Franklyn Addo and Alexander Chancellor debate modern morality as an Essex University study points to a fall in standards
Flicking through most newspapers these days can cause you to lose hope in humanity: stories of promiscuity, fraud, drug-taking and willingness to purchase stolen goods at a discounted price are legion. Recent research by the centre for the study of integrity at the university of Essex has brought about some interesting conclusions about the moral standing of contemporary Britain, including ideas about how "low level dishonesty" has become more tolerable to the general public, with social class, income level or education being irrelevant. It also concludes that there is much higher tolerance of dishonesty among people below the age of 25.
I have witnessed such dishonesty and immorality at first hand in secondary school. Many people spoke of conducting bank scams and fraudulent transactions to acquire large sums of money without having to work for it. They would regularly ask for bankcards they could use to facilitate such transactions, promising a cut for everyone involved. The attitude to drugs among my age group is also perhaps more liberal than previous generations, with many people being open to using substances such as cannabis for recreational purposes. Promiscuity is also far more common from a strikingly young age. I have, thankfully, never been involved in such activities, despite being exposed to them ? my religious inclination instilled in me a focus on academia, and my family also had a strong discipline in place.
We may not be angels in comparison to our grandparents, but it is too simple to blame a particular demographic for a decline in the moral fabric of society. This so-called moral erosion is not inherent in my generation: it is the consequence of deep-rooted factors within society ? and in some ways it might be beneficial. It may not be scientific, but I would say that autonomy and free thinking are far more common among my generation than they ever have been before.
One problem with the University of Essex's "integrity" survey was that it chose tests people were most likely to fail. For instance, it gave as an example of moral decline that there is much greater tolerance of cannabis smoking today than there was 10 years ago, but if it had canvassed opinion on cigarette smoking it would probably have come up with the opposite finding. Cannabis is now widely regarded as relatively harmless, whereas cigarette smoking is apparently all but universally deplored.
It also seems odd to me that the researchers should have chosen as a measure of integrity what people do when they find money in the street ? an occurrence so rare and fortuitous that it might well feel like a blessing from heaven.
The survey's conclusions seem, however, to reflect not only shifting attitudes to what constitutes a moral failing, which are to be expected, but also the decline of "integrity" as a valued part of the British identity and a source of national pride. Largely because we have lost all respect for politicians, bankers and most other traditional standard bearers of public morality, we no longer regard Britain as ethically superior to other nations.
In fact, we now seem to regard ourselves as little different from the French in this respect, whereas once we despised them for their supposed corruption and sexual immorality. But I rather doubt whether the survey reveals a general moral decline among the British people. They may feel more relaxed than they once were about telling fibs, avoiding taxes and breaking the speed limit, if only because they see their leaders doing such things. But they continue to draw the line at behaviour hat inflicts harm or distress on others.
In this attitude there survives a sense of civic responsibility, or respect and concern for one's neighbours. And it is this disapproval of people taking advantage of others that may explain the survey's surprise finding that benefit cheats are now more widely condemned.