The Social Evils Series
The social evils series Social evils and social good Viewpoint Informing debate September 2008 The JRFs recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern ‘social evils’ on the theme of ‘a decline in values’. Anthony Grayling argues that it is the responsibility of each of us to confront such difficulties by getting them in proportion; working out if they really are problems; and deciding what we can do about them, individually and collectively. Key points
Every generation thinks that the past was a better place and that its own time is one of crisis. Yet contemporary Western liberal democratic societies offer greatly better lives for the majority than fifty or a hundred years ago. Lament over the demise of traditional forms of community overlooks the new forms of community, especially among the young, made possible by the Internet. Now there is a wider range of shared experience and knowledge in the nation as a whole. Personal autonomy and responsibility, self-determination and independence are far more likely to promote than to degrade concern for others.
The illusion of a breakdown in civil intercourse, for which individualism is blamed, is far more the result of a contrast between the worlds we occupy as children and adults. Most consumption is a means to the enjoyment that possession offers, and the process itself is therefore often pleasurable. Our own time is greatly more moral, equitable, Just and caring than the Victorian There can be and are good and happy families with only one parent in them, and achieving this is the desideratum that society should work towards without preconceptions about traditional models and numbers. Ђ We must find ways of iving young people responsibility, recognition, status, self-respect, and a chance to acquire and internalise selfdiscipline – for self-discipline is a liberating power and transforms life for the better. To decriminalise drugs and their use, and to place them into the same framework as alcohol, would reduce the allure of drugs, free police time, and wipe out the criminal drug industry at a stroke. Author By AC Grayling, Professor of Philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London That inequalities persist is a cost of the other benefits that accrue from the arrangements of contemporary Western liberal democracies.
As long as continual fforts at rebalancing are maintained, it is a cost worth paying. Crime and violence are endemic in human societies but people (aided by the media) tend to over-inflate its seriousness. www. Jrf. org. uk Introduction The results of the consultation on social evils should not come as a surprise, because they confirm what is generally understood to be public perception of contemporary social problems and ills – a public perception well-represented in the media debate, and reciprocally fostered and reinforced by the more conservative sections of that media.
The JRF asked those it consulted to focus on what they perceived as he social evils of our time, and a familiar litany resulted; one need is to place it in context and ask whether, in absolute rather than Just relative terms, the social evils identified are all that they seem. For a student of ethics and history, the consultation’s results confirm the observation that every generation thinks that the past was a better place and that its own time is one of crisis.
Yet by almost any standard one cares to mention, contemporary Western liberal democratic societies offer greatly better lives for the great majority of people than was the case fifty or a streets swarmed with child prostitutes and where it was oo dangerous to walk at night, where abject poverty and suffering were a norm and social divisions crushed opportunity and self-respect for many – life was much less pleasant, safe, civilised and well-provided than it is now, for all but the relatively few. I would not myself wish to be a woman in any other period of history, or any other part of todays world, than in todays Western democracies.
This fact alone – concerning as it does half of humanity – should be evidence that the great majority of us in todays United Kingdom arguably live in some of the best times and places in history, from he point of view of individual human experience and opportunity. Most of those who expressed pessimistic views in the consultation would, if asked to occupy an analogous situation in a past period of history, and were wellinformed about what that would actually mean, would almost certainly not wish to go back in time.
Indeed, one wonders whether, if their knowledge of such comparisons were greater, their view of present circumstances would have been so unreflectively bleak. 2 All the above does not mean there are no problems in contemporary society – far from it – but it does mean that they need to be put into perspective. This is all the more important because those who voice concerns about problems in society tend to be of a conservative inclination in matters of morality and mores, and it is the more emphatic, concerned or even anxious among them who are likely to volunteer opinions, for example on a website consultation.
The risk, therefore, is that the social debate is likely to have a bias towards the opinions of those who feel exercised by their perceptions of what is wrong in society, and it is a matter of the first importance that such perceptions should be put into context and examined. If public policy is determined by the ttitudes of the more conservative and fretful members of society, who see bogeys under the bed when none such are there, the resulting distortions will be harmful.
Arguably, this is indeed the case in our society, and it needs redress. One thing the JRF consultation evils are expressed by a self-selected concerned minority, inflated by the media offering sensation in order to increase sales or viewers, and acted upon by governments wishing to placate manufactured ‘public opinion’. The skewed results, not infrequently, make matters worse rather than better. In what follows, therefore, I question some of the ttitudes and views expressed in the consultation.
I do this by taking each of the salient points registered in the report on the consultation, and commenting on it. The four main ‘social evils’ The four main evils identified by the consultation were: decline of community; individualism; consumerism and greed; and a decline of values. I challenge each as follows. A decline of community It is true that communities of a more traditional kind, such as existed in villages or working-class suburbs two generations ago, are much less common because of increased mobility and population diversity.
That is the eutral fact, which some see as regrettable and others as a marker of social, economic and demographic change, bringing considerable advantages with it. Many of the functions traditionally performed by neighbourliness, such as help in times of trouble, mutual support, sharing of information, and the like, have been taken over by public institutions such as schools, the health service, the media, the police, and other civil society organisations. All of these arose because traditional community life was insufficiently regular, reliable, organised and resourced to be a sure basis of support.
That society has shouldered these responsibilities in place of the uncertain abilities and inclinations of one’s local neighbours is assuredly a gain. Lament over the demise of traditional forms of community overlook the new forms of community, especially among the young, made possible by the internet. The internet gives wider reach, even international reach, to acquaintanceship and friendship; they are a massive extension of pen-friendship, with great opportunities for sharing experience and learning about others, which can only be a good thing.
True, the internet allows for various kinds of abuses too, but that Moreover, it protects wholly against certain sorts of abuses which were once too common, and too hidden, in traditional communities. Whereas community tended once to be highly local and therefore exclusive of other communities (even the village down the road), public media have created a far wider range of shared experience and knowledge in the nation as a whole. Community has become a larger concept as a result, and with the institutionalisation of community activity through pooled resources (such as the health service) a much better framework for individual life is assured. Individualism It is true that individualism can lead to selfishness and insularity, but both these characteristics were present in the past even under the negative aspects of a too-intrusive, too-controlling, too-present community – the narrow-minded, lace-curtain-twitching village community of continual observation and nosiness, which could be a blight on lives.
Greater scope for individual expression and exploration of life possibilities is a positive thing; autonomy in the moral and social spheres is as much an opportunity as a demand for responsible self-determination and self-reliance. The scope afforded by individualism is not inconsistent with ommunity and cooperation, which becomes voluntary and selective rather than being imposed, as is so often the case in social settings where individual liberty is limited or even discouraged.