November 9, 2003


Cracking the Moral Code: Scientists, politicians, financiers, doctors, civil servants, the clergy … it seems we don’t believe in anybody any more. But in an increasingly secular society, how can we rekindle our faith in the common good? (Iain Macwhirter, 11/09/03, Sunday Herald)

Paranoia and mistrust have become the defining features of life in the new millennium. As society has become safer and more materially secure we have become more afraid for the future. We have more access to information than in any previous era, yet we believe less and less of it.

Why did this collapse of trust happen? Is it a by-product of the increasingly mercenary and individualist culture that has grown up in the last 20 years? Or could it have to do with the breakdown of religious values and belief systems? Have generations of liberal intellectuals destroyed faith in institutions without providing any alternatives for people to look up to and seek moral guidance from? That would take a lot longer to investigate than one newspaper article. However, it might be useful to look back at a time when, in terms of personal behaviour, honour and trust were very real factors. [...]

Modern theologians like Richard Holloway argue that religion should be kept out of ethics. We have to develop what Holloway calls a godless morality, based on reason and reciprocity, rather than sin and fear of divine retribution. In the end, the moral universe that underpins Christianity is a human creation. It is up to us, as rational beings, to separate the ethical content of the Christianity from the superstitious belief structure.

That may seem a pretty grand project. But it is not as rarefied as it sounds. Democracy, transparency and accountability are the keys to a restoration of trust in the public sphere. As far as personal morality is concerned, we perhaps need to look to the schools to inculcate a basic understanding of utilitarian personal ethics. Children need to understand that doing to others as you would have them do to you, is not some Biblical abstraction, but the only sensible way to conduct relationships.

The principle of reciprocity, isn’t ethical rocket science, but practical common sense. It is the only way to ensure that the greatest good is promoted for the greatest number. It is clearly in everyone’s interest that trust again becomes the rule rather than the exception. Morality isn’t something we leave to politicians, priests and philosophers, but something we have to practice on our own. Here endeth the lesson.

This essay might have made some sense in 1903, when Pragmatism was still in the blush of its youth, but makes none in 2003, when secular pragmatism has proven itself such a disaster. Of course, it didn't make much sense in 1903 either, as can be demonstrated by asking a simple question: what's good?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 9, 2003 7:31 AM

Macwhirter needs to brush up on his freshman philosophy. Utilitarianism and the golden rule are not the same at all.

Posted by: Gideon at November 9, 2003 8:24 AM

The whole fallacy can be summed up in the phrase "personal morality", which is really an oxymoron.

Posted by: Peter B at November 9, 2003 9:38 AM

What's good? What I sez it is, of course.

Posted by: Twn at November 9, 2003 10:57 AM


Or "what seems right or feels good--I can never remember the difference. (Giggle) "

Posted by: Peter B at November 9, 2003 11:14 AM

Although it is true that we have more access to information than in any previous era, I'm not sure that we really believe less of it than at any time previously.
When the National Inquirer has a circulation of four million, and absurd web sites are given credence by those who'd rather be the victims of plots, rather than face a random universe, I'd say that naivete is alive and well.

Also, it's well known that much of what was published in the past, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, was either opinion presented as fact, or simply invented. Poor information, and skeptical consumers, are nothing new.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 9, 2003 6:43 PM


Is there any surer guide to moral conduct than the Golden Rule?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 10, 2003 7:31 AM


The Golden Rule isn't reciprocal--it commands you regardless of them.

Posted by: oj at November 10, 2003 7:56 AM


Aren't you confusing the Golden Rule with "an eye for an eye"?

Posted by: Peter B at November 10, 2003 11:23 AM

OJ, Tom:

What is up with you guys?

It is a simple question: is there any better guide to moral conduct than the Golden Rule?

I'm not making a statement, I'm not confusing it with anything, I'm not saying anything about reciprocity.


Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 11, 2003 3:08 PM