There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!

The Dodo was wrong.

The Dodo was wrong.

Another depressing statistic appeared in the news this week. According to a report by the OECD, our teenagers (between 16 and 19 years old) had the worst literacy skills of the 23 developed countries they assessed. We were also second-bottom in the group in terms of numeracy skills. We have three times as many people with poor performance in these very basic skills than do the top performing countries (Finland, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands).

These changes have developed over the years and through this time we have changed education in such a way as to fool ourselves into thinking we have been improving. The great experiment to move away from “transmission teaching” and towards progressive educational ideals has seriously damaged our educational system. Unfortunately, while we have done this we have altered how we assess education and inflated the number of exam passes we now award ourselves. As the Dodo said “Everybody has won and all must have prizes“. So each year we pat ourselves on the back, proud in the ever increasing number of awards achieved by school pupils while ignoring reports from OECD and PISA, or objective measures of performance, which reveal growing functional illiteracy and innumeracy.

These changes not only hide our problems but add to them. Despite poor skills we still send greater numbers to university and award degrees. These certificates of tertiary education are becoming devalued as they increasingly unable discriminate for high levels of achievement. Indeed they can no longer even ensure adequate levels of educational attainment.

In the commercial world, it is unlikely that our future will be secured by our ability to compete with other nations in what we can dig out of the ground, grow in the ground or rear upon the ground. Our heavy industries are inefficient and not able to compete with other providers. We often see our salvation in our skills in the “knowledge economy” and our ability to market our intellectual abilities. These findings should make us fearful of our ability to successfully pursue this strategy.

We need to be clear in our vision. If we do not want to compete as a low-wage high-manpower economy, with the reduced living circumstances this would entail, then we need urgently to improve our eduction system. We need to focus on strategies shown to be effective in improving skills (such as “transmission teaching”) and scorn fads which let our children fail. If we fail, our children may end up with their degrees working minimum wage jobs in failing industries in a poor and decaying economy – the certificates and awards perhaps mainly useful as kindling.