July 28th, 2010


The Modern Ethical Vacuum

How do you tell right from wrong?

50 years ago, when I was a boy, Christianity supplied the answers to those sorts of questions. Since that time, Christianity has been getting increasingly marginalised. The Archbishop of Canterbury was complaining recently that it was being 'denormalised'. It seems to be part of a long, slow process. Already 50 years ago Christianity was not the power it once had been a few centuries earlier.

What brought about the long, slow decline? Any number of things. Christianity disintegrated into rival denominations. Christians fought Christians, and Christians persecuted Christians. And then there was the rise of science and scientific thinking, and the theory of evolution. This new way of thinking didn't marry easily with the Christian cosmos. And then there was just increased prosperity: rather than concentrate their minds on the next life, people started to want a good time in this life.

Whatever the reasons, the retreat of Christianity has meant the marginalisation of the ethical codes of Christianity. And yet at the same time, the new sciences which have told us so much about the workings of the natural world have told us nothing at all about ethics. Scientists declare that they study what is the case, not what ought to be the case. Any attempt to derive an 'ought' from an 'is' is dismissed as a logical impossibility. It's often called the Naturalistic Fallacy. So the new science doesn't offer any ethical advice either.

The result is a sort of moral vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum. And so all sorts of other creeds come rushing in.

Some of these are existing creeds, of course, like Islam or Buddhism. Some are new cults, usually from India. Somehow or other, India seems to have almost a complete monopoly on new cults.

But, as befits a scientific age, the most influential new creeds are of a scientific character. They don't come with candles and incense. They come with peer-reviewed papers full of statistics and graphs and tables.

Modern doctor-driven healthism, a new variant of eugenics, is one particularly powerful new creed. The summum bonum of this new creed is longevity of life. It's a hardly surprising creed to come from the medical profession, which is, after all, primarily in the business of prolonging life. It seems that, as the Christian clergy retreated into the shadows, doctors felt that it was their right, and perhaps even their duty, to mount the pulpits they had vacated, and deliver new sermons on right healthy living. It was not upon fraud and theft and rape and murder that they directed their ire: it was upon smoking and drinking and eating and lack of exercise. An army of finger-wagging lifestyle pundits has been launched upon the world, banning smoking, alcohol, fat, sugar, salt.

Another new creed that has scientific pretensions is the Green environmental movement. This is a form of nature worship. Its central doctrine is that greedy humans are despoiling the Earth (which they call Gaia) with the dark, satanic mills of its industry, and that there are too many greedy humans living increasingly unsustainable lives, and filling the atmosphere with CO2 and acid rain and ozone holes. Their solution is one of de-industrialisation and a return to a simpler, more sustainable, and fairer human existence with the planet's 6 billion + population reduced to 100 million. So if the healthist doctors are determined to make us live as long as possible, it seems that the Greens want to kill most of us off.

“My three main goals would be to reduce human population to about 100 million worldwide, destroy the industrial infrastructure and see wilderness, with it’s full complement of species, returning throughout the world.” - Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First!

Even governments have joined in, with a great many politicians showing signs that they believe that it is not their job to heed the will of their constituents, but on the contrary for their constituents to heed their will. This is called 'leadership', or being 'pro-active'. And the mass media are increasingly co-opted to act as a sort of surrogate bully pulpit by which to 'nudge' people towards healthier or greener lifestyles.

Yet neither medicine nor ecology are really fitted to provide moral guidance for humanity. It is as if, in place of the departed clergy, a number of barber-surgeons and gardeners have been promoted into their place. (Both, oddly enough, might be said to have been satirised by Peter Sellers, firstly as the central character in Dr Strangelove, and secondly as Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.) Both offer a wan, dwindled, blinkered morality. Anyway, why pick on doctors and gardeners? Why not airline pilots and chefs? (Ooops, forgot about Jamie Oliver there).

And one may foresee an inherent conflict growing between the human-life-prolonging healthists and the human-life-shortening Greens. Their goals are entirely incompatible. It can't both be a sterilised cotton-wool environment and a return to the Stone Age.

Perhaps a further feature of the deepening ethical vacuum is that, in the absence of any moral principles, morality becomes something free-floating, and whatever people agree it to be. It becomes something to be negotiated. It requires a consensus. In reaching this consensus, there is no real moral debate, because invariably 'the debate is over' and 'everybody knows' what needs to be done.

Do we need a coherent and comprehensive morality? Perhaps everybody sort of always knows what's right and wrong. But there is reason to suspect that this is not the case. Smoking bans which eject smokers from pubs and cafes are quite manifestly neither fair nor even-handed. It's not in the least bit "Do unto others as you would be done by." Nor is there any trace of compassion or forgiveness shown to smokers. Complete smoking bans are quite manifestly obscene laws. Yet almost nobody will stand up and say so. Nobody seems to notice. What better evidence is there of some profound ethical deficit? It seems that a great many people no longer know right from wrong. And what is being done to smokers therefore looks set to be done to drinkers and fat people and anyone who offends against the idol of health or the great bitch goddess Gaia.

Morality of any sort, like law, would seem to be something which treats everybody equally, and does not discriminate or exclude. Yet precisely such discrimination and exclusion is now being practised with the full sanction of the government and the media and the courts and the medical establishment. And it looks set to just get worse and worse.

The response to this deepening ethical vacuum, and to the appearance of manifest injustice, will almost certainly bring calls for a renewed and inclusive moral sensibility. In many cases this will mean calls for a return to Christian morality. Either that, or it will generate new attempts to discover some hitherto-undiscovered moral rationality.

For most certainly our modern righteous are utterly morally bankrupt. All these healthists and greens, parading their certainties, have no real morality at all.

For myself, I cling onto my original Christian morality, or the battered remains of it. But I think that the way forward will have to be through discovering some new ethical rationality, rather than through Mosaic revelation. Yesterday I was trying to piece together the outlines of one such rational ethics. For I suspect that, as time goes on, it's soon going to become more and more urgent to undertake such a task. And that more and more people will see the necessity of it.