Rabbi Julia Neuberger is viscerally compassionate. She instinctively empathises with the weak, the poor and the oppressed. In The Moral State We're In , she explores the ways in which our society treats five disadvantaged groups: the elderly, the mentally ill, prison inmates and ex-offenders, the vulnerable young and asylum-seekers.
She believes that how these groups are treated reflects the moral state of the nation - and as they are often treated badly, she concludes that, morally, Britain is in poor shape.
However, this is an eccentric view of morality. Morals are rules intended to govern individual behaviour, yet how the author's five groups are treated is almost entirely determined by politicians.
Although politicians are influenced by morality (one hopes) they are also influenced by other factors: political commitments, economic circumstances and, above all, priorities. Neuberger may feel that our society's treatment of convicted criminals is unacceptable, others might be of the view that if the nation had any spare cash it would be better spent on the underfunded health service or on myriad other worthy things.
Morals are absolute: they tell us what we must and must not do: cheat, lie, steal and so on. How a society treats the disadvantaged has gradations, lying on a spectrum between very much better and very much worse. Neuberger believes they should be treated better, which is admirable. Her book is laden with things she feels should be done to improve their lives - some sensible, some less so. But because Neuberger sees these improvements as moral imperatives rather than as desirable political objectives, she fails to grapple with several fundamental issues. Nowhere does she quantify the cost of her countless proposals; nowhere does she explore how that money might be found; nowhere does she attempt to prioritise. Lacking any indication of costs and priorities, the book oscillates between wish lists and whinge lists: these things are wrong and they simply must be put right.
Neuberger does not define what she means by morality, and some of her notions of what constitutes a moral issue are quirky. She frets about how our society is becoming compulsively risk averse - about how scared we have become of befriending children or of helping people in distress for fear of our motives being misunderstood. Risk aversion is indeed a social and psychological problem. But a moral problem? Surely not. She deems the extraordinary outburst of national grief after Princess Diana's death to be a symptom of many people's self-centredness. She claims they were not grieving for Diana but rather self-indulgently wallowing in sentiment because they felt guilty about the times they should have grieved over other deaths and had not done so. It is an interesting, if convoluted, theory. But what has it to do with morality?
To prove that morality is at the heart of all the nation's woes, Neuberger, time and again, classifies as moral issues matters that most people would think had nothing to do with morality. When "morality" is stretched to encompass so much, it ends up meaning very little.
Her view of morality also leads her into constant nannyish hectoring. "What we need is a different attitude to social workers," she decrees, or "Mental health professionals are inevitably blamed when things go wrong. This needs to stop." Is she talking to me, the reader wonders? Or to the Government? Or the media? Such nebulous diktats might be acceptable in a pulpit sermon, but they are hard to take over 300 pages.
Neither has she been well served by her publisher. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind - not a concept Neuberger would embrace, I suspect - and she would have benefited from a harsher editor. Not only are there a fair number of typographical mistakes, there is too much repetition and some ghastly phraseology. "An even more worrying fact, given the Government's desire to cut incapacity benefit payments, is that people with mental health problems are the only category of incapacity claimants that is still growing" is almost Prescottian, and not atypical.
And Neuberger is not always as scrupulous as a moralising author ought to be. While rightly attacking the present Government's cack-handed and often devious asylum legislation, she forgets to mention the crux of the problem - the surging net influx of migrants from 46,800 in 1997 to well over 200,000 in 2003. Nor, in her diatribe against prison sentences, does she give any weight at all to the possibility that the rising number of inmates may help explain why crime in Britain has fallen steadily since 1990.
Unhappily, even if all those things were put right, the book's underlying weakness would remain. Morality is unconditional; politics, in Rab Butler's famous phrase, is the art of the possible. Their conflation leads to confusion.
Winston Fletcher is a trustee of Barnardo's, and chairman of the Royal Institution.
The Moral State We're In: A Manifesto for a 21st Century Society
Author - Julia Neuberger
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 347
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 00 718167 1