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On Panic

by Bernard Baboulène

I should like to applaud and contribute to the debate about morality which began in Issue No.6. The editorial discussed the ‘moral panic’ that has been in the news this summer. It seems to me that the panic stems partly from a quite simple confusion and partly from an artificial intellectual barrier erected by academia, and the editorial went to the root of both in referring to “the question which many people think must come before ethical debate: what manner of creatures are we?”.

“Moral and spiritual” is a phrase that trips off the tongue (like law’n’order) in the world of education and every other concerned area with scant regard to any distinction between them, and academic moral philosophers must take responsibility for drawing a line in the sand marked ‘religion’ (or ‘theology’) which you are not supposed to cross. If any final or agreed answer in ethics to the basic question of what makes right acts right had been possible, you would have thought it would have been found by now, but every first-year student soon finds that there are fatal objections to every criterion (consequentialist, utilitarian, intrinsicalist, whatever) propounded. It is an intellectual game which you have to play or be marked down (as my own tutor brazenly advised me in the run-up to Finals). It is ultimately barren and a positive impediment to the search for truth.

Morality is about conduct, right and wrong. Spirituality is a morally-neutral quality of the mind and is about good and evil, about motives and will. It is also about art, genius (in any field), states of mind such as joy or resentment and many other things, but let us avoid getting too far afield. A catalogue of the everyday confusions between the two would be endless, but suppose we take the interview with National Curriculum Council chairman David Pascall (also in Issue 6) as an example readily to hand. He says “…moral absolutes are telling the truth, keeping promises, respecting the rights and property of others, acting considerately, helping those less fortunate, taking personal responsibility and self-discipline”. Telling the truth and keeping promises are indeed conduct but it is easy to suggest circumstances in which either would be bad. Such suggestions are a recognised part of the intellectual game, but to pursue the implications too far would take one over that line in the sand. Respecting anything is an attitude of mind, not conduct, and so is acting ‘considerately’; helping those less fortunate could be done from a bad motive (eg to get favourable publicity) – and so on. Or take my letter in the same issue, drawing attention to the questionbegging character of words like ‘stealing’ and ‘murder’. They beg questions (generally overlooked by those who hold that some acts are always right or wrong in themselves) because their meaning embraces the motive, in these cases bad. Any act, purely and simply as an act, could be good or bad depending on the motive (this was pointed out by Zeno around 300BC) though it could be contrarily right or wrong according to one or more of the well-known arbitrary criteria. In the limiting cases it would be impossible to do a bad act from a motive of pure love or a good one from pure hatred, though either could still be more or less trivially right or wrong. If we omit the spiritual dimension we leave out the baby and are messing about with the bathwater.

All this, I know, conveys a picture of the self which has been unfashionable since the days of Gilbert Ryle, whose lectures I enjoyed all too long ago. It was he who coined the disparaging phrase “the ghost in the machine”. (He was a great phrasemaker. “Anger is not an emotion, it’s a commotion” sounds brilliant, but where exactly does it get us?) He derided the idea of the self as a sort of quarrelsome committee chaired, often ineffectually, by something called the will. But any account of the self, including Ryle’s, inevitably leans heavily on metaphor, so in the end one chooses the metaphor one finds most realistic in one’s own experience. In mine, I fear, it is precisely the traditional one which earned Prof Ryle’s scorn. I am conscious of pushes and pulls and I do override or yield to one rather than another. And I do not see what difference is made by calling motives ‘dispositions’ apart from playing down the fact that they actually motivate people (do I read his motive?)

