Friday, 1 January 2010

The Problem Of Morals

The problem of Morals

For many years I was Chair of Governors for a large North London school. We would regularly receive directives from Government departments asking us to work hard to create good citizens. Well educated ones of course. I sympathised with their desires.

In Ofsted 'speak’, and enshrined in Government legislation runs the SMSC theme. This requires schools to work on these four areas in the lives of the children; Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural. I am pleased that the Government, and in turn, school inspectors acknowledge that human beings are made up of more than just the physical.

The Bible has a strange little phrase; “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he;” Proverbs 23v7. Have you ever considered how strong your perceptions of yourself make you become what you think you are, and this is how you project yourself, which is why self confidence is so vital.

Let’s take this a little further, and argue that if we think we are just mechanical beings, they why should we not act mechanically, and what we do to each other, or how we do it is not really that important, we are, after all, just machines. Conversely, if we are just animals, then we can act like animals to each other. Some animals are nice to each other, some are not and will attack their own species, even eat them. For many species, mating is something to be fought over and has no connection with faithfulness, or reliability, and there is no moral basis to sexuality. If I am an animal, then that is how it is.

I recently worked with a committee comprising of Muslims, Jews, Christians and a variety of other religions, and in my sub-group, a humanist. We were debating morals in the light of the legislation mentioned above. My question is always, where do morals come from? The humanist argued that it is just part of being human, but is that true? In the sixties, I had a friend who told me he always had at least £700 in his pocket. I was, at the time, earning £15 a week, which was not a bad wage at the time. I asked him how he managed to obtain so much money at the ripe old age of 9. He shrugged and said “I steal it” I asked him how he could justify this, what did his family think, he explained that the only crime his family would beat him for was ‘being caught’, as far back as he could remember, parents, grand-parents, great grand-parents their life was simple ‘No one steals from us, and if we steal from them it’s only what they deserve, they should have been more careful, as we are.’ I pondered if that would be a good moral base for school children.

The question remains, where does a moral base come from? My wealthy young friend and his thieving family worked it out from a ‘human’ point of view. The humanist would say, ‘that’s how we get our conclusions.’ But is it?

On the other side of the debate, my Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends would all agree that a moral imperative must come from some kind of law giver, rather like the law of the land, produced by the legislature. Seems logical to me; is the ultimate law-giver God? A higher standard, from which to set a moral base?
I also pose the question; does our Christian heritage affect how we respond as individuals and as a country? When crisis strikes in Africa or some other far flung place, appeals are made and the UK public responds, and is well known for its generosity. I would argue that this response is due to our Christian roots, which echo down the centuries, reminding us we need to help those in need. I discussed this with my humanist friend, pointing out that there are countries equally as prosperous as the UK, but without the Christian heritage, who respond by saying ‘this is not our problem’. Why the different response? The humanist explanation is that Britain’s colonial history solicits this generous response, whereas other countries did not have the power of the Empire in their history. I do have problems with that explanation, from my reading of history, it seems to me that the Empire mentality was ‘get what you can for us’, perhaps I am wrong.

Can you help me out? Can you shed some light? Laws suggest a lawgiver; morals suggest to me that somewhere there is a moral ideal, invented by a moral giver. Or should we just come to our own conclusion, like my 9 year old friend with a big, fat, stolen wedge in his pocket, ‘if I don’t get caught, what’s the problem?’

Adrian Hawkes
21st December 2009
W. 805


  1. Comment by Jim London 18 hours ago
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    Does it muddy the waters, Adrian, to pay attention to some other-than-charitable national behaviors characteristic of nations that supposedly have a "Christian" heritage? If we were to ask which nations in the past invaded, pillaged and manipulated other nations during the era of imperial expansionism, where would the "Christian" nations rate on the damage-done scale? Or any complicity in the slave trade? Any involvement of "the Christian church" in those enterprises? In what civil war were there more casualties for that country than than the combined casualties during the two "great wars" and the Korean war? History indicates that it was a "in-God-we-trust" nation. The same nation, so U.N. financial records apparently indicate, that announces great aid packages but defaults on their pledges as a matter of course? How are nations with a Christian heritage doing on the moral-social issues of illicit drug trade, consumption of pornography, prostitution, gettoization, instutionalised corporate greed and political corruption?
    Doesn't it seem that the broader our studies and the more careful our analysis, then the more difficult it is to make a case for significant positive moral impact on the basis of historical or resident religious heritage? Or does it just depend on what we take into the study?

