Putting Ethics Back Together Again: A British Perspective


Much of our moral confusion comes from our failure to find a replacement for the Judaeo-Christian outlook that once animated the West. We need, and generally now lack, a philosophical understanding of human life.

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It is hardly possible to get through a week in Britain without reading or hearing some discussion of a moral problem, dilemma, or challenge. Between fending off or falling foul of criticisms of abusing their positions for personal advantage, or equally of using their wealth to secure positions of privilege, British politicians have also been debating the ethics of war, the liberties of religious denominations and faith schools, the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide, and the sexualization of children. Such topics form the staple diet for radio and television discussions, for print media and for online commentators and bloggers.

Consider two prominent areas of current concern: sex and money. As in the U.S., there has been widespread condemnation of the salaries and bonuses paid to bankers, broadcasters and executives in public services. Apart from their faults and failures, it is often said to be simply wrong that there should be large inequalities of income and wealth within society. On the other hand, there is the view that aspiration to affluence is a good thing. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently put it, “the driving force behind New Labour remains the insight that all people have the chance to rise as far as their ­talents take them … we stand for an age of aspiration in which a strong economy can provide greater opportunities for people to get on in life.” But if getting on is good, and rising as far as your talents will take you is right, then how can there be a duty to limit aspiration by restricting rewards, particularly when these may be necessary for the recruitment and retention of those who have the skills to create and maintain a strong economy?

As for sex, we find ourselves in a very confused condition. On the one hand celebrating sexual freedom, guilt-free pleasure, social and recreational sex, made ever more youthful by the lowering of the age of consent and ever more present through the media and internet. Yet on the other, we agonize about teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and the sexualization of the young. To quote from the recent report commissioned by the U.K. Home Office (roughly equivalent to the American Justice, Interior, and Homeland Security departments):

It is a drip, drip effect. Look at porn stars, and look how an average girl now looks. It's seeped into every day: ... We are hypersexualizing girls, telling them that their desirability relies on being desired. They want to please at any cost.

Apart from recent headline issues there are ongoing debates about reproduction, abortion, gay partnership, marriage and family life, schooling and higher education, public support of the arts, the treatment of animals, the environment, and so on. Then there are the rafts of ethical issues about conduct within various professions and fields of activity: medicine and health care; science and technology; policing and the legal system; social work and welfare; not to mention sport and journalism.

Seen from the inside, these debates and controversies each have their own particular features, but stepping back some common patterns begin to emerge.

First, there is often superficial agreement on form but deeper dispute about substance. It may be agreed, for example, that at the heart of an issue lies the question of welfare, but then it is disputed quite what welfare involves, and whose welfare takes precedence. Equally, it might be accepted that an issue is about rights, but there is fierce disagreement whose rights are ‘genuine’ or which are more pressing. Again, all parties might insist on the need of principles and codes of conduct, but then disagree fundamentally on what these should be and on how they should be interpreted.

Second, there is an inverse relation between the increasing number and complexity of the issues that confront us, whether personally, professionally or socially, and the common resources we have to draw upon in analyzing and resolving them. Social changes have brought some old issues into sharper focus: fidelity, integrity, respect, justice, etc. Meanwhile, medical and technological developments have created new possibilities such as egg-selection, cloning, genetic manipulation, multiple organ transplantation, electronic surveillance, and weaponry of mass destruction. Yet over the same time-period, from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, our ethical currency has been devalued and our moral reserves have been diminished.

These two patterns—first, agreement in form but disagreement in substance; and second, increasing problems and diminishing resources—are connected, and are largely traceable to a common cause, namely the decline of Judaeo-Christian belief and practice. Such a suggestion will immediately prompt some readers to think that this is just the old complaint of the religious conservative that the world is going to hell in a handcart. What I want to suggest, however, is a somewhat different analysis which poses a challenge as much to a certain kind of religious believer as to a familiar sort of secular atheist. In short, I propose that our problem is that we need, and generally now lack, a philosophical understanding of human life.


