A Long Way East of Eden

A Long Way East of Eden: Could God explain the mess we're in? examines the significance of the ‘God-question' and the impact of atheism – the loss of God in a culture.

'Is there still an above and a below?'

'There are altogether no moral facts… Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena – more precisely, a misinterpretation…' – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols[1]

'There are no moral facts'. The mother only left her toddler, fastened by the reins at the door of a Liverpool butcher's shop, for a couple of minutes. When she turned round, James Bulger was gone. Two kids had taken him. They dragged him weeping through the streets, and ended up stoning him brutally to death on a railway embankment.

It caused plenty of soul-searching. 'Evil is seeping into more and more people's lives', said one observer. Liverpool football club observed two minutes' silence. Tony Blair said that the atrocity challenged Britain to 'wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see', and called for a reassertion of the clear difference between right and wrong.

The Bulger murder was only one of several such events sparking off anguished discussion of our 'ethical collapse' in recent years. A Gallup survey reported that most Britons 'believe concern for others and public-spiritedness has declined in the last decade'. As concrete evidence, it showed the high number of people unwilling even to report violent assault if it was committed by a friend or relative. The 'needs of your own folk' were now the main basis left for ethical life – and that was producing results rather different from our traditional ideas of 'public-spiritedness' and right and wrong. Strikingly, the same day's newspapers revealed the British government department of trade's 'dirty-tricks' handbook, written to teach Britain's entrepreneurs how to lie effectively when abroad. What's happening?

It isn't so easy to 'reassert the clear difference between right and wrong'. Once upon a time there was a God who showed us right and wrong, and why they mattered. But now we have jettisoned this God. So what, if anything, has taken his place? Moral values are merely interpretations, or, 'more precisely', misinterpretations, says Nietzsche; there are no 'moral facts'. So do 'right' and 'wrong' have any meaning now? Is there any compelling reason to be anything other than selfish?

Of course our schoolteachers taught us a soothing humanistic response. Right and wrong were what was good or bad for people in general, they said, or at least for the greatest number of them. You did what was good for society, and this was 'right'. But all that depended significantly on the conditioning left over from Christianity ('Love your neighbours as yourself... Do as you would be done by'). As that conditioning receded, society became vulnerable to the rebel-challenge raised last century by Nietzsche, then more drastically by Hitler: Why should I play the game? Suppose I base what I choose to do, not on the needs of 'people in general', but on my own 'rules', my tribal – or even personal – urges and desires?

After all, why not? Anti-Christian writers like Richard Dawkins, proclaiming the ultimacy of the 'selfish gene' in our existence, have played into the hands of such attitudes. If the final reality is really the evolutionary struggle; and if that struggle is about the survival of the fittest, and the strong surviving at the expense of the weak; is classroom morality any more than one optional preference among others? Indeed, are we left with any real, objective moral case against fascism? Wasn't the argument of Nazism that the Jews were a degenerate people, therefore their destruction by a stronger race was entirely in tune with evolutionary nature? Why, in the end, should we care about 'everybody else', when nature doesn't?

It isn't merely a fascist question today. Many of the forces busy dismantling the welfare state, or fighting exclusively for their own 'special interest' group (whether religious, sexual, gender-based or ethnic), reveal the collapse of the old liberal consensus that based 'right and wrong' on the 'shared needs of society'. Just why, among all today's pressures, should we be expected to bother about 'shared needs'? Why should we 'put others first'?

Once again it was Nietzsche, German prophet of the death of God, who saw the ethical collapse coming:

They are rid of the Christian God, and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency... We others [in Germany] hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self‑evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole; nothing necessary remains in one's hands.[2]

Nietzsche titled another of his books Beyond Good and Evil. This was to become a modish catch-phrase for rock groups and science fiction; and in the mid-twentieth century it sounded fine – provided we could safely reduce it to 'beyond traditional morality and conventional standards', but still keep our basic liberal norms (eg. the outlawing of torture) intact. The postmodern world, however, is a chillier place. Increasingly we face the question posed by Raskolnikov murdering the old woman in Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, and in a different way by the Marquis de Sade who genuinely seems to have enjoyed hurting people: What if, with God dead, we have no good and evil at all? What if there really is nothing bearing on our actions besides self‑interest... if there is indeed, as Nietzsche says, neither up nor down: what then?

Or to put the question in its most unpleasant form: if there is, objectively, neither right nor wrong; if this is just a planet working through an evolutionary process where the stronger race overcomes and devours or eliminates the weaker... Why was Hitler "wrong"?

