An Ethic for the Third Millennium

Written by Bill Toner SJ on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 40 An Ethic for the Third Millennium, 2001

Bill Toner, SJ

June 2001

Bill Toner, S.J. is the director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice


Culture is very fragile.  A society or group can live for hundreds of years in a particular way that holds the group together, ensures their survival, and gives meaning to their lives. Then something unexpected can happen, such as an invasion, or a new invention.  The culture may be enriched or transformed by these events, but it can also fall apart.   In this article I propose to examine in more detail the role of values during this process of transformation, with particular reference to our own culture on the island of Ireland.

When we speak of culture here we are not referring to what is sometimes called ‘high culture’ such as art and classical music, but rather to the way of life of a people.  Culture in this sense includes such things as ‘the meaning of life’ and religious beliefs, but also such things as the way people dress, their marriage customs and family life, their patterns of work and leisure, laws, religious ceremonies and so on.   To take two examples: in most of sub-Saharan Africa ‘bride price’ or lobola is an important part of African culture because it is the legal way to recognize the validity of marriage.

In  Ireland,  going  to  the  pub  for  a  drink  is something we take for granted, but our type of pub is so untypical that we have succeeded  in exporting this bit of our culture, profitably, all over the globe.

Figure 1

Previous articles in Working Notes [1] have explored the notion of culture and have described it as in Fig. 1.

Basic assumptions refer to the way a people picture the world to themselves.  Values, or ethics, refer to what the people think they ought to do, in general terms, in the light of these assumptions.  These values give rise to specific ways of behaving, and to art, industry and social structures.   Some of the artefacts and rituals created can assume great symbolic significance and carry a meaning that goes well beyond appearances.

Each level springs out of the level below it. For instance, an assumption by a group of poor people that they are, and always will be,  ‘outsiders’, could lead to them placing little value on education of their children, - “Education is not for the likes of us”.

There is also ‘feedback’ from higher levels in the pyramid back to lower levels.   If the group of outsiders just mentioned found themselves, for a change, being consistently treated in a very  inclusive  way  by  officialdom  and  other ‘insiders’ they might gradually lose the assumption that they are outsiders, because their experiences would begin to contradict this.  
Basic assumptions can be difficult to unearth, because they often work at an unconscious level.  What people say in regard to their basic assumptions cannot always be taken at face value.   It is probable that basic assumptions do not change by themselves, but only through the influence of ‘feedback’ from higher levels in the pyramid.

Cultural Values

This article focuses on the level of the pyramid called Values.  Values or ethics describe what ‘ought’ to be done, in the light of the basic assumptions.   For instance if there is a basic assumption, as there is in the dominant African world view, that every part of creation is inextricably linked, it will follow that animals and plants ought to be respected as an integral part of nature.   Or if, as in the United States, there is a basic assumption that the people who succeed in life are those who deserve to, then there will be little value placed on helping out the ‘losers’.

Values are a hugely important part of a culture.   Unlike assumptions, many of them are explicit, and are often enshrined in national  Constitutions.  On the other hand it is not always clear what people’s real, as against their stated, values are.   This can often be observed only in their behaviour.  For instance, we may like to say that we value hospitality in Ireland, but our attitude to immigrants may cast doubt on this.

Values always originate with a ‘practical’ intent.   In the light of their basic assumptions, any society will draw up a ‘list’ of things that ought to be done and things that ought not to be done.    In most cases values are derived from long experience.   Take, for example, norms regarding sexual behaviour.  Most societies in the past have tried to keep some control over sexual activity (as many still do today).   The reasons for this have varied.  However, the nuclear family (two adults living together in a household with children) has always been seen as playing an important part in society, even where extended family networks existed. [2]   The nuclear family was seen as a way of regulating sexual competition and jealousy, of establishing paternity, of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, of forming a tightly-knit group for defence, mutual help and ownership of property, and so on.   The sexual norms of many societies, aimed at protecting the nuclear family, were probably laid down over many centuries of painful experience.

