Moral consequences

An interesting piece (with lots of Foucault quotes) from Deborah Orr in today’s Independent. She concludes:

But maybe the transparent society really is sinister, for reasons that are spiritual rather than practical. Maybe it is unhealthy for a society to behave itself not because it is underpinned by morality and watched by its caring family or neighbour, but because it knows it’ll get caught and punished if it doesn’t toe the line.

It reminded me of a nice piece of research on the DNA database, ‘Barcoded Children’, done by Mairi Levitt and Floris Tomasini. Mairi very kindly came down to speak at our workshop on DNA retention last December.

The research had, amongst other things, explored children’s perceptions of right and wrong. At first glance, it appeared that this was fairly well-developed, but further probing revealed that ‘wrong’ simply meant ‘something for which your parents or teacher punish you’, without any understanding of why that might happen, or of consequences or moral obligations.

Until the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 came along, a child aged under 14 who had committed an offence was presumed to be doli incapax and it was for the prosecution to show that the child knew right from wrong. The Act swept that away, leaving us with one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility (ie 10) in Europe.

There’s a lot of difference, though, between having a mature, deeply-rooted, moral sense of wrongdoing, or on the other hand obeying ‘rules’ because the consequences are unpleasant. The growth in surveillance risks making moral infants of us all and creating a society where the only crime is getting caught.

Now I’m going to go downstairs, and my dog will quickly jump off the sofa – not because she understands why grubby dogs and sofas don’t mix, but because I’m in the category of people who shout at her to get down. She’s sufficiently intelligent to distinguish everyone’s footsteps, though, and so if my son enters the room, she will merely thump her tail and beam at him.

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6 Responses to Moral consequences

  1. Carlotta says:

    Can’t help but wonder what that research would reveal about the moral reasoning of home educated kids….

    Great post – as usual.

    • Anisha says:

      Hey Chris. Thanks for the mail. Yeah, I full agree, trnalleivg by car to the Southern part is the most beautiful view, especially if you take the Ranong road down towards Khao Lak and down to phuket. Take care and have fun. CY

  2. archrights says:

    Careful, Carlotta – the way things are going, they’ll introduce a lower age of criminal responsibility for HE children! It’s an interesting question, though.

    I’m finding that now older son has achieved what is apparently regarded as the holy grail of education, all kinds of people keep asking what we ‘did’. I can only say that we argued at least once a day, sometimes for hours, about everything from abortion to zoos, and the only ‘text books’ he saw before the age of 16 were philosophy problems and ethical dilemmas. I know plenty of HE families doing the same sort of thing. Now here’s a thought: maybe we should replace schools with Socratic debating forums (with internet access and libraries to check out some facts here and there) and leave the formal stuff to post-16 unless a child specifically wants it.

  3. […] thoughtful article on the moral consequences of surveillance April 25th, 2007 The ARCH blog comments on the Independent article (mentioned on this blog in a different context): [research] revealed […]

  4. hummingbird says:

    Clearly it is beneficial to teach kids and all of us what is wrong and *why*, instead of passing endless laws which seek to punish us for violation.
    I have long noticed that whereas people respond negatively to being told what to do, they respond positively to having things explained to them. In the former case they are more lkely to violate the rules because they see it as rebellion against pointless authority, less so in the latter.

    Too bad that our current politicians don’t understand this.

  5. […] Not as guilty as you thought A very significant judgment in the High Court about ‘doli incapax’ – the presumption that a child aged between 10 and 14 cannot commit a criminal offence, which must be rebutted by the prosecution. In other words, they must show that the child could fully appreciate that they had done wrong. Not as knee-jerkingly simple as it sounds – see one of our earlier posts on the subject of moral consequences. […]

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