And what happens in our culture – to our social support networks, to our police system, to our legal system – if there are no convincing answers to that question?

Why Our Rights Aren't Enough

'Why should people not steal if this is the only way they can consume? Why should they not drink in the streets and throw empty cans in the gutter if it suits their individual choice? Why should they have a mind for frightened old ladies if there is no economic advantage in doing so?'
Independent on Sunday editorial

If we want to 'look unflinchingly' at these questions, as Tony Blair suggested, we'll find that our current crisis began on the intellectual level.

Now, this study aims to explore a very wide range of issues, so parts of it will be more relevant for some readers than others; and it's deliberately written in sections that different readers can either use or omit for now. The first halves of these next two chapters will be our most intense; some readers will want the complete picture, while others may find the goings-on of academic ethicists bizarre and uninteresting and prefer to skip down to the subsections titled 'Not My Problem' or 'After Morality', where we focus on the practicalities of all this. But if we understand what's happened on the academic level, we'll have a better handle on the practical issues.

We'll tell the story in two parts; first, the inadequacy of 'human rights', and the 'contract' mindset that's dominated (and nearly ruined?) Britain's 'post-God' conservatives; and second, what's gone wrong in the academic ghetto.

Alasdair MacIntyre's masterly After Virtue [3] records the long inability of post-Enlightenment thought to find a substitute for the moral framework previously supplied by Christian belief and the classical tradition. He describes the successive failures: Hume's attempt to show that morality coincided, in the long run, with our desires and passions (p.49); Kant's attempt to show it was based on universal, self‑evident, categorical rational principles (p.46); and the 'utilitarian' tradition, arguing that personal happiness is attained by seeking general happiness. Unfortunately, that notion of general 'happiness' proved undefinable and inadequate (what if the public enjoys torturing Jews, or the killing of a minority promotes the general good?), and just why personal and general happiness were connected was also very unclear (p.63). Thus the nineteenth-century tradition came to a close with Sidgwick accepting uneasily that, if there is no God, then moral beliefs do not form a coherent unity, and their acceptance is and has to be unargued (p.65).

That wasn't a complete dead end: early in the twentieth century this very lack of a rational foundation for ethics was welcomed with enthusiasm, during the dominance of 'intuitionist' ideas such as those of G.E. Moore. Propositions declaring this or that action to be good are 'intuitions', said Moore; we recognise the 'goodness' of an act just as we recognise whether something is yellow (though Moore was unclear why, having recognised 'goodness', we should act upon it). But intuitionism proved thoroughly inadequate. As the century progressed, Moore's easy confidence in our ability to recognise and agree upon the meaning of 'goodness' vanished, and it became clear that these 'intuitions' varied from person to person. That pointed inevitably to relativism. Moral philosophy became dominated by 'emotivism', which sees moral statements ('This is good') as having no factual content at all. Rather, they become merely expressions of our emotional preferences and feelings: 'Hurrah for this!', or, 'I approve of this; do so as well!'

Obviously, says MacIntyre, such expressions of feeling can be neither true nor false. Nor can there be any rational way of settling disagreements between them; so agreement on an ethical issue is 'secured, if at all, by producing certain non‑rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those who disagree with one' (p.12). Obviously this is a very serious point to have reached; moral persuasion stands revealed as either manipulation or a power-play. Logically, 'if and insofar as emotivism is true, moral language is seriously misleading and ... ought to be abandoned' (p.20). It is unreasonable, even foolish, for any of us to talk in terms of 'right' and 'wrong' any more.

All this may sound very strange. We speak so naturally of our 'rights'; indeed, 'rights' have been central to the 'modern' liberal's whole way of thinking about what is 'right'. It comes as a shock when we first realise that 'right and wrong' in general, and our 'rights' in particular, have very little foundation.

'I have my rights': but where did I get them from? What (against Hitler, or the slave traders) gives me 'rights' that 'should' not be violated? Are they just a comforting fiction, like one young child shouting 'You're not allowed!' to another? God is dead; who else can be a 'rights-giver'? Perhaps we awarded our 'rights' to ourselves. But then what gives humans rights precedence over, say, the rights of fish not to be eaten? To say only human beings have rights seems almost as racist as arguing that only white humans have rights. Increasingly, many of us subscribe to some idea of animal rights. But which animals? How do we decide who or what has rights? By level of consciousness, perhaps? Chamberlain points out that we often base our own special 'human rights' on qualities that we possess but animals don't, like reason or creativity; but many animals possess equally impressive qualities that we lack. (He cites Taylor, who points to the speed of a cheetah, the abilities of birds to fly and of trees to photosynthesise light.[4]) No species has damaged the environment as we have; if lack of destructiveness were the criterion, humans should have the least rights. Presumably the smallpox microbe has no rights; in fact we will exterminate it if we can. But does a snake have rights? Does a lobster?

