Our ethics

On public life and what you cannot do

Something occurred to me today after hearing an online comedian speaking about one of the ministers of the Shadow government. A Labour politician gave an unconsidered approval to an online message. The message itself was written by somebody else. Messages like this don’t deserve to be read or read properly, and the politician had not read it properly. The message had a hint of racism concealed in it, and, due to a massive amount of protests from the public about this absent-minded gesture of approval, the minister was then sacked.

The comedian who brought this to my attention pointed out that the politician’s own party had created this situation, where expressing or even expressing approval of any kind of idea is no longer a risk-free thing to do in Britain. The risk is that you will lose your means of earning a living. We’re no longer allowed to think, so to speak. I suppose that thinking is the basic condition for having any kind of meaningful life at all. But this is not a widely held view anymore in Britain. Personally, I don’t believe that the Labour Party brought about the situation where thinking and having ideas is dangerous; such a problem has been coming our way for decades, and depends on something more radical, to do with our understanding of ethics.

The idea which came to mind is too full of implications and I do not want to go into great detail about the idea. And yet, I must. And to be necessarily brief: our civilisation, or our generalised culture, in Europe, the USA, and the world at large, expresses itself in the ethical statement that: ‘everyone is allowed to do whatever they want, whatever makes them happy’. This is surely not so much an opinion which a lot of people hold; this is actually our civilisation’s bedrock (in so far as we any longer have one), the basis of our laws, our politics, our cultural life, our employment activities, and so on. Again: every person has the right to do whatever makes them happy. But there is a clear and important second clause, which, like the first one, is universally held to be true: everyone can do what they want, but only in so far as they do not harm other people. (Note: This second part is not taken so seriously, it seems to me – which is the reason that the Labour politician lost her job.)

It is important to bear in mind that this is a matter of what you can or cannot do in public, that is, it is a principle applying to public life, the public sphere. This is a principle which only has relevance when we interact in our culture, our civilisation, in our outward approach to other people. And what I have to say about 'our time' or our era applies strictly to that. So, when I speak of freedom, or thought, I mean these things when we do them as outward-facing people, in a community, in England or Great Britain. And the principles seem to apply to low and high.

Now, principles like this are never half-hearted. The implications of a principle on which a society is built do not withhold themselves indefinitely. I think that this principle has been quite common for a long time, now, perhaps since the Great War. Eventually, what such a principle, or pair of principles hold in reserve, comes out. And what has recently come to light (I am ashamed to speak of it so flippantly) is that when everything is permitted to every person, on condition that you cannot cause harm to others, then what is implied is that you may not do anything at all.

So what occurred to me is that we find ourselves, every one of us, moving toward a society in which it is not permitted to do anything which will affect other people. This is because every public act of any kind is offensive to somebody or other. This miserable situation is not attenuated by the failure of people, and the principle's most ardent believers in particular, to ignore the principle when it suits them. That is, people do, our course, throw aside the command not to hurt or harm other people. This possibility of simply ignoring the principle does not help the most honest amongst us because, when this principle of public life has been ignored altogether, then we are left with no rules at all. And, those people who believe in the principle, and yet occasionally ignore it so as to harm their enemies are simply hypocrites - a type of person which has always been around. They of course simply reaffirm the principle in their hypocrisy (as in the case of the principled mob which took away the livelihood of the Minister, and undid the dignity of the office of MP.)

In the spirit of being brief, let us see how this can be so, and what it means. Our society grew to its present shape in its inauspicious beginnings in the so-called Dark Ages. Barbarism and Christianity gradually coalesced. Morality was an essential feature of the early society, even if moral behaviour was not apparent, it was believed in. Morals are rules about what any member of our society should do, and should not do. It is my understanding of the matter that morality, by giving a bare minimum of commands, leaves the rest of conduct untouched, and allows freedom. Furthermore, there are those acts of freedom where any individual simply chooses not to obey moral injunctions, and simply acts immorally. A set of moral commands, deriving, in our case, from the Decalogue, gave rise to our civilisation.

Now, the principle that ‘everyone is free to do whatever they like, on condition that they do not harm others’, is not a moral commandment, nor the basis for morality in general. For this reason we could conclude that morality is dead, and that therefore freedom is dead. That is putting it bluntly; I suppose it will be said that freedom of action need not rely exclusively on the existence of a moral code. You could be free in other ways, perhaps, than being free because there are few rules to follow, and you may break those when necessary. But this is important: when there is a fairly elaborate code to adhere to, and knowing about it is unavoidable, then we have the basis for an orderly public life. When there are no rules, but only a vague injunction to enjoy yourself without bothering other people, something strange happens - apparently.

The principle of ‘everyone can do what they want’ is, however, similar to a moral code. This is because codes belong to the deepest essence of human beings. We always have them, because they are what exactly makes us, and made us human, in the first place. So we do have a code, and as humans, we must; it is just that it is not morality.

