Of moral compass and our human duty of care

Even after nearly twenty years, I have not quite forgiven the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, for a sequence filmed in the Savage Memorial above Auckland harbour: ‘The Wedding of Alcemene’, involving a cheesy 1990s-era CGI monster named Perfidia.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage was arguably New Zealand’s greatest Prime Minister. His government came to power in November 1935, when New Zealand morale stood at its nadir in wake of the Great Depression. New Zealand had already recovered from the direct effects of the downturn. The coalition finance minister of 1933-35, Gordon Coates had engineered it.

But Savage offered something Coates did not – underscored by the first gesture of Savage’s administration. There was a little money left in the government account. Savage and his cabinet promptly distributed the lot to the needy.

That small gesture – bringing Christmas cheer to New Zealand households for the first time in years – was never forgotten by people still demoralised, hungry and desperate. Savage followed it with other initiatives to make sure everyday New Zealanders were fed, clothed and housed – that they did not suffer when beset with misfortune not of their own making.

When challenged over his policies in Parliament – told they were ‘applied madness’ – Savage retorted at once. They were ‘applied Christianity’. And that was how they were received. There were reasons why his picture hung in many households during the late 1930s, alongside that of Christ.

When Savage died in early 1940, the outpouring of national grief was unparallelled.

In the political context his approach was associated with the left; it stood against much of the thinking of the day.

But if we separate Savage’s sentiment from way it was framed politically, we find humanity behind his approach, which stood apart from political considerations. At this level, Savage – and others in his cabinet – were genuinely concerned for the welfare of others.

As a species, we have an unerring ability to intellectualise ourselves into loss of moral compass. History is riddled with it. I see it in universities where – on my experience – bullying has been intellectualised and acculturated to the point where it is integral to academic life, certainly in New Zealand. I see it in attitudes people take to others on the street. I see it in attitudes by commentators. I see it, subtly and insidiously, in TV shows.

We live in the age of the ‘me’ generation, and it seems that all too often our moral compass is led astray by selfishness, unthinking conviction, demanded behaviours, worries over status, ambitions, and by ‘us and them’ thinking in all its forms. Our needs and wants, our insecurities, our greed, our western cult, since the 1980s particularly, of self-centredness.

All these things, and more, blind us to the basic human values of care and kindness. Values that Savage brought to the people of New Zealand when they most needed them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014