There is a strange delusion going the rounds that people’s sexual behaviour is somehow a closed system with no effects whatsoever on their behaviour in general. Perhaps it originated as a healthy reaction to the consensus opinion from ca. 1840-1960 that sexual behaviour was the only subject of any real moral interest. Certainly when I was growing up, the word “immoral” was used exclusively about sexual peccadillos. Murder, theft and fraud were criminal but it would have sounded rather odd in those days to describe them as “immoral”. But the pendulum has now swung so far in the other direction that even blatant bad behaviour is studiously ignored if it has anything at all to do with sex. Our current prime minister moved into Number 10 with his mistress at his side and soon provided us with the first official Downing Street bastard (there may have been unofficial ones earlier). And everyone said, “How sweet!” No wonder other ministers have felt emboldened to behave similarly.
The fact is that there is nothing morally different about sex except that involves us on a very deep emotional level and therefore requires a higher than usual duty of care for the other person. But what makes a sexual act right or wrong is precisely what makes any action right or wrong if it takes place in the same circumstances. Caring for your neighbour as you care for yourself is right. Exploiting your neighbour for your own benefit is wrong. Adultery is wrong because it involves lying and cheating, not because it involves sex. And the idea we seem to have developed that a public figure can systematically lie and cheat in one sphere of his life without it ever leaking across to others is frankly ridiculous. Human beings don’t have their brains partitioned in that way. The work of government especially touches on many spheres in which lying and cheating can become temptingly profitable. For example, Matt Hancock has been responsible for dishing out some very lucrative contracts to friends and relatives of both himself and his girlfriend. Are we really going to believe that a man who cheated on his wife after taking a solemn vow in public to be true to her would somehow never cheat on the electors who voted him into parliament, to whom he had sworn no vows at all? I mean, why wouldn’t he?
Modern morality is weird. Modern young people who have grown up with it don’t realise how weird it is. It takes an old-timer like me to notice the contradictions. There are certain moral issues connected with race, sexuality or gender identity, which are regarded today as supremely important. One must have the correct opinions and beliefs about these or one is effectively denied membership of the human race. And changing one’s mind at some point in time in order to hold the correct views in future is not good enough. Not by a long chalk! If it is discovered that someone once tweeted an incorrect opinion on such a matter ten years ago when he was a callow teenager, he immediately becomes an un-person and must be cancelled (after he has been made to grovel, naturally). But many other moral principles which used to be considered important are now dismissed as fripperies.
For example, it was discovered only a few years ago that practically all MPs were cheating on their expenses. It was very common to switch one’s official place of residence in order to be able to claim more money, and there were many other tricks which they learned from one another. This was bad enough; what was much worse was that none of the MPs seemed to realise that they were doing anything wrong at all. In every case they bleated that they weren’t actually breaking any rules. Well, of course they weren’t! Claims that were against the rules would not have led to any pay-outs. To get at all this lovely taxpayers’ money that fell on them like manna from heaven, it was necessary to exploit the rules, not break them. No one at all seemed to understand that what they were doing was immoral and dishonest.
It was the same with the Payment Protection Insurance scandal. The entire banking industry connived to steal huge amounts of money from their customers on the pretext of insuring them against the possibility of not being able to repay a loan which they were taking out. Of course they charged a commission for arranging such insurance. What they didn’t tell the customers was that the commission was about 95% of the total payment. Only a pittance was actually handed over to the insurance company as a premium, so if the customers did lose their jobs and tried to claim on the insurance, they would receive hardly any pay-out at all. All levels of management in banking were involved in this scam, from the chief executives to the clerks who actually carried out the hard sell over the counter. They all knew that PPI was totally fraudulent but nobody seemed to care.
And then there was the Libor (London Inter Bank Official Rate) fiddling that eventually caused the bank crash of 2008. Only one man actually went to prison for that, in the UK at least. A recent Spectator article sought to exculpate him on the grounds that conspiring to manipulate interest rates was not actually illegal at the time. In fact, the article compared this man to the sub-postmasters who were sent to prison for supposedly stealing money from the Post Office and who are now regarded as victims of a dreadful miscarriage of justice. It’s hardly a valid comparison. The sub-postmasters were accused of something that they had not done. The evidence against them consisted of computer records which were corrupted by a misbehaving program. The Libor fiddling did actually happen, whether it was technically illegal or not. The nearest parallel is precisely the fiddling of expenses by MPs which was not technically against the rules either.
I can remember a time when MPs and bank managers were the ultimate people of repute, the ones you would most likely want to sign your passport application. If they have now sunk to the level of petty criminals, what hope is there for the rest of the population? Yet the twitterati are largely silent about this kind of thing while they scream about “vile transphobic hate crime”. Nor do I detect much protest about the apparent inability of modern people to sustain their marriages for long enough to provide a secure environment for growing children.
Children from one-parent families do worse in every sphere of life. They do worse in their school work, are more likely to get expelled from school and more likely to end up in gangs or in prison. You would think that this alone would be a good reason for people to try to keep their marriages together even if they are not particularly happy in them. I am not speaking now of women in abusive relationships, who really need to get out pronto. But for every such woman, there are half a dozen marriages which break up simply because one partner or the other thinks they would be happier with someone else. They seem to forget that they made public promises to stick together, not as long as they were happy together, but “until death us do part”.
Why is no one indignant about this, when it is clearly so bad for our children? I remember that some years ago, there was a movement called the Coalition for the Defence of Marriage. “And high time too!”, I thought, until I read their manifesto and discovered that they were not about defending marriage at all, simply about denying gay couples the right to share in it. That was apparently the only aspect of marriage that they cared about or considered to have any moral significance. The rampant divorce rate didn’t seem to bother them at all. They didn’t require marriage to be lifelong or monogamous, or to provide a safe space for children to grow up in. It just had to be heterosexual. What a distorted moral sensibility that showed! And, to make matters worse, a lot of the leaders of the coalition were churchmen who really should have known better.
It still remains to be seen, of course, whether gay marriages in general will prove to be any stronger and healthier than straight ones are these days. So far they have not been around long enough for us to know what the gay divorce rate will be like. Some people have suggested hopefully that gay couples might come into marriage and improve it as they have improved certain badly run-down urban areas across the US. They bought the shabby apartments that nobody else wanted and started doing them up. A do-it-yourself shop appears on the corner, followed by a delicatessen and a gym. Soon there are a range of food shops. Buildings become swathed in scaffolding and the word goes about that the district is on the up-and-up. Families start to move in. Perhaps the same transformation might be possible for marriage too. I would like to believe it but I’m not holding my breath.