Notice a corollary here, developed by the first sociologists Levi-Strauss and Weber: when we give up morality, we give up being human (in addition to giving up freedom). And yet, thankfully, the principle that ‘everyone can do what they want’ is similar to morality: I suppose that the common feature of them, and of all known human societies from across the thousands of years is that all of them had restrictions on what you can do; and these restrictions are not merely external commands; they are, for every member of the society, hard-wired into the personality. They, along with language, are the chief characteristic of human beings qua human rather than animal.

Now, let us compare the old Western morality with the new, advanced twenty-first century principle. The old morality said:
Do not worship false gods
Do not give honour to idols
Keep one day per week holy and free from labour
Do not diminish the idea of God
Respect your father and mother
Do not kill
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not tell lies
Do not covet things belonging to other people

By contrast, the new morality says simply that you should not make people feel harmed; everything else is fine (including doing them harm, so long as they are unware of it). The problem of whether there were additional aspects of morality in the old days we shall not discuss in detail. Rather, notice that there are other commands – such as the prohibition on incest, or cannibalism, etc., which belong to all human societies.

Furthermore, there is the additional factor of the civil and criminal law. Notoriously slow to develop, and holding on to old ways (ways from the days in which morality existed), the law has a vestigial relationship to the past morality, and therefore, we do still have to have it in mind. Nevertheless, I can easily imagine that, in our time, where morality is simply a thing of the past, both incest, and cannibalism are considered okay, in the perspective that ‘everyone is free to do whatever, etc.’. And that, even if the law prohibits these things or similar, in general, people of our time can see no reason why they should not be allowed to do them. They might say: the law prohibits them, but that is because it was written in the old days.

What are we, therefore, allowed to do today? And, what inner restrictions do we face, what human core beliefs and commands are being developed inside our heart, our conscience, so to speak?

What we allow ourselves to do, without any meaningful concern that it is wrong, could be shown as follows, with reference to the Decalogue:

Lie and cheat
Have affairs and many sexual partners
Have no respect for parents if it does not suit us
Work when we like, or not work
Steal if the opportunity arises
Have no belief in God
Seek to be individual and our true self
Harm other people if they have ideas

The list could go on. I don’t condemn these things. They are pretty uncontroversial in our age. In addition, we are enjoined in a positive way, to buy things. Also, to consume things. Generally, to use things up. This ‘consumerist’ aspect of the morality-free society has been welcomed universally, and is a principle of the way the modern world’s house is kept in order. It is the basis of economics and economic theory. In addition, the consumption of drugs, and the use of whatever services are on offer, in the way of entertainment, is something which nobody sees any reason to condemn in our time.

So much for a picture of our time and our people. If you believe that you are not like the person described above, then you are probably right, you are not that bad. But, you are free to become like this, because, as the sea in which we swim, the principle which government and culture, economic and scientific theory adheres to, is that everyone is free to do what they like.

There is no sound reason not to. I would suggest that 80-90% of the people of Britain, for example, consider the dual principle to ‘do what you like, but don’t make others feel uneasy’ is true. The remaining 10-20% are probably religious, and so their morality represents what can be thought of as a minority interest. The majority of people believe that human beings are simply advanced animals, and that anything we believe in, in the form of religion, is simply an outdated idea. I do not concur with this attitude, of course, but we are not speaking of me. We are speaking of society in general; what we teach our children, how we generally comport ourselves, how we manage to choose an occupation, etc., That is, I am speaking of our culture in general.

Furthermore, I do not condemn this situation: I think that it is inevitable, and cannot be reversed. But enough of my ideas. Let us go back to the problem that a people who believe that ‘everyone can do whatever they want, except in so far as it does not harm others’ will surely end up unable to do anything meaningful, and will harm the essential things about human life, such as harming those who have ideas. That is, nothing meaningful in public.

There is a dual outcome with which I am specifically interested here, in this little and inadequate essay: first, that without a morality you will find yourself unable to do anything other than simply enjoy yourself, or ‘consume’. And, second, that the only types of people who will find themselves in a meaningful condition will be protesters, or those who pride themselves on being special and individual. In effect, the ‘moral’ principle of our time more or less insists that you have to be special and individual, for what else does it mean that a society allows itself total freedom, and then does not exercise it? And so, protesting, usually about the past (that is, effectively, protesting about things which are no longer going on) is an arena in which many important scholars, and the young, are taking part. They protest about gay rights, lesbian rights, black rights, post-colonial rights, and so on. They thereby carry out the injunction of our society’s most important ethical principle, that we are all enjoined to and allowed to ‘do whatever we want’. But as pointed out, these are protests against historical injustices, and are therefore obviously empty gestures. We do listen to these protests with some respect, because they are expressions of our chief ethical principle, but they are simply pointless. It is like a Saturnalia, without any set start or end point, continuing indefinitely. As a rule, the protester is allowed to cause offence, and generally valorises the breaking of the old moral codes: sex with many partners, the valorisation of criminals as heroes, the valorisation of acts of terrorism carried out in the name of anti-colonial liberation, etc., is part and parcel of both this protest, and the embodiment of our society’s highest principle.

