Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded to the economic crisis by calling in March for "a return to the values of the good society." A true son-of-the-manse, he invoked a time when "hard work and effort was valued along with enterprise, honesty and integrity." Certainly, there is a consensus across British politics that our values are in crisis as well as our economy.
The Joseph Rowntree Trust's Contemporary Social Evils report declares Britain is beset by problems like drink and drug abuse, family breakdown and rampant individualism. Similar concerns about "Broken Britain" led Tory shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley to suggest the recession might be "good for us," because "people tend to smoke less, drink less alcohol...and spend time at home with their families." The predominant critiques suggest today's crisis is a symptom of our addiction to consumption, and a good society should focus on well-being and happiness instead.
The global crisis is regularly presented as "payback time" for human greed. The Labour-left group Compass notes approvingly that the recession is working as a corrective against "individualistic and materialistic attitudes." Others argue for a "new corporate ethics," with financial risk-taking and rampant capitalism indicted by events. But is the recession really a problem of ethics or morality? Is there a danger the new anti-capitalist ethic amounts to little more than risk-aversion and paralyzing regulation? What about innovation and experimentation? If we demonize the aspiration to wealth as "greed," how will society reward success and encourage ambition, and the competitive spirit that so often drives social progress?
We are told to reject "me, me, me" individualism, but must we choose between selfishness and altruistic sacrifice, or might we form bonds of solidarity around collective self-interest? And is a bit of individualism really so bad anyway? Debating what we mean by the Good Society allows us to imagine how society could be rather than accepting the status quo. But as we search for a new kind of politics, will we rekindle idealism or instead adopt "post-recession virtues" that - far from allowing us to move society forward - will reconcile us to less ambition, less freedom and less capacity to shape society?
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas (IoI), which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint.
Fox initiated the IoI while co-publisher of the current affairs journal LM magazine (formerly Living Marxism). The IoI has since worked with a variety of prestigious institutions in Britain and abroad.
Fox is a panelist on BBC Radio 4's "The Moral Maze" and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio. Fox writes regularly for national newspapers and a range of specialist journals. Fox has a monthly column in the Municipal Journal.
Dr. Evan Harris
Evan Leslie Harris (born 21 October 1965) is an English Liberal Democrat politician. He was the Member of Parliament (MP) for Oxford West and Abingdon from 1997 to 2010, losing his seat in the 2010 general election by 176 votes to Conservative Nicola Blackwood.
Born in Sheffield in 1965, he is the second son of South African immigrants disillusioned with the apartheid regime. He was educated at Blue Coat Secondary School, Liverpool. After a year at Harvard High School in North Hollywood, he went to Wadham College, Oxford in 1985 to study physiological sciences (BA), and then medicine at Oxford University Clinical School from where he qualified as a doctor in 1991.
He was selected to fight Oxford West and Abingdon for the Liberal Democrats in 1994. Following his election in 1997, he was a junior health spokesman, then spokesman on Higher Education, Science and Women's Issues.
Luke Johnson is Chairman of Channel 4 Television and Risk Capital Partners. Luke also writes a weekly column for the Financial Times and wrote for the Sunday Telegraph for eight years.
He was Chairman of PizzaExpress during the 1990s and is currently an owner and Chairman of Giraffe restaurants and Patisserie Valerie. He has also owned companies in recruitment, dentistry and retailing.
He graduated from Oxford and worked as a stockbroking analyst covering the media sector in the 1980s. He lives in London and is married with two children.
Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universitat Berlin, and taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University.
She is the author of Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant, Evil in Modern Thought and Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists 2008.
As well as being the editor of spiked, Brendan is also a columnist for the Big Issue and Reason. He writes widely for a variety of other publications, including the Telegraph, the Spectator and the Australian. He is the author, most recently, of A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays (2015).
Brendan O'Neill criticizes the historical tendency to interpret social crises through the "prism of excess and opulence" and expresses concern that all consumers, not just the elite, have been implicated in fueling the most recent financial meltdown.
"This default explanation is far too partial and narrowly moralistic," he says.