Wednesday, 2 November 2011

It's the morality, stupid.

On Sunday morning I was driving round the M25 to ‘a church not near you’ when I happened to find myself listening to Radio 4 in the interval between the morning service and the news that used to be occupied by the late Alastair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’.
With the possible exception of Clive James, the products of the current occupants of this slot simply reveal the greatness of the man himself, whose gentle tones and deceptively wandering style never failed to fascinate. Sad to say, last Sunday was no exception, although it was, in its own way, quite gripping.
The broadcast was a diatribe against the arms trade in general and British involvement in particular. Nothing particularly wrong with that, as far as I’m concerned. Armaments are, I believe, a necessity, but as far as possible they ought not to be a commodity.
The problem lay not so much in the speaker’s case as in the way it was made. His words were eloquent in the extreme, but laced with that bitterness which characterizes the cultural self-loathing of the typical left-of-centre Western intellectual. Taken to its extreme (and the speaker’s subject matter had clearly driven him pretty close to that point) it produces the kind of thing one expects to hear from the children of rich parents, as they pass through an adolescent love-affair with Socialism. Truly it belonged in the sixth-form debating society, not on Radio 4.
It was at the point, however, where the speaker got on to the subject of cluster bombs, “or child-killers, to give them their proper name”, that the thought occurred to me with complete clarity that no one except the monumentally stupid or obtuse could seriously maintain that morals can be given a ‘Darwinian’ or evolutionary basis.
Suppose this had been not a radio broadcast but an after-dinner conversation, and suppose I had said to the speaker, “Whoah — have you considered two things: first, the important question may not be who dies but who survives, and secondly, the feelings you have about unknown young humans in far off places are simply the misallocation of protective instincts which originally served to promote the survival of your herd?”
My suspicion is this would not have played well.
Now there may be some who would object that the timing was bad — that the analysis is potentially correct in principle, but that people sometimes have to get things of their chests.
Yet arguably, if we are being led into a ‘brave new world’ of a rational and fact-based approach to existence, the timing would have been pretty well spot-on, for it is surely when we are ‘getting things off our chests’ and the like that we are being less than completely rational.
Furthermore there was surely a danger, in this instance, that the speaker’s own emotions, and his intended emotional impact on others, could have the effect of leading him and them into irrational, and therefore potentially destructive, choices.
Of course, someone may come back and object that, on the contrary, the speaker’s case is entirely favourable to human survival, and therefore is entirely rational (and very ‘Darwinian’).
But the point is this: that wasn’t his case.
He was not at all saying, “As I can demonstrate, an arms industry which involves bribery would threaten the propagation of human genes and affect the overall utilitarian balance between human happiness and misery, therefore bribery is to be eschewed for its deleterious impact in these areas.”
Rather, he simply observed that bribery had (probably) taken place and assumed that both he and we would agree that bribery is wrong.
Now it may be that he, and we, are actually mistaken. And certainly defining the nature of morality and concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is frustratingly difficult. All I am saying is that one has to admit the self-evident stupidity of pursuing the alternative.
There are those who still insist it is correct. I think the Australian ethicist Peter Singer is one of them, but if you follow the logic of his thought you wind up having sex with an orangutan — should the mood take you. And if that’s where you want to go, then good luck with combatting the international arms trade.
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  1. John,
    You were listening (I believe) to Will Self, a man chiefly famous for once snorting cocaine in the toilet of the Prime Minister's private plane, John Major being the incumbent of the time, and apparently being rather proud of the fact. This makes him him ideal BBC material, and they give him a good living these days. That and the fact of his impeccably left-wing parentage, and the permanent sneer he has in his voice.
    Like you, I despair of the constant stream of such types who turn up on Radio 4 on a Sunday morning just after Morning Worship. For 50 minutes, my soul is uplifted (sometimes not very much, sometimes quite a lot), only to have it dashed down by 10 minutes of distinctly variable quality, often very cynical, and seemingly calculated to correct the 'imbalance' of what has gone before.

  2. The next Anglicanism:

    HBD Anglicanism

  3. Anonymous, I wish you'd put a name, but your link is absolutely fascinating, especially the bit on "Crime and HBD". Basically, it's "a black thing".

  4. Richard, yes it was Will Self, but I thought "No names, no pack-drill" - not that he'd probably mind.

  5. Nice analysis, John!
    A long-standing problem for Darwinians is that we have this moral desire to protect the vulnerable (for example, against paedophiles), whereas natural selection tends to mean the death of the vulnerable. The revulsion against cluster-bombs is that their indiscriminate effect includes the vulnerable (such as children). And even if we argue for the Darwinian survival of our group as a whole, we are still weakened overall by cherishing the weaker members.