Are there greater social evils in today’s society than in the past?
A century ago the philanthropist Joseph Rowntree said that the greatest threats to society’s moral fabric were poverty, drunkenness, the opium trade, “impurity” (meaning prostitution and sexual license), gambling, war and slavery. He set up the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) to “search out the underlying causes of weakness or evil in the community” as a contribution to addressing those problems.
This year, 100 years on, the JRF has posed the question again, conducting a consultation to identify what the public thinks are today’s greatest social evils. Among the salient responses were family decline, the involvement in crime of youths either as perpetrators or victims, crime and violence generally, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and inequality, and immigration.
The JRF’s report on the consultation, which was published in September, distilled these concerns under four headings—decline of community, individualism, consumerism and greed, and an overall decline in shared values. If one reflects on this list for a moment, one sees that the four headings are really all about the same thing: the rise of individualism and its concomitant solo pursuit of advantage is ipso facto the fragmentation of community and its values.
Reflection on Joseph Rowntree’s original list of evils suggests a division into those that were characteristically Victorian obsessions (drink, drugs, sex) and the serious evils of poverty, war and slavery. It is interesting to note that today’s list not only overlaps with the original one in the specifics of drugs and poverty, but also in its general tenor, reflecting unease about the personal morality—or lack of it—relating to excess and licence generally.
I am one of those whom the JRF invited to comment on the findings of its consultation. It struck me as important to contextualise them immediately by saying that every age sees itself as beset by “decline,” whereas by almost all measurable standards, the opposite is now true: life in today’s wealthier countries is vastly better for vastly more people than in Rowntree’s day.
Back then, London teemed with child prostitutes, the indigent died in its streets, and its streets were too dangerous to walk at night. What poverty meant then and what it means now are very different things. Then it was the hopeless who abused drink and drugs, as their only means of escape. Now the minorities who do so are far from indigent.
This is not to deny that there are serious problems of poverty, crime and community fragmentation in contemporary society, for indeed there are. But it is to say that such problems are endemic in any large pluralistic society, and need to be placed in perspective so that social problems are not inflated into social panic. This is the real debate we need about contemporary society, a point that the JRF’s excellent and important project vividly illustrates.
Posed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Send your philosophical queries and dilemmas to AC Grayling at firstname.lastname@example.org