At any rate, all human beings, we may feel, have innate 'rights' that it is 'right' to honour. Yet this was just what Hitler denied – and what may well need defending soon, as the Christian heritage recedes into the past. Where do all these 'rights' come from, since they don't come from God? Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, spoke of the whole idea of rights as 'nonsense upon stilts'. Is all such talk purely arbitrary, a way of defending our own interests or, at best, expressing feelings that come with our more generous moods? The answers are scarcely self-evident.

'I have often asked myself why human beings have any rights at all… These values ... make sense only in the perspective of the infinite and the eternal' - Vaclav Havel[5]

One response that has been important in shaping Britain during recent decades has been the notion of 'social contract'. From this perspective, innate 'rights' and values don't exist; but we humans agree to award them to each other, since such a 'contract' will enable society to function smoothly. This way of thinking originated with Hobbes. The natural state of humankind, argued Hobbes, is an amoral war of all against all; such a condition was unliveable, so we invented rights and moral values. But there is nothing objectively 'real' about either; the 'contract' just make life more liveable for the community that operates with it.

These ideas have an influence far outside the academic ghetto. But they are full of problems. First, as Mary Midgley points out, they are inadequate. A 'contract' can exist between articulate persons only; in such a system we cannot think of the 'weak and inarticulate' (for instance mentally defective people) having 'mutually-agreed' rights, nor indeed of the non-human world. Midgley tries to imagine Robinson Crusoe being tempted to devastate his island home, and notes that as a creature of his time he would have felt an 'invincible objection' to doing so, an objection arising from his 'duty to God'. However,

The language of our moral tradition has tended strongly, ever since the Enlightenment, to make that objection unstateable. All the terms that express that an obligation is serious or binding – duty, rights, law, morality, obligation, justice – have been deliberately narrowed in their use so as to apply only in the framework of contract, to describe only relations holding between free and rational agents… Unless you take either religion or science fiction seriously, we can only have duties to humans, and sane, adult, responsible humans at that.

And she quotes Grice:

It is an inescapable consequence of the thesis presented in these pages that certain classes cannot have natural rights: animals, the human embryo, future generations, lunatics and children under the age of, say, ten. In the case of young children at least, my experience is that this consequence is found hard to accept. But it is a consequence of the theory; it is, I believe, true; and I think we should be willing to accept it.[6]

No rights for children, then? But that unpleasant result isn't the only inadequacy of this form of atheism. Ultimately, it's completely selfish; we accept the contract to make social life liveable for ourselves. Yet to work, it depends, like any other contract, on people keeping their word, keeping their side of the bargain. So then, as Hume asked two centuries ago: 'Why are we bound to keep our word?' The only answer (within this approach) is mutual – collectively selfish – advantage: 'Groups whose members adhere to such a practice' (that is, whose members abide by the contract and respect each other's 'rights') '…enjoy benefits in interaction that are denied to others.'[7] Now, it may be true that if we abide by the contract it will benefit our social group as a whole; it may also be true that individual members will benefit, so long as the groups are small and fairly egalitarian. But the larger a group becomes, the less clear it gets that sticking to the rules will lead to my benefit – or even to that of the majority of members. (So people begin to steal from the supermarket; they themselves won't lose by it, nor will anyone they know personally.) My 'doing what's right' according to the social 'contract' benefits society: so what? And the contract becomes doubly powerless when the obligations on my side of the contract were chosen for me by others, not by myself.[8] Why should I be bound by them? Why should I not abandon the contract just as soon as it suits me to do so? For self-interest was its ultimate basis anyway.

But thirdly, 'keeping our word' in the contract only makes sense when the participants are roughly equal in power; outside that situation it has little to say. Mutual advantage is the basis for a contract, but mutual advantage depends on mutual bargaining power. And the weak and infirm, Kymlicka notes,

produce little of value, and what little they do produce may be simply expropriated by others without fear of retaliation. Since there is little to gain by co-operation with the infirm, and nothing to fear from retaliation, the strong have little reason to accept' (or keep) 'conventions which help the infirm'.

