So where did we go wrong?

Many of the people I “meet” in the blogosphere are, from what I can gather from passing comments, of an age with me or at least of my generation. Hopefully many would agree with my assessment of that generation.

We grew up during WWII or  the 10-15 years that followed. We learnt discipline and self-discipline, self-reliance (even in the face of a burgeoning welfare state) and with that a care for the lives, feelings, views, concerns of others. In short, whatever our personal religious beliefs or lack thereof we adhered to something akin to the Christian ethos which underpinned British society.

This is not to say we were paragons of virtue, simply that we were aware of where our rights began and ended and likewise where our responsibilities also began and ended. We were, for example, less likely to throw our toys out of the pram if we were fined for stopping our car in a ‘no parking’ area even if it was for “only a minute while I posted a letter”.

We knew the rules; we broke the rules; we took the consequences. We did not assume that the rules could be bent to our personal circumstances still less that they applied randomly as and when it suited us.

We were taught to respect authority without being overawed by it. As a good friend of mine remarked only a couple of years ago when pulled up for a less than respectful remark about his parish priest, “I respect the office; the man has to earn it like everyone else.”

Everyone has his own ideas as to where and when the rot set in, and the extent of the rot and indeed as to whether there has been a rot. But it seems undeniable that there has been a major shift not only of attitude but also of ethos.

Western society has become increasingly peevish. Egocentricity is almost the norm and though there are still philanthropists to be found — and very generous and genuine ones — there are many whose philanthropy is increasingly tinged with self-interest and whose largesse is not aimed at the welfare of those less well-off than themselves or the general betterment of mankind but at objectives whose achievement will benefit at best a select few while acting to the detriment of the many.

This self-centredness is what has given rise to the “it’s not fair; I only stopped for minute” argument which (arguably) has a smidgeon of justification where authority is increasingly reluctant to cut the individual any slack at all. Sociological historians can debate which came first but while the latter is an unpleasant symptom of an increasingly totalitarian attitude by authority (think £100 fines for leaving your dustbin lid open!) the former is a minor, but nonetheless important, step on the road to moral relativism.

It is easy to see where the relationship lies between egocentricity and moral relativism. The minute the individual claims that something is “right for me” regardless of where others may stand on the matter or subscribes to the 60s philosophy of “if it feels good, do it” then he is already on a slippery slope. At its extreme such an ethos leads to a fractured society. If 60 million people are all pulling in different directions the result will be anarchy or chaos. We no longer have friendships; we have alliances as we link up with individuals who for the time being have interests which coincide with ours. We can no longer afford to have close relationships with people with whom we disagree about politics or religion or even respect for the law or any one of the numerous minutiae of daily life because there is no longer a common base on which we all agree and to which we can refer and defer if a personal interaction is in danger of becoming over-heated.

This shifting morality, adaptable to the circumstances and always fluid, undermines any principle of absolutism. So any action by any individual is “right” if he perceives it as being “right for him”. Various unfortunate effects follow.

The most pernicious of these is “it doesn’t matter if …” All sorts of civic (and theological) virtues are immediately put at risk by this argument. Honesty, as one example (there are others), ceases to be absolute and the end justifies the means and the individual is always “right”  since there is in his eyes no legitimate way to challenge his point of view.

So another unpleasant characteristic of the modern age is “Spoiled Brat Syndrome”, personified at street level by the Friday night drunks spoiling for a fight and ready to be affronted by anyone whom they perceive is not showing them sufficient respect, and on a higher plane by climate scientists who when challenged display all the symptoms of a five-year-old caught with his fingers in the cookie jar.

Whether there is a way back from this state of affairs is up for debate. The Friday night drunk is a nuisance and will, with any luck, grow out of the phase and become a passably respectable citizen. The “only a minute” complainer is probably incurable but relatively harmless; just avoid him in the pub.

The climate “scientist” is a different because he is potentially threatening the standard of living and quality of life of half the population of the planet (if not all of it) and therefore dangerous. He has been told several times that his data is unreliable, that his assumptions are wrong, that his computer programming is lousy and the program itself is at best not fit for purpose and at worst designed to produce the result he wants and his response varies from ad hominem attacks on his critics as unscientific (pot, kettle!), shills in the pay of some environmental bogeyman (usually Big Oil, though he conveniently forgets the funding he has had from oil companies), or any other attack he can think of which will divert attention from his manifest shortcomings.

As one commenter says on a Bishop Hill posting today, “You have to have that special kind of integrity where you go out of your way to find out what is wrong with your own work…”

Don’t make me larf! Those of us — non-scientists included — who came to maturity in the good old days when scientists (and politicians, come to that) could be presumed to have at least a certain level of integrity fail completely to understand the extent to which that concept  has become devalued and marginalised. Why would you not check your facts and your data and your conclusions? Why would you not then have them re-checked and checked again before you publish? Why, except for motives or greed or self-aggrandisement or because you can’t be bothered with getting it right or doing it properly — in short, unless you’re an egomaniac or lazy or both — would you churn out and defend rubbish which is intended for governments the world over to use to make policies which will impoverish the richer half of the world while doing nothing to enrich the poorer half?

Answers on a postcard …

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