Sunday, 8 June 2008

There is a Moral Compass, there's just no North

(Nothing to do with the below, but while you're visiting, look at the petitions on women bishops here and here.)


We must wait until Monday to discover its precise contents, but the apparent title of a report commissioned by the Church of England on modern policy-making in Britain gives some idea of its conclusions: Moral, But no Compass.

A key concern raised in the report is that, by contrast with its interest in ‘minority’ faiths such as Islam, government, both national and local, pays little attention to Christian groups generally and even to the Church of England itself.

This sentence seems to get to the heart of the report’s conclusions:

Based on our interviews with politicians, government officials and people in the faith communities themselves, we can only conclude that the absence of a ‘churches’ evidence base is grounded in a judgement that churches are not worthy to have even a modest role in government schemes.

It would be a grave error to conclude, however, that government policy-making is therefore somehow haphazard or directionless. Indeed, despite the report’s title, the policy-making of the present government is not only intensely moralistic, but is guided by a compass of compelling force.

One of the great shifts in ethos in the last two decades has been from the idea that government exists basically to ensure safety and prosperity for the nation and its citizens, to the idea that it may and should aim to define and produce both the perfect society and the perfect individual.

Thus in our service of Holy Communion this morning, we prayed that God would grant to the Queen’s “whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.”

Over the years, however, this was taken to mean not that it was the government’s job to tell us how to bring up our children or organize our lives. Rather, the government would protect our liberty to decide for ourselves how to do these things.

That, however, has now changed, and the evidence for it is all around. One example is the introduction of the concept of ‘hate crime’. All crime is, of course, hateful, insofar as it is driven by a lack of love for one’s neighbour. But the government now presumes to identify certain attitudes as a ‘hate’ which especially compounds an existing crime and constitutes a further crime in itself.

In reality there is no way that courts, judges or juries can truly assess how much, or little, of these kinds of ‘hates’ are involved in, for example, beating up a gay or racially different person. The important point is that the government has decided that some antipathies of their choice are more important than others (for example, a contempt for the elderly that leads to robbery or rape).

The attempt to make the distinction is bizarre, until one appreciates that behind it is another agenda — not merely to inhibit and punish crimes such as violence or robbery, but to change the way we regard other people. In short, the government is pursuing a positive moral agenda, not simply ensuring a proper level of protection.

This may sound well and good. And certainly it is a step beyond the Book of Common Prayer’s plea that justice should be ministered ‘indifferently’, meaning ‘impartially’, without regard to persons. But in fact it is deeply dangerous.

To borrow a phrase from Jacques Barzun, the book to read is CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Written in 1943, this slim volume is essential for anyone who wants to understand modern Britain under our existing legislature.

Lewis’s argument is that trends in popular philosophy would lead inexorably to a time when those with the power to do so (Lewis called them “the Conditioners”) would seek to mould the rest of us into an image of their deciding:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.

And then,

The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. We shall ... be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

As we contemplate, on the one hand, the redefinition of family and marriage to include same-sex couples with surrogate children, and on the other hand see a government pushing through legislation to allow the cloning of human-animal hybrids, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that although we may not be there yet, making the species what they wish it to be is precisely what some people in significant positions of power and authority in our society aim to achieve.

But as Lewis observes, the ‘moral compass’ directing this ambition turns out to be like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz: a little man, hiding behind a curtain. Lewis wrote,

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao [a term Lewis coined to mean moral motivation] they will for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. [...] But how are they going to be motivated themselves?

The answer he gave was stark. Having demolished (we might say ‘deconstructed’) all traditional morals and morality,

The Conditioners ... must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure. [...] My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.

Thus we will be moulded in the image not of the Conditioner’s philosophies but, ultimately, of their appetites.

What, you might ask, is the evidence that anything as dreadful (or dreary) as this might happen? The answer I would point to is social policy-makers with multiple partners and illegitimate children (and how old-fashioned, even ‘abusive’, that term now appears!), or lawmakers with fiddled expenses.

Of course, such things have always happened. Kings and lords once kept mistresses as a matter of course, despite what the Church taught or society said. But that was precisely because they thought they were different from the rest of us. The advent of democracy was supposed to mean we were governed by people like ourselves, not those who consider themselves above the ‘mass’ of the people. And despite the fact that expense fiddles have always existed, there was a time when people would have been ashamed to be caught, not merely embarrassed.

The point is that our legislators already display a ‘schizophrenia’ of demanding conformity to the rules from those over whom they hold sway, whilst acting on their own uncontrolled impulses. The result, however, is not a lack of a compass. Rather, it is the lack of a moral pole to which the compass might point.

Revd John P Richardson
8 June 2008

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