There is a common thread running through many recent stories: paedophilia at Caldicott prep school and in modern Rochdale, the murders of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and by Sergeant Alexander Blackman in Afghanistan, perhaps even segregation of student audiences and opposition to thebadger cull. The link is that people are left stranded by changing moral standards, because morality is always evolving.
What is so striking about the prep school scandal is not only that nobody thought at the time that a predatory headmaster was much of an issue (just the price you have to pay, old chap, for a really dedicated teacher), but that even ten years ago a judge could argue that it was better for all concerned if a prosecution was halted. The idea that the child’s welfare is paramount in such a case is relatively new; it would have seemed laughable in the 1950s.
Compared with then, modern society is far more tolerant of homosexuality but far less tolerant of paedophilia. The Caldicott headmaster, Peter Wright, would probably have been prosecuted with gusto for living openly with a man his own age in 1959, the year of his first offence against boys.
At the time you would have been hard put to predict this moral reversal. Indeed, some guessed wrong about how tolerance would evolve. It has emerged that in the mid-1970s the National Council on Civil Liberties (now Liberty) accepted the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) as an affiliate member, allowed its chairman to address its conference and passed a motion declaring that “awareness and acceptance of the sexuality of children is an essential part of the liberation of the young homosexual”. The Home Office launched an investigation last week into its own apparent funding of the PIE at the time.
Jimmy Savile just escaped, as Stuart Hall did not, this evolution of morality. In their heyday there was not thought to be all that much wrong in celebrities seducing under-age, star-struck girls. The Rochdale abusers in the news last week, and those who failed to investigate their cases thoroughly, likewise failed to appreciate society’s changing standards.
The morality of war is changing too. Sergeant Blackman is discovering that the modern world does not consider cold-blooded murder, even in the heat of battle, acceptable. Such a prosecution would never have happened after, say, Stalingrad or Normandy. Anybody who thinks Lee Rigby’s murder would never have happened in London in the “good old days” needs to read more history. But Anjem Choudary and Michael Adebolajo are similarly caught out of time — both wanting to push the moral clock back to a time when eye-for-eye revenge against the innocent was honourable or pious. The question responsible Muslims need to answer is why some followers of Islam are so keen on reversing this inexorable, progressive evolution of morality.
The best understanding of how morality evolves comes from the work of Norbert Elias, a sociologist who had four horrible experiences of violence: a nervous breakdown in the First World War when fighting for Germany, emigration to escape Nazi persecution in 1933, internment by Britain for being a German in 1940 and the death of his mother in Auschwitz. Yet half way through this series of blows he published a book that argued the world was getting less violent. The year 1939 was not a good year to disseminate such a message, let alone in German. It was only when it was translated into English in 1969, by which time Elias had retired from Leicester University, that the book (called The Civilising Process) shot him to fame.
Elias had spent many hours delving into medieval archives, concluding that life in the Middle Ages was routinely much more violent than today. He also argued that manners and etiquette were coarser in the old days and he linked the two. The book’s revival was helped 12 years later by the compilation of a graph that showed a hundredfold decrease in homicide rates per 100,000 people in England since the 1300s: statistical evidence for Elias’s hunch. Till then, most people thought the modern world more violent than the old days; plenty still do.
The psychologist Steven Pinker, alerted by the graph and others like it from all across Europe, documented in his recent book The Better Angels of our Nature the inexorable, widespread and continuing decline in the West in virtually all forms of violence: homicide, rape, torture, corporal punishment, capital punishment, war, genocide, domestic violence, child abuse, hate crimes and more. Pinker agreed that etiquette changes were part of the same trend.
Pinker summarises the Elias argument thus: beginning in the 11th century and maturing in the 18th, “Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration”. The root of this change lay in government and commerce. As monarchs centralised power in feudal societies, being polite at court began to matter more than being good at violence. And as commerce replaced feudal obligations, people had to learn to treat strangers as potential customers rather than potential prey.
Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that — with occasional backward lurches, and some exceptions — morality has progressed towards niceness. Hence the long list of habits that, one by one, become unacceptable as the decades pass: hanging, drawing and quartering; spitting at meals; slavery; cock fighting; sexism; homophobia; smoking.
So the question immediately suggests itself. What am I doing today that my great-grandchildren will find disgusting and might even get me prosecuted in old age? When I asked Pinker for his answer, he replied: “That’s easy — meat eating.” I would add field sports. I consider hooking a trout on a dry fly, or shooting a fast woodcock for the pot, to be acts of almost noble communion with nature, but others already see them as barbaric. It seems unlikely that my view will prevail in the very long run.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.