8: The need for new indicators of personal conduct

‘At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the national interest’ (John Major in a recent House of Commons debate on Europe).

‘Of course, we all want to do the best for our children’ (John Major in the House of Commons, commenting on the Blair parents’ recent decision to send their son to an opt-out school eight miles away from the family home).

And so it goes on. It is now judged perfectly reasonable to justify actions which disregard the consequences for others and to take for granted that no one will be challenged on this account. This moral decline in behaviour is viewed as normal, probably because it has become so universal.

In national decision-making, consideration of the outcome from an international perspective is almost invariably taken for reasons of narrow and short-term political expediency. And in personal decision-making, which tends to be largely inspired by self-interest, consideration of the ‘public interest’ as a moderating element, has been fading fast in recent decades. Insofar as it is still practiced, it is generally treated as a sanctimonious gesture.

Nowhere is the contemporary self-centrism more manifest than in the field of personal transport and safety. A decision to travel by air to a holiday destination in the Third World is reached on the basis of the time and cost that will be incurred by the individual or his or her family. Little if any account is taken of the insidiously destabilising effect on the local culture, often one that has evolved over hundreds of years, of exposure to alien and extravagant lifestyles. Even more seriously, the contribution to climate change and ozone depletion of flying in the upper atmosphere is totally ignored. Of course, each flight in an aircraft only has a marginal effect: but in the last ten years alone, UK international passenger movements have doubled – and there is no reason to believe that the Chinese do not also aspire to Western patterns of energy-intensive leisure activity!

Few now even bat an eyelid when choosing to travel by car, thereby putting the lives of other people at greater risk, requiring them to exercise greater vigilance on their local roads, obliging them to breathe more polluted air, and making it more likely that they will have to close windows to minimise the intrusion of noise into their homes. The additional burden imposed, often on thousands of people getting around or living on the route taken – not to mention the wider environmental impacts – is completely overlooked. ‘We drove for three hours through the most beautiful countryside and pretty villages to see it – a unique work of art. It was worth every minute of the journey.’ Of course, one mile travelled in a car only has a marginal effect — but there are now 30 million licence-holders in this country, each travelling on average 20 miles a day.

Take the issue of road safety. The Department of Transport publishes an annual list of cars to inform the public on what road accident statistics show to be the ‘safest’ ones to travel in. The figures used significantly alter our perception of the concept of safety. They show, not surprisingly, that the lowest rates of injury are associated with users of the largest and sturdiest vehicles. But can it seriously be argued that travel in such vehicles, ideally equipped with bull bars, is safe? It is certainly not safer for pedestrians and cyclists – but that doesn’t enter into the personal equation! Last year, in crashes involving cars and bicycles, over one hundred cyclists, but only one car user, were killed. So which is the more dangerous form of travel, it may be asked, cars or bicycles?

Yet it is increasingly the ‘crashworthy’ vehicle in which, to minimise the risk of injury, more and more parents are choosing to ferry their offspring – ‘of course, we all want to do the best for our children’. As a neighbour put it to me recently – ‘I feel so much more confident driving the kids to school in the Range Rover’.

Where children are allowed to get around outside the home on their own, which could be seen as a right owing to its association with their healthy physical and social development, we seem prepared to partially condone a death on the road. Nowadays, the driver’s defence is ‘Not me guv, the kid was not looking when he ran out into the road’, or ‘I did not see him because he was not wearing bright clothing’, or ‘It’s his parents’ fault for (irresponsibly) allowing him out on his own’. Of course, the death had little to do with the fact that the driver was travelling at a speed which did not allow sufficient time to take avertive action if, along the route taken, the child’s concentration lapsed – it is a common and natural failing! Should we see this as justification for considering the excuse of contributory negligence by the child as part of the driver’s defence?

Our actions can demean or enhance the lives of others and the state of the world. There may not be much time for us to go on believing that we can ignore this obvious fact in our gradus ad Parnassum towards ever more hedonistic lifestyles which have insinuated themselves into our culture and, in the process, tipped the balance more heavily in favour of selfish as opposed to altruistic instincts.

It is clear that new indicators of personal conduct and progress are required to alter our current perceptions of which actions are more and which are less justified and, at the very least, which should be smiled upon and which should be frowned upon. At this point in contemporary history, the urgent devising of such meaningful indicators poses a serious challenge to social inventors.

Originally published in Best Ideas: A Compendium of Social Innovations (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.) 1995. (A call for more attention to be paid to public interest implications in personal decision-making.)

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