Society's Moral and Spiritual Well-being - 5 July 1996

House of Lords (Hansard, vol. 573, cols. 1733-36)

2.16 p.m.

Lord McNair: My Lords, I too am grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating the debate and for the way in which he did so. Clearly, all is not right with the world and particularly not with our part of it, and by that I mean the country in which we live. In fact the moral and spiritual wellbeing of our society has been so undermined in several parts of the country that the kind of society that does exist is not one that assists the survival of its members, but one which engenders fear, insecurity and despair.

Agreements about what is important and how to behave towards other people are the things that hold a society together. I could go further and suggest that a society is simply a group of people bound together by certain agreements, a certain liking and respect for each other and a common voice. I perceive that these are disintegrating. There is a temptation for some to regard matters such as we are discussing today as grist to the mill. For a journalist, social decay may provide material for so many column inches per week; for a politician, a platform; and for a drug company, a lucrative new market. This militates against progress in resolving them.

I have intervened in today's debate because I have what I know is a constructive suggestion to make, one which is promoting moral and spiritual well-being wherever it is introduced. First, however, I would like to pick up the point which was made by the most reverend Primate, by my noble friend Lady Seear and also, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, about moral relativity. I can shed light on possibly the main source of this doctrine by quoting some brief extracts from some speeches that were made at a gathering in Ottawa in 1944. The first is:

"The reinterpretation and eventually eradication of the concept of right and wrong which has been the basis of child training, the substitution of intelligent and rational thinking for faith in the certainties of the old people, these are the belated objectives of practically all effective psychotherapy".
The speaker continued:
"If the race is to be freed from its crippling burden of good and evil it must be psychiatrists that take this original responsibility".
He then unwittingly foreshadowed our present predicament when he said:
"The pretence is made ... that to do away with right and wrong would produce uncivilized people, immorality, lawlessness and social chaos".
No comment. So how were this supposedly omniscient psychiatrist and his colleagues proposing to establish their new social order? One of them told the same gathering:
"We must aim to make [our point of view] permeate every educational activity in our national life: primary, secondary, university and technical education are all concerned with varying stages in the development of the child and the adolescent".
He continued:
"... we have made a useful attack on a number of professions. The two easiest of them naturally are the teaching profession and the church: the two most difficult are the law and medicine... If we are to infiltrate the professional and social activities of other people I think we must imitate the Totalitarians and organise some kind of fifth column activity!"
That is what they did.

All these statements were made by the two founders of the World Federation of Mental Health, Dr. R.J. Rees and Dr. Brock Chishoim, at its inaugural meeting in Ottawa in 1944. There was much more in the same vein. We have only to look around us to see how far these gentlemen have succeeded in their endeavours.

Leaving the brave new world envisioned by Dr. Rees and Dr. Chisholm in 1944, we now journey back in time to the fourth quarter of the 19th century. The year 1879 saw the start of the career of Wilhelm Wundt, the father of psychology. Moved by a strong conviction that man was an animal, a biochemical machine, Wundt presented his view to the world as scientific doctrine. His students later boasted "that psychology had at last become a science without a soul",

As a historical footnote, that theory had immense attractions for Bismarck: if man had no soul, then it mattered not what you did to him nor what you made him do to others. Moral considerations were a thing of the past. Subsequent events in Germany may well be seen in that light.

Wundt's ideas have had an immense effect on our subsequent social history and particularly on education, though through two separate but not so different paths: psychology and psychiatry. Both those approaches can easily be demonstrated to have had a malign effect on both education and morals. One of the effects obviously was the World Federation of Mental Health.

Education has traditionally embraced the teaching of both moral and spiritual values. That principle was specifically targeted by the pioneers of "educational psychology" as inappropriate and "unscientific". The introduction into schools of "social training" was based on the psychological idea that it is stressful and unfair to educate or discipline children away from violence, sexual promiscuity and drug taking. That has led to an erosion of the values taught in schools. Self-discipline is regarded as producing stress and therefore it should not be taught.

One operation based on the strategy of the World Federation of Mental Health was to persuade religious organisations to take up the idea of psychological counselling and thereby to undermine the idea of personal responsibility. One psychologist .by the name of Coulson - I regret that I do not know the church or denomination with which he was involved - pursued that endeavour for about 25 years and then came clean when he realised how destructive his work had been. Noble Lords may have noticed how, every time there is. some natural or man-made disaster, the psychologists are on hand with their stress counselling. How much better it would be to provide practical, down-to-earth help and pastoral counselling which emphasises the spiritual aspects of life.

There is a particular approach which anyone who cares about the teaching of morals should fight to the death. It is called outcome-based education. What has happened is that psychologists have wrested control of the purpose of education from educators. That is definitely something which any politicians who try to rescue education from academic disaster will have to tackle, otherwise their efforts will founder.

