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10 July 1996

The moral maze

Don't they ever learn? When the Archbishop of Canterbury began to preach the need for good old-fashioned Christian morals to be taught in schools, and Michael Howard endorsed his views, they might have expected that the reaction would be less than positive, writes Jennie Bristow.

For a few years now, politicians, schoolteachers and vicars have recognised that the old 'moral absolutes' simply do not work. Saying to a class of school-kids that they must not have sex or they will go to hell is about as effective as telling a bunch of precocious teenagers that Santa Claus still exists. However, what has been proven over recent years is that the old religious obscurantism, when placed in a new language, can be much more insidious than the dry Church of England preaching of Carey and Co.
Look for example at the changed role of religious education lessons in schools today. As early as 1988, the government set about compensating for the perceived failure of RE lessons to give kids a sense of moral values. The part of the curriculum designed to play that role today is 'Personal and Social Education', or PSE. Brought in as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act, PSE was designed to look at 'the social and cultural issues young people face now and later in life.' What this means in practice is that PSE deals with issues to do with health, sex and citizenship.

A closer look at the way PSE, or the other variants on health or sex education, are taught reveals that what is actually being promoted is a new version of the ten commandments - only dressed in language more appropriate to the times. The old morality appealed to people's sense of the debased character of the secular realm, providing a mystical respite from the inhumanity of the 'cash nexus'. It was, in Karl Marx's words, the 'heart of a heartless world'. But because it resolved that debasement only in ideal terms, it was also a soporific, reconciling people to their lot, 'the opium of the people'. Today's secular moralism appeals to people's sense that society is out of control. But it does not seek to order society in a rational way, only counselling that people adapt their behaviour to anticipate risk. For sex education, read 'thou shalt not do it lest thou diest of AIDS'. For health education, read 'thou shalt not drink, smoke, take drugs or do anything else'. For citizenship, read 'thou shalt not be too greedy, thou shalt treat people with respect' and so on.

When I asked a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) whether PSE was an alternative to RE, she was adamant that it was not. Instead, she argued that the curriculum as a whole was 'designed to support academic, social, physical, cultural and spiritual development in young people and helps prepare them to be good citizens and useful members of the community'. In other words, the values bestowed on young people today are not done through the traditional framework of religious education and Christianity, but in a more subtle way, through the school curriculum as a whole and the secular 'personal and social education'.

So the school-teachers have a point when they say that they are doing a lot to teach their pupils about values. For a long time, it has been clear that the old fashioned preaching of moral absolutes and traditional Christian values is out of date and does not work. This begs the question of why, if everyone agrees with the need for more moral education, did Dr Carey's anachronistic exhortation to return to the values of the past provoke such a headline response?

The reaction to Dr Carey was not on the basis of a disagreement with the promotion of moral values as such. In fact what everyone, from those interviewed in the Gallup 'morality' poll to the National Association of Head Teachers, agrees is that there needs to be a promotion of moral values amongst young people. The only thing they disagree upon is the form this morality should take - old-fashioned religion or up-to-date 'political correctness'.

Attacking the views of the traditional moralists is a cunning way for those concerned with the promotion of a new moral code to disguise what they are trying to do. At a time when 'morality' is seen as old-fashioned and constraining, and associated with attacks on patterns of behaviour that many people now find acceptable, new ways to control people's attitudes and behaviour are often self-consciously defined in opposition to the old fuddy-duddy attitudes of Tory ministers and archbishops.

Not surprisingly, New Labour has its own way of promoting moral values. Mandelson and Liddle sum the approach up well when they make the point that 'The key to New Labour...is the application of traditional values to a modern setting' (THE BLAIR REVOLUTION, p19). In other words, there is nothing wrong with traditional values in and of themselves, but in order to be accepted they have to be presented in a new language.

In all the debate about morality old and new, no-one has pointed to a central problem with morals in the way they are understood today. It is said that morality is a set of values that are fixed, unchanging and apply to everybody, from an archbishop down to a Big Issue seller. Yet in this society, that is nonsense.

The concept of morality presumes a certain common interests between people in society, on which basis what is acceptable behaviour and what is not can be decided. Under capitalism, there are inevitably different interests between different groups of people, and so any fixed moral code will always lead to the assertion of one set of interests over another. For a policeman to kill a criminal is often seen as necessary, whereas for someone to kill a policeman is perceived as an outrage.

When 'morality' is separated from its context in such a way that politicians, bishops and teachers have to find the most effective way of imposing a particular code of behaviour on the rest of society, it can only have two consequences. Firstly, those in authority give themselves the right to dictate how the rest of us should live: according to their values and their interests. Secondly, calling for the need for more 'moral' behaviour lays the blame for society's problems at the feet of people who are not seen to behave in a way that goes along with the rules.
For those who object to being told what to do, having a go at Dr Carey is too easy. It is the trendy morality of sex education, health consciousness and New Labour citizenship that we should be most wary of, because it seems not to be moralism at all.

For more information of The Week conference, 26 July to 1 August 1996, Central London, phone Jan Montague on (0171) 278 9908, or mail lm@informinc.co.uk.

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