To what extent can the state change a culture? It is a question that has dogged politicians since, well, since we started sinning. David Cameron believes that society is broken and that he has the power to make us less impregnated, less intoxicated, less riotous and more benevolent. Ed Miliband believes that he too can change a culture and make us less greedy, less lazy, less individualistic.
We Brits can only laugh. No politician can make us moral, we are likely to say. We have always sinned and will always sin: we have always been a beer-swilling, tavern-brawling nation, through Medieval times to Dickensian, and no poncy French noble or Gladstonian high priest can make us stop. We have always been a multi-bonking, hasty-breeding group, whether the gals who catch our eye be buxom Georgian beasts or ravenous Pre-Raphaelite floozies. And greed wasn’t invented by Thatcher: the rich have always desired a lavish life of luxury; the last 60 years have made us all richer and so greedier.
Human nature remains constant. We are driven by the same lusts, desires, hungers as we were a century ago. No politician can change that.
Or at least, this is what I believed until recently. A conversation I had with a close friend made me think twice. I was arguing that the Victorian age was a strange period in British history, because in the midst of a long tradition of good ol’ British sin, we all collectively started being hypocrites. We may have preached and believed in being virtuous, but we continued to act in the same way; we carried on sinning. Prostitution was rife, pornography boomed due to the growth of printing and photography, and British gentlemen still had affairs. It was just hushed up.
My friend was not persuaded. He was convinced that Britain had gone through a moral decline. But he had no evidence for this. So he tried to persuade me through pure reason, like those odd twelfth-century theologians who try to prove, without any reference to evidence, that God exists.
Look, he said, Britain has gone through a moral decline. I told him that it depends what you mean by “moral decline”; he had a definition of “moral” which was different from mine. “And I suspect,” I told him, “that by moral decline, you really mean religious decline. There has undoubtedly been a religious decline, but not a moral decline.”
He was flummoxed. “So you think there were beliefs these people held, that did not influence them one iota, not one jot?” Yes, I said. “But surely on an individual level,” he said, “you believe that you can be restrained by beliefs? That we are not just animals, and our desires can be restrained by our morals?” Yes, I said. “And there are such people, even today, who are restrained from acting in a certain way by their religion?” Yes, I said, thinking there might be a trap along the way. He scoffed. “So you think we can be restrained on an individual level but not on a social level?!?”
Bruised that I had lost another argument, I reflected. Perhaps he was right. Vices and virtues will always exist, but perhaps they can be restrained or encouraged by culture. Human nature is constant, and we will always be greedy and lustful and slovenly, but different cultures can encourage or restrain us. The benefits system is a good example of a system which can encourage idleness and dependency. I’m sure that a sexualised culture can only nudge us into more promiscuity. A greed-is-good culture can only encourage financial recklessness.
This is an idea which hasn’t been given much prominence in the past 60 years. The central goal of our age has not been to make us more virtuous, but to make us more free. In the sixties, politicians made us free to have gay sex, abort the baby and divorce more easily, and then write an uncensored play about how horrific the gay-sex-dead-baby-divorce thing was. In the eighties, politicians unleashed the free market on not just the economy, but schools, hospitals and even the police force, in the hope that it would make us more free. It is an experiment in which all have conspired: the media, the internet, advertising, music, all urging us to be more free.
What happened to the political ideal of creating a virtuous society? Its death was marked by Isaiah Berlin’s demand that we reject values from our political discourse: the truly liberal thing to do is allow people freedom to pursue their own values, not the state’s values. Terrible things will follow if governments urge people to behave a certain way, as we have seen from tyrannous states in the grip of socialist ideology or religious fervour.
We have forgotten Aristotle‘s ideal that a state can, and should, seek to cultivate virtues in its citizens. This is why we react with ridicule to any politician who thinks they can make us more moral. When David Cameron said that the tax system should be changed to nudge us into marriage – for the reasons that marriage fosters virtues such as commitment and companionship, and loving parents are more likely to instil virtues in their children – he was greeted with near-universal derision. When Ed Miliband said recently that the state should nudge businesses away from amoral business practices and nudge benefit-claimers towards virtuous actions that would benefit the community, he was near-universally panned.
It is an old idea: the idea that virtue is more important than freedom. I can only wonder if we will ever go back to it.