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Lynn Ruane: Examining morality through the prism of social class

It is easy to set high moral standards for yourself and others, if you do not know what it is like to go hungry, writes Senator Lynn Ruane.

Image: Sam Boal/Rolling News

EVERY TIME I hear someone say “I will be guided by my moral compass”, I am left thinking about morality and what it means to each of us.

“Morality is concerned with the distinction between what is right and what is wrong, or
between what we consider good or bad behaviour.”

I often wonder if it is fair for a society to set a standard of morality when some people live in such divergent conditions where, for some, it is difficult to live up to that standard.

Why do some people consciously or not so consciously see class and ethnicity as negative moral identifiers? The recent presidential election campaign was a good example of someone denigrating an entire ethnic group and still getting significant support in some quarters.

To take the example of crime; if a rich businessman commits fraud, he is less likely to face the same outcomes in a court of law than a young man from an area experiencing high levels of poverty who steals from a shop.

Young men from working class communities are labelled ‘scumbags’ and people often assume that they think they are free to do whatever they want and they lack respect for authority.

I believe the opposite to be the truth: young men who engage in crime often do so because they are not free to do whatever they like and their horizons are severely circumscribed.

Being able to do what you like would mean that you had the freedom to progress through the education system, find decent housing or accommodation, reach your full potential and to do so at the same ease as the rest of society.

Society must at the very least try to have a level of understanding as to why certain
behaviours, such as crime concentrated in areas of deprivation, exists. It can be argued that if one class recognises a certain behaviour as characteristic of another class, this is seen as inherent in people, rather than something that is produced by the larger social and economic structures of society.

This individualised and essentialised version of morality conveniently ignores these larger structures which consolidate power and the status quo and place emphasis on personal responsibility and notions of duty.

But moral obligation must go beyond that. There is a view that everyone comes to the game of collective moral responsibility with similar resources and cards, if you like. But for the generations of young people and families who live daily with systematic inequality, they start with a very poor hand.

I often wonder how we can truly achieve collective social responsibility when so many in our society do not have their very basic needs met.

Take achieving academically for example. If you do not have your basic need of safety met, how can you prioritise learning?

“Poverty is a moral problem”, “stealing is wrong” and “drug dealers are immoral” – beliefs held by ordinary people and conveyed often in the media. But if these beliefs are true, is it not immoral to contribute to the creation of a society where large cohorts of people must not adhere to the moral and ethical standards that society sets itself due to structural inequality?

Young man growing up in public housing

Over the last five decades large numbers of people from Ireland’s lower social classes have been living in overcrowded flat complexes and estates. There are formal deprivation indexes which record the appalling levels of deprivation which exist. In some estates bedrooms often had to accommodate up to 10 kids, which, as you can imagine left little room for privacy or personal space.

There was and continues to be a brutal harshness to such lives. Living life in a virtual shoebox means that one must spend significant time and energy on maintaining relationships so that one can keep the peace.

Children, due to poverty, social exclusion, have few aspirations and feel like they have less to lose. All of this often results in lower levels of education. This in turn negatively impacts the health of this population.

In the case of those who are born into more affluent families and lifestyles (you could say by complete moral luck) have very different lives ahead of them. They may have a house with several bedrooms and no neighbours sharing a balcony with them. Instead they have a garden with a driveway and a car.

Parents have ‘professional’ occupations and an abundance of social, cultural and financial capital to rely on as they navigate life. With greater access and resources for health services, both their physical and mental wellbeing is more likely to be in a better condition in comparison to children their own age coming from poorer backgrounds.

Their aspirations are also more likely to become reality.

Comparing these two hypothetical cases, how can we not place the moral duty of what is
right and wrong on the state and larger economic structures? It is through such political and economic structures that inequality is reproduced from generation to generation with little change.

Some young people are swimming with concrete blocks on their backs.

Yet, knowing this, the same moral duty is still placed on the young boy from the flat complex as that of his much more advantaged peer – as I pointed out before the circumstances you are born into are moral luck.

We can thus see how, for the affluent and the rich, a moral life is more accessible, and how having our basic needs met makes it easier to lead such a life.

When we have enough food, and do not know what it is like to be hungry, it is easy to set standards for oneself and resolve that certain actions are immoral.

Moreover, as we move through time, we see evidence of our current sense of morality being a social construct – morality has shifted and changed depending on culture.

No one fixed, true objective standard of morality exists, but what is right and wrong can change over time, and from place to place.

Having said that one of the most significant things to remember I feel is the enduring ethical commitments of people living with gross inequality to those closest to them and to the wider communities in which they live.

There are strong ethics of caring and of sharing which continue to exist despite the conditions that people find themselves living in from day to day.

This is not a paean to resilience, the thesis that people are resilient and therefore
fantastic, another version of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan.

The resilience thesis is just another way of concealing the real nature of power and its attendant morality by congratulating people on how good they are for living with the shit they put up with.

We need real change to get beyond such a view to a place where radical equality is the basis for our morality and not one where the privileged tell the rest of us what is good and what is not. 

Lynn Ruane is an independent Senator. 


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