Monday, August 18, 2008

Morals and the secular habitus

I'm just thinking aloud here; At school our class never had the same religious education teacher for more than one year in a row. I don't think it is was (just) us but they did rather go in with all guns blazing.

One RE teacher decided to have some sort of open discussion and was aghast when one of the lads piped up, perfectly appropriately as I remember it, that he was an atheist. The horror on his face was a real sight to see. He then spluttered the immortal line "But if you don't believe in God then you can't *possibly* have any morals." From that moment he was doomed with us and, I'm sure, convinced many that all this God stuff was clearly bullshit.

After all, we knew we had morals and that they weren't dependent on religious doctrine. He wasn't just an idiot, he was an aggressive idiot - and frankly we could be a lot more aggressive than him so he made both a tactical and a theological mistake that day. Thankfully not all of the religiously inclined are such misanthropic balderdashians.

But whilst I'm sure 99% of us agree that you can have morals without God why is it that so often when, with our tacit acceptance, the media want the moral or ethical viewpoint they turn to some archdeacon or other brushing cracker crumbs out of his beard and preparing to give the parish line on this, that and a bit of the other. The idea that there is a special class of people for whom moral questions are their exclusive preserve seems quite perverse.

I suspect that it is not simply a reflection of the lazy minds of editors that created this situation where the left, in particular, seems frozen out of these discussions. I'm sure one contributing factor has been that the left has not taken this topic seriously - or actively avoided exploring knotty ethical issues in favour of appearing purely scientific in their polemics.

There may be a number of reasons why left has kept discussion of moral questions to a minimum. It rejects the moral hierarchy of the Church and doesn't seek to replace it. That through the emphasis on atheism and materialism it has bent its own arguments out of shape - for example I've heard leftists denying that morals exist, or that socialism has no ethical basis - which is palpably false. I also wonder whether the impact of the Leninist model with its hard nosed attitude towards ends and means may also be a factor - particularly with what I call "Stalinist creep" where good neighbourhood socialists defended the anti-working class policies of the so-called socialist regimes.

Whilst some may see wrangling over moral issues as unscientific weakness I think it's important to recognise that the left is on the left precisely because of a moral standpoint. When we see war, oppression, starvation and intolerance we rail against it rather than looking for ways to make money out of it. We are not coolly objective but scathing in our attacks on injustice. We think it's wrong.

When we hear John McCain describe his wife as a "cunt" it does not become a footnote in our latest thesis, we want to punch his lights out. And we certainly don't consider voting for him because Hillary didn't win the nomination, that'd be just plain weird.

As I argued a while back "becoming a green or a socialist or an anarchist is a value judgement. A subjective decision that, for example, to discriminate on the basis of skin colour, or religious denomination, does not just cause the victims hurt and has a knock on effect in our ability to unite together but is out and out wrong, and has to stop - it's a bad thing regardless of rationalisations."

That in fact, far from being irrelevant "morals can get you killed, make you famous, blow up bridges and enslave millions in dead end jobs of impoverishment and hurt. What could be more real than that?"

I'd say it's important that leftists of every stripe take seriously not just ethical issues, but ethical discussions even though those discussions can be difficult. That doesn't have to be on whether it's OK to harvest the organs of hospital porters although that would be a start.

I'm not saying that every lefty rejects the idea of an ethical framework for their politics - particularly when you take the proper, broader view of who the left are. However, I do think that collectively we have rather abandoned this field to those who claim to be in communication with a higher power. Sometimes those people can be quite leftwing themselves - but what I'm talking about is trying to develop and popularise a (not the) set of ethical and moral mores that are distinctly leftist, and informed by a secular form of politics.

For me that doesn't mean wasting time dissing the religiously inclined and creating entrenched debates with no purpose. It does mean a more self aware and deliberative set of politics. Whilst the ends may, or may not, justify the means, the means themselves determine where your political journey takes you, even if it's to a place you'd rather not go.


Douglas Coker said...

A thought provoking piece Jim.

