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?’
21st December 2009