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Teach Your Children ....
Not to be afraid of moral relativism.
Most days, I get my iPhone out to see what Apple Music is suggesting I listen to next. A week or so ago, between a collection of anthems by Purcell and a disk by the great Senegalese singer/songwriter Ismael Lo, I saw Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I was never a particular CSN&Y fan, although I knew pretty much all the songs, but then I realised that I probably hadn’t heard the album all the way through for nearly fifty years. Therefore.
After a few tracks, Graham Nash’s Teach Your Children popped up, with its famous close harmonies. Ah yes, I thought, I remember that. Now “teach” here has no overtones of the school and learning. It’s not, as we would say today, “participate in a self-directed co-learning experience with your child.” The “teaching” is about moral and ethical issues, and Nash claimed in interviews that the song was inspired by a photograph of a child clutching a toy hand grenade. It’s what used to be called “teaching children right from wrong,” by my parents’ generation.
Even in those days, this was a concept I found puzzling. “Teaching,” after all, implies factual knowledge about something that can be transmitted. Logically, to teach anyone “right from wrong,” you’d have to be clear about at least three things. First, you’d need to be sure what you meant. Morally right? Practically right? Normatively right? Consequentially right? Then, you’d need some kind of coherent overall moral and ethical scheme such that individual judgements you made all hung together, and new ones were logically generated. And finally, you’d need some rational way of convincing the person you were trying to “teach” that you were right and they should accept what you were saying. Needless to say, I never got anywhere with questions of that sort. “Right from wrong” in the end turned out to mean “do whatever I say, and don’t expect me to be consistent,” which is still the case today, pretty much, among self-appointed moralists of all persuasions.
After a while I stopped worrying about it. When, somewhat later, I came across writers like Derrida and Foucault, who pointed out that our ideas and values are always dependent on the context in which they are formed, and that by extension it’s impossible to make final moral judgements, I thought, yes, that sounds very reasonable. Indeed, behind the surface glitter, the playfulness and the deliberate provocation of this writing, much of it amounted to no more than applied common sense. The fact that all moral and ethical judgements are essentially and demonstrably relative, contingent and unprovable, is pretty self-evident when you think about it, unless you believe that they are divinely inspired. (I’ll return to that latter point in a moment.) So to people who claim that there are absolute moral or ethical rules applicable under all imaginable circumstances, I have always simply asked for an example of one on which my interlocutor undertakes always to act. The conversation has usually ended there. Yet people cling obsessively to the idea of absolute and unchallengeable “values,” as we say today, and everyone from pundits to governments to private companies and NGOs to international organisations swears by them and claims to be acting according to them. Why is this?
Well, the first answer is essentially fear. Nietzsche, who got there considerably ahead of Foucault and company, expressed the issue very clearly. After his famous statement that “God is dead” (and we have killed him, he added) he went on to argue that "When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet.” It’s hard to argue with that, although many people are very reluctant to accept it. When even the Church has effectively abandoned a literal belief in God, there is no obvious reason why anyone should pay any particular attention to their moral pronouncements. For the better part of a century now, the Church has been predominantly occupied in being “relevant” to the modern world (shouldn’t it be the other way round?) and has turned its religion into a a kind of gutless humanism with a bit of fancy dress. (I know, it’s a bit different in America.)
It wasn’t always thus, of course, as a passing acquaintance with the violent disputes over the pre-Nicean Biblical canon will confirm, not to mention various Wars of Religion. Nonetheless, religious controversialists from at least Augustine onwards did believe (or claimed to) that simple, clear and universal rules taught by Jesus could be found in the Bible., even if the content of those rules naturally differed from author to author. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, we see a developing weariness with such religious controversies (viciously satirised by Jonathan Swift, for example, both in Gulliver’s Travels, and the lesser-known Tale of a Tub) but still the thirst for simple answers to complicated problems remained.
The idea that moral and ethical rules are basically simple, and easy to both derive and understand, is something that most of us need to believe, and want to assume is true. Insofar as we believe that there are such rules (and almost all of us do) we are also convinced that they are self-evident. Thus, when we demand that others do the“right” thing, or that governments should behave in a certain way, or that an ethical rule should be promulgated for general use, it is generally those same simple ethical principles that seem so obvious to us that we want followed, not someone else’s. When we make such demands, we are in fact seeking external validation of our own convictions.