Values are not solely a matter of practical calculation. People respond instinctively to certain actions as being ‘wrong’, for instance where they threaten the value of human life. This may be as a result of basic assumptions in the culture, or it may be something deep in the human psyche.   Nor are values only worked out on the basis of centuries of experience.   We can not, and do not, wait for centuries to make ethical judgments about something like human cloning.   Nevertheless values are essentially practical rules for living, looking to the long term rather than the short term, and to the benefits of the group rather than just the individual.

The Wheel of Culture

A culture which is more or less static can be depicted as a circular process as in Fig. 2:

Fig. 2  Traditional View of Culture

Here, Basic Assumptions give rise to values, and values shape particular behaviours and expectations, and these in turn reinforce basic assumptions.  For instance, belief in angry gods or spirits can assign a strong value to behaviour designed to appease the gods.   This could consist, for instance, of regular animal sacrifice.   If the rains continue to fall most years, and crops continue to grow, the basic assumption will be reinforced.   Occasionally the crops may fail, and in this case some rational explanation will be sought.   It may be deduced that the gods were angry because of some misconduct by the people or inadequate sacrifices.
In this scenario, all the components of culture hold together.   Only a major long-lasting catastrophe is likely to affect people’s basic assumptions and force them to reshape their culture.   The wheel of culture can go around for centuries without notable disturbance.
How important are values in integrating a culture and holding it together?  The American sociologist Talcott Parsons, who wrote a great deal on this subject, put great emphasis on the importance of shared values in maintaining social order.   His views have been criticized for over-emphasizing the importance of consensus, and ignoring the importance of conflict and change. [3] But it is not Parson’s emphasis on values, but rather his conservative view of society, that may merit criticism.

In a static society, such as the one envisaged by Parsons, the wheel of culture goes continually clockwise.  But in a rapidly changing society, such as exists today, the wheel of culture also works anti-clockwise, as in Fig. 3, with changing experiences modifying behaviour, new norms of behaviour leading to changes in values, and changed values modifying basic assumptions.

Fig. 3: Culture in a Changing Environment

For instance, a society may have as one of its basic assumptions that life is short and fleeting;  this leads to a high value being placed on stoicism and fatalism (or perhaps prayer); and this could lead to a norm of allowing sick people to die rather than making great efforts to cure them.  The basic assumption then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the ‘wheel’ is complete.

But suppose new drugs are discovered and (counter-culturally) administered to sick people who then recover.   This undermines the values of stoicism and fatalism, and may even seem to make prayer partly redundant.  This gradually modifies the unconscious assumption that life is short and fleeting.

Few cultures are completely static.  Some can be affected by enormous catastrophic events such as natural disasters, others by some less spectacular event, or slow erosion.   Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the barbarian invasions, the Black Death, the invention of the spinning jenny, the First and Second World Wars, the contraceptive pill, - all of these have led directly or indirectly to huge cultural changes.   The invention of the spinning jenny brought change at the level of artefacts.   The Black Death and the world wars caused people to look at life in a different way, and thus changed their basic assumptions.  
There is no doubt that modern societies that have once held a set of consistent and shared values can physically survive for some time when these values have lost their force.  The culture can then be said to be on ‘auto-pilot’, controlled by bureaucracies that continue to work off yesterday’s values.  For instance, the Church of England, as the established church, continues to play an official role in British society although its adherents are in a minority.  This is because it is difficult for any countervailing value to find general acceptance in a liberal and pluralist society.    But eventually a culture can become so riddled with anomalies that it no longer commands respect from anyone.

Changes in Values

Cultures do not change all of a piece.   There is a story told of a ‘work study’ that was done in the British Army on artillery companies.  The investigator found that in general the men fulfilled necessary roles, loading the gun, firing it, carrying shells and so on.  But he was puzzled about the job of one soldier who simply stood by and raised his hand in the air as the gun was being fired.  He thought this  might  be some kind of signal.  When he studied old manuals, he discovered that this man used to hold the horses reins to prevent them bolting when the gun went off.  When horses were done away with the companies continued to drill as if the horses were still there.  The story could well be apocryphal, but it illustrates the point that ‘relics’ of a culture can still remain around when the culture changes.   Until recently there was a statute on the books in San Francisco that made it illegal to shoot rabbits from tramcars.

