Politics and morality

I’ve started thinking about turning my thesis on Carolingian masculinity and morality into a book, which has got me considering some of the more general conceptual framework of it. One possible complaint about the thesis is that I haven’t closely linked moral concerns to political events. Instead, I am largely taking the politics out of morality, concentrating on the broad sweep of norms, rather than seeing particular moral campaigns as being politically driven. Is it justifiable in seeing morality as independent in this way, or should public discussions about morality always be seen as simply political manoeuvres?

There are obviously vast differences between today’s political situation and that in the ninth century, such as democratisation, the mass media and the greater tendency for separation of church and state. But what is noticeable even now is that politicians can manipulate moral sentiments, but they cannot simply create them. For example, in all the recent (and not so recent) affirmations by the Conservatives of the need to support marriage, what they have never done is say that they will make divorce harder. Maybe fifty years ago they could have said that: today it would be electoral suicide. Similarly, there is no serious British movement to ban abortion. Nor will anyone but marginal figures in British society claim to be racist anymore: even the BNP tries to hide their bigotry under more acceptable euphemisms. (In contrast, the Polish government is planning to ban discussions of homosexuality in schools (http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2038272,00.html))

All this suggests society-specific limits to what counts as acceptable moral change, variable over both time and space. Politicians can, of course, sometimes help change wider moral norms: the abolition of the death penalty happened in the UK long before this was a popular view. But legislation in itself does not necessarily result in moral changes: in the US the legitimacy of abortion rights is still hotly debated more than thirty years after Roe v Wade.

The other thing about reducing morality to politics is that to my mind it over-estimates the cynicism of rulers and politicians. There are some blatant manipulations of moral discourse by politicians, such as George W. Bush’s ‘dog-whistle’ speeches for the Christian right (or Philip IV’s suppression of the Templars for financial gain). But more often, I think, politicians do believe what they are saying, even if they may also time/target their pronouncements carefully. Bush and Blair may have lied about the reasons for attacking Iraq, but in their own minds they clearly still see themselves as Saving the Free World. In other words, I think politicians are less cynical and more self-deluding than is commonly reckoned. (I am not necessarily saying this is a desirable thing). Similarly, while being tough on crime may be Blair’s way of protecting himself from the tabloids, it also genuinely reflects an authoritarian streak in himself and some others in New Labour.

Moral campaigns are often full of hypocrisy: but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are insincere. Instead, as I’m sure a psychologist could explain, it is far easier to see the mote in someone else’s eye than the beam in your own. And it is surely all too human to pronounce that some sin is wrong while simultaneously telling yourself that a) you didn’t really commit it and b) that anyway, you’re going to stop committing it from now on. Self-interested, moral and psychological motives are inextricably fused in any decisions as to what moral priorities should be. I *know* my views about discrimination would be subtly different if I were a black working-class man rather than a white middle-class woman, even if I still had the same broadly liberal outlook.

Similarly, I am always unconvinced by the strains of feminism who explain how every social change is just a way for the patriarchy consciously to do down women [I’ve seen that said about the acts in Victorian times fixing maximum working times for women in factories, for example]. I think it’s far more that elite men [like most social groups] have been singularly bad at recognising the interests of other groups with whom they have little in common, while also unreasonably confident that they do know what’s best for such groups. When the church persecuted heretics was it simply because the power of the higher clerics was threatened? Or was it because that threat was to them one example of how a wider God-ordained order would be overturned?

To me, seeing all moral discourses in terms simply of personal or political advantage obscures more than it reveals. More than that, it is not true to life. I know that I (as well as many other Christians) do things as a result of our religion that are not in our material or other interests. I give money to charity that I do not need to; I refrain from doing things I would like to do because I believe they are not morally right. (The same would be true of most people who hold some kind of moral code, religious or not). Of course, I also kid myself constantly that I am not going against my religion when I really am: that I am ‘justified’ in being rude rather than patient to someone, selfish rather than sharing. But not all the time, not every time. Moral codes, particularly publicly articulated moral legislation, are very often largely paying lip service to ideals. But even that lip service is important: it shows what we (or the Carolingians) think is important, or at least what we want to think is important.


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