The fact that we describe ethical challenges in certain ways using the concepts of human welfare, of equality of respect, of demands of justice and charity and so on, is not a creation of recent times but has a particular cultural and intellectual history. Central to this history is Christian moral theology, in which were fashioned the ideas of human dignity, of the inviolability of the innocent, and of the duty of concern for those in material and spiritual need. Certainly in the last two centuries there have been important developments in moral philosophy that were not avowedly religious, and indeed often came from the pens of agnostics, but of itself this does not challenge the claim that the core ideas originated in a Judaeo-Christian understanding of human nature.

Let me offer two examples: the impartial promotion of happiness, and the respecting of rights. These are particularly relevant, both because of their rhetorical power in contemporary discussions and because they are often thought to originate in secular rather than religious thought. Indeed, they are often paraded as achievements of secular philosophy working in opposition to religious morality, as represented by the Ten Commandments and other systems of ‘divine law.’

Many today associate the principle of acting so as to promote the happiness of all, treating each as equal, with the liberal utilitarians of the nineteenth century, who avowed it without reference to Christian doctrine. Yet if one asks why this should be done, and in particular why each should count equally in one’s regard, it is hard to find a coherent secular answer. For the Christian, by contrast, the principle of equality of consideration is rooted in the idea that each human being, whatever their condition or talents, is equal insofar as they are adopted children of God whose existence was divinely chosen and sustained. Likewise, in asking the question “who are we to care for,” the answer, “whoever one encounters who is in need,” has its origins in the parable of the Good Samaritan offered by Jesus in answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”

Similarly, the idea of human rights has its origins not in the secular enlightenment but in the world of the scholastic theology. In the middle ages there was a debate over holy poverty, which turned in part on the question of whether Christ and his Apostles owned anything individually or held everything in common. The conclusion was that everyone has inalienable rights of ownership and control over their own bodies, from which was developed, by extension, the idea that people have rights over what they create through their labor. These various ideas of equality of regard, of duties of beneficence and charity, of the universality of rights of bodily integrity, and of ownership of one’s body and of the products of one’s labor, are fruits of a particular religious understanding of human nature. Detached from that understanding it will only be a matter of time before they dry and wither. Of course, one might seek to develop equivalent fruits from a different source, but the question is whether that can be done.


We continue to use concepts and language that have their origins in a religious outlook, but we now lack the single coherent source for that use. We speak of “universal rights” and of the “equality of all people” but by any natural measure human beings are evidently unequal, so whence comes this elevated status and inviolability? We speak of the obligation to clothe the naked, and feed the hungry but whence comes that duty, if not from some broad notion of common membership in an all-inclusive moral community? And what can be a natural basis for this that can substitute for the religious idea of brotherhood?

Not only has the original foundation been lost sight of without an evidently adequate alternative being provided, but in losing touch with the source of moral meaning, our moral thinking has become confused. On the one hand we invoke the principle of the inviolability of innocent life in condemnation of the bombing of civilians, but on the other we set it aside when it comes to the matter of abortion. We assert the principle of non-exploitation in opposition to slavery yet countenance the creation of “sibling saviors” for the purpose of harvesting tissue from them. We deploy the language of innocence in relation to underage sex, yet switch instantly to talk of a right to gratification with the passing of a birthday. We assert the importance of community and of autonomy, yet legislate to restrict the latter in ways that will forseeably destroy the former. We oscillate between understandings of doctors, nurses, teachers and judges as motivated by vocations to serve the common good, and as salaried service-providers in a consumer economy. Little surprise, then, that we face confusing and apparently irresolvable conflicts.


How then to procede? It will not be surprising if a professional philosopher suggests that philosophy is the place to start, and perhaps even the place to end. Nor will this seem a novel suggestion to those familiar with the burgeoning fields of “applied” and “professional” ethics, which often presents themselves as providing guidance to those in moral need. But these are not what I have in mind, since applied ethics generally takes for granted the ethical position it applies, and professional ethics tends to restrict itself to fashioning codes of conduct for practitioners in specific fields. Our need, by contrast, is for an enquiry into ethical foundations sufficient to provide a guide to life more generally, which is something far broader and deeper.

