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On Moral Panic

by Rick Lewis

“A spectre is haunting Britain”, as old Karl Marx might have said. A few weeks or months ago some journalist coined the phrase ‘moral panic’ to describe it. The trigger for it was a succession of horrific crimes (abduction, murder) committed by youngish schoolchildren, and the panic is characterised by the widespread fear that, as a result of changes in society, a generation are growing up with some very strange ideas about what constitutes acceptable behaviour. There have been other indications too of problems – the pregnancy rate of young schoolgirls, 15 year olds joyriding ‘borrowed’ XR3is around housing estates before torching them, and drug abuse. Politicians have conjured up images of schools where anything goes and homes where single mothers leave their offspring alone in tower blocks all day to watch video nasties and sniff glue while they go out to work. If this picture is true, then a certain amount of panic might seem like a justifiable reaction.

To some extent the word ‘panic’ seems excessive; apart from a few government ministers and journalists, most people are enjoying the sunshine or worrying about other things, not getting worked up about the moral fibre of the nation’s youth. It seems unlikely that the problem now is all that much worse than it was six months or six years ago. All the fuss has done is highlight existing trends. Nevertheless, there are real problems here and no doubt it is a good thing that they are getting some attention.

The Government has reacted by saying that schools should be doing more. The Education Secretary called for a greater emphasis on religious education. Just after that, the National Curriculum Council published a discussion paper for schools on spiritual and moral development. When I interviewed its author, David Pascall (p.12), he implied that schools are at fault for teaching that morality is a matter of opinion. He calls for what he terms ‘moral absolutes’ to be taught to young children, so that they learn early the difference between right and wrong.

He describes his absolutes as unexceptional things, and they include rules such as telling the truth, keeping promises and so on. But you can’t just say ‘this is a moral absolute’, and fail to say where you got it from (as David Pascall did during our interview). Morality must be grounded somewhere if it’s going to carry any conviction for the teachers or the taught. Children ask ‘why?’ more, not less, often than adults. As Marianne Talbot pointed out in a recent newspaper article, the decline of organised religion has deprived teachers of the obvious answer (“Because God says so”). Now that the religious balance in society has shifted so much (largely in favour of agnostics and atheists), it would surely be inappropriate for all state schools to use Christianity as the sole basis for ethical teaching.

This difficulty applies not only to teachers answering questions from children but also to many adults living their everyday lives. There are vast numbers of people who were brought up as Christians but have lost their faith. Out of deepingrained habit we continue to follow the moral precepts we learnt as children but the foundations of those rules have been cut away. In working out how to answer the schoolchildrens’ questions on ethics we may end up improving our own understanding.

Pascall’s admirable ‘absolutes’ boil down to respecting other people, and respecting yourself. The only way children can learn about respect is to be shown it, by teachers and parents. To tell a child to accept a load of arbitrary rules without being prepared to give reasons would not be a mark of respect at all – quite the opposite.

As Pascall himself said, these are very difficult matters. That’s why the widest possible debate is essential. As far as possible pupils in schools should be encouraged to discuss these basic questions for themselves, even at an early age. The answers they develop may not be exactly the ones their elders wanted to hear but they are also unlikely to be desperately anti-social.

This hasn’t been the only moral issue in the headlines recently – the ferment over euthanasia and abortion continues, spurred on most recently by the government’s decision to expel an American anti-abortion campaigner. As our contribution to all the talking, this Philosophy Now focuses mainly on ethical questions, both the immediately practical and the more theoretical. It also asks a question which many people think must come before ethical debate : what manner of creatures are we? Are our minds merely biological machines or is there something else in there too?

Philosophy Now doesn’t promise to come up with all the answers, but we bring you a series of articles that we hope you’ll find thoughtprovoking. We encourage response – let your voice be heard!

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