By Andrew Brown
There has been a generational change, Professor Woodhead says, that has replaced the authority of religious leaders and of an ethic based on sacrifice with a new system of values she sums up in the title of one of Rihanna’s songs, Live Your Life.
The new value system, she says, replaces the Christian emphasis on the value of suffering with a belief that life, not pain, not death, is of value, and that no one else can live your own life for you. So self-expression, or self-discovery becomes a moral good. This is not — she argues — a charter for selfishness, because if you make your own best life your moral goal, you are obligated to offer everyone else the same freedom.
“The live-your-life ethic consists on discovering who you are showing kindness and respect to yourself, as well as others; finding your community, supporting each other; and leaving the world a better place than you found it,” as she summarised her results.
This argument emerges from the research she has done over the past 20 years, and the change she has seen in her own professional lifetime.
At the start of this century she conducted research among the churchgoing Christians of Kendal, a town in the Lake District. She asked them what was the meaning of life, and overwhelmingly they replied that it was service to God, to others, and only in third place to themselves. This was an articulation of a theory of Christian love that had been very influential in the 1930s and 1940s, expounded by theologians such as C. S. Lewis.
Christian love, or agape, was a pure gift. It was selfless, and self-sacrificial. All other forms of love, including friendship and erotic love, were inferior to this because they were also about fulfilling a selfish need.
This made sense in the context of the two world wars “where what could have been seen, and was seen by some, as needless slaughter was dignified and understood by many as the supreme sacrifice. It was an imitation of what Jesus Christ had done.”
But this understanding was increasingly attacked in the last part of the century, and we are seeing the results of that attack now.
For one thing, Professor Woodhead argued, the traditional ideas of sacrifice were very gendered. Men might die heroically, but for women there was no supreme sacrifice, there was more “daily unpaid self-sacrifice, looking after the elderly, not getting married to look after dependent relatives, bringing up children doing care work”.
Daughters rebelled against what their mothers had believed. The values of one generation became the anti-values of the next. Guilt and especially shame were no longer marks of virtue but sins against yourself. “Shame is just an overwhelming sense of your own unworthiness, and you can’t live your life if you feel that, because it has been put on you by other people.”
The shift to a more individualistic ethic brings with it much greater moral diversity, and with it, she said, the possibility of fresh divisions in society. “Virtue signalling has grown up alongside values salience.” In this situation, she said, if there is a clash, winning feels like a moral imperative to both of you in that situation. Your enemy is not just wrong, but evil. There are ways to avoid this trap, “but these usually involve time and effort and care”.
The real test of this new morality, she suggested, was going to come with care workers. “We know that a Christian ethic undergirded care, and that many nurses and other people were trained or inspired to care by that Christian ethic of self-giving love. So what will take its place?” she asked.
She suggested that one model under the Rihanna morality might be holistic, complementary and alternative care, where “you care for one another, you facilitate people to heal themselves, to release their own healing energy, you have a much less asymmetrical relationship”.
None the less, she conceded, the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice remained as a kind of sediment in society.
Survey work done in the United States showed that while 28 per cent of under-25s thought they should care entirely for themselves, nearly half thought they should balance this with care for others. Only 19 per cent thought others should come first.
Information about the Cadbury lectures here