Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Staying within the rules: losing your marbles
One distinction not much made in the case of MP's expenses is the one between rules and morals. Piaget wrote about the development of morals in children.
Before the age of five, he argues, children have little concept of either rules or morality (he calls this the stage of premoral judgment). The child simply doesn't understand other people's consciousness.
Next comes moral realism, where it is the rules that count. You keep to the rules because if you don't, you get punished. You may get a bad feeling anticipating such punishment and this may in fact feel like a moral sense. Bad effect is associated with wrong action.
After seven, says Piaget, we enter on the stage of moral relativitism that lasts the rest of our lives. We know rules are not immutable and that there may be moral reasons for changing them. We become aware of other people and their intentions. We argue. We relativise.
Well, that's Piaget and things move on. Nevertheless, I still can't quite see Westminster as an isolated moral vacuum, and there must be something in the distinctions made between keeping within the rules ("Still you keep o' the windy side of the law," says Fabian to Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, when encouraging him to write a potentially actionable letter) and the moral spirit that might have enabled members to bear in mind the world outside.
One conclusion might be that rules actually supplant morality. They stand in for it. Rules, argues Piaget (from the way children played marbles according to game rules), are social conventions and when everyone around you is obeying the same social conventions, you feel you are doing nothing wrong.
Rules normalise games and close out other considerations. The rules of a game override other social rules while you are in the game. I remember feeling irritated because, when playing Monopoly on one occasion in my childhood, my mother insisted on giving us back the houses we had lost. Her feelings ran outside the rules. She was bending them for the moral ends of making her children happy. In my irritated mode I might have argued that she wanted more to be seen to perform the grand gesture of making her children happy and therefore not preparing them for life, but let that go. She would then have been shocked to have her motives so questioned, and indeed she might not have had any such motive.
How complicated the mind is.
So one MP is entitled to a house he lives in some of the time and thinks: Why should my daughter not live there some of the time? It is within the rules. And it may be within the rules. The game rules accommodate whatever does not directly run counter to them.
Morality must encompass something far wider than local game rules. We feel outraged because they have not been bothered, or even able, to encompass that wider realm, the realm that includes us.
Game rules are mob rule too. One man may never think of crushing the head of another, but within the social game rules of the moment, he may feel justified in doing so. I have watched wrestling crowds baying for blood. Mostly it is pantomime. But the baying is within the rules.
So now, we bay. That too is within the rules.
As someone in a letter to one of the newspapers put it: those who have committed fraud should be charged as criminals; those who have consciously bent the rules should be sacked or be told to resign; those who have stayed within the rules but have acted immorally should offer themselves to the public for re-election.
Maybe the rules need to be torn up from time to time in order to be reframed as morality. Maybe that is what a revolution is.