When was the last time you asked yourself: what is the moral code you live by? And if you wrote a list of the guidelines within that code, what would they be? Frequently we will trot out the golden rule that we should treat others as we want to be treated ourselves. But morality gets more complex than that. Expand from there and the guidelines we fall back on usually originate in Christianity or within other religions — be that Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism — even though we are an overwhelmingly secular society.
I’m asking this question about morals because in the absence of religion, and in a global free market economy, how we view morality and enforce it has become fraught and complex. Our idea of what or who is virtuous increasingly muddled; our moral compass often pointing in multiple directions. “Moses then led them to Mount Saini where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, as well as the other laws for right living.” It was simple back then. This is from St Paul to the Corinthians and the key phrase is ‘right living’. Except if there is no higher being — God or any other religious entity we trust in — judging what is ‘right living’ falls largely to society to self-police. Are we any good at it?
Every day the news headlines focus on issues of morality. One example from yesterday was the “league table of shame for GPs holding less than half of appointments in person”. Another quoted the ’inexcusable’ behaviour of David Beckham because of his role as an ambassador forQatar. The Guardian’s front page was dominated by its investigation into Baroness Mone, a Tory peer, and her alleged benefiting from PPE contracts. The issue matters to us because it is both a public and a moral one. And our reactions to yesterday’s immigration figures remain highly confused from a moral viewpoint. For many, morality is a dangerous notion, no more than a mix of emotion, intuition or subjective choice.
Many religions did not update their rules as we morally evolved so we abandoned them. Others regard moral codes as a pragmatic necessity, a ‘social practice’. In the words of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it is a “set of values, virtues, customs, and codes that create and sustain communities. It is what turns a group of disconnected ‘I’s’ into a collective ‘We’.” But what if the ‘we’ can’t agree?
In western societies, we outsourced morality to the free market which in turn delivered choice. But both the state and individuals had to deal with the consequences of those choices. Every year we add more laws and more regulations to ‘police’ those choices. More often the response is fudged. Take abortion law in the US as a clear example. Or our reaction to the banking crisis of 2008; our military retreat from Afghanistan was another. Our response to the World Cup in Qatar is full of inconsistency. The woke wars amount to different generations fighting over what they consider to be morally right.
Layered onto this are the needs of societal subsets: people with different ethnicity, class, or religious backgrounds and societies’ moral obligations to them. Morality seeps into every facet of our lives. Battles are waged on Twitter and on social platforms — Elon Musk is running his own moral crusade with the platform itself. It’s there in political and economic decision-making. The ‘nanny state’ debate is a moral one, between personal freedom and collective responsibility.
To add further complexity, we don’t know any more whom to trust to set and enforce our moral codes. Trust in institutions from the police to politicians, journalists, even our doctors is eroded. We regularly question the moral propriety of others but rarely look deeply at our own. We are too busy telling everyone what we are right about. The warning sign that we have erred from our own instinctive moral code is a haunting sense of unease.
Our morality is largely baked into the law and yet bias on the part of those who have made laws has taken a wrecking ball to our assumptions that they are fair to all. This does not stop politicians and lawmakers framing actions around morality. Rishi Sunak often uses ‘moral’ to describe his decision-making. Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement was based on a ‘moral duty’ to protect the vulnerable.
In a country where we have the vote, public opinion holds sway. Do we trust ourselves to do what is right for the collective ‘we’? Or are we in thrall to those who shout the loudest? I don’t have the answer. Perhaps the most moral act we can do in a consistently evolving society, is to keep questioning and searching for new answers.
Boris’s costly wallpaper that never was is comedy gold
So the gold wallpaper never was? It was reported that during his tenure in Downing Street, Boris’s redecoration of Number 10 cost an enormous sum and included £840-a-roll gold wallpaper in the main drawing room.
It seems that Liz Truss may have found no such gold wallpaper when she moved in. A yellow kitchen, yes, a newly painted deep red dining room, but only £1,500 had been frittered on the drawing room walls. None of it was gold!
How disappointed we all are, not to see these beautiful walls: not just Jeremy Hunt who joked about it at the Spectator Parliamentarian Awards, saying Truss had painted over the wallpaper because it had already started to peel. “I will be saying to my children, scratch over there, there’s gold in them walls…” Afraid not, mini-Hunts, back to the end of the rainbow.
There is a remaining mystery — if there was no £840-a-roll wallpaper, what did they spend the allegedly huge sum on? That’s one hell of a good paint job. Mrs Hunt, we hope you like red and yellow.
Save United from the Apple empire, Sir Jim
New rumours about who will compete for ownership of Manchester United: Apple has bizarrely joined the fray. Please, no. My support lies with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, below, a British billionaire businessman who bid far too late for Chelsea.
Please, Sir Jim, get your ducks in order. We don’t want you losing to an American giant that sells us our technology, because of an own goal coming from your not being a serious competitor from the outset. You will take personal pride and responsibility for United and be answerable to the fans. That sounds like a win, win for all.