When a culture undergoes a major change, there is often a crisis in values.   Some of the old norms become clearly redundant (“one ought not to shoot rabbits from tramcars”).  But what can easily happen is that when norms begin to be discarded, the whole value system can be called in question.  The values of society tend to be seen as a unified bloc or system, and values that may possibly be very important can be discarded along with those that are seen as out of date.   We sometimes talk of a legal anomaly ‘bringing the whole law into disrepute’.

Changes in culture rarely happen initially at the level of values.  Values usually change because assumptions change, or because artefacts and experiences change.  However if the dominant values of a culture are for some reason called into question, other values may be ‘imported’ to fill the breach – in fact this may be happening in Ireland at present.  Values have a practical ‘function’ in a culture, rather than being laid down for their own sake (though this is not to deny that certain values are essential to all cultures).   For instance a strong value may be assigned to private ownership of land in a society where tillage is important;  but in a nomadic society, where people hunt animals roaming wild on the prairies, fencing off land for private use would be dysfunctional.   In the 19th century there was a lot of conflict in the U.S.A. between ‘sod busters’ and ‘cowmen’ around this issue, as illustrated in the musical show ‘Oklahoma’.

Of particular relevance in Ireland has been the part played by the Catholic Church in defining social values.   Vatican II marked an enormous cultural change in the Catholic Church.  The Council considered that some of the values traditionally espoused by the Church were now redundant e.g. the value given to Latin in the liturgy.   But many Catholics then began to have doubts about other traditional church values, such as regular attendance at Mass, that the Council did not call in question at all.   Where the dominant values of a culture are laid down by some institution, such as a particular church or the state, there is the possibility that once people begin to doubt the institution, the whole value system will unravel.  This is particularly true where people have been discouraged from questioning and debate.    Where people have been encouraged to work out for themselves the reasons for particular values or moral rules, these values are more likely to survive cultural upheaval.   Until fairly recent times, many Catholics did not feel the need to examine the rationale for particular Church teachings.   They did not ask, why is perjury, or pre-marital sex, damaging to the social fabric?   It was enough that the Church said it was.  This is not to say that the Church never gave reasons for its teachings, but it tended to put more emphasis on what the law was than on the reasons behind it.   Moreover the Church teaching on infallibility in morals was also put across in a way that tended to discourage speculation about the reasons for moral norms.

Many people who agree that our values should be based on what is practical for society, would nevertheless say that it is impossible for us to work this out in certain cases.    Many of these people will fall back on religious authority, and look to church law as God’s revelation to us about what is good or bad for society.   It is certainly difficult to ‘prove’ whether or not euthanasia, for instance, is ‘practical’ for society in the longer term.   It could be argued that euthanasia will undermine the value we place on human life, that it will debase our feelings, and that it could lead to people being ‘killed off’ if society finds their survival inconvenient.  But other people will argue that there is no inevitability about this.   Or they might point to ancient societies like Sparta where sickly children were exposed and left to die without any obvious ‘practical’ disadvantages for the wider culture.  Given the failure of human logic to provide certainty about the long-term impact of particular practices, many opt for ‘divine logic’ or their own intuition.

At any rate, in a period of rapid change, a culture is at risk of losing one of its key components, as a large part of its value system is discarded.   Some of this may be for the best.   The values of authoritarianism, narrow nationalism and religious exclusivism characteristic of the middle part of the 20th century in Ireland, are best left behind.    A new set of basic assumptions have now been gradually formed.  But without a new set of values that indicate to people what they ‘ought’ to do, and how they ‘ought’ to behave, the culture is rudderless.

The Challenge of Liberalism

When we look at traditional cultures, we usually find greater unity than is to be found in our modern western cultures.   Basic assumptions are likely to be shared by all, and values held in common.  In many Islamic societies there seem to be a lot of values held in common in relation to, for instance, religion and prayer, family life and sexual behaviour, harsh sanctions against stealing and adultery, and so on.   Differences in views are not obvious but, if they exist, are clearly not tolerated.

