Thursday, May 03, 2007

AC Grayling - the State and Morals

AC Grayling

Left to our own devices

It is disappointing when figures like Rowan Williams complain that morality has gone to pot. In reality, no such thing is happening.

April 27, 2007 5:00 PM | Printable version

In his Wilberforce Lecture on April 24 Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that the state itself should be moral, among other things, because by failing to be so it has the effect of making its individual members less than they might be. He further argued that this requires persuading "those who run things in the public sphere that there are human values and ethical norms to which an entire society is answerable". And then, in preparation for reasserting the claim, if not of the Church of England then of religion, to have leadership in identifying those values and norms, he said: "In our relativist climate, this is very difficult."

There is something right and something wrong about these thoughts and their implications. What is right is the closely allied idea that what those who run the state machine, whether as politicians or civil servants, and those who influence them materially through NGO and interest group activities, should always be constrained by ethical considerations, and answerable to them. What is wrong is the idea that this unexceptionable claim entitles us to think of the state itself as an agent possessed of moral duties. The state is not an entity separate from those who run it and those who influence them, and so the expression "a moral state" can only be shorthand for "a state run by morally responsible people".

Once one puts matters like this, it becomes hard to accept a further implication in the offing of the Archbishop's remarks, namely, that those running the state have a duty to identify and inculcate a morality so that the state - now, in a shift of focus, understood as consisting of the collectivity of its members - can itself be moral. What counts as a community's morality is always a double thing, consisting of the conventional morality of a previous generation in tension with the contested, evolving values under negotiation at any one time in the public debate. A living community has to tread this line, always; once a static moral orthodoxy is enforced, the effect on the community is a stifling one. Take the examples of divorce and homosexuality, both of which in living memory were regarded with distaste and opprobrium, and both of which have become acceptable and part of the mainstream, thereby liberating people to more generous possibilities for living flourishing lives. This was not the result of moral legislation de haute en bas (and nor was it the result of leadership given by any religious group or church: indeed, the contrary!), but the outcome of the debate society has with itself about what is good and right, what is acceptable, and why.

That debate is a vigorous and responsible one, and it is disappointing but unsurprising that the former custodians of moral authority, the former arbiters of the good, namely officers of one or another religious group, insist on complaining that morality has gone to pot, is relativistic and thin, has been swamped by consumerism and individualism, and has collapsed in welter of drink and pornography, threatening the end of the world. No such thing is happening; if anything, now that people are less distracted by such irrelevances as what they are allowed to eat and wear, and what they can and cannot do on different days of the week, matters of real ethical concern - war, poverty, injustice, the environment, child labour, human rights - have come to dominate an ethical agenda which once all but ignored them in favour of hand-wringing over Sunday shopping and unmarried mothers.

It is in fact a remarkable and heartening truth about the contemporary western world that it has such a vibrant ethical debate as a distinctive part of its culture. Yes, the west does bad things - makes war, exploits and battens, pillages the environment, and much besides - but it also criticises itself about these very things, challenges itself, argues with itself, and sometimes makes things very much better for its denizens than almost anywhere else, at any other time, in the world and human history.

Think of it this way: would you rather live in a functionally secular western country, or in one where the moral climate is much more influenced by what (among others, religious) leaders say it should be?

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