This would be less of a problem if human beings were better at constructing moral and ethical theories that were both consistent, and properly and logically thought out. But psychologists tell us that we make nearly all our decisions, including those about moral and ethical questions, in the unconscious mind first. The conscious mind, with its tools of logic and rationality, comes into play largely to justify the subjective choices we have already made. It can even be argued (an extreme view, I admit) that much of what we take to be philosophy and political theory is really only a sophisticated intellectual justification of views arrived at and shared on emotional and subjective grounds. At least, I don’t know of any cases where a philosopher has stoutly defended views which they personally find unattractive or distasteful because they believe them to be objectively true.
This has a number of important practical consequences. Firstly, human beings generally like to think of themselves as consistent and coherent, not driven randomly by emotions. Thus, their opinions on any issue should ideally form part of a coherent system. This is especially the case where people claim to have firm, general principles. In reality, of course, it doesn’t work like that. Rather than us actually having general principles, and applying them in specific cases, we frequently take a position on some issue for subjective and emotional reasons, and then try to persuade ourselves that it is a position that follows from some general principle or other. It’s always worth, in a discussion, asking someone “what is the general principle of which that opinion is a particular example?” Most people are unable to provide a coherent answer.
This kind of problem exists at a personal level, then, but much more importantly, it exists in politics and international relations. So most politicians do not like to think of themselves as wicked, cynical or duplicitous. They like to believe they are acting in a wider interest than just their own, and some of the time, at least, they persuade themselves that this is true. Likewise, few countries conduct policies which are consciously wicked or duplicitous for their own sake. This means, among other things that political actors and national governments will generally appeal to some kind of enduring moral principles in what they say, and that they will generally try to present their views as being consistent over time.
It’s easy to be scornful of portentous statements like “Country X has always been deeply attached to the principle of Y” or “in line with our consistent policy of supporting peace and stability we are going to do Z.” There’s a temptation to dismiss such statements just as hypocrisy, but it’s more than that. Of course, an element of hypocrisy is always present, as also is an element of self-delusion, but ultimately, governments and political actors like to feel that they are being coherent and consistent, and if necessary they will rearrange their memories of the past to justify the views they hold now. Many people who had lived with the squalid moral compromises of the Cold War “remembered” in 1990 that of course national frontiers were absolutely inviolable, and agreed that a war should be fought against Iraq to underline that principle. By 1999, they realised that it had “always” been understood that national frontiers were only inviolable so long as governments behaved properly to their citizens, and that a war should be fought against Serbia to underline that principle. By 2003, in Iraq, this was firmly established as an eternal principle, and confirmed in Libya in 2011. However, by 2022, people “remembered” the absolute inviolability of frontiers once more, and prepared for effective war against Russia to underline that principle again.
It’s easy to mock, and perhaps not unjustified, but I’ve spent a good deal of my life around such people, and I think more than hypocrisy is involved here. Intelligent, educated people like to think well of themselves, and like to think they are acting justly and morally. They will go so far as to alter their memories of the past, if that makes them feel easier.
Secondly, because opinions about what is right and what is wrong are subjective, emotional, and highly dependent on context, people react badly to being asked to justify them with some rational argument. Generally, they can’t. The result is a political society of competing assertive orthodoxies, disconnected from logic, history, or even each other. Our political and intellectual elites therefore feel extremely nervous and vulnerable, and respond aggressively to any attempt to get them to rationally justify their beliefs and actions. If you’re lucky enough to get a reply at all it will usually be along the lines of “it stands to reason” or increasingly “whose side are you on?” Yet surely if judgements are to be accepted, still less acted on, they should at least be rationally explicable and logically defensible. You can have a lot of fun (if that’s your idea of fun) by asking people to set out their views about controversial issues in the form of a syllogism. For example —getting away from politics for a moment—I’ve always been amused by the views of the New Atheists, who simultaneously poured scorn on the idea of a supernatural God and vented their spleen against the various misdoings of the Church. Now of course if Christianity (or any other religion) is true, then the misdeeds of its adherents and leaders are beside the point. On the other hand, if Christianity (or any other religion) is false, then the misdeeds etc. are beside the point as well. So most of this polemic could be reduced to the following, admittedly imperfect, syllogism:
People have done terrible things in the name of religion and the Church has covered up pedophile scandals.
Therefore Jesus did not rise from the dead on the third day.