In the world of social contract, the weak have no innate 'rights'; 'rights' (and 'wrongs') are what we agree to make them. Our 'everyday' intuition is that our moral obligations are increased by someone else's vulnerability; but social contract gives no basis for this, and indeed offers no reason why we "should" not simply kill or enslave them. (Hobbes himself was willing to say that irresistible power 'justifieth all actions really and properly.') Thus 'There are no grounds within the theory to prefer justice to exploitation', concludes Kymlicka.[9] (For example, we can imagine a situation where a society decides to defuse its internal tensions by giving over the members of one weaker ethnic group for gang rape. Social contract morality has nothing to say to that at all.)

This may all sound theoretical; but aren't we seeing the consequences today, that community doesn't work if its only basis is the self-oriented negotiation of 'my rights'? Without a further, shared belief in something like the Christian ideal of 'love for your neighbour' or for the community, the rights-emphasis becomes inadequate, hyper-individualistic. We watch the law courts clogging up (and our own costs rising, as insurance premiums soar for public amenities as a result) through individuals' consistent pursuit of their rights. Aren't we finding that 'rights' need to be complemented (but this must be voluntary, empowered internally; it cannot be compelled) by an intelligent understanding of when not to insist on the letter of our rights?[10] Such a deliberate unselfishness is a strong feature of the ethics of radical love that Jesus teaches his community of discipleship (see the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matthew 5:38-48). But with the 'loss of God', we seem to lack a basis for it. On its own, however, the contract-based rights system seems to turn into something greedily demanding, individualistic to the point of alienation.

'Contract theory has experienced a remarkable rebirth in recent years', says Kymlicka. Inevitably so: if there is no God, then the idea of ethics and 'rights' as things we choose to create (or negotiate) together becomes an obvious option. But the social contract idea gives us no real basis for fostering unselfishness; it needs some other moral basis to make it work. As we've seen, it is essentially optional, ultimately arbitrary, and fundamentally self-oriented; and its implications, followed through logically, could be poisonous. In the end, it isn't enough to live by, basic though it has been to much of the ethics of humanistic modernity. In postmodernity, however, 'rights' have begun to look like certain other features of the 'modern' period: concepts that liberalism inherited from its Christian heritage, but was quite unable, post-God, either to explain or to preserve. And what will happen now, in our 'postmodern' century, as the word gets around?

Was their surrender to contractual thinking a major reason why Britain's conservatives lost their way for twenty years?

Contract is an interesting model to choose as a basis for human life. Some would say its prominence reflects an era dominated by capitalism; a drab time when, ultimately, commercial relations are all that counts.[11] But maybe the British education and health services still bear the huge bruises inflicted as these abstract ideas bore fruit.

The results of a situation where contract is all, where there is no other ethical basis, were highlighted in an intriguing Times article by Raymond Plant. Modern Conservatism has often argued that public institutions such as education or the health service need to be governed by fixed contract rather than communal idealism (a 'sentimental public service ethic', as it gets called). To this way of thinking, those who work in such services are not ultimately motivated by a different set of goals from those in the market sector; both groups are essentially involved in a contractual relationship where they are motivated by their own gain. So in the public sector, neo-conservatives argued, we need more market-type relationships, where all involved can be judged primarily by the efficiency with which they work towards the achievement of purely private – that is, self-oriented – ends.

Plant brilliantly analysed why this whole attitude was doomed. Ultimately, he noted, 'not everything in a contract is contractual… The contractual relationship is actually based on trust, commitment, fair dealing, keeping promises, and so forth. These moral preconditions are indispensable if contractual relationships are to work.' Contract, in short, cannot be a sufficient basis for community on its own; it has to be supplemented by such things as trust, professional ethics, and the sense of vocation.

Plant then spelled out the consequences that many of us will recognise: 'I have recently heard many teacher and doctor friends say that, because of the way their professions are being taken over by the contractual model, they will stick to the letter of the contract and do what is required by it and nothing else. Ministers can hardly then appeal to professional ethics and duty, since it is they who have sought to replace them by contract.' (And, of course, the shift away from the 'public service' idealism that at least partly fuelled recruitment is an issue in Britain's shortage of teachers and nurses; a teacher's or nurse's life isn't so good a deal ('contract') if that's all it comes down to.)