One thing that philosophy, even of a preliminary sort, does well is to improve one’s grasp of an issue by clarifying it. Philosophy involves the analysis of ideas, assumptions, and arguments—and that brings with it the resolution of ambiguities and confusions. For example, it is increasingly common in talking of “rights” to conflate liberties and entitlements. A clear instance of this is the argument that people have a claim to reproductive services based on article 16 of the Declaration of Human Rights which specifies “the right to marry and to found a family.” On analysis, however, it is clear that this refers to a right of non-interference from the state (a liberty) not a right to the provision by it of the means necessary to conceive and bear children (an entitlement). Again, in speaking of “acceptance” there is a tendency to confuse toleration with approbation. So, while it may be reasonable on grounds of liberal toleration to require secular humanists to tolerate public displays of religious devotion, or to require traditional Christians to tolerate public recognition of gay partnerships, it does not follow that it is reasonable to require either party to approve or support these. Acceptance-as-toleration, and acceptance-as-approval are distinct, and it is both a confusion and an imposition to require the latter on the basis that a liberal society should be a tolerant one.

The value of philosophical clarification could hardly be overstated, particularly for a culture that is generally mentally sloppy. Yet clarity is not enough: for a position can be sparkling in the distinctness of its formulation and still false. Beyond lucidity one needs truth. It was, and remains, the business of philosophy to state such truths as there may be about morality and the conduct of life. Judaeo-Christian belief and practice in its mature forms was itself the embodiment of a philosophy of life, but with its decline no equivalently comprehensive account of human existence has emerged to take its place.

This matters for two reasons.

First, without such an account we are threatened with the thought that human existence is absurd and pointless. That was the dread possibility explored by Albert Camus and the pessimistic existentialists in the 1940s and ‘50s. For them it raised the question of whether, faced with meaninglessness, one would do better to kill oneself. This prompts the question, of course, whether rising rates of self-harm and suicide among young people today may be connected to a similar sense of the absence of human meaning.

Second, with such an account we will fail to see the intrinsic value of every person at every stage of life, and this returns me to my theme of contemporary ethical conflict and confusion. For what the Christian philosophy offered was an overarching narrative, an account of human life in total, from conception through infancy and childhood into adulthood and old age and towards and beyond death. In that respect it was a fully comprehensive theory. But more importantly it was one that identified dignity in each phase, aspect and part of the totality of life, singly and socially. Within this scheme the value of childhood was accounted for, as that of old age. Similarly, the value of male and female, of parent and child, of laborer and administrator, etc., were each understood in relation to their expression of divinely gifted powers, and their contribution to the common good of society.

Such a narrative relates persons not as separate, autonomous individuals but as socially completed persons. It is an evident fact of human life that we are not regularly or uniformly contoured, like round pegs fitted to round holes. But what from one point of view look like awkward and pointless shapes, from another can be seen like the contours of jigsaw pieces made to fit together to create a larger picture. What otherwise appears fragmentary takes on a larger and fuller meaning than could be contained within the boundaries of separate pieces.  Moreover the fuller narrative, or larger picture, is one that ennobles human life by seeing it as a sacred creation made for eternal joy.

None of this, of course, establishes the truth of the Judaeo-Christian philosophy of life, but it helps to explain the sources and original meaning of the moral ideas with which we are left. In doing so, however, it also reveals why in the absence of the narrative that gave them point, and which integrated them as parts of a larger account of human meaning, they no longer seem to function to guide us, so much as to leave us conflicted and confused. Such is the case, for example, with “respect for life” which is now invoked equally forcefully by opposing sides in debates about abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia; or again “material wealth” which is one day denounced as an indulgence, and the next praised as an aspiration.

If ethics is ever again to make the kind of sense it did to generations past, it will have to be set within a broader philosophy of life. That is a challenge to secularists who have yet to provide a non-religious alternative, and to Christians who wield biblical passages as if they were swords provided for the striking down of unbelievers. For they too need to seek out the larger narrative. Supposing then that both step up and meet the challenge, how might we tell which is true? The only possible answer, I think, is that we should favour that philosophy which best makes sense of human life including both its intimations of human transcendence and its demonstrations of human depravity. It is hard to see how such an account could be other than a religious one, at least to the extent of identifying something in humanity that transcends its material foundations and orients it towards some kind of spiritual fulfillment. Certainly there are intellectual challenges in recovering such an account, but there are also moral dangers in trying to live without one.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St. Andrews, and a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest books are Practical Philosophy (2009) and Reasonable Faith (2010).

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