What’s happening to our live-and-let-live culture?

Peter Kurti

12 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Free speech is being closed down in the name of preventing ‘hate speech’; bonds of trust in commercial life are broken, and religion is now so divisive that a new law is needed to protect religious freedom.

Dissent from the prevailing new orthodoxies about gender and sexual orientation is virtually impossible without attracting opprobrium and venom — just ask Israel Folau.

All this provokes a persistent feeling among the more conservatively minded that the warp and weft of the cultural and social fabric have altered in discomfiting ways.

Defenders of such cultural change, however, say the culture is not broken but simply responding to new sensitivities — just as it did in fixing behaviour that discriminated on the grounds of race or gender.

Two related features lie at the heart of this tension about cultural shift, as I outline in my latest paper: Cracking Up? Culture and the Failure of Virtue.

First, there is a move away from the communal, coupled with a civic readiness to live with difference towards the individual and the demand that all behaviour deemed to harm individual dignity be made unlawful.

Second, the emerging primacy of the individual has been accompanied by the eclipse of the moral language of virtue by the emotional language of values — which is wholly unsuited for moral discourse.

Virtues are objective moral norms that are both shared and personal. They are shared because there is general agreement about what a virtue such as justice is and what it represents.

They are personal because once an individual knows what, for example, the virtue of justice is, they can make a personal evaluation of how they stand in relation to that particular virtue.

Values, however, are simply emotional statements about personal beliefs, feelings or attitudes which cannot be the basis for shared meaning because they are personal and subjective.

When reason gives way to emotion, common standards of behaviour quickly erode, and the very language we use in civil and moral discourse begins to fragment – and soon enough, it loses its meaning.

The fracturing of our culture is due, in large part, to a crisis of moral authority. We have a distorted view of morality because instead of being guided by reason, we are now guided by emotion.

We need to pursue a renewed understanding of culture as that which expresses a shared, common vision for our human and social flourishing that is passed on in our traditions to future generations.

We must refuse to equate emotional claims with moral claims, and we must call for a reorientation from the personal to the communal. The health of our society — indeed, of our culture — depends upon it.

This is an edited excerpt of a longer oped published in The Weekend Australian as Israel Folau: Moral compass all askew as virtue is eclipsed by values.

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