Which is to say: one reason why Britain was left the worse (in significant respects) by Thatcherism was that, without the deep-seated ethical framework that we forfeited with the loss of God, the appeal to contract-based market forces alone doesn't work. Instead, society becomes increasingly individualistic, with everyone playing for himself by whatever rules may profit him. Longterm, the result could all too easily resemble the mafia-dominated jungle that followed the rise of the 'free market' in Russia, after so many of Russia's ethical foundations had been destroyed by communism.

The social contract works when there is something else underpinning it. But we don't seem to have found anything to do that since we gave up on God.

Voices From the Ghetto

To oversimplify: broadly speaking, two or three basic options have dominated modern academic attempts to build a basis for ethics after the loss of God. And in our day, none have proved very compelling.

First, there have been the approaches based on Kantianism, with its famous 'categorical imperative'. 'Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law', it reads in one version – that is, act in such a way that you can be comfortable with the thought of everyone acting the same way as yourself. In another version of the 'imperative', Kant insisted that we should always treat human beings as ends in themselves, not as means. It is ironic that Kant's system became a key God-substitute in western ethics, when Kant himself wrote that:

Belief in a God and in another world is so interwoven with my moral sentiment that, as there is little danger of my losing the latter, there is equally little cause for fear that the former can ever be taken from me.[12]

But with God now gone, various problems arise with Kant's idea. How far does he assume what he seeks to affirm? How far does his lofty insistence on the importance of treating humans as ends involve assuming that they possess a freedom about which postmodern psychology is deeply sceptical? And whence comes the authority of this abstract 'imperative'? That a moral framework (even, alas, a whole confusing range of contradictory frameworks) can be built on it seems clear; what is never clear is why anyone 'should' adopt and live by it in the first place. Kantianism resembles a religion that makes sense for its adherents; but it is not obvious why anyone else should join them, or live by their ethics when it hurts.

(The circular argument reappears in the best-known recent neo-Kantian, John Rawls. Rawls defines the moral act as the one we would choose in what he calls the 'original position', one where we are under a 'veil of ignorance' as to our actual strength, position or assets relative to others. In such a situation, he says, the acts I would choose will be those that benefit people in each situation in society, since I may end up as any of them; self-interest will dictate benevolence, impartiality, and the promotion of liberty and substantial equality. But as Kymlicka observes, Rawls too assumes a prior commitment to the idea of justice he is seeking to support. If they share it, then someone in the 'original position' will indeed act impartially; but if someone held a different view of justice, what they would do in the 'original position' could be very different too.[13] For example, they might equally well (and equally 'rightly') act completely selfishly, gambling that they might benefit thereby. As Singer comments, 'Perhaps independent agents in this situation would choose whatever principles would maximise their prospects of getting what they want'.[14] In this case 'ethics' seems again to become no more than a contract, with its value judged by its ability to bring about the greatest (self-oriented) good for the contracting party themselves – with all the problems that we noted in the previous section. So Rawls' ethics isn't really helped very much by the 'original position'. As Kymlicka says, it fits the moral intuitions many of us (often) feel, but does little to support or defend them. Indeed, even if the 'original position' might point me towards benevolent impartiality, why should I live by that when my actual situation is very different? So, as with Kant himself, Rawls' neo-Kantianism seems to lack motivational power for the ethics he advocates.)

The second main group of options for a post-God ethics is those of utilitarianism. Here, right or wrong actions are recognized by their consequences; in the most classic variant, a right action is that which contributes to the greatest pleasure or happiness of the greatest number of people. (Or, in a more modern form, satisfies the preferences or interests of the greatest number of people). Put like that, the principle may sound so obviously true (and has been taught in so many classrooms) that it can come as a shock when we first realise its weaknesses. But as Goodin observes, 'There is nothing in the theory that says that people should have these [particular] sorts of preferences'; the theory simply says that it is 'good – good for them – to have their preferences satisfied, whatever those preferences might be.' As Goodin adds, even John Stuart Mill, the author of Utilitarianism, 'could not help chafing at that conclusion. Surely there are some things – truth, beauty, love, friendship – that are good in themselves, whether or not people happen to desire them.'[15] And surely there are likewise things that are bad in themselves – the degradation of the environment, or the wiping out of the Jews in parts of medieval Europe – whether or not the majority of people prefer them. (Gang-rape might in certain circumstances – on a desert island, for example – be argued to be conducive to the pleasure, happiness, and preferences of the majority; but can we then say it is 'good'?) Otherwise, 'good' becomes a word for that which is agreed upon as meeting society's needs and desires;[16] and then it is all about market forces, and can be fixed by whoever is best at mass manipulation. But utilitarianism gives little basis for asking these kinds of questions; right and wrong have no other meaning than that which is desired, preferred, or seen as needed – by the majority.