  2. • I don’t think it muddies the waters, it does mean that the conversation has to go further than a sound bite, I know that the country involved in more war’s than any other over the last 200 years is the UK. However I am bringing this down to the personal level, and whilst nations and governments do wrong things nevertheless there are underlying moral principles that come from heritage that affect the individual in countries. So why are individuals in one country more generous than in another? Why are woman freer in one area of the world than another? We, I think, must not rule out the underlying thinking that moulds a culture and persuades it in certain directions. One guy said, ‘I love Hinduism but I don’t like India.’ I think he was referring to some of its injustice such as the caste system; the difficulty is which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does the philosophy mould the thinking thus creating the injustice or does the injustice mould the philosophy? At the end though the question is, is there a moral law giver? I still think if we look at the big picture where nations enact legislation and we teach a philosophy that reflects the lawmakers’ moral prerogatives then we get better results, so generosity has its own blessing, respect for the individual has its own blessings. We don’t have to be followers of Jesus to benefit from the blessing of moral base do we?

  3. Comment by Jim London 4 minutes ago
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    I think I understand your basic thesis, Adrian. And to a degree, I think you're right. However, I'm carrying some qualifyers in my brain that make me reluctant to very quickly embrace the notion that folks, at "the personal level", are found to be more beneficent when they live within a national Christian heritage. To be fair in developing that thesis, there are a few things that woud seem to require refinement:
    What are we talking about when we say "generosity"? Is a dollar/ pound given by an average individual in the UK equal to a dollar/pound given by an average person in, say, Ghana? In other words, are we going to take relative resources into account when we define generosity. Is dollar/ pound giving per capita the way we discern the generosity per capita? It seems to me that the pennies given by a destitute widow turned out to be extravagant generosity, while the larger "gift" was rather meagre! Should we perhaps be measuring sacrifice, rather than only amount? I've been treated with extreme and crushingly humbling generosity as a guest in very destitute villages, villages that know nothing of Christ.
    Another thing. Can we, in talking about this, really ignore the national expressions/ impulses? If we say, we're going to build our thesis based on just "personal" example, won't we be forced to acknowledge that the "christian heritage" has failed somewhat if the nation's practice is rather different than we're seeing at the persoanl level? I'm asking this question on the assumption that it's the people who comprise a nation and shape the national morality.
    So if we're talking about kindness toward women, is political freedom the criterion, or should we look more broadly. Who consumes pornography if not individuals? Who fuels prostitution? Individuals, at a "personal level" or some institution?
    If I sound cynical, I am somewhat. Anything that can modify that cynicism for me?

  4. OK maybe I share the cynicism, however my thesis is that where there had been a Christian influence, even when that influence is corrupt, which it often has been then, there is a better chance. Not that anywhere has got there but things are 'in the process of' – where the influence is appropriated. This I think is a process. You mentioned slavery, I would argue that the Gospel lit a fuse that eventually had an effect on slavery, and the more of us that take up the cudgels for current slavery, based on our moral understanding and Kingdom perspectives and thinking, then big changes can and still need to be made. I suppose what I am talking about is trying to compare like with like if that could ever be possible. I take your point about real sacrifice and accept that without qualification. But if you take somewhere like Japan which probably has just as good a percapita income compared with the UK, then we note that the willingness to be generous would not be the same. The approach would be, ‘that is another country which has nothing to do with us’. That wouldn’t be the UK approach, although the more we erode what we started with then I am sure we would certainly get there eventually. I agree, often those with less are more generous than those with more. I also have been on the receiving end of great generosity from those who have very little in Ghana, in Kenya, in Sri Lanka and in communist times in Poland where a church pooled their meat rations for the month to feed us for one meal!
    When looking at the different philosophies that pervade I am thinking about the ‘national broad brush scenario’. I mentioned Hinduism that is a way of thinking; we need to ask what does it produce? Or Communism, what does it produce? Or Shintoism, does it produce? Or Islam, what does it produce? Or Christianity in the broad brush scenario what does it produce. I think if you put a map of the world down and asked the question, ‘where has Christianity been? Has it had a national effect for good or evil? Even bad Christianity,’ and then ask, ‘where I would rather live?’ As a Nigerian said to me recently, ‘I know there is a lot wrong with the UK and other countries where Christianity has had an influence, but I would rather live where they have had that influence than where it has not been.’
    So I don’t think you should give up the cynicism just yet, but rather press for an increase in ‘real’ followers of Jesus, ‘real’ Kingdom seekers who are pulling down handfuls of Kingdom, bringing justice, righteousness, freedom and care for those that James says true Religion really touches.