MORALITY AND THE FAMILY? - Millennium Mail; Marriage Will Always Be the Key

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Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

WILL morals change much in the new century? Will the institution of marriage gradually disappear?

Will people cease to believe in God and stop going to church?

It's impossible to be certain, but all the historical evidence suggests strongly that in each case the answer is: No.

Our moral code has changed remarkably little over the centuries. Moses received the Ten Commandments more than 3,000 years ago, but for most people - not just Jews and Christians- they still spell out the basic rules of human behaviour.

Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie. Be good to your parents. Don't envy your neighbour or covet his possessions. Try to keep certain days holy and free from work.

There are very deep-rooted instincts in all of us which keep such maxims before our eyes and prick our consciences if we ignore them.

The conscience has always been there. It still is. The Bible calls it 'the still, small voice'. Of one thing we can be sure; that still, small voice will still be speaking to us at the end of the 21st century.

What does change throughout time, of course, is the way we enforce our moral code. In the 17th century, for instance, when belief in Hell was deep and almost universal, there were comparatively few penal statutes carrying the death penalty.

In the 18th century, when belief in eternal punishment declined, Parliament felt it had to enforce order by making hundreds of offences punishable by hanging.

Most of these were abolished by the mid-19th century. This was made possible because Britain had entered the intensely moral Victorian period and crime rates continued to fall.

Now we are in a period when organised religion has grown weaker, but Parliament has continued to pursue an ultraliberal policy on crime. The result is by far the highest rates of crime in our history.

Public opinion may not allow this state of affairs to continue. It would not surprise me if, early in the 21st century, there is a huge anti-liberal reaction in Britain, reflected in much tougher punishment of criminals.

It has already happened in America. Thirty years ago, capital punishment was in total abeyance in the U.S. Now it is back, and more people are being executed for atrocious murders than for half a century. Between 70pc and 90pc of the population approve of this policy.

Crime is going down in America because society is prepared to kill the wicked, to jail more than one million criminals, and to build huge, high-security prisons.

I suspect that, in the treatment of crime, the 21st century will be marked by severity, realism and even a certain ruthlessness. There will be less stress on 'rights' and more on 'duties'.

Science will play a part in this change of attitude. We are just at the beginning of a revolution in biological knowledge which is revealing our genetic structures

and sources of behaviour. We will soon know a lot more about those genes that give some of us a propensity to commit crimes and those which make others crime free.

This is certainly going to have an effect not on morality as such, but on the way we respond to abnormal or antisocial behaviour. We will investigate criminals far more carefully and treat them far more positively. But this may mean locking up permanently those whose genetic codings propel them towards crime.

By then, of course, we will be grappling with the immense problem of genetic engineering. …