July 1st, 2010


The Beautiful Game

No football today. It's probably stupid FIFA rules of some sort that have stopped it.

One good thing about Christianity was that it had a set of rules. There were ten of them. Christians may not have observed them particularly well a lot of the time, but they at least had a set of rules.

I don't know the reasons for the decline of Christianity in the Western world. Personally I think that it's probably been due to the rise of science. And to the rise in prosperity of the Western world.

The idea that there's a God who is in control of everything is one that doesn't sit easily alongside the idea that the universe is governed by the laws of physics. They're not totally incompatible with each other, but they make strange bedfellows. The more that science can explain, the less there's been left over for God to control. God gradually became of God of the gaps in science. God gradually got totally squeezed out. Disease ceased to be a punishment sent by God, but something that was caused by bacteria and viruses. You didn't pray for a cure: you got hold of some penicillin.

And the rise in prosperity of the Western world meant that people started to live longer, and to enjoy their lives. And as they stopped living with the prospect of impending death from war and starvation and disease, they stopped being concerned about a hoped-for life after death, and became more concerned with living life right now.

And so the churches gradually emptied. Chriistianity was a great religion for people who weren't going to live very long, and so weren't trying to enjoy their brief lives. It became the official religion of Rome just at the time the Western Roman Empire was in terminal decline, and people weren't living very long, or enjoying their brief lives. It was a religion which embraced poverty and suffering. Not the sort of religion that goes with plasma screens and fast food and football.

And it didn't help too much that Christianity had fragmented into a large number of rival sects, each claiming to be the True Church.

But as Christianity has been abandoned, so also have its rules. Let's take a look. Number one was Though Shalt Worship The Lord Thy God. That was abandoned once people stopped believing in God. Number two was Thou Shalt Not Make Thee A Graven Image. Well, once people stopped believing in God, they didn't start worshipping Cybele or Amun or Vishnu. But you could say that watching the box is worshipping a graven image. Number three was Thou Shalt Not Take The Name of God In Vain. I've never really understood that one. Number four was Keep Holy The Sabbath Day. That went with the Sunday trading laws. Number Five was Honour Thy Mother And Father. But these days chiiiildren are more important than their parents. Number six was Thou Shalt Not Kill. This is one which most people still subscribe to. But it has lots of exceptions. It's usually okay to kill enemies. And animals. And murderers. Number seven was Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. But that's perfectly okay these days. Number eight was Thou Shalt Not Steal. And that's another one which most people still subscribe to. But again there are lots of exceptions. It's okay to steal if you're the government, and you're 'collecting taxes'. Number nine was Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbour. But it's okay if he's a smoker or a drinker or a fat person. Then you can tell as many lies as you like. We live in a culture of lies about almost everything. Politicians are expected to be good liars. And Number ten was Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour's House, Nor his Wife, Nor His Ox. Well, the whole Western world's economy would collapse if people stopped coveting things that way.

So out of these 10 rules, about 7 have fallen into disuse. And the remaining three are under siege.

So how do we make moral rules in our godless new age?

It seems that as the priests and bishops have been exiting stage left, the doctors and the scientists have been entering stage right. According to them, the prime purpose of human life, the ethical imperative, is To Live As Long As Possible. What's right is what prolongs life. What's wrong is what shortens it. Like drinking and smoking and eating chocolate chip cookies. So instead of having priests and bishops pontificating, we now have doctors and lifestyle scientists pontificating instead. As 'experts'. We have more and more experts about everything.

Or else we reach a Consensus about what's right and wrong. Or, to use the currently fashionable parlance, about what's 'acceptable' and what's 'unacceptable'. Political Correctness is a consensus of this sort. Morality has become Whatever Most People Think. Moral discourse boils down to winning enough votes. If enough people think something is right, then that makes it right. If they change their minds the next day, then it becomes wrong the next day. Once some sort of consensus view has been reached, anyone who disagrees is treated as a leper or a denialist, and excluded from the debate. And, in many ways, the only way to ever reach a consensus about anything is to exclude anyone who disagrees. Another way is to declare that "the debate is over", and we can't possibly discuss it all again. Except that there never was a debate in the first place. Because any debate about morality requires some sort of ability to reason about morality, and this is what is absent.