The real argument, of course could be summarised as: ”the world is just a projection of my ego, and I cannot tolerate believing anything about the world that offends my sensibilities.” The conviction that a proposition that offends us cannot be true, and an argument that offends us cannot be right, is the foundation of much of our contemporary political discourse. Nothing is more exasperating and uncomfortable than a self-evidently sensible and convincing opinion delivered by a person or group we despise.
So for most of us, our “values,” and the associated moral and ethical judgements we make, are essentially subjective and emotional in origin, for all that we may try to cover them with a little intellectual gloss. We therefore take criticism of values we think we hold as criticism of ourselves, and, lacking intellectual confidence in our views, we respond with anger. But there’s more to it than that.
Few of us are original thinkers capable of working out our own moral and ethical ideas, or even making an intelligent synthesis from the opinions of others. Indeed, even our expensively-educated Anglo-Saxon elites show no signs of realising that organised thought as a discipline is in fact possible. (It’s amusing that few of those who want children to be “taught to think” seem to have much idea of how to think themselves.) When philosophy is mentioned at all in the media these days, it is usually to condemn some ancient figure for not having opinions like those that are currently in fashion. But of course we do need to have moral views, if only for the purposes of polemic, and feeling superior. So we get them from others.
Perhaps this was always so. Perhaps even intellectual elites of the past, let alone ordinary people, invariably went along with the received opinions of the time. And yet, if you consider the great religious debates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or the great political debates of the eighteenth to the twentieth, the amount of intellectual energy expended, at all levels of literate society, was formidable. The sermons of Calvin were best-sellers in Shakespeare’s time, and ordinary people, even the illiterate, would come to listen to famous preachers, and heckle and interrupt them if they were not convinced. Mass attendance at political rallies was common a little later. Once moral and ethical discourse becomes unmoored from tradition and belief or coherent theory, however, values can only be decided and enforced by power, which is where we are today. In a society of liberal nihilism, after all, wealth and strength decide everything, even the truth.
The result is a shallow, superficial, intellectual culture, where people change opinions as often as they change romantic partners, and often for similar reasons. The search is not for The Truth, nor for a cause, but simply for a set of ideas which will effectively rationalise how they currently feel. Now to some extent this has always been the case: political radicalism famously has a tendency to disappear as income and wealth increase. But our culture is no longer capable of dealing with very big intellectual issues, nor does it see the need. After all, every struggle is now over, and Liberalism has won all of them. There’s nothing to fight about any more, except market share. The days of John Donne grappling desperately with his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, or Gerard Manley Hopkins going equally desperately in the other direction, now seem as quaint and distant as the days when people went off to die for political ideals, rather than demanding that others do so on their behalf.
Ah, yes, that reminds me of something: pacifism. Back in the Cold War, it was common to meet people who described themselves as “pacifists.” They weren’t really pacifists in the ideological sense, they were visceral anti-militarists, offended by the military, disliking the United States and NATO, and feeling themselves morally superior to “killers.” In a matter of months in 1992, with the outbreak of the fighting in Bosnia these same people became raving militarists, demanding that the military they had so hated, funded by the defence budgets they had denounced as so wasteful, should be sent to Bosnia to kill the people they decided they didn’t like. When governments pointed out that this was neither possible nor desirable they were condemned for moral cowardice. And the same people cheered on NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 and the subsequent war in Iraq, just as they now cuddle up to extreme nationalists in the Ukraine. These people are not hypocrites: they are far more dangerous than that. They simply demand the use of violence to destroy whatever happens to offend their ethical sensibilities for the moment.
For ordinary educated, interested people, this can produce a sensation of despair. Ideas and values today are not discussed, they are marketed like brands of soap powder, and in much the same way. It’s no wonder that readership of elite newspapers and audiences for traditional broadcast media are falling, and that some YouTube channels on relatively specialised issues have more subscribers than the readership of the Guardian or the New York Times. More and more people have switched off in every sense of the term, fed up with being lectured to and harangued. In the circumstances, complaints about the increasing interest in conspiracy theories and shrill warnings about “foreign propaganda” seem childish: what did they think was going to happen?
But for many people, in politics, in the media, in universities and any definition of public life, switching off is not possible. They have to be attentive to every twist and turn of public discourse, or risk losing their credibility, or even their job. And since debates take place today based on power, money and emotion, and outside any agreed intellectual or cultural framework, literally any point of view can suddenly come to dominate, and any point of view can suddenly be cast into outer darkness. It can’t be pleasant to be a young journalist or an untenured university lecturer today, continually sweating about whether you have correctly anticipated the way in which elite moral opinion is about to move. For example, although it’s obvious today that the current transexual [note to editor: find word here: “debate” won’t do] flows fairly directly from the debate over homosexual marriage a decade or so ago, since all that energy had to go somewhere, it wasn’t obvious then. Nor is it evident where the same energy will go next. Pressure for the legalisation of polygamy is probably coming (it’s already started) but what position to take? If you express an opinion now, could you be persecuted as a “polyphobe” in a few years’ time, and a defender of the oppressive nuclear family?