On philosophical grounds, I do not think that individualism or self-expression are valuable; and I cannot belong to one of these groups myself. Most people do not belong to these groups. It is my experience that distinctive individuals who express their difference from other people, and set out to find their true self, are mixed up: they are involved in the exercise of finding a superficial self. For instance, I don’t consider a person’s colour or sexuality to be the essential aspect of that person. By contrast, I hold the nowadays quaint idea that the human self is immortal, and that it only becomes aware of this and therefore fully moral when it relates itself to God. Relating itself to an image of itself as sexed, gendered, or coloured, or whatever, is an empty activity leading nowhere.

But this is because I am religious. Note well that in our time, there is a religion which is accepted as welcome by the educated, and the thoughtful. Namely, Buddhism. But Buddhism is neither a religion, nor a morality. It is rather, a method of understanding the world and controlling the heart and the mind. Buddhism does not set out things which you must do, as a morality does; rather, it gives recommendations for how to improve yourself in order to attain to understand the world (and this truth of the world is not fundamentally different from the more mystical and orthodox elements of Christian tradition). But Buddhism is welcome like this for many reasons, one of the most welcome of which is that it makes no effective impact on the life of those who admire it, unless they want it to do so. It’s simply a lifestyle choice, so it, along with Christianity, has no real power to determine public life.

Now, excluding those admirable people who seek to be special, who protest, who make something strange of themselves and whose existence is a struggle with the past, what is left for us in a world without morality, but which holds as its highest ideal that everything is allowed, so long as it does not harm other people? We have said that we can work, spend, consume, have affairs, deceive, and perhaps deceive ourselves. We also have a pretty conclusive ‘philosophy’, namely, the scientific or engineer’s view of history and the wider universe.

What is not going to be allowed, however, is to do anything which harms other people. I regret that I now come to a comment on the past few decades of university scholarship, and something which has emerged into public life in the last few years. It has been mentioned in a couple of recent books, under the heading of ‘The strange death of Europe’, and the memoire by Brett Easton Ellis, ‘White’. The problem we face, trivial as it is, but universal, and irreversible, is that we shall find ourselves unable to avoid harming other people. And so, we shall do nothing with any meaning.

It is not meaningful to express yourself. It is meaningful to serve society, and hence the attempt in the past decade to make heroes of our ‘selfless soldiers’, and more recently, our heroic NHS workers. But, as can be seen in the frequent violence which the NHS workers have begun to suffer, in the heart of hearts, NHS staff are thought of as an arm of government, as an anachronism. For, what point is there in working on behalf of the state, or the government, when our chief principle is to find your own happiness, to do whatever you want? Given this principle, why should it be necessary to serve others at all? Unless, that is, you made a bad career choice, or that you are an idiot. In these days, police officers, nurses, Members of Parliament, and other public servants arouse in the common heart a kind of novel hatred, sometimes resulting in violence and anger. Signs posted up in hospitals these days, and figures published by the government can be seen providing evidence of this. People fight the police with a sense of doing something which is ethically right. MPs are among the most hated people in modern Britain. But this is a minor symptom. The general illness is that there is no meaning in any kind of activity, because ‘everything is allowed’.

I take the view that our civilisation is in the condition of the later Roman imperial period. A recurrent theme of later Roman history is the disrespect for the old gods. The lack of volunteers for the army or the government service, the reluctance to even have any children and continue the culture to which the Romans belonged.

As I have said, the only ones who can take full advantage of this prime ethical principle are those who set out to be special: protest groups, celebrities, and generally freakish types of people. These people, lost in the image of themselves, do find meaning in the principle. The rest of us have to observe the commandment against harming other people. This is the killing thing, although the cause of it is deeper. The most harmful thing about the principle is that it means you may not do anything to anyone else. This is so because, at root, our very existence is harmful to others. Doing harm is an abyssal unending thing. Nowadays, they actually have a word for the case where a person does harm simply by saying or doing polite and modest things around other people with whom they disagree, or with whom they differ in some irremediable way. They call these harms ‘micro-aggressions’.

But, the deeper cause is the disappearance of morality, and before that, the gradual historical movement away from our old relationship to God. What happens to a people who have lost these two things, I believe that we all do very well know; but there is nothing which can be done about it, so let us not discuss it further. It is enough to point out that there are no rules, and that people can do whatever they like to each other – the part of the principle that says ‘so long as it does not harm others’ can be thrown aside when it is inconvenient, as we have seen with that Shadow Education secretary who lost her job when a mob turned on her.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.