Why we need morality included in our public policy

In today’s guest post author of Morality and public policy, which publishes this month, Clem Henricson demands we put the discussion and inclusion of moral issues back into government decision making and law formation…

ClemWith an increasingly bitter secular religious divide we need a radical shift in our take on morality – not a breast beating on the state of morals, but an enhanced understanding of the nature of morality and a way forward to remedy what is a seriously defective relationship with public policy.

Have you ever questioned why the moral sphere is segregated from core public policy? Why in the gestation of policy is morality hived off as the provenance of private conscience and the clerisy?

We have separate development with the relegation of moral issues to some zone outside the mainstream of governmental concerns. Are governments too cowardly or ill equipped to address these matters?

Legislation and change

It emphatically should not take so long for legislation to keep up with changes in social mores – changes in attitudes to matters such as abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation and that issue that has exercised us so much recently- assisted dying – with its haunting images of campaigners such as Tony Nicklinson and Terry Pratchett.

Why does government hide behind the private member’s bill, judicial rulings, loud protracted campaigns and flouting of the law that are so often the necessary prelude to change? Why is government dilatory and evasive, instead of embracing the essence of human relations – handling fluctuations and tensions head on?

“..an illusory dividing line drawn between […] public policy and conventional ‘morality’”


And what about the stuff of political governance – finance and welfare – why is an illusory dividing line drawn between these aspects of public policy and conventional ‘morality’ – why is private conscience accorded to the latter, but not the former in the face of party whipping?

There is, alongside these deficiencies, a collective anxiety at the policy morality interface induced by the perpetual moralistic incantation of ‘never again’. ‘Never again’ we say in the full knowledge at a certain level of consciousness that, from negligence to sadism, it will be done again across institutions from finance, caring, criminal justice through to family life and individual relationships.

We appear to have difficulty in acknowledging the true dimensions of the human condition and our failure to do so is hampering the development of a realistic pre-emptive public policy.

Culture vs empathy

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the paedophilia, exposed by the Children’s Commissioner as prevalent, or the shenanigans of the financial world, might be better handled if the Darwinian view that empathy is at the core of morality was challenged.

The proposition is that this interpretation be replaced by a conception of morality as the manager of numerous impulses across acquisitiveness, status, self-preservation, fear, aggression, the urge to power, sexuality, the search for self fulfilment – as well as empathy, without biologically pre-determined prioritisation. How impulses present are a consequence of habit and ordering by a neurologically identified cognitive function. This does not favour empathy, but is strongly influenced by culture, individual traits and experience.

Greater awareness of morality as described here is required – how it plays out and shifts across the population and recognition of its role across the gamut of public policy. Such awareness would facilitate a move away from the current sluggish and haphazard public policy responses to changes in social mores and hand wringing denial of habitual behaviour. There is the need for an analytical resource to gauge movements and issues in the moral domain with the remit of supporting informed and responsive government action.

Spanning religion, moral philosophy and scientific understanding of the human condition, Morality and Public Policy draws together and adds to the latest thinking on morality, its causes, mutations, tensions and common features.

It challenges misplaced concepts of ‘moral progress’ and the supremacy of empathy, and puts forward the management of the full span of human impulses – some complementary, some conflicting – as the function of morality with major implications for the interface between morality and public policy.

Publication reviews

Clem Henricson eschews the simplistic polarisations that so often characterise the discussion of morality in the public sphere. Her engaging book combines a subtle and balanced analysis with a convincing case that policy makers can and should do morality better.” Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA. Participant in Radio 4’s Moral Maze

An original analysis of the connections between moral sphere and public policy. Clem Henricson has produced a book of major significance to our understanding of how governments should do morality.” Professor Kimmo Jokinen, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. President of the European Society on Family Relations

Morality and public policy [FC]Morality and public policy is available to order here from the Policy Press website for £23.99. Remember that Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – if you’re not a member of our community why not sign up here today?

Clem Henricson is a social policy analyst who has published widely on the relationship between the state and the individual within a variety of settings.

With experience of working closely with government at a national and international level, she has a particular interest in developing future strategic directions and options for enhancement in the context of human rights. Her most recent book is A revolution in family policy: Where we should go from here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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