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Moral framework

Moral framework
By Bruce Logan, 26 August 2002

In the space of one week we have had ten-year-olds smoking pot and watching porn, two major murder trials involving kids and now 14-year-old girls on trial for murder. And even a six-year-old girl raped by school kids. What are we to do?

Well, we can keep kids out of crime by making sure they have a live-in mother and father. That will probably keep them out of poverty as well. The data to support those two claims is overwhelming. They are descriptions of reality not a condemnation of individual solo parents. Of course there are always exceptions.

The challenge remains for us to shape a public understanding which leaves us less paralysed in the face of deep changes that have affected the way we live. We need an open and unprejudiced debate on how best to look after kids. One that is not inhibited by the prevailing myth that we must not be judgemental.

To be unable to agree that rising crime, family breakdown and rising welfare dependency are deep-seated moral problems, resembles fighting a war without ammunition and not knowing what the enemy looks like. It is critical to understand that civil society is inconceivable without strong natural families. The family remains the best institution for raising children to become men and women of good character.

Any community that deserves the name inevitably rests upon a moral framework. If we continue to be overly sensitive about “moralising” in the name of an enfeebled understanding of non-discrimination we will ultimately be left with no community. The two-parent natural family is still the best institution for passing the necessary ‘cultural glue’ of relational and kinship connection from generation to generation. Three quarters of our children still live in the natural family anyway.

When I was ten years old I stole a packet of cigarettes from the local store. The owner caught me, clipped my ear and told the headmaster of my school. Stealing was a serious business, and I was punished with the “cuts” (a whack of a leather strap on both hands). Eventually my parents were informed and I was further chastised.

Excessive punishment? Perhaps. I’m sure I thought so at the time, but the shame and the pain are very faint now. Nevertheless, they were real for a ten year old, and I have not stolen cigarettes since. That was the world I grew up in half a century ago. Store owners, parents and headmasters shared a common understanding of right and wrong, and it was that belief—not government programmes—that “kept me safe,” to use a current idiom.

In today’s world, where moral pluralism rules, such an outcome would be impossible. The store-owner would be without any proper confidence and the headmaster, or rather principal, would be told what right did he have to dictate what kids should do outside of school hours. And my parents would blame the store for making cigarettes such an easy temptation.

In the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold defined hypocrisy as the “tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Clarity in either vice or virtue in these early years of the twenty-first century is not easy to find. It is no exaggeration to claim that schools and other agencies today do not have an agreed or coherent understanding of virtue. The growing impact of this situation has given rise to a confused values debate in nearly every classroom in the country.

Aristotle taught three reasons for seeking knowledge. The most important is truth, followed by moral action. The last and least important is power, or the ability to make things—technique, technology and skills.

Modern schooling has turned Aristotle on his head. The love of truth has been replaced by the demand for skills.

The consequence is that education and the teaching of children is about empowerment and self-interest. One popular text currently used by teacher educators presents the education enterprise on the basis of “whose interests are served.” In other words, how one group establishes power over another.

Nevertheless, we are not more wicked than our ancestors. We might be less courageous, less honest with ourselves, less self-disciplined and certainly less chaste. But we are perhaps more tolerant and less cruel.

In the midst of this, for the first time in history, we have lost confidence in objective moral law. Moral talk resembles intellectual ping-pong. We ‘share’ or ‘clarify’ views rather than seek truth. Consequently, kids are confused.

We have missed the bus. We have taught our kids that the self is central to morality. I decide for myself—‘me, myself and I’. The old rules of obligation and restraint, taken for granted by dairy owners and school principals alike, have been replaced by self realisation.

That change was foundational. We had a moral understanding based on the belief that human nature is flawed, but it lost favour. The self, controlled by the passions, needed discipline. That was the stuff of good human character. Institutions were designed to instruct and teach that character. Good character did not come naturally. Indeed, it was that vision that informed our understanding of freedom. Either we return to that realistic understanding of human nature or we will find increasing disorder and the growing cry for more and more legal punishment. And even more young people will come before our courts.

Bruce Logan is Director of the Maxim Institute, a social policy and research organisation in Christchurch and Auckland.

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