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Morality – who needs it?

January 21, 2010

A number of posters in the Guardian’s Comment is Free forum have caught my attention recently, through their repeated references to ‘moral blackmail’ in the context of climate change. It is a curious trope, one that has been bothering me for a long time, just not in the way I think others may intend.

 A change I have witnessed during my lifetime is the gradual erosion of morality, not just though actions that have no moral orientation, but the place of morality itself in the scope of human affairs. Nobody talks about morals any more, as if the concept has become outmoded, something consigned to the bin as no longer relevant, or perhaps something that only the religious bang on about. Our leaders demonstrate this all too clearly: morality – along with probity – is reduced to a matter of spin, particularly when they help themselves to our taxes by abusing their expenses or lie to us when taking us into a war we should never have fought.

 This problem is, I believe, both sign and signal of the way our societies have become obsessed with short-termism, with self-interest, with expediency, with the constant consumerist quest for personal gratification. This is a quest easy to fulfil when we convince ourselves that we bear no moral obligation to consider or ameliorate the true costs of our actions, particularly in the way they affect others who we cannot see, those whose voices are rarely – if ever – heard except on programs like Comic Relief, for many – but not all – the annual credit card assuagement of consumerist guilt, a convenient substitute for the purchased pieties of the church collection plate.

 The absence of morality in the national discourse is very disturbing. It requires considerable sleight of hand to abrogate moral responsibility and I think we all suffer as a result, for self-respect can only be built on a foundation of moral self-determination. Morals, by their very nature, require us to consider others, to accept that there is always a relationship between our own actions and the effect of those actions on others. Without a moral compass, we drift through our lives with only our own craven desires to navigate by, and such expediency requires us to dismiss or minimise the impact we have on others through sophistry and self-deceit. So when someone has the temerity to remind us of our obligations, it is deemed to be ‘moral blackmail’, a concept that rather misses the point. It is only when we have transgressed the social consensus on acceptable behaviour that blackmail is possible, and the abrogation of moral standards is such a transgression.

The collateral damage caused by the diminution of morality is a loss of trust. Across the entire spectrum, our trust has been abused. Our money is lost or stolen, pensions fail and we are constantly deceived by business, by banks and financial institutions, by governments, by advertising by vested interests in nearly all walks of life. We are disenfranchised, brutalised, made insecure and anxious, and in response we turn away from morality because clearly, it is no longer a reference point by which to judge the actions of those in positions of power or authority.

This begs the obvious, of rather obtuse, question: why should I be moral when others are not? The answer is, of course, that we cannot excuse our own failures though the failure of others. This is not a contest to see who can be the least trustworthy, nor is it a paradigm in which our actions can be measured against the lowest of the available standards. It is a matter of self-respect, of our obligation to act in a decent way irrespective of what others do. Unless we bring morality back into the discourse as a measure of decency, of probity, of honour and honesty, we have only hypocrisy and cant with which to defend our own self-serving obsessions.

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