Over the decades I’ve not been inclined to couch my political arguments in terms of moral imperatives. This I’m sure goes back to my coming to political consciousness in the very late 1960s and 1970s and in particular my brief 18 month membership of the SWP in the second half of the 70s. The emphasis was on politics not morals and the politics was infused with an analysis which focussed on class interests and power. References to morals were seen as having religious connotations and religion and those who believed were widely ridiculed. Morals were also seen as the concern of wishy-washy liberals who were of course similarly ridiculed. So we didn’t do hand-wringing - we got out there and sold the paper. Quite a lot of them IIRC. (Paisley, that’s in Scotland, with the nearby Chrysler car plant at Linwood which at its peak employed something like 12,000 workers many of them ex-red Clydeside.) In more recent decades there has been, for those of us who have paid some attention to the world of therapy and emotion, the request not to be judgemental. Which is OK in some contexts.

However I am finding myself more inclined to weave a moral dimension into my arguments these days. Goodness knows how many conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances on the whole business of flying. I run some numbers past them, courtesy of Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, which illustrate the dramatically upward trend for aggregate UK CO2 emissions from flying compared to the need to drastically reduce our emissions to have some (any) hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. I explain that flyers, especially frequent flyers, will be increasing their personal emissions by a very significant amount. I explain that while eating, housing ourselves, clothing ourselves and having some local transport facilities are at the essential end of the spectrum, flying is surely at the discretionary end of the spectrum. We don’t need to do it. I explain that stopping flying is easy-peasy in contrast to some other ways of getting emissions down. You don’t call the travel agent, you don’t go on line to that airline website site, you don’t pay any money, you don’t go to the airport, you don’t get on the plane, EASY-PEASY!

But somehow all these well-honed, completely convincing, rational arguments don’t always work. So I’m increasingly inclined to look folk straight in the eye and say to them … “OK you explain to me how I could possibly justify flying”. This I find is quite effective as it forces them to refer to selfish, self indulgent, spoilt brat type motives and they can end up looking really quite uncomfortable.

So, yes Jim, we should weave the moral imperative into our arguments. I recently read “The Ethics of Climate Change” by James Garvey subtitled “right and wrong in a warming world” which kind of says it all. I recommend it.

Bring on that carbon consciousness along with a carbon conscience.

Douglas Coker
Enfield Green Party

neil craig said...

It isn't religious leaders as such who get coverage it is Church of England leaders. This is because of the quite weird history of the CofE as the established church. Nobody goes but people feel more English to know it is there.

I think "leftists" have got far to much of an unjustified stranglehold on claiming to be ethical. For example I consider that reducung the 24,000 pensioners a year who die of fuel poverty would be pretty ethical. The only practical way of doing so is bt producing cheaper energy which means nuclear. Yet we see stockbrokers selling people their "ethical investment" funds in the basis that, among other things, they won't invest in nuclear. As a general rule ifv we accept that pointlessly impoverishing people in wrong (& I grant many Greens don't) then supporting the sort of social organisation which minimises poverty is the ethical response. It should be remembered that Adam Smith's job title was not "economist" but "Profesor of Moral Philosophy".

Jim Jay said...

Douglas: thanks for that thoughtful comment, hopefully htere will be more discussion of these issues to come.

Neil: you're right that it is often C of E - although certainly not exclusively. What's interesting is often when shows are trying to be liberal and inclusive they add in other faiths but rarely add in someone without faith, or who's moral position is not predicated on a faith.

I think you're saying Greens want people to be poor - I don't think that stands scrutiny - but I may have misunderstood, but I do totally agree that saving the old from premature poverty related death is absolutely a moral or ethical question and that the left absolutely 100% should be fighting to prevent this.

I guess my worry here though is that you seem to be saying the Labour Government is on the left - here we will disagree - although part of the Labour Party is on the left, in my view the very best part, no part of this Labour Government is.

Raphael said...

I have grown up in a secular state, France, and the presence, in the UK, of religion in schools and in public discourse on any subject, is the thing that proved to be the biggest difference for me between the two countries.

The first time my daughters came back from school singing stupid religious songs, it was a kind of a shock (she goes to a non-faith school). When last year, the nativity play with its conclusion being "and after all, this is the true life of Jesus, so let's celebrate" read by one of the teacher, I was almost already used it, but still...

OK, I know this is a little bit off the subject, but not that much, hopefully.

Jim Jay said...

Actually R I think that's a really useful point. Thanks.