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Norbert Elias explains how moral standards change

My Times column, December 23, 2013:


There is a common thread running through many
recent stories: paedophilia at Caldicott prep school and in modern Rochdale, the murders of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and by Sergeant Alexander Blackman in Afghanistan, perhaps
even segregation of student audiences and
opposition to the badger cull. The link is that people are left
stranded by changing moral standards, because morality is always

What is so striking about the prep school scandal is not only
that nobody thought at the time that a predatory headmaster was
much of an issue (just the price you have to pay, old chap, for a
really dedicated teacher), but that even ten years ago a judge
could argue that it was better for all concerned if a prosecution
was halted. The idea that the child’s welfare is paramount in such
a case is relatively new; it would have seemed laughable in the

Compared with then, modern society is far more tolerant of
homosexuality but far less tolerant of paedophilia. The Caldicott
headmaster, Peter Wright, would probably have been prosecuted with
gusto for living openly with a man his own age in 1959, the year of
his first offence against boys.

At the time you would have been hard put to predict this moral
reversal. Indeed, some guessed wrong about how tolerance would
evolve. It has emerged that in the mid-1970s the National
Council on Civil Liberties (now Liberty) accepted the Paedophile
Information Exchange (PIE) as an affiliate member, allowed its
chairman to address its conference and passed a motion declaring
that “awareness and acceptance of the sexuality of children is an
essential part of the liberation of the young homosexual”. The Home
Office launched an investigation last week into its own apparent
funding of the PIE at the time.

Jimmy Savile just escaped, as Stuart Hall did not, this
evolution of morality. In their heyday there was not thought to be
all that much wrong in celebrities seducing under-age, star-struck
girls. The Rochdale abusers in the news last week, and those who
failed to investigate their cases thoroughly, likewise failed to
appreciate society’s changing standards.

The morality of war is changing too. Sergeant Blackman is
discovering that the modern world does not consider cold-blooded
murder, even in the heat of battle, acceptable. Such a prosecution
would never have happened after, say, Stalingrad or Normandy.
Anybody who thinks Lee Rigby’s murder would never have happened in
London in the “good old days” needs to read more history. But Anjem
Choudary and Michael Adebolajo are similarly caught out of time —
both wanting to push the moral clock back to a time when
eye-for-eye revenge against the innocent was honourable or pious.
The question responsible Muslims need to answer is why some
followers of Islam are so keen on reversing this inexorable,
progressive evolution of morality.

The best understanding of how morality evolves comes from the
work of Norbert Elias, a sociologist who had four
horrible experiences of violence: a nervous breakdown in the First
World War when fighting for Germany, emigration to escape Nazi
persecution in 1933, internment by Britain for being a German in
1940 and the death of his mother in Auschwitz. Yet half way through
this series of blows he published a book that argued the world was
getting less violent. The year 1939 was not a good year to
disseminate such a message, let alone in German. It was only when
it was translated into English in 1969, by which time Elias had
retired from Leicester University, that the book
(called The Civilising Process) shot him to

Elias had spent many hours delving into medieval archives,
concluding that life in the Middle Ages was routinely much more
violent than today. He also argued that manners and etiquette were
coarser in the old days and he linked the two. The book’s revival
was helped 12 years later by the compilation of a graph that showed
a hundredfold decrease in homicide rates per 100,000 people in
England since the 1300s: statistical evidence for Elias’s hunch.
Till then, most people thought the modern world more violent than
the old days; plenty still do.

The psychologist Steven Pinker, alerted by the graph and others
like it from all across Europe, documented in his recent
book The Better Angels of our Nature the
inexorable, widespread and continuing decline in the West in
virtually all forms of violence: homicide, rape, torture, corporal
punishment, capital punishment, war, genocide, domestic violence,
child abuse, hate crimes and more. Pinker agreed that etiquette
changes were part of the same trend.

Pinker summarises the Elias argument thus: beginning in the 11th
century and maturing in the 18th, “Europeans increasingly inhibited
their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their
actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into
consideration”. The root of this change lay in government and
commerce. As monarchs centralised power in feudal societies, being
polite at court began to matter more than being good at violence.
And as commerce replaced feudal obligations, people had to learn to
treat strangers as potential customers rather than potential

Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that — with
occasional backward lurches, and some exceptions — morality has
progressed towards niceness. Hence the long list of habits that,
one by one, become unacceptable as the decades pass: hanging,
drawing and quartering; spitting at meals; slavery; cock fighting;
sexism; homophobia; smoking.

So the question immediately suggests itself. What am I doing
today that my great-grandchildren will find disgusting and might
even get me prosecuted in old age? When I asked Pinker for his
answer, he replied: “That’s easy — meat eating.” I would add field
sports. I consider hooking a trout on a dry fly, or shooting a fast
woodcock for the pot, to be acts of almost noble communion with
nature, but others already see them as barbaric. It seems unlikely
that my view will prevail in the very long run.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times