Comment Opinion & Features

The limits of family values

When I visited China some years ago, I was introduced to some of the ethics of Confucius – which, despite the rule of communism, have always held sway in Chinese private culture. Chief among these was deference to elders, and moral responsibility of family elders to younger people. The son must respect his father. The younger child must obey his older brother. The older brother must lead and give good example to the younger.

“Honour thy father and thy mother” is also a Judaeo-Christian commandment and the theme appears in both Old and New Testaments.

Now it has emerged, in an Oxford University social study examining 60 different cultures worldwide, that respect for elders and deferring to superiors is upheld as an ideal in practically all cultures.

All societies, says Dr Oliver Scott Curry, who led the research, observe seven basic community rules. These include helping your family, being a loving and protective parent, being loyal and joining in community activity, putting yourself at risk for others, not stealing, repaying debts and showing respect and obedience to superiors – as well as to authority.

Many of the values we regard as being associated with Western Christianity, say the researchers, are held almost universally. Indeed, many a Christian missionary in far-flung places has found that a sense of moral values and care for the common good were already present in those they came to evangelise.

It is reassuring to know that there is a universal sense of affirming what is right. And yet, at a deeper level, Christianity can also prompt us to challenge hierarchical structures and go against the social grain. Respecting authority is all very well – unless the source of the authority is a Nero, or a Hitler. Helping your family is good, but not at the expense of unjustly disfavouring others – like giving your nephew a job rather than a stranger with a better claim. Loyalty is admirable, but it can depend on the context: should Sicilians be loyal to the Mafia? Social morality may have universal resonance, but it needs an examination of conscience just the same. Elders should be respected, but they should also strive to be worthy of such respect.

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The late Sir Ken Dodd’s example seems to be a well-publicised illustration of the benefits of marriage.

Two days before his death, the Liverpool comedian married the woman who had shared his life for 40 years. He was 90 and she was 77. It could almost be plot for a black comedy – like the Vittorio De Sica movie Marriage Italian Style, where a fake deathbed marriage occurs. But in Sir Ken’s case his demise was real, and the former Ms Anne Jones became Lady Dodd, just before he departed this world.

In entering into last-minute wedlock, Doddy’s estate saved £11 million on inheritance taxes. No, not the most romantic of reasons for a matrimonial ceremony, but it certainly highlights the fact that marriage has an economic dimension.

True, the poor – who are least likely to marry – don’t usually benefit from the tax advantages of married inheritance laws. Yet it’s useful knowing that even a deathbed nuptial has practical benefits.

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Relations between Britain and Ireland have sadly deteriorated with Brexit – and they’d be even more seriously damaged if the Cheltenham Festival were to be cancelled under threat equine flu.

I’m sorry for the poor horses who are suffering from this affliction – they cough a lot, apparently, and become breathless – although most of them eventually recover. But the impact of having to halt Cheltenham would be dismaying, since it has always been virtually an Irish racing event held in England, generating much goodwill.

It had a well-known reputation, years ago, for attracting Irish priests who liked to put a few bob on a nag. Methodists were shocked that a cleric might gamble, but in Ireland it was considered a harmless hobby shared with the vast majority of the people, and an illustration of the philosophical adage that “everyone is equal on the turf – and under it”.

It’s seldom you see a cleric at Cheltenham these days – or perhaps they prefer to attend in mufti. In any case, let’s pray that the gee-gees will recover sufficiently to provide great racing in early March.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4