This can have serious implications for minorities and the marginalized. The forced sterilization over many years of gypsies and 'travellers' in famously liberal Sweden is a practical twentieth-century example. With God dead, our society needs some ethical basis to work on; but reducing ethics to the majority's concerns is a very wooden basis for handling human diversity and the claims of conflicting preferences or desires. Should we let a few hospital patients die to provide transplant organs and free up doctors' time for many others? Who decides, and on what basis? If utilitarianism is true, and you lose the vote, you are, in so far as the word has meaning, 'wrong', and there is not much more to be said. Which could have unfortunate consequences, as we see from Sartre's statement of the communist variant of utilitarianism: 'A revolutionary regime must dispose of a certain number of individuals which threaten it, and I can see no other means of accomplishing this than death.' 'Twelve thousand scoundrels eliminated in time might have saved the lives of a million real Germans', wrote Hitler; in Russia, Zhirinovski said more recently that if he became president 'Those who have to be arrested will be arrested quietly at night. I may have to shoot a hundred thousand people, but the other three hundred million will live peacefully.'

Inevitably, in any system that defines 'right' as that which satisfies the preferences of the greatest number, the ends tend to justify the means. Might it be 'right' (as has been suggested) to outlaw famine relief if that was one way of reducing the global population and so contributing to the greater happiness of the majority? Is it 'right' (as has frequently happened) to torture the innocent so as to control terrorists who are related to them, if this will indeed increase the happiness of the vast majority? Or rather, on what basis could a utilitarian say it was wrong (and then agitate to prevent it recurring)? Would it be right (to quote a famous example) for a sheriff in a racist town to agree to – even carry out – the lynching of an innocent black man, if he knows that thereby a race-riot will be prevented in which the entire black community might violently perish? The point here is not that allowing the lynching might in some horrific circumstances be viewed as the lesser evil, but rather that in utilitarianism's terms it is actually right.[17] There is a deeply unconvincing inadequacy about this whole version of 'right' and 'wrong'. And in the end there remains the other huge, unanswered question: Why, anyway, should I bother about the majority? If 'right' and 'wrong' are merely descriptions of what is best for others, and they do not happen to be what is best for me: why should I play the game? Why should I not put my own interests first?

The second Star Trek movie got into this issue, when at the climax Spock sacrifices his life, giving voice to the creed of logical utilitarianism (as one might expect from a Vulcan): 'The interests of the many take precedence over the interests of the few – or the one.' Clearly its makers were uncomfortable with the implications of this, and Star Trek III saw Kirk and company turn thieves and deserters to bring Spock back to life. Kirk stated the motive for that unexpected villainy at the close: 'The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.'

Interestingly, to make this reaffirmation of the individual work, the film's writers had to invoke the idea of a soul. It is initially to retrieve Spock's soul that Kirk steals the Enterprise; 'If there's even a chance that Spock has an eternal soul…' is how he defends the journey to his unsympathetic Starfleet superior, and 'If I hadn't tried I would have lost my soul' is how he describes his own situation. At least one Christian concept had to be reintroduced for the film's ethic to be able to reaffirm the individual's value against the primacy of the mass.

It seems to me that this applies even to the most convincing modern writer of this kind, R.M. Hare. Hare's work builds on an exploration of what is involved in a personal commitment to the use of moral language such as 'ought'. One is left wondering, however, whether in the end he is merely unpacking a verbal construct, the validity of which is presupposed. When he tackles the 'amoralist' in his book Moral Thinking, he concedes that he cannot 'see anything logically inconsistent in his position', and that 'amoralism is an option left open by our system of moral reasoning'. The argument he offers is that, in actual reality, the person thinking only of his own self-interest will still end up happier if he cultivates what are generally viewed as moral dispositions.[18] Which might be true; but it has little force when we must argue against the amoralist (particularly the amoralist inside our own head) who knows full well that a grossly selfish or cruel action will lead to the greatest personal happiness in the short or even medium term. Hare's work is impressive (to this reader anyway); but it again seems merely to be defining what ethics can mean for someone who already accepts the importance of moral concerns, and is willing to be morally motivated, rather than supplying any basis for that motivation. He seems to be exploring what is meant by 'I ought'; his response is not clear to 'Why "ought" I?'