Or you head off to India, and borrow an Eastern religion.

Or you just don't worry about it too much. Because most people, whether they are Christians or Muslims or atheists or whatever, are generally benign, despite their beliefs or their lack of them. Maybe we don't need morals at all.

My own inclination has been to look for some fundamental, encompassing moral principle. My view is, very roughly, that if science undermined the Christian moral cosmos, then science should construct a new moral cosmos, in much the same way as it replaced the old Ptolemaic earth-centred universe with a Copernican sun-centred one. But science is disinclined to do so. It doesn't regard morality as part of its turf. Scientists are inclined to say that they study what is the case, not what ought to be the case. And they quite often add that you can't deduce an 'ought' from an 'is'. And then they go back to peering through their microscopes and telescopes.

Yet it remains that morality of some sort seems to be built into human nature. And into animal nature too. I'm regularly struck by just how astonishingly civilised many household cats and dogs are, at least towards their owners. It seems that all living things have rules of one sort or other that govern their conduct. A few days back I was admiring a spider's web I'd noticed in the garden, which struck me as a stunning feat of engineering as it stretched from the pinnacle of one plant to the pinnacle of another.one, several feet away. Had the spider surveyed the scene before it, and thought, "Hmmm, I think I'll put in the main span from here to there, and then infill from down there to over there"? Or did it have some simple web-building rules which it just followed religiously, and which would mostly produce small and unremarkable webs, but every now and then a tremendous masterpiece? However it was done, wasn't the set of rules which guided the spider in building its web as essential for its survival as its legs and eyes and silk glands? Wasn't the "oughtness" of the spider part of its "isness"? And wasn't it likely that spider web-building strategies had been shaped by evolution just like their legs and eyes had been shaped?

The human problem is perhaps that, unlike spiders, there don't seem to be any rules hard-wired into them. Humans are reprogrammable, much like computers. Morality is a social construct, instilled over many years. Which is one reason why zealots of every sort want to educate children in their own dogmas. Give them the child, and they will give you back the man. Or so they hope. But morality is always evolving. My morality is not quite the same as my parents' morality. I don't go to church anymore. And theirs in turn was a bit different from their parents'. Perhaps human morality is something that is also gradually evolving and changing, and always has been, and always will.

My own preferred moral principle is a least-action principle. It's one that seems to govern a lot of human interactions. For example, it's a regular occurence while driving along narrow lanes in Devon to encounter a car coming in the opposite direction. One of you will have to reverse back down the road to somewhere where it's wider. But which one of you? The right answer, I think, is that whoever has to do the least reversing should be the one to do so. That way both of you will continue about your business with the least delay. And usually the decision as to who will reverse is made almost instantly. And usually it's the right decision. Well, 'right' in terms of a least-action principle. It doesn't always work. Occasionally there's a stand-off, where neither driver will reverse. Or sometimes both stupidly reverse.

It could, of course, be a social convention that is peculiar to the lanes of Devon. It may be one that I have learned over time while living there. And if I was to find myself in Yorkshire, there might be a different rule. For example that red cars have priority over blue ones. In time I would learn this rule too.

My least-action code might be described as a morality of expediency. It was summarized once, somewhere as:

"Easy is right."

And perhaps Cicero thought the same

In Cicero's essay On Duty he discusses what he calls the most pernicious error. He believes that the most pernicious error is to believe that the morally good choice is not always the most expedient choice.

But very often expediency is described as being in opposition to morality.

There are no morals in politics, there is only expedience.

Morality, in this view, isn't mere expediency. Morality is not easy. The moral individual doesn't do what comes easiest, but very often what comes hardest. Morality requires an effort of will that overcomes natural inclination. Moral individuals exert self-control. For example, habitual smokers exert no control over themselves, and do what comes easiest, which is to light a cigarette whenever they feel like one. The ex-smoker who has given up smoking - perhaps through a tremendous effort of will - is a moral individual, precisely because morality isn't about doing what you want to. Morality is all about stopping yourself doing what you want to do. You want to kill your enemies, but you stop yourself from doing so. You want to steal, but you stop yourself from doing so. You want to light a cigarette, but you stop yourself. And so on. Antismokers are not really trying to get smokers to stop smoking: they're trying to teach them self-control. Morality is self-control. It's stopping yourself doing what you want to do - which is to drink beer, and smoke cigarettes, and watch football on TV.

