A Civilised Society

I caught the end of Radio 4’s The Moral Maze on Wednesday evening. Have you listened to it? It’s the programme that explores topical issues from a moral standpoint. Members of the panel question witnesses. I enjoy it most when it is exploratory, when a member of the panel asks brief, but incisive questions and allow the witness to respond. Sometimes a panellist seems more keen to make their own point rather than explore what the witness has to offer. I think that can happen to all of us when we have strong feelings and views about something.

Wednesday’s topic was one likely to arouse strong feelings in listener and panellists alike. Called Isolation, the programme was considering how far people’s behaviour during this coronavirus emergency could or should be judged as moral or immoral. Was hoarding toilet rolls an immoral act? Are people intrinsically good or bad? Is this the start of the breakdown of society if people continue to behave like this?

Of course, this was an intellectual argument, albeit born of experience. Jesus’ response to a question, or a situation was not to intellectualise it and have a debate. Many times he told a story and left his audience, and us, to figure things out for ourselves. He also gave us a very brief commandment to live by: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Often called The Golden Rule, the second half is common to many religions.

In 2008 the former nun and author Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize of $100,000 and she chose to focus on compassion and called for the drawing up of a Charter for Compassion in the spirit of the Golden Rule. At some level, compassion means a commitment to relieve the suffering of others. On 22 March I received this story in an email from the Charter for Compassion (charterforcompassion.org).

“Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilisation in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fish hooks, or clay pots, or grinding stones.

But no, Mead said that the first sign of civilisation in ancient culture was a femur (thigh bone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilisation starts.”

Chris Dawson

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