In the absence of an agreed framework of any kind, and in the absence of a culture of genuine thought and debate, most people have long given up trying to develop their own ethical opinions. So it doesn’t require much—a few gentle questions perhaps—to turn an innocent discussion into a violent argument, as it becomes clear that your interlocutor has no real idea why they think what they think, nor indeed how to express what they think coherently. This is depressing for people like me who worship logical argument, but there’s probably no avoiding it:: people feel a void opening underneath them as they realise that in the end their opinions are based on nothing very much, and they react angrily and aggressively. For many, the strain is too great: they fall back into the strictest of religious beliefs, they join the Islamic State or some similar cult, or they adhere to the most extreme and intolerant identity politics ideology they can find. Letting someone do all your thinking for you is always an option.
In any event, an honest answer to the question “why do you think that?” would frequently be, “because everybody else does.” Our sense of right and wrong is essentially socially derived and determined, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I’ll explain in a minute. But whilst it’s incontestable that views on moral and ethical issues change over time, most people dislike being reminded of that for one simple reason: if our opinions are contingent on when we are living, who is to say that in fifty years, or even twenty-five years, the views we express so confidently today won’t be regarded as unacceptable? To vary the metaphor, the sensation of standing on shifting ethical sands worries and frightens people, although it needn’t.
After all, when I was a child, homosexuality was a serious offence, punishable by imprisonment. Now, in certain countries, discrimination against homosexuals can be punished. Changes of opinion at that speed are not, in fact, that unusual: consider the abolition of child labour, the legalisation of trades unions, votes for women, the end of all the world’s empires, the phasing out of capital punishment, and many other changes which took place over perhaps two generations, and became accepted as the new norm thereafter. Conversely, the radicalisation of immigrant Muslim communities in Europe, and its consequent influence on politics, has taken barely a generation, speeded along by satellite television and the arrival of Salafist preachers from the Gulf.
So unless we justify our ethical ideas by faith (which implicitly means that we cannot hope to logically persuade others that they are valid) what do we do? Do we despair? I don’t think so.
Once we accept that current moral and ethical principles, and practical imperatives derived from them, are historically contingent, could have been different, and may be reversed, that clears the air a bit. Once we recognise that attempts to derive complete ethical schemes from first principles have a long history of failure (I’m not going into that here, read this book) we look elsewhere for inspiration. The terror of finding yourself in an ethical void, which explains much of the clinging to any old idea, and violent resistance to answering questions, is in my view excessive. So let’s calm down and reassure people that, because ethical ideas have changed over the millennia and none can be regarded as permanently valid, it doesn’t mean that Hitler was right and we should start building concentration camps. Where do we start?
I would start with two things: the requirements for society to function at all, and the human race to endure, and the wisdom of ordinary people. If there is a single ethical law to which most people would subscribe it is probably “try to avoid knowingly doing harm to others or knowingly allow them to come to harm, unless either is unavoidable.” I put it in that qualified fashion because few of us can be pacifist saints, and there are occasions in the real world where that’s not desirable anyway. But it’s obvious why this is observably a basic and instinctive ethical principle: imagine the reverse, and society would be a nightmare of continuous struggle, violence and neglect, which even Hobbes might feel was excessive. Self-preservation as a species effectively requires us to behave like this most of the time, just as it requires maternal affection, and protection of the young and weak, otherwise homo sapiens would have been a historical footnote in the culture of whichever species replaced us. If we consider ethics as basically a series of rules of behaviour contributing to the greater common good, then it becomes clear, for example, why it has always been acceptable to send young men off to die in war, while women and children have historically been protected: men are simply more disposable. Even in an age of theoretical gender equality, killing of women in war is regarded as unpardonable, whereas killing of men is regarded as normal. You can still see these norms at work if you deconstruct the literature on international humanitarian law,, for example.
