Sunday, 28 June 2009

Modern Morals

A brief comment on this article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Times. He claims we have come to believe there is no right and wrong, and cites the recent MP expense scandal:
In the case of MPs and financial institutions whole groups of people were, in effect, saying: “It’s legal, therefore it’s moral. Besides which, everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” This was not a failure of individuals but of an entire culture, whose air we all breathe, and for which all of us share responsibility.
The failure of these groups certainly tells us something about the society they move in, but I've also been encouraged by the reaction, which contradicts Sacks's point; almost everyone has been disgusted by the behaviour of the great and the good. That to me is a sign that the general public do clearly know the difference between right and wrong; I also believe the people involved mostly know the difference. Moral law is not binding like physical law; people can break them whilst knowing what's right or wrong. He goes on:
So, in place of an inner code, we have regulatory authorities. Where once people believed that God sees all we do, now we have CCTV and video surveillance. When self-imposed restraint disappears, external constraint must take its place. The result is that we have created the most regulated, intrusive society ever known.
An inner-directed society is one where people have an internalised sense of right and wrong. An other-directed society is one in which people take their cues from what other people do. Only in the latter can you have a situation in which people say: “If everyone else is doing it, it can’t be wrong.”
He seems to be arguing against an absolute morality here - an odd position for a theist. But he also seems to have a rather utopian bent. Whilst morality has been negotiated anew with each generation, and the moral zeitgeist has been re-established, all civilised society is characterised by law-making that recognises much of the ruling morality. This is a tacit admission that these laws aren't enshrined anywhere else, and require human enforcement.

The second was the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who argued that morality had become incoherent because we had lost the foundation on which it was built. Words like obligation and ought belonged to a culture in which people believed that there was such a thing as a divine law: the belief shared by Jews, the Greek Stoics and Christians. Lose this and the words themselves lose their meaning. It is, she said, as if the word criminal remained when the criminal law had been abolished and forgotten.
This strikes me as nonsense; no-one has ever established how a divine law gives our human morality a 'foundation'. It's simple assertion; one could just as well ask what gives divine law its foundation? Introducing the god concept is just not helpful.
If this is true, we face a much larger crisis than we think. Parliamentary reform and financial re-regulation will treat the symptoms not the cause. Without conscience there can be no trust. Without a shared moral code there can be no free society. Either we recover the moral sense or we will find, too late, that in the name of liberty, we have lost our freedom.
This I can agree with. But as always it's the secular that will give us access to a shared moral code that can work; if we look to the multifarious religious codes available, we must fail - they are incompatible with each other.


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