How to halt moral collapse

By Robert Golbert, October 17, 2011

After the UK was rocked by rioting that left five dead, at least £200 million in property damage, and thousands of young people facing charges for violence and theft, the Prime Minister said Britain had suffered a "slow motion moral collapse".

Describing Britain's "broken society", David Cameron blamed a "deep moral failure" and lamented "a complete lack of responsibility, a lack of proper parenting, a lack of proper upbringing, a lack of proper ethics and a lack of proper morals". He said the consequences of this scale of "neglect and immorality" had been clear for too long.

Are things really this bad? Research conducted over the past 20 years by the Jewish Association for Business Ethics seems to support many of his assertions.

A survey commissioned by JABE and "Money & Morals" four months before the rioting, to gauge the moral attitudes of 10,000 teenagers from England and Wales revealed that nine per cent of teenagers saw nothing wrong with shoplifting, with teenage boys far more likely to shoplift than their female counterparts. It also showed that a quarter of teenagers would cheat in exams and that 22 per cent believed it was acceptable to use public transport without paying

The same survey of teenage attitudes was conducted in 2001. Since then there has been a 20 per cent rise in the numbers finding it acceptable to shoplift and a 10 per cent rise in the numbers who see nothing wrong with using public transport without paying.

As family influence declines schools must teach morals

The 2001 survey also found that up to 45 per cent showed a willingness to break the law over specific minor offences, almost half saw nothing wrong with drinking under age, and nearly 60 per cent admitted to taking advantage of people when they could get away with it. It seems there are substantial numbers of students who believe that unethical behaviour is acceptable and are entering adult life with these views, and the problem is gradually getting worse.

But not all the results were bleak. The 2001 survey showed that those with some religious affiliation, measured in terms of church attendance, had a stronger ethical outlook and were less likely to condone dishonest behaviour. This year's answers revealed that teenagers who had some contact with a church were significantly more positive in their views about their future in the workplace than their non-attending counterparts. This was echoed with shoplifting, fare-dodging and cheating; church-going pupils were less likely to find these things acceptable.

We are commanded to instil moral values in our children in all areas of life. "Teach it to your children and discuss it with them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise," reads Deuteronomy chapter 11. This implies not only teaching in an academic sense but also setting an example for our children to emulate by acting properly in the way we live our lives. With less emphasis placed on the family today as a prime source of guidance and in the light of rapidly dropping attendance at places of worship, especially among the young, the teaching of morals and ethics in school is becoming increasingly important.

JABE's research over the years has consistently shown that teaching ethics and morals in schools can help give teenagers the guidance to make moral decisions, especially when this is absent from traditional sources. The lack of an ethical education, on the other hand, can result in the immoral behaviour noted by Cameron after the UK riots.

There is no reason that teaching these things should take a back seat to other subjects taught in school. Indeed, an ethical dimension can and should be incorporated into all subjects taught in school as part of the national curriculum, from business to economics, citizenship and PSHE, and from science to religious studies. Teaching ethics to young people will not only help them in their future, it will help build a better society.

It is only by introducing the study of ethics and morals at a young age, and showing today's youth that such thinking is relevant to every aspect of their lives, that we can stop the "slow motion moral collapse" decried as Britain burned in the summer.

Robert Golbert is director of projects and marketing for the Jewish Association for Business Ethics

Last updated: 11:42am, October 17 2011