There are also practical reasons why ethical approaches (let’s not call them rules) vary from place to place. In agrarian societies permanently on the verge of starvation, for example, it was considered acceptable to allow children born handicapped to die, and in some cases to encourage the elderly beyond a certain age to quietly disappear. Of course this doesn’t mean that infanticide, for example, is seen as a positive good: rather, it is regarded as a grim but acceptable necessity under certain defined circumstances.
Until quite recently, few people anywhere in the world would have had difficulty with principles resembling those above. But ever since Mrs Thatcher abolished Society, a good part of the world lives in societies (sic) which have had Liberal social and political beliefs imposed on them. Liberalism has no ethical beliefs except those of institutionalised selfishness and egoism. (Yes, there are Liberal political philosophers: that’s not the point). Everything is about Me, and What I Want. Economically this means competing with others for wealth and having purely economic relationships with the rest of society. Socially it means using power, wealth and the provisions of the law to expand your freedoms and impose obligations on others. Of course individual liberals may still be capable of altruistic acts that benefit the community, but that’s another issue. This imposed Liberal ideology is essentially nihilist in its effects (and perhaps in its conception) and is doing an excellent job of destroying societies around the world. But then if you think there’s no such thing as society anyway, you presumably don’t care.
It’s unsurprising, when you think about it, that the most powerful resistance to this imposed ideology has come, not from fellow-travelling intellectuals, but from ordinary people: militantly in the case of trades unions and ad hoc political groupings, more passively with everything from baby-sitting circles to tool-sharing systems and community libraries. The idea that life doesn’t have to consist exclusively of economic relationships, and that not everything is there to be bought and sold, resonates much more among ordinary people than among the intelligentsia. Here, we see in action what George Orwell famously called Common Decency, as practised by ordinary people. “If there was hope” reflects Winston Smith in 1984 “it lay in the proles”—ie in ordinary decent people, not the theoreticians of the Party, and, by extension, not in the attempts of their real-life analogues, the intellectual classes fustigated by Christopher Lasch, to deliberately impose constructed systems of ethics and morality.
Now much of this Common Decency was handed down by oral tradition from parents to children, and by providing examples to follow. All that seems dreadfully, even comically, dated now, when the idea that parents can or should teach children anything has been effectively abandoned, although it’s not clear that we are any better off as a result. But it was traditionally assumed that, if society was to function at all, people had to behave to each other in certain minimally acceptable ways. (Of course if you don’t believe in society the problem goes away.) Instead, we have effectively abandoned the traditional progression from the freedom of childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood, and now anticipate that grown-ups will behave, essentially, as adolescents.
As a concrete example of a depiction of another age, take Philip Noyce’s 1978 film Newsfront, one of the classics of that country’s cinema, recounting the personal and professional lives of news cameramen in Sydney just after World War 2. At one point, Len Maguire, a strongly left-wing cameraman played by Bill Hunter, is approached by a young colleague who has just discovered that he has fathered a child by a woman he met on an assignment. “Well” says Maguire, “there’s two things you can do. The right thing and the wrong thing.” The “right thing” was to marry the woman, which he does, and which is what was expected of young men in the day. (John Lennon married his pregnant girlfriend Cynthia.) “Growing up” for young males at the time meant, not larger and better video game systems, but “taking responsibility,” and above all reconciling yourself to the loss of freedom that marriage entailed, with the need to provide for a family for the rest of your life. This kind of morality has been laughed into extinction nowadays, though I see it has started to make a come-back as it becomes apparent that a society in which young men no longer feel obliged to care for children they have fathered has certain drawbacks. There was, after all, a certain logic in preparing adults to take responsibility for things.
in the end, some of us may believe strongly that our religion is objectively true and, moreover, that simple and obvious ethical and moral principles can be deduced from it. This is fine if it is based on genuine faith: all too often, though, it is based on the existential terror of being left alone to find our own way in the ethical wasteland which is all that Liberalism has left us. If that’s the case, though, we would do well to calm down and to reflect that all societies since the beginning of time have encountered moral and ethical problems, and worked out different pragmatic solutions to them which corresponded to their needs. They were seldom perfect, of course, since any ethical system implies constraints on the freedom of some people, and our society doesn’t like to talk about constraints, even as it ruthlessly imposes them. But there is much to be said for a society based explicitly on an ethic of responsibility, with clear rules that you can accept or reject, in comparison with a society which polices its members through a kind of internet terrorism on ever-changing subjects with arbitrary orders to accept and follow random moral imperatives, Because Reasons. That’s surely the last thing we want to teach our children.