Is the decline of religion in Britain to blame for our moral relativism?
Let’s be honest: atheists ourselves haven’t exactly done a bang-up job at showing that you can definitely still have morality without organised religion, have we? We could have replaced religious or “traditional” morality with a compassionate, rationalist morality based on the fairly straight-forward principle that suffering and harm are bad things, alleviating suffering or harm is a social good to be encouraged, and people should basically be nice to each, be equal under the law, and not oppress or harm each other.
But somewhere along the way, the hedonistic socio-sexual liberalism of the sixties got mixed up with the individualistic commercial liberalism of Thatcher’s eighties. And now? We’re in real danger of ending up with a society where the concept of morality itself is looked upon as a quaint notion from the past, sometimes to be mocked, and all too often to be treated as if it were entirely subjective.
Some moral issues are subjective, of course. Whether to cut a particular rate or tax and whether to build nuclear power stations; whether to smoke and whether to buy coffee from Starbucks; whether to support a strike and whether the state should fund art exhibitions, these are all moral questions to some extent, and they’re all subjective. But some things are not. And life is too short, cruelty is too widespread, and its victims too powerless for rich, educated people to keep pretending not to understand the difference between right and wrong. If something is harmful or oppressive, then it is wrong.
There is a disturbing narrative perpetuated in the media, and in academia. It is a narrative of almost complete moral relativism. The narrative comes from both sides, and those on no side, of the political spectrum. We are told that our relationships are primarily transactional, and that having an ethical grounding in how you behave is some sort of luxury. And often, in an even madder twist of logic, this moral relativism manifests itself as politeness, as respect for other people’s values. As liberalism.
And notice how wickedly well-versed these people are in pretending that they are able to understand right and wrong; it’s just that they can’t expect other people – by which they usually mean poor people and foreigners – to grasp the nuances of it.
Ed Miliband’s ex-Blue Labour guru Maurice Glasman was good at this. Glasman, a blinking Lord, of all people, blamed social liberalism for losing the working-class vote because, to him, working-class people don’t prioritise liberal issues. But if you look at the demographics at, say, a Gay Pride event, or a Love Music Hate Racism event, or an anti-EDL demo, you’ll find a consistently broad selection of the public, from all sorts of social backgrounds.
That’s not to say that issues which affect a minority aren’t of more interest to members of that minority group, because of course they are, but the point is, the proportion of, say, white people who are actively against racism is even across all social classes. We have upper-class homophobes, racists, and welfare-bashers coming out of our ears, yet somehow things like the hesitancy about LGB equality or hostility towards racial minorities or benefit claimants keep being heaped at the door of the “white working class” – usually by an increasingly elite, corporate-owned media.
Has this moral relativism replaced the moral authority of the Christian church? Christians and other faiths always warned us this would happen. Well, sort of. When they talked in shaken, terrified tones about the perilous “anything goes” culture we’d all end up with, they were probably thinking of things like LGBT equality, mixed race relationships, feminism and contraception. But even though they have wrongly identified the notion of immorality – because the things I mention above are all things which do not harm anybody, and are therefore rather difficult to define as immoral – these religious traditionalists were, in many ways, correct about what was about to happen to us as a society.
Liberalism is often criticised as a dangerous experiment by social Conservatives and indeed, the kind of liberalism we have – a lazy, commercialised, amoral, capitalist kind – has the potential for great danger. But not, of course, to the people who make careers out of indulging themselves in moral subjectivity.
How many privileged Western women laugh about how fun and liberated they are when it comes to the sex industry? How often do we all debate the theoretical ethics of “choice” in porn and prostitution, sometimes without ever even mentioning genuine consent, or safety, or drug abuse, or sex trafficking, or AIDs, or statutory rape, or, you know, whether a child’s right not be trafficked into slavery is really more important than a Western man’s liberties, which include having casual sex on a stag weekend without having to make sure the prostitute is there because she chooses to be. The fact that these are relative freedoms just shows us how sickening moral relativism can become.
And it’s not just social issues; it happens with economics, too. Powerful millionaires with inherited wealth (because these are not wealth creators or entrepreneurs) ponder the abstract principles of the “work ethic” and “aspiration”. What if, hypothetically, disabled people are actually better off being forced into work for their own good? Is it really right to try and reduce child poverty levels? Why do we arrogantly assume that medicine should be available to everyone; what if, hypothetically speaking, that’s actually reducing poor, sick people’s personal freedoms in some way?
And sometimes, it comes from the people you’d expect to be the most forcefully liberal of all. Who are we, argued a perfectly non-controversial editorial in the Guardian last year, to tell Iran that they can’t force women to wear certain clothing because they believe female sexuality is dangerous After all, it’s traditional in Iran (it isn’t, actually, but that’s beside the point). And why, asks another, shouldn’t certain legal matters be decided in Sharia courts? The article admits: “in some limited areas of Islamic law, two female witnesses are required where one male witness will suffice” in passing, towards the end. The Guardian is perfectly entitled to publish these opinions, obviously, but the timidity of far too many liberals in challenging these kinds of ideas is, frankly, pathetic. If all the liberals are all patiently being tolerant over a cup of green tea and refusing to state that we know right from wrong, then who will be left to assert it?
Stay tuned for Part 2 later in the week.