In the west, the situation is quite different.  This is primarily because the most important value in western society is now considered to be individual  freedom.   Throughout history, freedom has always been an important value, but it has acquired different meanings and dimensions in particular cultures.  Among the ancient Greeks, and the Jews of the Old Testament, there was a greater emphasis on ‘national’ [4] freedom than on individual freedoms.  A major theme of Jewish writing is liberation from foreign tyranny or bondage, especially deliverance from Egypt and Babylon.   In ancient Palestine and Greece, national freedom was seen as an opportunity for people to live up to their personal responsibility, whether this be observing the Law, participating in government, or fulfilling one’s ordained role in society.   Responsibilities were seen as just as important as individual choice.

In an influential article written in 1959 [5] , the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two very different concepts of liberty, ‘freedom to’, and ‘freedom from’.   ‘Freedom to’ refers to the ability of a people to make collective decisions about certain aspects of their society, and it was the main concept of freedom to be found in the ancient world. In many Muslim countries the people exercise their ‘freedom to’ by imposing a strict code of conduct based on the Koran. ‘Freedom from’ refers to the rights of individuals not to have certain things done to them, including the imposition of certain restrictions.   For instance, people in Ireland are not forced to vote if they don’t want to, and sexual relations between consenting adults is not forbidden..

It is of the essence of contemporary liberal societies that  ‘freedom from’ tends to have priority over ‘freedom to’.  Most western countries can be described as liberal, but even in these, notable clashes occur between the two points of view.  An example of this can be seen in the abortion debate in Ireland.  In opinion polls, most of the Irish people have expressed a wish to enforce a public policy on this issue, through which direct abortion would be prohibited i.e. ‘freedom to’ legislate.   However a sizeable minority want the matter left to individual choice (‘freedom from’ coercion).

Ireland is not the only country where this division can be seen.   In the United States most people wanted the ‘freedom to’ have the Lord’s Prayer recited in their children’s classrooms.   But a minority wanted the ‘freedom from’ having this prayer imposed on their children.   The courts decided in favour of the latter, and the prayer was banned.

Because it puts such great store on ‘freedom from’, liberalism is not supportive of a strong cohesive culture, since it limits the ability of a society to take collective action and to create common norms.

In his defense of ‘negative’ liberty, Isaiah Berlin insisted that values are plural, and that ranking one value as better than another is not justified.    Liberal societies are by definition ‘pluralist’, meaning that they tolerate different values (for instance some people believe the purpose of life is pleasure, others moral goodness, and so on).  In the liberal/pluralist view, people should be free to make up their own minds about what they ought to do, as long as they do not interfere unduly with other people’s freedoms However somewhat ironically, the basis of a ‘pluralist’ society has to be a strongly held and shared value that there should be no requirement to have shared values.   To this extent it can be argued that liberalism has an inherently ‘illiberal’ streak.  This sometimes comes to the surface, for instance, when speakers considered to be ‘illiberal’ are prevented by student protests from speaking in universities.

There is no simple answer to the inherent contradictions of liberalism.   Isaiah Berlin argued that choice in a free society was inherently tragic, because not all desirable virtues could coexist in full measure.   “Liberty is Liberty”, he wrote, “not equality or fairness or justice or culture or human happiness or a quiet conscience”. [6]

Pluralism and Law

Much of the ‘pluralism’ of liberal societies, including Ireland, is an illusion.   It is unlikely that a completely pluralist society could last more than a few weeks.  Modern society is so complex that without a great number of shared norms of behaviour, chaos would ensue.  It is essential that people respect one another’s lives and property, pay their debts and their taxes, drive on the correct side of the road and so on.

In practice, pluralism in Ireland boils down to the following:  (a) ‘free speech’ is generally allowed (with due regard for laws regarding libel, incitement, sexism, racism, obscenity, contempt of court, and so on) and the press is free subject to the same constraints; (b) people are free to engage in a wide variety of business, social and leisure activities, within the law;(c) there is little attempt to control sexual relations, except insofar as vulnerable people have to be protected;  thus people are free to marry, live together, separate and so on; (d) people are free to practice religion in different ways, with due regard for public order; (e) people are free to associate in and with different groups, including political groups, again within the law.

