as compared to when in mixed company, although I doubt in quite the same extreme way.  But obviously those who do so consider that morality is something which changes with the company you keep.  We don't generally admire them for this flexibility.

Perhaps I should define what I mean by morality.  As a fully paid up non-religious person, obviously, I do not accept that morality comes from any of the available gods or tablets of stone.  So I take the view that it can be characterised simply as how a group or a society expects people to behave.  It is a psychological pressure to conform, which in turn comes from evolutionary pressure to survive.  It is a work in progress for all of us as we try different behavioural formulations, some successful, some not.  It is clearly therefore subject to change with time and also with place.  The morality of America is very different to the morality in Thailand and different to the morality in Coleshill.

If, however, we go back in time by more than the already very substantial period of 10 Trump years, then we will see a real difference in human mores. And if we look at things over a very long period of time, we can see morality changing first in one direction and then in the opposite direction. An example which I came across the other day was that of the Normans in 1066. Slavery had been quite normal in the Roman empire, just as it had been with the Greeks and other ancient societies.  This had continued in England. Slavery was quite usual amongst the various English tribes. People beaten in battle were normally enslaved, as were people who owed money.  In fact, it is estimated that over 10% of the population was enslaved in our Anglo-Saxon society at the time of the Norman conquest.   When William the Conqueror arrived at Hastings, however the Normans would have none of this.  Slavery was not acceptable, at least in Northern France, and so, although no law was actually passed to ban it, slavery came to an end in England by the end of the 12th century.  Mind you, they did introduce the feudal system which was perhaps slavery light. But then slavery itself it reappeared in the 16th century, albeit mainly using offshore locations, and in the 17th century in workhouses.  

And sexual conduct or misconduct has also been a variable in our society.   The Roundheads imposed a stern morality on English society after their success in the civil war.  After their regime collapsed, however, Charles II led the way in creating a very libertarian society.  Things went back and forth over the centuries and we are now in a society which Mary Whitehouse, that great upholder of puritan values in the 1960’s and 1970’s, would say was precisely what she predicted as the outcome of the wicked loosening of moral values.  She wanted us to stay with the morality of the 1950’s, when even talking about such matters was socially unacceptable and (male) homosexuality was a crime.

Although people recognise that our moral standards are different to those which existed in the past, people’s actions in some far-off era nonetheless tend to be judged by us against our present-day standards. But is this fair?  It has been said: “The past is a different country, they do things differently there”.  But we now look back in horror at the slave-traders and find it very difficult to understand how ordinary (Christian) people in Britain could uphold it and accept the profits from it.  It is worth recalling that as part of the British decision to abolish slavery, those benefiting from slaves had the right to be compensated for their loss by the Government.  And a lot of quite ordinary people made claims. 

We can try to explain the attitude to slavery, perhaps, by saying that they did not appreciate that people from tribes in Africa were people “like us”. They regarded them as some sort of lower order not having the same capacity to appreciate life as ‘us’ and needing to be driven to do work by (vicious) slave-masters.  The supporters of slavery did not have any conception of DNA and so it could not be proved that the slaves were in fact genetically identical to us apart from a few unimportant external features.  And then life in Britain was much more brutal at that time.  They didn’t have a social welfare system or even a creaking NHS, and so perhaps the contrast with slavery was not as great as we now see it to be.  Obviously such excuses now given for modern slavery would be regarded as irrational by most people but, even in the past, it depended on a large degree of voluntary self-deception.  It was not as though foreigners and people with different skin colours were unknown to the great British public. And, encouraging such self-deception, there was the profit motive. There is the journalistic maxim - “Follow the money”.   And so we can quite properly accuse them of hypocrisy, whatever-else we may think.

The profit motive seems hard-wired into our make-up.  Perhaps for good reason – we need to eat to survive and money or something to trade in gives us that ability.  But it goes beyond our immediate need. We quite reasonably want to have a store for the future as well.   We see that it is a major driving force whether in democratic countries or communist countries.  And it is also the leading political doctrine. The politics of capitalism.   Over the centuries, various people have proposed, rather unsuccessfully, that it should be abolished.  I doubt, however, that it will ever go away, as the prospect of being paid for working is a strong motivating force and the prospect of not having any work and not being paid is even more strongly motivating in most peoples’ case.  People start up businesses in order, usually, to make money. Villagers in third world countries all trade what they can in order to subsist.  But because of it, we also have modern slavery in all its forms carried out by sociopaths, from the far East to the streets of Britain. We have human beings of all ages being deliberately put in mortal danger by people-traffickers.  And we have people like (Sir) Philip Green who are the unacceptable face of apparently perfectly legal capitalism. Unchecked capitalism can produce major harm to society with those at the top of the tree ‘earning’ fantastic amounts, whilst at the same time, in the name of “business efficiency” and “maximising returns to shareholders”, bearing down on wages for their employees.  And so what is, in its basic form, perfectly legitimate, can in the exaggerated form produced by our captains of industry and celebrity culture feed a feeling of unfairness and so destabilise society.

But the wish for fairness is a much under-estimated emotion.  It is very powerful. It has evolved, I would guess to promote sharing and so favour the survival of the group involved.   When though unfairness is perceived, then we may well see an apparently irrational reaction - people and animals will act contrary to their own immediate interests in order to protest against unfairness and so, hopefully, restore what they see as fairness.  We see the rudiments of it in capuchin monkeys who throw back their otherwise quite acceptable rewards when the experimenters give more juicy rewards to others. We see this in revolutions which have taken place when people put their own lives at risk in order to protest against an overwhelming unfairness.  And I suppose that we see it now when people support Brexit because they have been told that all their woes come from Brussels or support Trump because they perceive themselves as unfairly treated by ‘Washington’ and so see Trump as their only possible salvation.  I imagine therefore that we shouldn’t be surprised at what has happened.  If this is the cause, though, there remains the question of whether our politicians are capable of restoring the feeling of fairness necessary for a stable society.   Santa Teresa has promised to do so in this country.  We shall see what she really means over the next few years.

18th October 2016


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