Reflecting on the increasingly multi-faith nature of British society, it is clear to me, at least, that the conflicting, competing but often overlapping philosophies and theologies cannot all be true in an absolute sense. Apart from a few of the adherents of each with completely closed minds, most people would allow that there are many paths to developing one's spirituality or understanding of oneself in relation to life and the infinite. But today unfortunately many people have fallen away from any understanding of themselves as spiritual beings at all. I have friends who are members of the Baha'i faith. I have been taken with their view and definition of spirituality, which is that it is found in those thoughts and actions which express the higher aspects of our humanity, such as being worthy of trust, respecting oneself and others, caring for others and one's environment, loving and helping children and so on. If we think about it, it should be obvious that all those expressions of humanity are in fact expressions of human spirituality and are in fact pro-survival. That is the connection between the moral and the spiritual well-being of society. Making those precepts part of one's operating basis not only enables one to survive but increases the survival of others.

So how do we promote the moral and spiritual well-being of society? I have one suggestion, which is offered to the House with a sense of humility. I am acutely aware that there are many noble Lords in this Chamber and many speaking in this debate who have devoted their lives to exploring and understanding the matters that we are discussing today. I have here a small booklet which is a commonsense guide to living a better life. It is the subject of an essay-writing and practical project competition involving 300,000 children from about 4,000 schools in the United States. It was officially credited with helping to prevent violence during South Africa's first multi-racial elections.

In one town in Alabama the recidivism rate among young offenders has been reduced from 80 per cent. to around 10 per cent. by using the booklet as part of a programme of basic education. It is also used most effectively in around 450 prisons in the United States as a tool for rehabilitating criminals. Over 52 million copies have been distributed in one form or another around the world and always it has a calming effect on whatever dangerous situation obtains.

The problem with moral codes is twofold. First, they tend to be religion specific. Secondly, they tend to be presented as simple imperatives. What is needed is a code that can elicit the agreement and activate the participation of the increasingly large majority of our people who do not consider themselves actively religious. Some do not even understand that they are spiritual beings. It must appeal to the head as much as to the heart and be widely accepted as the basis for relations with others as well as with the physical environment and other life forms.

The guide is written in plain modern English and has been translated, so far, into 20 other languages. It is not prescriptive, but rather engages the mind of the reader to reflect on the consequences of being in proximity with others who do not practise the 21 moral precepts that it contains. That enables the reader to make inferences about his own behaviour. It proved exceedingly successful in all the contexts I mentioned earlier.

By approaching the teaching of morals in this way it is possible to build a shared sense of what is ethical and right behaviour. That shared sense is, by definition, the regrowth of the agreements, the mutual respect and the feeling of being in communication with one's fellows to which I referred at the beginning of my remarks. It also forms part of the programme used by the World Literacy Crusade. That movement started in south central Los Angeles, the epicentre of the 1992 riots, and is now spreading to other towns and cities in the USA as a result of its success in persuading children to leave the gangs and continue with their education.

The World Literacy Crusade has the active support of several famous people, including Isaac Hayes, the Black American composer and singer. I would like to see programmes based on that commonsense guide to better living piloted in the kinds of situations I mentioned. I would welcome approaches from anyone who is really looking for a way to improve the moral basis of society. Since the booklet is completely secular it could be used, for example, by a youth club that was specifically Christian, specifically Islamic, specifically Hindu or any other kind to excellent effect in teaching moral values to its members.

The guide, called simply The Way to Happiness distills the essence of the moral teaching of the world's major religions into secular form and provides a common basis of understanding and communication among people of all ages and of different cultures. Using it, people fmd that their shared humanity. transcends the apparency of cultural or racial differences. At a school where it is used as the basis for teaching morals, children can be heard telling their peers disapprovingly, 'That's not the way to happiness".

I was pleased that the most reverend Primate was encouraging about the wide consultation being undertaken by Dr. Nick Tate at the School Curriculum Assessment Authority. In fact, earlier this year I met Dr. Tate to discuss the contribution that this moral guide might make to his initiative to bring the teaching of morals back into sharper focus in our schools. It may be that some aspect of that approach will find its way into the national curriculum. I rather hope so. One point I should like to stress is that, although it is written in secular language, it should not be regarded as representing a lowest common denominator of moral teaching; but it is a most valuable starting point.

The booklet's author, L. Ron Hubbard, wrote in an essay on the subject of ethics and morals:

"The origin of a moral code comes about when it is discovered that some act is more nonsurvival than prosurvival.

The prohibition of this act then enters into the customs of the people and may eventually become law".

This introduces the idea of survival into ethics and morals. If you think about it, it is clear that the agreements that keep a society together are what enables it to persist into the future and overcome threats to its survival in the present.

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