Moral certitude on shifting sand

There’s been much discussion here recently about inculcating “British values”, especially into those communities that might, being recent immigrants, be in danger of missing out on them and becoming radicalised into jihadist ways of exploiting the weak, wanting foreign cars and so on. Maybe there’s a similar effort in America, although perhaps it’s less necessary as Superman has been promulgating Truth, Justice and the American Way (as separable items?) since the 1930s. Britain has, until now, always been more reticent about brandishing its values, celebrating instead generalities like fairness, decency and Christian piety. Oddly none of these are on the new lists of established British values.

Now, terms like “democracy”, “equality” and “diversity” are what is being used to persuade the minorities to be truly British. But one has to understand that those terms carry very specific baggage when used in such a context. For example, a BBC radio news feature the other day covered the work of one of the state’s ambassadors to an Asian community. One candidate for Britishness (already a British citizen, actually) dared to suggest that to Muslims the introduction of same-sex marriage had been unacceptable and immoral. Her Majesty’s Purveyor of Values replied that he was entitled to think that privately, but as soon as he voiced it in any context he would find himself falling foul of the law of the land.

So it seems “diversity” means only “sexual diversity” rather than “diversity of opinion”, “equality” means equality for those who agree with whichever powerful lobby decides what is acceptable, and “democracy” is secondary to whatever the current government has deemed unutterable. All of which may or may not contribute to participation rather than alienation.

Another example is a recent outcry against the Saudi-Arabian government’s death sentence on a young man by western countries. Now, to be fair (once a very British thing to be) much of the concern is that the man was condemned for an offence allegedly committed as a minor, and that the trial process was extremely dubious. But the French government couldn’t resist pointing out that it is opposed to the death penalty on principle as an intrinsic evil, and similar blanket views are expressed about many similar cases in courts across (mainly) Asia. Yet France only abolished the death penalty itself in 1981, though they had a go in the French Revolution in 1791, but settled on the guillotine instead.

In Britain (the champion of democracy), where it was suspended in 1965, it is only this year that public opinion in favour of it has, for the first time, dropped below 50%. It’s not the softening of the penalties that’s in question – that’s a legitimate adjustment, as even can be the leading of public opinion by elected representatives. It’s the fact that, as soon as a debatable moral issue becomes embodied in our laws, it appears to become a core national value to which we have always held, and the stick with which we feel duty bound to beat those nations whose peoples have decided the matter differently.

The most obvious current example, because so transparently self-righteous, is the gay marriage issue. The year before last it was illegal here, and legislation about homosexuality was a question of the toleration of infirmity, not some supposed right to the self-definition of gender. When the last Conservative government was in power, it made the promotion of homosexuality in schools illegal: in the interim it has become illegal not to promote it, for reasons that have never been properly argued.

As of June 2015 only twenty countries in the world have approved same-sex marriage – and the US has only done so by some highly politicised legal and constititional machinations. One would have thought that, and the prior opposition here of every religious group apart from the Unitarians and Quakers, would indicate that, at the very least, it’s a matter of ambiguity requiring much heart-searching. Instead, both the news headlines and government spokesmen are whipping the moral hobby-horse to condemn Muslim states, African countries and Mr Putin as deniers of the most basic of human rights.

It seems as if secular states are particularly amenable to Damascus Road conversions even without a visiting evangelist – and are twice as susceptible to insufferable moralism afterwards. At least the individual miraculously saved at a rally has repented of their shameful past – nations have a tendency to act as if they (alone) have always held the high ground (cue “British values of democracy, equality and diversity,” freshly minted). A fascinating facet of this is the feverish writing of period dramas, be they 1960s cop shows or Downton Abbey, to show the more sympathetic characters as thoroughly in line with this year’s human rights agenda, and the others as pantomime villains.

But the foregoing is really just a preamble to the most recent issue I’ve seen, the exception that proves the rule or, to speak more accurately, that shows the rule to be entirely ad hoc. I read last month about Canada’s recent passing of a law legalising the euphemistic “assisted suicide”. It seems that some group of palliative care medical professionals baulked at killing their patients, saying that they were in medicine to save lives, not to kill (that’s a familiar dominical phrase – I wonder if they work on the Sabbath?). A government spokeman allegedly replied that their participation is now enshrined in the law, and they had better comply or face the consequences. Whether those consequences include the death penalty, or the more usual “democratic” sanction of forcing dissenting professionals out of their jobs is not clear.

It so happens that not many days after that, the British Parliament voted on a private member’s bill to bring killing the sick assisted suicide on to the statute book here. Despite the predictable protests of most religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of the medical profession, it was anticipated by many including myself that it would pass. The issue has been a media favourite, and seems to be brought before parliament recurrently in the expectation that, one day, they’ll lose the will to resist. According to one poll, public support for killing the sick has now risen to 80% (as support for killing murderers has, paradoxically, declined to 48% – but that’s really an issue of the forces controlling public opinion, which takes us back to Jacques Ellul and the role of propaganda in our society).

But despite all that, the measure was comprehensively defeated in the Commons debate, to the extent that it is doubted any similar measure will be brought back in the foreseeable futue, though they said that last time too. The factors in its defeat included the argument that it is impossible, in practice, to protect such a law from being used to abuse the vulnerable, the fundamental change in the relationship of medical practitioners to their patients, and not least a previous ruling from the European Court that the European Convention on Human Rights, which underpins all UK legislation, contains no “right to die”. All of which suggests that Parliament is still capable of some rational thinking on ethics.

But what about those Canadian doctors? Our own legislature has decided that it would be morally wrong to compel doctors, or anyone else, to kill other human beings. Conversely there is no human right to death. Killing does not, in fact, come under the umbrella of “care”. Should we, then, not be outspokenly condemning Canada for coercing their medical practitioners to fly in the face of the Hippocratic Oath (though I doubt most of them nowadays have taken it – it cuts across the grain of modern medical ethics too much)? Should Britain not be at least as critical of a Commonwealth country that has legislated killing as a duty as it is of Commonwealth countries that do not provide abortion on demand, on the basis of “choice” (the woman’s choice, that is – not the baby’s, the doctor’s or the legislature’s)?

Or is there some principle of fundamentally British moral sensibility here I’ve failed to pick up on in the last 60 years? Is my half-savage Irish ancestry to blame? Do you suppose the government will be sending that British Values Trainer round to my door once she’s finished talking to the Asians in Bradford?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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