I imagine that most of us in our youth were taught that we should keep in good company. The reason was clear: good company would influence us towards virtue, bad company would do the opposite.
But the company we keep is not restricted to our family or our immediate circle, we also live in society – and society may or may not be good company for us. We can test the influence of society by thinking about the ways in which our moral values have changed during our lives. Take some possible values: the rights of women, what constitutes racism, conscientious objection, the gravity of paedophilia, social class privilege, prudent family size, attitudes towards homosexuals, the acceptance of abortion. These are areas where our society has developed its views – sometime for good, sometimes for ill. But have they changed our own thinking?
We should expect it to be so. For societies to flourish there is a broad need for conformity. (The claim at the moment is that we should conform to ‘British values’ – whatever those might be, while Libya, for example, is currently a failed society because conformity has broken down.) The tendency to conformity is an outcome of evolution. Not surprisingly, we have an error-monitoring activity in our brains which warns us when we are out of line with ‘people like us’. So we would expect the influence of society to have its effects on us too. A minority of people are able to resist this warning: some may be naturally anti-social, while others may become the leaders and pioneers. But the majority conform.
Religion is another instrument of conformity. Some anthropologists argue that its origin lay in its power to impose conformity on the public and private behaviour of its members. We can see historically how religions can promote good and bad behaviour or attitudes among their members.
So it would be interesting to examine how this affects us. We might start by thinking of the moral values we held, say, a generation or two ago. Have any of these altered or at least been modified since then? What has influenced such changes? Of course causes may be multiple, but can we put any down to the influence of secular society? I think we can assume that anyone whose moral views have never changed, at least to some degree, must have either have had very quiet lives or rejoice in a limited self-awareness.