Posts Tagged ‘morality’

I have so often wished for the gift of being able to write as the great writers do.  And, together with that gift, I have wished for another ; that of thinking as they do.

As you probably know, Jonathan Sacks is our Chief Rabbi.  Read here what he says about how our Judaeo-Christian heritage has shaped us and so much of the rest of the world.


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Well, the multicultural experiment seems to have had a short life but a merry one.  What began as a grand design, apparently hatched up by the BBC and the university history departments, seems to be gurgling down the drain.  This does not mean that the multiple cultures in our country have disappeared ; but it does mean that the predicted harmonious relations between those cultures have not been supported by the observed facts.

So what is to be done?  There will be no shortage of advice to (and from) the politicians, the academics and the broadcasters, but we may be sure that the substance of the advice will not be either broad enough or deep enough to make a difference in the longer term.  We may be sure of that because the august bodies that determine our fate have failed to realize that the problems are moral problems, whereas they see them as political.  What we shall be given is not moral solutions but politically correct solutions ; they will be solutions founded on the political beliefs and expediencies of the various parties, and hence of no lasting value.

But you cannot be rid of political correctness ; indeed, we should not wish to be rid of it.  But mere PC is not robust enough to support a nation, any more than mere sand is strong enough to support a skyscraper.  What is needed is a moral foundation, a rock on which to build with confidence.

Perhaps we can accept that morality is the set of unalterable principles which guide us in governing the relations between people ; and, because government is all about the relations between people, moral principles are indispensable to social stability.  And, because the principles are unalterable, they must be simple.  In themselves, they are not detailed enough to be made into state laws.  For example, the moral principle “You shall not kill” cannot be absorbed directly into law for there might be occasions when killing is unavoidable or even just.  It might well be unjust to punish somebody who kills in self defence or in the defence of other innocent people.

So, we need to build a body of secondary principles upon the moral foundation.  We might call these secondary principles our ethics. They represent our generally agreed interpretations of the moral principles ; an ethical principle amplifies a moral principle by giving concrete examples of what is meant by it.  It is to the ethics that politicians turn when drafting their policies, and to ethics they turn when drafting or amending a particular law.

But now we come to the thorny question :  who decides the unalterable moral principles on which everything depends?

A simple answer is that the politicians do.  Another simple democratic answer is that the people do.  But both politicians and people are variable in their opinions of morality ; so both these answers land us back in the realm of political correctness.  And PC doesn’t work.

So, who does have the authority to decide the moral principles?

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Our ancestors lived in times that were probably no more warringly violent than our own ; but, whereas most of the world’s violence today is perceived as being in faraway places, their violence was much closer to home.  What we might call the teen-age years of Europe seem to have been characterised by rebellion, rivalry and a somewhat careless approach to the exercise of armed conflict in order that the powerful (and the would-be-powerful) might achieve their various securities.

Our ancestors were just as venal and prone to wrong-doing as we are – no more so and no less.  And each age of the world, each century, and each generation seems to be beset by certain dominant flavours of immorality.  Also the leaders in each period enter into their roles – professional, political, legal, religious, etc., – infected with the attitudes that give rise to (or tolerate) such immorality, thus reinforcing it.

But all was not bad.  There were reactions against immoral behaviour ; sudden revolts against the zeitgeist, as it were ; sharp attacks, or fits, of morality.  And, of course, we encounter what has been called the swinging pendulum effect, which tends to produce extremes of opinion and behaviour – opinions and behaviour which by their very earnestness themselves tend to be corrupt, even when trying to be moral.

Here we are speaking of human nature and, if this were the whole story, the entire process of history, then it is hard to see how civilization could have progressed.  There does not seem to be any purely natural and material process which ensures that today is morally better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.  Nor does there seem to  be anything naturally  in the human psyche which guarantees moral behaviour.

So how did our ancestors do it?  How did they, by slow degrees and painful experiment, forge a civilisation that was at least prepared to contemplate the possibility of an enduring  peaceful and law-abiding future?

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