Ireland’s Moral Crisis – Part 2

In part 1 of this essay, I briefly sketched out the traditional source of moral principles, which for the great majority of societies has been and continues to be religion. Ireland is, or was, no exception to this, having, up to recently, been a country known for taking religion seriously in public as well as in private. Beginning in the late 1950’s Ireland took steps that brought about the beginning of the end of this state of affairs. The government of Sean Lemass (1959-66) initiated a series of policies that would put an end to Eamonn De Valera’s long-standing commitment to an autarchic economic policy and opened up the country to foreign inward investment. These shifts coincided with the advent of television and the appearance of the counter-culture of the 1960’s in the US and the UK. These developments culminated in 1973 with the accession of Ireland to the then EEC, the future European Union (EU). All these developments taken together, would eventually change Ireland beyond recognition over the decades that followed. By the mid-1990’s Ireland was completely integrated into the European Union, and was more or less up to date with most of not all the cultural developments familiar in the rest of the western world, and, for the first time, was finally enjoying secure and seemingly permanent levels of prosperity comparable to any other western European society.

In all this transformation, there was inevitably going to be a parting of the ways between the dominant religion, the traditions and customs of the people and the new society. Many of the new ideas and values that gained widespread traction were in conflict with the core ethos and teachings of the Church either explicitly or implicitly. Consequently, there has been an ideological and cultural struggle going on here for the last fifty years or so between the heralds of the new ways and the custodians of the old. So too, the collective historical experience of the Irish people left them unprepared for admission to this new and prosperous way of life. Many people found it very difficult to make the transition as evidenced by the squandering of many gains, publicly and privately, and the seeming inability of the government to put long term development as a priority over short term, “quick buck” goals. The direct result of economic prosperity was a boom in consumerism as goods and services hitherto available only to the very well off came within the grasp of a much wider segment of the populace. It became normal to meet taxi drivers who had purchased holiday apartments in Spain, mid-ranking civil servants who took two annual shopping trips to New York, and tradesmen who enrolled their children in horse riding lessons. These new lifestyles, unimaginable only a decade earlier, were more and more becoming a normal expectation for a sizeable portion of the population. Leaving aside the crash of 2008, the end of the absurdly inflated property bubble and subsequent austerity measures, contemporary Ireland still enjoys a standard of living way beyond anything previous generations could ever have hoped to attain.

However, a shift towards a consumerist society requires a transformation in core values in order to make such a lifestyle seem like a normal and even natural aspiration. Proper functioning is not best served if there is substantial psychical discordance caused by being pulled in two largely irreconcilable directions, the old and the new. This shift in values and orientation involved a move away from familial and communal values in the direction of the primacy of the individual. Even if family continued – and indeed does continue – to be important to most Irish people, a new sense of the importance of individual aims and satisfactions has gained sway with many. The law has been changed in relevant areas that give legal force to the primacy of individualism over the familial and communal despite the explicit commitment of the 1937 Constitution to fostering and protecting the latter. This new individualism has fuelled the public discourse about rights and entitlements to the degree that communal and familial values appear to be subordinated to those of individualism as a matter of course and requiring no serious debate. If and when there is a conflict between the two, the good of the individual is taken to trump the good of the familial and communal interest. One example should illustrate what is happening. The institution of no-fault divorce on foot of a constitutional referendum in 1996, signalled the formal prioritisation of the individual interest over that of the family. No-fault divorce means that the court does not need to be presented with a reason based on the fault of a spouse for granting a decree of divorce. The task of the court is to ensure that both soon to be ex-spouses are properly provisioned and that both are, ideally, in formal agreement with each other over the disposition of property, child custody, maintenance and child support where relevant. The court only actively intervenes where there is a contested divorce, and here it only makes rulings over the disputed issues.

The most popular reason given for marital separation and divorce by far, is “dissatisfaction”. The point is this; any spouse within a marriage can unilaterally bring that marriage to an end and split up the family simply because they are personally dissatisfied. By law, the court has no option but to grant their wish once they have fulfilled certain pre-conditions pertaining to length of separation and related matters. With this example, it is simply indisputable to state that the individual and his or her wishes have de facto and de jure priority over the integrity of the family and the stability of the community. Defenders of this new state of affairs attempt to prove that the family is not seriously disrupted by divorce and the community is not destabilised. In a future essay here I will examine these attempts to see whether they do in fact prove their claims. For now, this example suffices to support my claim that the rights of the individual now trump those of the traditional family if and when there is a conflict between the two. In effect, the traditional family, as envisaged by the authors of the Constitution, now has no rights for it must give way to the individual if and when there is a conflict of rights. The core binding element in the traditional family was the institution of marriage which in this country was an indissoluble contract pre-1996. This example points, of course, to much deeper and longer-term transformations in society, a subject I will explore in future essays here.

It’s easy to see from this how a moral code that to a great extent presupposed the traditional family and the subordination of the individual good to the familial and common good in cases of conflict between the claims of the two, is incompatible with the objective social and legal situation that now prevails. Traditional morality presupposes the centrality of the family. It would be an interesting exercise to identify a set of moral beliefs which are still commonly held, but which directly or indirectly presuppose objective conditions that no longer obtain. In other words, those beliefs will have become the stuff of mere sentiment because social and legal reality no longer matches those beliefs, where once it did.

To sum up so far. I have argued that individualism has replaced family and community as the primary legal and objective determinants in society. This leaves us with a curious situation insofar as traditional moral beliefs no longer cohere with objective social reality, a state of affairs not unrelated to that which obtained in Nietzsche’s Germany over the second half of the nineteenth century. Any kind of serious public discourse about morality must begin with acknowledgement of the state of affairs described above; the cultural struggle that has been going on for the last five decades reduces to a clash between two apparently incompatible first principles – the primacy of the individual good or the primacy of the familial or common good. The test of this is in judicial conflict – whichever interest is accorded precedence at law will tell us which principle is taken to be authoritative in objective social terms.

In part three of this essay, I will go deeper into the nature of the moral crisis examining how individualism has impacted on Irish society through economic activity.