‘Pluralism’ is greatly attenuated by law.   In pursuing almost any activity one cares to name, one has to take account of the law.  And the law is not ‘plural’.   If two people go walking in the countryside they both have to observe the law of trespass.   In this respect there is not a ‘plurality’ of ways they can go walking.   If two people run newspapers, both are bound by the law of libel.  Again there is no ‘plurality’ in this respect.   It is difficult to think of any activity where the law does not impose some degree, and often a great degree, of conformity.
Moreover, a major value in our society today is that the law should be allowed to take its course.    We do not all agree on the laws themselves, which can be passed by a bare majority in the Dail.    As is normal in a pluralist society, we do not agree among ourselves on the level of taxes or social welfare payments, speed limits, planning restrictions, water fluoridation, censorship, abortion, partition, religious control of schools, and a thousand other things.   We do not always observe laws ourselves if we can get away with it.    For instance when driving a car most of us, if absolutely certain that there were no speed checks and no obvious risk, would exceed the speed limit.  What almost all of us do agree on is, that if there is a law about any of these things, it should be allowed to take its course.   Most of us meekly accept speeding tickets, and pay them when any kind of legal pressure is applied.   We are annoyed if we suspect that somebody has got away with a speeding offence because of the position they hold.

So while people’s commitment to certain values is very shaky, nearly all of us recognize that laws are essential if society is to function with some degree of fairness and safety.  Laws usually aim at protecting some particular value, such as road safety or fair trading, and, even where we do not have much regard for the values they seek to protect, we generally respect the rule of law.   At first glance, this situation is not too dissimilar from that depicted by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651 [7] where he stated that the basis on which the modern state rests is an unwritten contract whereby we all give up to the state the right of governing ourselves, for our own self-preservation.

However, in a reasonably democratic society, there has to be some degree of agreement on a value before it becomes enshrined in law.   For instance litter laws could not be passed in the Dail unless there was a fairly general agreement that the country ought to be cleaned up.

The Limitations of Law

In traditional cultures, as has been stated, a shared value system has been the glue that kept societies together.  Modern theorists, such as the noted German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, have concluded that in modern society,  law is the primary means of social integration. [8]
But there are many ways in which law cannot play the same role as values:

(1)  Law is experienced as something that is just there. It is not something that engages people emotionally the way a value does.   Most people feel passionately that we should stop the carnage on the roads, but will still regard as a nuisance, or at best just a fact of life, the law that requires them to have their cars tested.

(2) Law is experienced as a coercive instrument, with overtones of power and even violence.   Many people would see a value in contributing some of their income to ‘public goods’ such as street lighting or the water supply.   But nearly everybody experiences taxation, which achieves this purpose, as oppressive, and are conscious that carelessness in this area could end up with a hefty fine or having their name published in the paper.

(3) Law requires lawyers, and this brings into the picture human fallibility, and sometimes even duplicity.   People have to employ lawyers, but they do not always love them, and people’s esteem for the law suffers as they realize that lawyers, and even judges, have feet of clay.

(4) Judges are not generally elected by the people, and are not directly accountable to them.   For this reason their judgements are sometimes perceived to be undemocratic and arbitrary.

(5)  Lawyers seem to take pride in saying that they do not administer justice, but only the law.  This undermines the whole purpose of law in people’s minds, and reduces it to the level of a game.

(6)  Insofar as legal judgments often have the effect of driving individuals or groups of people apart, they do not bring about social integration in the way shared values do, but merely a sullen accommodation.  This is particularly true in regard to courts adjudication on rights.  Most citizens never have occasion to vindicate their own rights, but may be directly or indirectly ‘on the receiving end’ of other peoples’ attempts to vindicate their rights.   Most people are conscious of the possibility of being sued rather than of suing.   In practice the vindication of rights is an antagonistic rather than a socially cohesive exercise.

(7)  The law can set a very minimalist standard of behaviour.  The observation that ‘there is no law against it’, can be taken as a licence to do things which clearly offend the values of many people. Moreover, the law can legislate for actions, but not for sentiments.  For instance, there is no law against greed.  In the business world anything within the law that increases profits and raises the share price, - downsizing, outsourcing, asset stripping - is considered good practice.

