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Moral sanctimony, fear’s snivelling friend

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I WROTE TO MY MP last Spring asking if he could have a word with Nicola Sturgeon to ask her to stop adopting a new language and tone that seemed suited to a head teacher addressing children at assembly.

Mr Flynn MP wrote back to let me know they were all too busy “saving lives” to respond properly. Assuming Mr Flynn wasn’t moonlighting as a secret agent, surgeon or lollipop man, it occurred to me he probably wasn’t actually ‘saving lives’.  His response was more about showing off what he thought was his new moral high-ground.

The same moral high-ground is often used as a rationale for doing things that before Covid might have seemed a little questionable on the moral front. The police encourage us to ‘save lives’ by reporting our fellow citizens for breaches of Covid regulations.  They show little kindness to upset families or elderly women when they appear at their homes in the late evening to investigate reports of garden teas or visitors from outside the household.

And it’s not just the police.  There seems to be a fair number of officials who seem to have lost any sense of compassion for others, such as the crematorium worker who berated a mourner for moving his chair nearer to his mother during his father’s cremation.  ‘Saving lives’ wipes the floor with kindness, compassion and understanding.

Individual and group morality develop over time and we should be on our guard against sudden cultural shifts which seem to go against our hardy, perennial ethics.  Of course, it’s to our benefit to have a shared understanding of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and in a pandemic, changes in behaviour are necessary.  But when a new moral code is introduced, and we are asked to ignore our own instincts, we should always ask ‘is this reasonable?’

A government asking us to comply to new laws is one thing.   Asking us to do ‘good’ by doing something that up to last year, we would have baulked at, is a step too far.

We should be infuriated at government interference in our morality.  This lockdown approach can be criticised on many fronts, it may be incompetent, ill-thought out, and disproportionate or even not severe enough, depending on your view. Well-intentioned incompetence is  forgivable. But what is shameful is the morally sanctimonious approach which encourages citizens to leave aside basic compassion. That’s not incompetent. That is an extraordinary abuse of power.

Fear of a new, dangerous virus, fear of being shamed or criminalised, these are powerful motivators.  Fear changes our own behaviour and our own thinking.  If we begin to judge our neighbours’ behaviour through the prism of the new orthodoxy a pseudo-religious sanctimony begins to seep into to our increasingly secular world.  Fear and its snivelling sidekick, moral sanctimony, don’t bring out the best in us but both are now present and correct and are strongly influencing society’s judgements.

If you support asking a whole population to stay at home, to put on weight, to become alcohol dependent, to be alone, to lose their livelihoods and then as a cherry on top, to also spy on their neighbours, then your moral universe has maybe been interfered with by our government.

If you don’t notice the government is creating a pantomime morality (applaud the ‘heroes’, boo the ‘covidiots’) and are patting yourself on the back with nonsense such as  ‘We are all in this together’ then you may have been morally tampered with.

Here’s my view.

There is no question of my making you go out of your home if there is a dangerous new virus – that would be absolutely wrong.  So why would you have me stay in?  I accept that it’s not what everyone thinks and I support the rule of law.  But that’s not the same as going along with our government creating a climate where my view is somehow less ‘decent’.  In a very short time, the government has not only removed our basic rights, but is asking that we replace personal conscience with government guidelines.

Accept laws, fair enough. That’s the world that we live in.  But we don’t need to let the government take over our own moral code.   I’d clap for preventing that.

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Gail MacDonald is from the west coast of Scotland. She studied at Nottingham and has been a professional psychologist and writer for over twenty years working in both public and private sectors. Views expressed here are personal.

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