Sitting under all this is a notion that human nature - the one that has evolved over the past 600 million years since we started off from some form of green slime - is corrupt and depraved, and in need of being shackled and constrained. You can't trust your own 600-million-year-old instincts. You have to suppress them in favour of a set of rules which you impose upon yourself.

But if morality exerts itself as a self-control which stops you doing what you want to do, then a perfectly moral world would be one in which nobody ever did anything that they actually wanted to do. It would be a completely repressed world in which there would be no spontaneity, no pleasure, no fun. It would be a world in which everybody only ever did their duty, as set out in the Moral Code, whatever it was. Is that your idea of utopia? Mine neither.

Tricky, isn't it, this morality business? Which is right? Their idea of morality, or mine?

I think I need a shot of whisky. And a cigarette... When's the next World Cup match? I'm rooting for the beautiful, exuberant, free-flowing, South American game, rather than the repressed and self-controlled European game. It's a titanic clash of moralities, played out on a football field. The legendary Liverpool football manager, Bill Shankly, once said:

"Some people think that football is a matter of life and death... But it's much more important than that."

40 or 50 years after I first heard that quote, I'm beginning to think that he might have been right.

Good News For Once?

Still chewing this over.

Firstly, health secretary Andrew Lansley has made a speech in which he said:

it was time to move away from hectoring people to lead healthier lives.

He mentioned obesity and smoking. He described how the Jamie Oliver approach to school meals had led to fewer children eating 'healthy' school meals.

But he also said:

"This is a behaviour change programme we are engaging in"

Sounds to me like Lansley is recognising that bullying and hectoring people doesn't work, but that he still wants to change their behaviour.

I don't think it's any business of the government to change people's behaviour.

Still, it can't be bad news when it upsets Jamie Oliver and Professor Alan Maryon-Davis.

Years ago, when I still had a TV, I watched some of Jamie Oliver's programmes. Nothing wrong with showing people how to cook, I thought. I didn't realise, however, that schoolchildren were going to be forced to eat the stuff, and have 'unhealthy' food confiscated. Somehow or other people like Oliver just can't stop themselves from forcing people to behave in the way they want. My approval for Jamie Oliver and for 'healthy eating' collapsed.

Anyway, I'm surprised by what Lansley said. Six months or so ago I read a few comments by him, and concluded that he was going to continue with state bullying, and wrote off any hope that anything would change. Sounds like he's shifted his position slightly though.

I'm also chewing over the Your Freedom website that the government has set up today, to ask people what laws they'd like amended. If it's like the petition facility that 10, Downing Street had during the Labour years, they'll all be ignored, except those which coincide with government policy.

I found 7 or more suggestions there to repeal or amend the smoking ban. But I didn't get to comment or vote on them, because the website seemed entirely unresponsive. Perhaps it was overloaded, with too many people trying to make suggestions?

The third bit of news today was that a new survey had showed that 3 out of 5 smokers wanted the smoking ban relaxed. Funny that. Wasn't there a survey just a few days back saying that smokers welcomed further restrictions on smoking? Goes to show how different surveys can get different results. This latest survey was commissioned by the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, and this will be used to discredit it, of course.

Several commenters on Taking Liberties expressed astonishment that any smokers at all didn't want the ban relaxed. But I'm not entirely surprised. I know one smoker who was looking forward to the smoking ban because he thought it would help him give up smoking (it didn't). And I'm sure there are plenty of brainwashed smokers who hate themselves for smoking, and think it's a filthy and antisocial habit. And I'm sure there are also plenty of smokers who never go to pubs anyway, and aren't bothered about the ban.

But I was glad to see the tobacco industry stepping up to the plate for once. We are their customers, after all.

All in all, I'm mildly heartened. It's not often that I hear three bits of good news in one day.

Which reminds me to mention that a smoking ban in Bulgaria, introduced at the beginning of June, lasted for just 3 days before being revoked. But then, 40% of Bulgarians are smokers. Too many for smoking bans to be workable.