Choices Undermines Social Responsibility

Bruce Logan

I was in with parliament on the day the lowering of the drinking age bill was passed. I spoke with several members. With the exception of one, maybe two there seemed to be little awareness of the major arguments that had been made against the lowering of the age. The seriousness of the decision, how it might impact young people and the more vexed issue of adult responsibility for youthful behaviour was another country.

In both Christchurch and Auckland it is now a common event for over 15 year olds to be so drunk they need medical treatment. Many kids seem to believe that one drinks for the sole purpose of getting drunk. There might not be a causal link between increased youthful consumption and the lower age limit but it certainly looks like it.

And so we have pressure from the police, medical professionals and other social agencies to reconsider the drinking age. Well that might help, I’m not sure, but what is clear is that there is very little discussion in New Zealand about the responsibility that adult New Zealanders have for the moral and character education of our youth.

Two myths have made responsible discussion very difficult. The first, says, give young people good quality information and they will make the decisions that are best for them. We cannot possibly impose on them the virtues of self-restraint because our own hypocrisy would be too obvious—altogether too embarrassing. And anyway we have forgotten what self-restraint might once have been.

The second myth is deeper but related. The primary focus of compulsory education is the realization of potential and the fostering of self-esteem. This is a marked departure from the past when education was primarily a moral enterprise.

Here is something from a New Zealand curriculum statement in 1904: The formation of character is about; kindness to animals; candour; honour; love of home; forgiveness and forbearance; peace; duty; accuracy and painstaking; contentment; benevolence or humanity; cheerfulness; self-reliance; self-respect; modesty; courage; prudence; zeal and energy; justice; loyalty and patriotism; respect for law; magnanimity; integrity of purpose; precept and example.

Even as late as 1942 The Thomas Report says; the aim of modern education is not only to create people who are self disciplined, gifted in work and in enjoyment but also generous and responsible in social life, willing to serve social ends and to lose themselves in social purposes greater than themselves.

The problem with education in 2001 is that we focus on self-realization and foster self-esteem in a context of no clear understanding of character education. Vacuousness in the defence of tolerance cloaks itself as a virtue.

In schools right across New Zealand now there is an almost obsessive interest in values. In short we are worried about our kids; drinking, binge drinking in particular is only one of our problems.

We say that we are concerned. We say we want a refocus on values, some of us even use the word character. But we really don’t know what we are asking for. Any culture’s use of alcohol is tied up in its social fabric. To focus merely on the drinking age obscures the seriousness of the problem.

If we really want to teach values and character then we are going to have to take seriously the old-fashioned idea of self-discipline and actually teach it. We are going to have to renew the creedal order that once informed us. But we are likely to find that something that limits, constrains, obligates and compels to be too high a price to pay.

For a long time now have wanted character without conviction. We have wanted a moral framework without the emotional burden of real guilt or shame. And we have wanted virtue without the consideration of moral justification that offends. In short we have wanted decency without the authority to insist upon it. We want moral community without limitations to personal freedom. Choice must be our primary imperative and we even teach sex education of the young with that philosophy.

Ultimately we want the impossible. We want the good without having to name evil. Therapy is more important than justice.

Waiting to be rediscovered is the way that society attaches people to good behaviour. This also has a vocabulary waiting to be re-learned, re-understood and turned into practice again.

Older societies were not afraid to use conscience, guilt, shame, stigma, authority, example and approbation to make people responsible. The problem is that we are a society that has denied and denigrated the sanctions that all previous societies have used to maintain virtue.

As respectable society has become more tender and forgiving, the unrespectable (to use the old fashioned language of virtue) have become impervious to shame and guilt – affectless as the psychologist would say or conscienceless as the moralist would say.

It used to be a guiding principle of society (of all societies but liberal ones mainly) that social and moral sanctions are preferable to legal and penal ones. Not only because they were less harsh but because they were internalized in the individual.

Edmund Burke reminds us, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more we will have to place it without. For most of our history we assumed the power within, conscience, convention, religion, the moral sense. That was the humane and civilized way to control public behaviour. But the modern notion of tolerance and choice has destroyed that so we must revert more and more to the law and punishment.

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