Heed the wisdom of the elders
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 84 winter 2011
I have been consulting our tribal elders and their message for the rest of us is very clear: until we find a way of restoring our sense of being a community, our moral sensitivity will continue to suffer. This belief in the twin concepts of community and morality as being inextricably linked emerges from my research into the attitudes of australians born in the years 1920-1935. From the vantage point of their retirement years, they consistently remark that “society is breaking down” and that this is the root cause of our diminished regard for ethics in personal and business life.
In making this connection, our elders are tapping into ancient wisdom. The sense of ethics has always been, inescapably, a social sense: we have always needed the experience of living in a community to develop an understanding of what is right and wrong. All the important moral questions arise from trying to live in a social context and it is only from a sense of mutual dependency that we learn to appreciate the force of mutual obligation. The implication of older Australians’ criticism of the rest of us is, of course, that they believe that their own generation had a clearer sense of morality and that this was the direct result of a clearer sense of belonging to an identifiable community.
As one participant in our research project put it:
All these things go together. When I was a young bloke, people in the district knew each other. You could go to the shops and they knew who your parents were or, if you got into a spot of bother, the local cop would clip you over the ear and send you home. Today, kids can run wild and no-one knows who they are. People don’t have the same kind of morality if they don’t feel as if they are part of a community.
That may be a rose-tinted recollection. It expresses, however, an almost universal opinion among the older generation that their upbringing in properly functioning neighbourhoods was the crucial factor in their own sense of personal morality and in the formation of values which relied upon the idea of mutual obligation.
The head of Esprit, John Bell, echoed that opinion in referring to his childhood in a rural community where people rallied together in times of crisis. Not long before he died, he said in a speech that “our business sector could do well to rediscover some of those rural values and learn from them”. The values he was referring to are not peculiarly rural: they emerge in any community where the sense of belonging is sharp enough to stimulate and to encourage us to take the rights and the needs of others into account.
Peter Singer, author of How Are We to Live?, makes the same point as Bell: ethics develop more easily in small communities where people can see the immediate implications of their actions. “In big cities, we do not feel the same moral links” Singer says.
The tribal elders can recite a long list of examples of what they see as a decline in morality tied to a diminishing sense of being a community: increases in shop-lifting associated with the death of local, neighbourhood shopping centres and personal relationships with shopkeepers; increasing vandalism by people who have no sense of responsibility towards the environments in which they live; excessive permissiveness in the raising of children in families where both parents work and where there isn’t enough time to devote to the fostering of personal relationships from which our core values evolve.
What if they are right? What are we going to do about this timely reminder that morality is an outcome of the sense of belonging to a community? If we accept that disintegrating communities kill off our moral sensitivities, it is clear that an urgent priority is to rebuild our sense of being a community. In the workplace, in the retail environment, in the neighbourhood at large, the challenge is to find new ways of putting people back into closer personal contact with each other.
The surge of interest in ethics is a necessary reaction to our growing realisation of what has happened to us but there is a real danger of putting the cart before the horse. Unless we feel like members of a community, our capacity to respond to the philosophical arguments in favour of ethics will remain severely limited. Perhaps we are beginning to realise that we need to take a closer look at what makes communities function so that we can do a better job of designing environments where humans can more easily act like social – and therefore moral – creatures.
Once we recognise the nature of the relationship between community and morality, we will also recognise that it is the urban planners, the architects, the developers and the systems engineers, at least as much as the philosophers, who will shape our moral futures.