So neither Kantianism nor utilitarianism offer us notions of 'right' and 'wrong' that seem truly realistic and compelling. There are other possible approaches. Various liberal writers have tried to argue that rational thought itself provides a basis for morality; such thought necessitates a certain freedom and wellbeing, which a rational person must therefore view as a fundamental right. But, as MacIntyre points out, the fact that we need or want something does not mean we have some kind of 'right' to it,[19] nor need it imply that it should therefore be available, as of right, to others. Similarly, Habermas builds an ethic on what would emerge in conditions of unconstrained communication. The problem is that the value he puts (again as a liberal) on what emerges from human consensus is simply not self-evident. Indeed, it is precisely what many postmodernists deny.[20]

Ethics in Disarray

To work one's way through contemporary books of academic ethics is to encounter a deep sense of powerlessness and confusion.[21] Until the 'death of God', we had a strong reason for unselfishness. But since then, we haven't come up with much of a replacement.

Time and again, it seems that academic ethics can operate only by assuming beforehand that impartiality and unselfishness are good.[22] And that, as Nietzsche insisted, simply cannot be assumed, 'despite the English flatheads'. The attempt is what we should expect in the first century or so after the 'loss of God', when the liberal establishment have been trying to hold on to basically Christian ethics (love your neighbour) without their Christian underpinning. But now the weather is changing; and increasingly, the 'realist' voices seem to be those of Foucault and his disciples, who see the world primarily as the arena of an unending power-conflict and 'play of dominations'. The academic ghetto has little to set convincingly against the selfishness that would seem normal in such a world. 'Clearly there is a gaping hole here', writes Charles Taylor. 'We might be tempted to put it this way: they' (academic ethicists) 'leave us nothing to say to someone who asks why he should be moral.'[23] If Singer is right, that 'We have no need to postulate gods who hand down commandments to us, because we can understand ethics as a natural phenomenon that arises in the course of evolution… Human ethics evolved from the social instincts that we inherited from our non-human ancestors', there is no automatic reason why we should continue to be bound by them; as Singer himself recognizes.[24]

At the close of one of his fine symposia, Singer faces the possibility that contemporary academic ethics is in a state of complete and irreconciliable disarray.[25] In fact he remains optimistic. (One suspects this is because Singer himself is driven by powerfully-felt intuitions about animal rights, and his sense of certainty about the 'truth' of these pulls him back from the relativistic brink.[26]) Singer sees increasing agreement among different thinkers that decisions taken in a position of pure, impartial decision-making could thereafter define for us what was moral.[27] But again, perhaps all that is resurfacing here is a shared intuition of the value of impartiality, a shared inability ethicists face 'after God' to work without an assumption that we 'should' value this over an egoistic perspective. And there are further problems. Singer seems especially attracted by Michael Smith's notion that a 'moral fact' exists when 'rational creatures would converge upon a desire' to act in a particular way. But Smith himself admits there is little sign of this happening in any widespread manner that might provide solid ground for speaking of specific, undeniable 'moral facts': 'It must be agreed on all sides that moral argument has not yet produced the sort of convergence in our desires that would make the idea of a moral fact… look plausible.'[28] Indeed, Smith's confidence that such convergence would be both possible and valuable seems curiously 'modernist'. We are used, of course, to the 'modern' liberal humanist assuming that his values are not only politically correct but universally self-evident. But the more recent postmodern mood is deeply suspicious of any such 'totalizing' convergence, and of the manipulative forces that might bring it into being. And there would still remain the obligation issue: Even if 'convergence' did occur, why should I join in the game? Why listen to the majority? Why not tear up the rules?

'The contemporary world has entirely lost its comprehension of morality. Though we continue to use ethical language, we have lost the philosophical context which gave it significance. Western culture committed a suicidal blunder when it abandoned its biblical heritage and sought to secularise the field of human knowledge.' - MacIntyre

