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With an increasingly bitter secular/religious divide Clem Henricson FRSA, thinks we need a radical shift in our take on morality. She argues not for a breast beating on the state of morals, but for an enhanced understanding of its nature and a way forward to remedy what is a seriously defective relationship with public policy.

Have you ever questioned why the moral sphere is segregated from core public policy? Why in the gestation of policy is morality hived off as the provenance of private conscience and the religious establishment? We have relegated moral issues to some zone outside the mainstream of governmental concerns. Is this because governments too cowardly or ill equipped to address these matters? These questions matter. It may sound quaintly out of date, but morality is a commodity that matters, not least because it causes frictions and tensions between generations and cultures. We need a change in the way we handle it.

It should not take so long for legislation to keep up with changes in social mores; changes in attitudes to matters such as abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation and that issue that has exercised us so much recently – assisted dying – with its haunting images of campaigners such as Tony Nicklinson and Terry Pratchett. Why does government hide behind the private member’s bill, judicial rulings, loud protracted campaigns and flouting of the law that are so often the necessary prelude to change? Why is government dilatory and evasive, instead of embracing the essence of human relations; handling fluctuations and tensions head on?

What about the stuff of political governance: finance and welfare? Why is an illusory dividing line drawn between these aspects of public policy and conventional ‘morality’ and why is private conscience accorded to the latter, but not the former in the face of party whipping?

There is, alongside these deficiencies, a collective anxiety at the policy morality interface induced by the perpetual moralistic incantation of ‘never again’. ‘Never again’ we say in the full knowledge at a certain level of consciousness that, from negligence to sadism, it will be done again across institutions from finance, caring, criminal justice through to family life and individual relationships. We appear to have difficulty in acknowledging the true dimensions of the human condition and our failure to do so is hampering the development of a realistic pre-emptive public policy.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the paedophilia, exposed by the Children’s Commissioner as prevalent, or the shenanigans of the financial world, might be better handled if the Darwinian view that empathy is at the core of morality was challenged. The reason for this proposition is that in order to begin to address habitual problematic behaviours there is the need for a frank acknowledgement of the human condition in the light of current knowledge derived from neuroscience and cultural awareness.

That knowledge does not point to the supremacy of empathy within morality and human conduct, but rather to a situation in which both morality and human conduct are engaged in the management of numerous impulses across acquisitiveness, status, self-preservation, fear, aggression, the urge to power, sexuality, the search for self-fulfillment – as well as empathy – without a biologically pre-determined prioritisation of one impulse over the rest. How impulses present are a consequence of habit and ordering by a neurologically identified cognitive function. This does not favour empathy, but is strongly influenced by culture, individual traits and experience.

We need a greater awareness of morality as described here. We need to understand how it plays out and shifts across the population and recognition of its role across the gamut of public policy. This needs to span religion, moral philosophy and scientific understanding of the human condition and to encompass the latest thinking on morality, its causes, mutations, tensions and common features.

Such awareness would facilitate a move away from the current sluggish and haphazard public policy responses to changes in social mores and hand wringing denial of habitual behaviour. There is the need for an analytical resource such as a commission (similar to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission) to gauge movements and issues in the moral domain with the remit of supporting informed and responsive government action.

Clem Hemricson is the author of Morality and public policy, published by the Policy Press.

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