Teaching values, ethics and empathy in a secular age

Aug 17


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Helen Whitten

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Teaching values, ethics and empathy in a secular age

As a child of the 50s I sat through endless school assemblies and Church of England services drumming home to me the message of “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12).  I am not sure I totally understood the detail required within that statement, in terms of personal action.  I know I have said and done things I have regretted but there is no doubt that I have felt a sharp sense of guilt when I have done so.

Values and ethics are not the sole domain of religion, and in other ways religious beliefs can divide us.  And yet those Ten Commandments that I heard repeated so many times in my youth remain in my mind and are surely positive messages for our young?  Our lives depend on the majority of people behaving well and those core beliefs of not killing, stealing, telling lies or coveting one’s neighbour’s wife or possessions help shape social behaviours.

In an era of false news and social media people seem to forget the Golden Rule of “do unto others” and instead threaten people who say or do something they don’t like with death, rape and hatred.  They seem incapable of considering or imagining how it might feel to be at the receiving end of this kind of behaviour.

Cyber bullying translates into objectifying people in real life.  Guns, knives and porn seem to be part of a trend whereby the perpetrator never considers or is faced with the appalling damage they do to a victim and their family.  The lyrics of the drill music rap songs encourage people to violence and seem to laugh at the pain they are causing.  Why do we tolerate this?  Why do we turn a blind eye to the everyday put-downs, the so-called ‘funny’ comedians spitting vitriolic personal remarks that are laced with envy and unpleasantness?  Why do we not silence the preachers inciting jihad, division and hatred?  It’s not just up to Government.  It’s up to each and every one of us to act where we see injustice.

The messages we receive as children get sewn into our neuronal networks.  We may consider them, analyse them and reject them as we enter adulthood but they will have had some influence on our thinking, development and behaviour.  I am concerned that education has become more focused on being ‘clever’ than being wise.  And we are getting very little example from the world leaders of today, I fear, who seem to value power more than doing the best for their population.  Erdogan, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Trump, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and many others seem to be willing to distort democracy for their own personal power goals. Sports stars get drunk and aggressive.  Video games project endless violence.  Advertisements continue to diminish women.  Porn debases both genders.  These are the images our young people are seeing and I wonder how it will influence their behaviour in future.

There have always been evil and selfish people in the world but with the video games, film and television thrillers of the last decade or so, it seems to me that violence and callous behaviour has almost been celebrated.  We rant and rail against bankers or a few greedy business leaders and yet shrug off the everyday violence of children’s video games.  We herald “our NHS” and yet seemingly let off the clinical and management staff who must have known about Gosport, Staffordshire, the mismanagement of maternity wards yet not raised the issues.  Those medics who claim to support the NHS and yet choose to effectively privatise their services by becoming locums are surely also hypocritical?  There are good eggs and bad in every sector of society but sadly one has to be extremely courageous to speak up against bad practice if one works within the NHS.  But courageous is surely what we must be if we are to do the right thing?

Hypocrisy is another aspect of a less moral society.  We all need to look at our ourselves first and not point fingers at others unless we are ourselves willing to follow our own pontifications.  Those who accuse others of tax evasion or avoidance and yet accept cash payments that they have no intention of disclosing is just one example.

Values and ethics affect every area of life and cannot be set aside to be thought about when one chooses.  Every thought, word and deed of every day is underpinned by ethics.  Simple questions can help us direct our momentum towards right action

  • Is this action helping me reflect my own better values?
  • What thought will give me the courage to stand up for what I believe in?
  • How will I speak up for right action and the moral good?
  • If I do or say x how will it feel for the other person? Will it support or harm them?
  • What might be the various consequences of the action I am taking?
  • Where might I be being selfish or unkind?
  • How would I like it if someone behaved this way towards me?
  • What do I need to stand up for and be brave enough to face the consequences?


I am currently reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.  It tracks the lives of women caught up in the French Resistance in World War II.  Finding the courage to put one’s belief in right action before personal safety is incredibly hard yet there were those on all sides of the War who did this.  We plan to visit Bletchley Park on Monday and will be reminded again of others who were brave enough to fight or risk their lives for what they believed in.  None of us know whether we have it in us to do this until faced with a situation that challenges us to the core.  We just like to think we would.

In today’s world we are at peace in the UK but the pain inflicted by people being cavalier with words and action is nonetheless enormous.  We all need to be careful.  And we need to teach our young, on a daily basis, to take into consideration whether they would personally like to be treated in the way they are, or are intending to, treat others.  We don’t have to turn to Jesus, Buddha or any other religious or mystical leader for this.  It is part of everyday practical life and each action either adds to the general good and enjoyment of living in this world or detracts from it.  We all play a part in making the world a good place and I honestly feel that the often-dull school assemblies that children around the world attend play their part in helping us recognise what is right and what is wrong.


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