More moral confusion

The Guardian currently seems determined (if inadvertently) to confirm all the right-wing stereotypes about liberalism destroying morality, at least in parenting. After Barbara Ellen’s article (which I discussed a week or so ago), take an article accompanying a recent survey showing that parents often don’t know what their teenagers get up. In the article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/britain/article/0,,2020511,00.html) Polly Samson (an otherwise unidentified, but obviously middle-class and prosperous mother) and her son write about their reactions to doing the survey. And this is what the mother says:

At my most optimistic, I imagine my children will try most things – but just once – because there are activities I regret missing out on during my early teens. Shoplifting, for example. I was surprised that 65% of parents didn’t think their children had shoplifted, because I assumed that most kids would give it a shot at some point. I would hate to find myself doing a Winona now, but I yearn to try my sleight of hand and it just isn’t age-appropriate. So, off you go, children – but remember, only steal from large conglomerates and not from small businesses.

Let’s spell it out plainly for the hard-of-thinking. Shoplifting is theft and as such, morally wrong. It doesn’t matter who you steal from. And it is a morally wrong act when done by anybody capable of understanding right from wrong, whatever their age. The law rightly sets limits below which children are not regarded as morally competent. The law also follows common sense by recognising that although older children can understand the difference between right and wrong, they are still less culpable than an adult committing a similar crime, because they are more easily swayed and have less mature judgement. That does not mean that it is right or acceptable for children to steal, it only means it is less wrong. If you refuse to teach your children about this moral difference, why should they stop stealing after the one try?

Why have some liberals, like this mother, apparently lost all sense of a moral compass? Partly it may be self-centredness: one of her comments is that ‘perhaps I should have spent less of my teens trying to please my parents and more time pleasing myself.’ It is also that liberals are trying to avoid being hypocrites. Most people are tempted to do wrong things sometimes: to pretend you’re not is unrealistic. Part of the liberal approach to looking at crime and misbehaviour has been this understanding of the weaknesses within all of us. Though the best summary of it is in the very un-liberal G. K. Chesterton (in ‘The Secret of Father Brown’(http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/c/chesterton/gk/c52fb/chapter33.html):

“I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.

“I don’t mean just a figure of speech…I mean that I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murders. I didn’t actually kill the men by material means; but that’s not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realized that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. It was once suggested to me by a friend of mine, as a sort of religious exercise. I believe he got it from Pope Leo XIII, who was always rather a hero of mine.”

The key here, though, is Chesterton’s reference to ‘final consent to the action’. Polly Samson and her like seem to have concluded from the fact that most people are tempted to misbehave and that teenagers are particularly bad at self-control, that therefore it is not only inevitable but also acceptable for her children to do wrong. It may be good parental sense not to over-react to teenagers misbehaving. Simply to condone their misbehaviour is a disservice to the children you are responsible for.

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2 thoughts on “More moral confusion

  1. You are right, I think, that liberals try to avoid being hypocrites. It’s a pity that this can become so all-or-nothing. There should be room for the idea that we fall short of the ideals we strive for – that doesn’t make us hypocrites for trying, or for encouraging others to try.

    Having said that, there is a surprisingly prevalent view that it’s OK to steal from large organisations, as if the harm were diluted, like pissing in the ocean. There is a belief that it’s somehow a victimless crime – yet the victims are the workers and shareholders (many of whom will be pension funds). That’s to say nothing of the harm it does to the individual. One can’t be ‘a little bit’ dishonest.

    Another point: in GB, shoplifting has been downgraded to an offence with on-the-spot fines, like parking in the wrong place. If you pay your fine, you don’t get a criminal record. Not surprising then that some people feel legitimated in their cavalier attitude to it. When young, they might have felt it was rebelling against bourgeois values – now it seems that there isn’t much value there at all.

    Stealing is an interesting concept. It implies a ‘from’. Examine the difference there and a whole social construct will emerge.

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  2. Tsk, Tsk, we shouldn’t be negative to the little darlings. We don’t want any of them to receive jail time until 18 and we don’t want any corporal punishment for them. In fact, we don’t want any negative FEELINGS now do we. lol

    Maybe the mother isn’t giving enough positive reinforcement for the good behaviour. Maybe the teens are just the same as teens have always been.

    Most things work in theory. But reality is a little different.

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