The spiritual dimension is the clue to “what manner of creatures we are” and is perhaps best approached historically. Unmistakably human creatures, biologically speaking, have been around for about one-and-a-half million years, which is not long in relation to the ascent from matter through life to mind; spirituality has been around for a much shorter time. Its advent can be roughly dated from clues like the Lascaux cave paintings. From about this time, say 30,000 years ago at the outside, love began to supplant instinctual lust, justice to supplant might, beauty to be appreciated, right and wrong (as a concept spiritual) to be distinguished – and so on. This is all so recent that it is not surprising that our animal past still suffuses even the most civilised communities, and hence the cash nexus is a most necessary interim discipline. You can now be stabbed in the back commercially or politically instead of literally, though there is of course plenty of the latter about. But in some ways we are spiritually advanced. We can appreciate Rembrandt and Beethoven, justice is (sporadically) refined, we read each other’s motives and analyse our own. Exceptionally the cash nexus is outrun, as when humanitarian aid is rushed to a disaster, something new in the last century or two. We cannot imagine a world in which the cash nexus is superseded, but our remote ancestors could not have imagined a world not dominated by the law of the jungle, or barter and brute force. While the cash nexus persists greed, or at least too much self-interest, is the predominant motive, and as of now we should have total instead of partial chaos without it; but it may not always be so.

Spirituality is primarily a potential for good and evil both, and though largely unnoticed it is growing exponentially. Reason is often advanced as the characteristic that makes humankind unique but the higher animals manifestly exercise it. Spirituality is a better candidate, but even this needs qualifying. You love your dog the way you love your child and both reciprocate, epitomising two kinds of love which are plainly fundamental, the love which condescends and dominates and the love which responds, worships and owes obedience. From my own imperfections (inter alia ) I deduce that there must be a perfect someone who stands in the same relation to me that I do to the dog or child whom I try to mould in my own image, to make less imperfect from my godlike point of view (this should not too simply be equated with the Cartesian ‘idea of perfection’ theory; this is about relationships). Spirituality is rubbing off us, not only on to our children but also on to our pets. My dog has a concept of right and wrong which he has learned from me, governed by his attitude of love and worship for me.

Matter, life, mind and now spirit. The last is such a recent mutation that it has not yet brought peace but a panic. Its principal symptom is the chaotic and conflicting assortment of great religions of the last few thousand years, representing a hierarchy of truth and error about “what manner of creatures we are”. (The illusion that it is possible to stand aside from the entire process, to be genuinely and totally agnostic, stems from our embryonic godlikeness and widely equates to worshipping power, money or otherwise indirectly oneself).

To find the hierarchy’s apex we should not look to dogma but to empirical evidence which now exists, notably in the freedom of the individual conscience and of thought, the latter leading to the vast expansion in our perception of truth which we call modern science and the two together to modern democracy. These breakthroughs stem overwhelmingly from the Protestant Reformation and hence a better understanding of Christianity, in whose immediate impact we still live. The credit so often given to Greek antecedents is largely mistaken. Greek pseudo-science was a highly defective (because non-experimental) fore-runner, and Greek pseudo-democracy was the ancestor of the oneparty state, of Hitler and Stalin (the Republic was a fascist tract, the philosopher-kings being the party caucus).

A world culture is just beginning to be perceptible, in the form of fairly general lip-service to democracy and human rights as we know them in the West, the English language and some other features of Western culture. The essential basis of that democracy is an attitude of mind, a respect for other people and their views and a recognition that one’s own may be mistaken; in a word, humility. Even at its best it is a tender, imperfect and precarious plant, but it won’t go away. For me, within the universal spirituality there is a holy spirit who acts independently of us. The evidence for this is key episodes in history, in retrospect beneficial but which were contrary to all the probabilities at the time, many of them “a close-run thing” (as Wellington said of Waterloo and might have said of Salamis) and some of which show a marked touch of humour. To make a rogue-elephant like Henry Vlll the main instrument for the overthrow of the mediaeval doctrinal straitjacket contrary to his own intentions strikes me as pretty rich comedy. Humility’s victory over arrogance and megalomania – the meek inheriting the earth – looks like a macro-miracle in the making.

No, Fukuyama, not the end of history. We have only just left the starting-line. And the panic we are in is not moral but spiritual.

© B. Baboulène 1993

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