DESPITE the publication last week of research which indicates that more people on the planet die from being fat than from starvation, Maggie Mellon appears to see no explanation of poverty in ignorance, idleness, obesity, and unrestrained consumption of alcohol and tobacco (Letters, December 15 ).

Her answer to the problems she perceives is not to be found in virtuous conduct, but in higher taxes and more government intervention.

Although a non-believer, I would argue that the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament indicate the parameters of the virtuous life. The same holds for the underlying precept of the philosophy of David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment (do as you would be done by), and by the moral sentiments of Adam Smith.

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The point about virtues is that their observance is universally beneficial, and they define what it is to be civilised. Historically they were reinforced by faith and stigma.

Today, in a secular society, the virtues of good manners, self-reliance and personal and social responsibility increasingly are perceived to require the force of law. As a result, our ancient liberties and traditions are being trampled underfoot, as those who perceive themselves and their views to be supremely moral – political activists and pressure-group lobbyists – commandeer power to coerce us into behaviour of which they approve.

For such people, the pursuit of equality is the supreme morality. But equality is not a virtue because it is not universally beneficial. It is merely a subjective value.

Equality and fairness are invoked to curb press freedom won in 1695; to ban fox-hunting because it is an activity pursued by nobs; to impose gay marriage when all rights are conferred by civil partnership; to maintain non-selective comprehensive education even at a lifelong cost to the working class; to give prisoners the right to vote; and to confiscate by tax the property of those whose only sin is to have worked hard for what they have.

The pursuit of equality of outcome is not only reprehensible and destructive, it is unaffordable and contradictory in a free society. Has the last decade taught us nothing?

Richard Mowbray,

14, Ancaster Drive,