Ethical vacuum

The Moral State We're In: a manifesto for a 21st-century society

Julia Neuberger <em>HarperCollins

The ambition of the title intrigued me. I was right behind Julia Neuberger, willing her on. We need a debate about morality, and here is someone steeped in both a moral tradition (thanks to her experiences as a rabbi) and the institutional practice of morality (thanks to her time as chief executive of health think-tank the King's Fund). Who better to promote this debate and to ensure that profoundly moral questions about who we care for, and how, get on to the airwaves and the comment pages?

Morality is undergoing something of a make-over. By the late 20th century, the word had come to be understood almost exclusively in terms of private, especially sexual, behaviour. To describe a person as "moral" conjured up someone who was rather proper - stiff, censorious and lacking in humour. But a debate about morality is emerging that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with rights. In Moralities: sex, money and power in the 21st century (2001), Joan Smith argued that the debate had moved from "bedroom to boardroom". Morality was no longer about Victorian notions of proper sexual behaviour, but about human rights and the accountability of political and economic power.

Neuberger's argument is in the same territory. She focuses on five distinct areas of domestic policy: the elderly, the mentally ill, the young and vulnerable, prisoners and the outsider. She begins by asking us to consider the nature and extent of our obligations to these groups, and then presents something of a school report on how we are doing. Not surprisingly, she is pretty appalled by our treatment of the marginalised and powerless. She castigates our willed ignorance: we simply don't want to know much about the kinds of lives led by the mentally ill, children in care and those in prison. "I have watched bemused as we have apparently become less and less caring for, or even aware of the suffering of, the most vulnerable in our society," she writes.

Neuberger's arguments echo those of right-wing moralists who claim that, as individualism runs rampant, society is in terrible moral decline. But while the latter would point to family breakdown, cohabitation and teenage pregnancy as evidence of social disintegration, Neuberger focuses on how individualism and a preoccupation with the self have contributed to "an increasing human reluctance to get involved" with the plight of the most needy. She insists that it is not just an increasing selfishness that has brought about this state of affairs, but "a complex pattern of interacting ideas, events, the zeitgeist, and personal human attitudes".

However, Neuberger never tells us exactly what this "complex pattern" is. She takes pot-shots at a few culprits. Our obsession with risk aversion is putting off those - such as men - who might want to work with children but fear the suspicion they could arouse. She cites the absurdity of risk management: to meet health and safety regulations, it can take as many as four care workers to change an old person's light bulb. She goes on to criticise what she describes as our "obsession with self": "We have never been so internally reflective, so obsessed with ourselves and our feelings . . . As we look deeper and deeper into ourselves, we lose the inclination to help others, to serve others . . ."

But none of this explains why we should feel less responsibility towards those less fortunate than ourselves. I lost track of what Neuberger was or was not saying about risk. She acknowledges that children need protection from paedophiles, but regrets how that may discourage men from taking jobs or volunteering roles with children. She accepts that there are some terrible cases of violence perpetrated by the mentally ill - such as the recent case of cannibalism - but rightly laments how they distort the facts and stigmatise all mentally ill people. These are fantastically complex issues, and Neuberger, perhaps understandably, offers no real solutions.

As for our "obsession with self", Neuberger mentions this in her introduction, but then says nothing to substantiate the accusation, or explain its causes. Who and what is she talking about? It sounds to me as if she is briskly telling therapists and their patients to stop moping and get on with their lives. But is this anything more than prejudice? In my experience, those capable of "looking deeper and deeper" into themselves tend to be the wisest and most dedicated to the service of others.

We are left to make what we will of Neuberger's whistle-stop tour of the welfare state's failures and inadequacies. Throughout the book, I kept asking myself what her argument was, and I was puzzled, upon reaching the end, to find no conclusion. Neuberger marshals her material carefully, and much of it is quite interesting, but it is hard to see what she is telling us that we would not already have gleaned from a close read of the broadsheets.

I longed to be told how an ethical tradition inculcates and maintains a sense of mutual responsibility - a subject on which Neuberger has surely reflected. I wish that she had considered how the ethical legacy of Judaeo-Christianity, having deeply influenced such radical movements as communism, socialism and social democracy, has now all but disappeared.

And what is filling the ethical vacuum left behind? It seems to me that the values of the market are increasingly moulding our understanding of the worth of a life, and shaping the way human beings relate. According to such principles, an individual has value only in so far as he or she participates in the market, either as a worker or a consumer. Relationships become con- tractual: I get x and you get y in return.

Both developments represent a terrible ethical bankruptcy. Human beings are no longer ends in themselves, but means to other ends; they are instrumentalised. So, for example, children assume huge value because they will be the future workers, but those who have outlived their market purpose, such as the elderly, or those who cannot perform that purpose effectively, such as the mentally ill, become worthless. In such a society, all dependency is stig- matised; need becomes shameful. Admitting failure or showing vulnerability is taboo. It is a frighteningly harsh kind of world where we want to know only about the beautiful and successful.

I just wish Neuberger, before she embarked on this book, had done some more "deep thinking" about her own ethical tradition. She - and we - have missed an important opportunity.

Madeleine Bunting is a columnist on the Guardian and the author of Willing Slaves: how the overwork culture is ruling our lives (HarperCollins)