(8)   There can  be many loopholes in the law, and protracted legal wrangling can only be afforded by the wealthy.
If it is really true, as Habermas suggests, that law is the principal means of social integration, it is a poor substitute for the kind of cohesion that a shared set of values can bring.

It is of course true that the ability to vindicate one’s rights is an important part of the common good. Yet the potential for conflict between this vindication of rights and the pursuit of the common good is generally underestimated.

The Priority of Rights

In the ‘wheel of culture’ depicted in Fig. 2, values are the guide to behaviour for the members of the group as a whole.   In this way of looking at culture there is implicit a concept of a ‘common good’.  A useful definition of the common good is found in the papal encyclical Gaudium et Spes:  ‘the common good embraces the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families and organizations to achieve…fulfilment’.

Although the individual good is part of the common good, there are clearly situations where the two come into conflict.   For instance a wealthy person might achieve great peace and tranquillity by having his own private beach, but this could deny many other people healthy recreation.

In recent times the notion of the common good has become less popular, to the extent that some people deny the concept altogether.  There is no doubt that the concept has been abused, for instance where rulers have imprisoned or liquidated people in the interests of ‘the people’.   However central to the notion of the common good is that individuals achieve fulfilment within it.

Liberalism tends to see the law mainly in terms of rights.  Liberals also think of most individual rights as prior to social organization [9] . This means that, in the modern conception of them, human rights are divorced from the aims of society, or the common good.  This results in a separation between rights and responsibilities. [10]

The courts in Ireland have tended to express little concern for the common good.   An Irish judge wrote in 1999, in respect of personal injury claims:

The question is, should innocent victims of a negligent act who are badly injured be sacrificed on the altar of what is perceived to be the “common good”.  Is it preferable that the rights and interests of an individual are subjugated to those of a large group?  To be quite frank, I do not think so. [11]

But in fact many people might disagree that the interests of the individual (e.g. the man with the exclusive beach) are more important than those of the large group (all those people who cannot use the beach).

In fact, the conflict here is not really between rights and the common good, but between the legally defined rights of some individuals, and the less clearly defined but no less important rights of other individuals.  An example would be the recent dispute involving locomotive drivers.  The workers had a clearly defined legal right to seek membership of a union of their choice.   A hundred thousand commuters had a ‘right’ to travel unhindered, but one that unfortunately was less clearly defined and legislated for.   The common good is made up of a myriad of such rights, many of them ‘rights to’ - but a liberal society finds it difficult to come up with a way to protect them.

Though the United States is generally considered more liberal than Ireland, the train drivers’ dispute could not have happened there.   In U.S. companies, there are government-approved bargaining units, and the workers in that unit have to elect one union to represent them.  Unions  with  minority  support  have  no bargaining rights.   The U.S. legislature, with the support of the courts, have taken the view that multi-unionism is not in the public interest, and that this takes precedence over the individual right to associate.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the word ‘right’ is overburdened through its use in relation to such a wide spectrum of ‘wrongs’.  In particular, it is used in relation to obtaining redress for injury caused by alleged negligence or trespass, as well as injury caused by malice.   This means, for instance, that redress sought by a homosexual person in Egypt for imprisonment and torture comes under the same linguistic rubric as, say, the protection of the courts for the man who wants to keep his beach private.   An exaggerated conception of rights is less damaging to the public interest than a gross denial of rights, but it is still capable of inflicting serious social harm.

Neo-Liberalism:  Capitalism Re-Christened

Of all the great ‘-isms’ of the past two centuries, capitalism has shown the most resilience. The ‘ethic’ of capitalism is probably best expressed in the famous quotation of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

Every individual endeavours to employ his capital so that its produce may be of greatest value.  He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.  He intends only his own security, only his own gain.  And he is in this led by an INVISIBLE HAND to promote an end which was no part of his intention.  By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

To this epitome of the capitalist ethic can be added the notion that governments ought to reduce legislation to the indispensable minimum that will prevent invasions of individual liberty.   Adam Smith’s ideas were ‘liberal’ in the sense that the absence of controls were central to them.

The Great Depression of the 1930s led the British economist J.M.Keynes to challenge liberalism as the best policy for capitalists.  He stated that capitalism can flourish only if government and central banks intervene to increase employment.

But the capitalist crisis of the past 25 years, with shrinking profit rates, inspired the corporate sector to revive economic liberalism, now called ‘neo-liberalism’.  With the rapid globalization of the capitalist economy, we are now seeing neo-liberalism on a world scale.
The value system of ‘neo-liberalism’, has rushed into the gaps left in cultures by the demise of their traditional value systems.   Neo-liberal values are subtle and pervasive, possibly because they correspond to some of the baser instincts in human nature, and therefore we do not notice how strong a role they play in our culture.  They are also extremely simple, individualistic and limited in scope, so that they cannot play the integrative role in a culture played by traditional value systems.  One such value is that it is ‘wrong’ to make less money in any transaction than it would be possible to do so.  In the neo-liberal ethic, a landlord who refrained from evicting a long-standing tenant because they could not pay the increased ‘going rate’ would be regarded as silly.   Following the same ethic, a newspaper editor can choose to ruin the reputation of an innocent party (as happened in regard to Sophie Rhys-Jones) simply to make money and because ‘there is no law against it’.    In the neo-liberal ethic, sentiments such as compassion, generosity, or a sense of fairness have no place.

Some years ago a statement by the Wall Street banker Ivan Boesky, that  “Greed is good” received great publicity and led to a storm of indignation.   But a closer look at Adam Smith’s statement, which is part of the bible of capitalism and which has been in the public domain for centuries,  will  show  that  he  said much the same thing:  “Every individual…intends…only his own gain”.

Law or Values?

In contemporary liberal society,  the ‘wheel of culture’, depicted in Fig. 2, inevitably becomes buckled.   Instead of a set of shared and articulated values that would create a link between our basic assumptions and our behaviour, we have a set of laws and ‘rights’ which many people suffer rather than enthuse about, and which thus play a much lesser role than values in integrating the culture.  We still have some shared values, of course, but values are rarely discussed in a serious way, and are often the subject of  cynicism and satire. The most dominant values are those of liberalism and neo-liberalism, which can be summed up in the two maxims, ‘Leave me alone’, and ‘Greed is good’.  The assumnption of neo-liberal culture – that each person desires only their own gain – becomes part of the basic creed.   Our contemporary wheel of culture could be pictured as in Fig.4.

Fig. 4: Culture in a Modern Liberal/Pluralist Society

Successive Irish governments have been criticized for a lack of vision in regard to social policy and the future direction of our society.  But this deficit only mirrors  a  wider  failure  in our society to agree a coherent and constructive set of values that would form the basis of such a vision.  Perhaps most worrying is the fact that we do not even have a common language through which we can discuss values.    ‘Values’ or ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’ are debased concepts which few people feel comfortable in talking about.  They are seen as impractical (the precise opposite to their original meaning) or as being part of the ideology of a particular religious tradition, with no empirical basis.

In the absence of a shared value system, life still has to go on, however.    Stability is maintained through various devices.    Bureaucracies respond to pressing issues in a short-term, pragmatic way, using yesterday’s procedures.   Meanwhile new laws proliferate, sometimes as a reaction to some obvious abuse, such as money laundering.   Other new laws are inspired by the value system of some other country or political grouping, such as the E.U. or the United Nations.  The impression is given  that, while we may not share values, the ills of society can be solved by more laws which will eventually close every loophole.   Most of the new laws come in without any public debate, or without seeming to arise from widely held values.   Many citizens become aware of them only when they read about them in the paper or when they experience unexpected difficulty in some hitherto simple transaction such as opening a bank account or getting a car taxed.

A New Ethic Needed

In Ireland there are signs that neo-liberal values have gained ground. In recent years Ireland has been listed very near the top of the class in the ‘World Competitiveness Index’, which places great store on the absence of regulations that would restrain trade.  The capitalist ethic is basically anti-tax, and the tax wedge in Ireland is the third lowest in the OECD [12].  Our tax on company profits is one of the lowest in the industrialized world.   Not surprisingly, the gap between the richest and the poorest in Ireland is among the highest in the OECD.   Most large companies seem to have concluded that they have no social responsibilities whatever, and that their sole purpose is to make profits, often resulting in the massive aggrandizement of senior executives.  The recent spate of branch closures by banks is one example of corporate anti-social behaviour. The growing gap between private and public healthcare is also typical of a neo-liberal approach, in which the market becomes the main mechanism for distributing resources.   The government has also allowed private wealth to create serious inequality in the secondary school system, by its failure to provide either a low-fee alternative to grind schools, or some mechanism to lessen their impact on the selection process for third level.

There is no doubt that Ireland and many other countries have benefited materially from capitalist development.  It is also true that most of the alternative economic systems that have been tried have failed miserably, not only on the economic level, but frequently in relation to human rights.  The problem with the capitalist value system is not so much what it includes as what it leaves out.   It does not look for any purpose in life other than the amassing of wealth, so it does not concern itself directly with positive values such as family, health, art and ‘high’ culture, the environment, or problems such as social exclusion, child labour, and inequality.   It would be wrong to say that capitalist countries inevitably fall down in all these areas.   In the United States, the home of capitalism, a long tradition of human rights has acted as a protective shield, and the arts receive massive patronage from big business.   Yet in countries where neo-liberalism holds sway, broader social issues are addressed mainly insofar as governments are able to bring other sets of values into play and put some brake on the capitalist project.

In Ireland many traditional values have been swept aside,  and people are being easily seduced into neo-liberal ways of thinking.  Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the family.  In the prevailing value system there is enormous pressure on both parents to make as much money as they possibly can, and this is actively encouraged by the government through measures such as tax individualization, and ‘back to work’ schemes targeted at women.  The trade unions have also bought into this agenda, and critics of the trend are dismissed as anti-women.   Yet many parents, caught up in a competitive rat-race, regret the lack of time they can spend with their children.  More and more children come home from school to an empty house, and we have a rapidly falling birth rate.  But in the prevailing value system, where making money is the most respected vocation in life, these considerations are brushed aside and even ridiculed.

The lack of a more broad-based value system is probably the reason why some particular social problems in Ireland seem so intractable.   One of the most striking examples of this is the treatment of the traveller community.  There are few if any communities in Western Europe who have been so badly treated.  Six and a half thousand of them live in unserviced sites on the side of the road.  These lack access to running water, toilets and electricity, and have a reduced life expectancy.  Eight and a half thousand of them are seeking houses.  Most of their needs could be met fairly easily if the public will was there, but the values of solidarity and compassion needed to achieve this cannot compete with counter-values of snobbery and concern about property prices.   A recent  survey shows that 40% of the Irish people would not have a traveller family living beside them, a higher percentage than for any other ethnic group mentioned.   In recent times the government has announced that at last it is to devote serious resources to tackling the problem of rough sleeping.  Hopefully it can find a similar impetus to address the problems of travellers.

At the start of the third Christian millennium we find ourselves in Ireland without a coherent set of values that can give us a sense of unity and purpose, a vision for the future, or the ability to decide what quality of life we want for ourselves.  Without such values we will continue to measure our progress as a nation only by the crudest of quantitative measures such as Gross National Product. And while we may congratulate ourselves on these, there are other comparative statistics, such as those on drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and violence that point to some sickness in the soul of our people.   We need to find for ourselves a language in which we can talk about values, and give ourselves more room to debate them.   We need to challenge the current ethic of personal material gain. Otherwise we are faced with the slow erosion of our culture as self-interest and greed, now promoted to the status of a ‘good’,  corrode the values of community, cooperation and solidarity.

About the Author

We tend to think that law defines what crime is. This makes sense because contemporary legal codes are concerned with marking out the territory where conduct is permissible by specifying the conduct that is outlawed. Yet the earliest bodies of law – consider for example, the Torah or Hammurabi’s Code – are at least as committed to articulating the good as proscribing the bad... Read full editorial

Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.