There is of course an entire academic industry devoted to solving these issues. (Actually that is too idealistic a phrasing: 'furthering the discussion' is what most would say, as if time were not an issue.) And the industry will continue to produce. But at this point there seems some force in Anscombe's suggestion that moral philosophy should be laid aside now we no longer believe in God, since the attempt to have moral law without a Lawgiver has proved meaningless. Sometimes it seems we have a whole slew of thinkers trying to make their sums add up so as to justify the inherited, Christian 'golden rule' they intuitively value. But intuitions are not enough to live by; they need a rational underpinning such as that which Christian faith used to provide, and this is lacking. Indeed, even the 'convergence of positions' that encourages Singer seems to point, bizarrely, to the need for a Christ. It focuses on defining 'right' as that action which would be chosen by an ideal observer, 'a person who was being as reasonable and impartial as it is humanly possible… whatever a perfectly rational, impartial, and benevolent judge would think best' (Rachels' version[29]), 'what an unbiased and otherwise perfect critical moral thinker would have them do' (Hare[30]). And at the end of the day it sounds bizarrely like a group of people stumbling towards the 'WWJD' motif espoused by many Christians: 'What would Jesus do?' [31] The resemblance is clearest when we watch Hare in Moral Thinking grounding his ethics in what would be done by an imaginary figure he terms the 'archangel… a being with superhuman powers of thought, superhuman knowledge and no human weaknesses'.[32] That does sound rather like the Jesus Christians believe in. (It is not perhaps surprising that Hare's own son, also now becoming known as a moral philosopher, became a committed Christian.)

At this point Christians will affirm that such a Person genuinely exists, and that the reality of Jesus offers the ideal foundation for ethics. Such an approach is often called a 'Divine Command' theory. That, however, betrays a complete misunderstanding of what's involved. A major purpose of the Old Testament is to show us that divine commands aren't enough to empower authentic 'goodness', and to drive us to realize that there must be radical change involving God's presence coming to be within us; being 'born of the Spirit', as Jesus termed it.[33] There is a huge difference between an ethic based on 'Thou shalt not', and one based on our participation in the life of God. 'Divine commands' are not what empowers ethics – not, as it were, the cure that enables health, but rather the essential thermometer that reveals our sickness. It may sound mystical, but for the Christian it is Jesus himself, personally, who is the foundation for ethics – and, ultimately, the only practical one.

To grasp this point is also to recognize the hyper-rationalism underlying the objection most often brought against an ethic grounded on faith. This argues that we can neither say we should obey God because his commands are good (since that still leaves goodness ungrounded and undefined), nor can we say that goodness is simply what God commands (since then he might arbitrarily command something terrible and it would still be 'good').[34] But to the Christian, this question embodies complete incomprehension of what the God who actually exists is like. The notion of that God commanding evil is self-contradictory in the manner of 'What if a square turned out to be round?' Even to pose it – how to express this? – demonstrates we have not grasped the vision of the unimaginable, dazzling and unalloyed holiness of the Divine Majesty. 'God is Love': the two cannot be separated; 'God is Good'. For the person who has encountered Jesus, ethics is grounded not in philosophical abstraction but in adoration and relationship. Everything that is of value and beauty, all that is worthy of worship, love and emulation, converges in the glory of God at the heart of the universe; thus goodness is by definition relational, inextricably[35] bound up with the nature of God, with our participation in it, our reflection of it.[36] (And ultimately, the choice for or against that nature becomes, to Christian belief, the choice of life or death – the central and fundamental decision in every person's existence.)

What Christian faith claims to offer here is something deeply 'humanizing', a personal, holistic and practical grounding for life that stands in marked contrast to the sterile and powerless intellectualism of most academic ethics. In three further ways it earths the abstraction of ideas in a broader, richer context. First (and vital for postmodernity): what Jesus presented was not merely rules – impacting us, perhaps, at superficial levels only – but stories as to how work out the principles; and, more important still, a lived-out example – we learn what goodness is by watching Jesus' life, and Jesus' death. The historian Lecky, a dedicated opponent of organized Christianity, observed that 'The simple record' (in the Gospels) 'of these three short years of [Christ's] active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.'[37] Secondly, Christian faith transcends the polarization between external, wooden principle and unanchored intuitive action. It offers both the Word and the Spirit, the eternal truths of God and also his guidance and companionship leading them to expression through the emotional, spiritual, and empathetic levels of our personality.[38] (Without the Spirit, Christians would immediately concede, 'Divine Command ethics' can and does deteriorate rapidly into legalism.) Thirdly, and crucially, the Spirit's presence means we not only have access to the wisdom to know what is right, but the motivating love and strength, case by specific case, to do it.[39] Word and Spirit, definition and motivation, mind and heart, wisdom and love and strength: here could be a holistic foundation that goes far beyond the aridly theoretical, an ethic empowered for real life. It matters whether it is truth or not; whether indeed that God is a reality to build our lives upon.

The insistence that morality depends on God goes right back to the time of Plato. It can draw some emotional reactions, as if the implication were that only the religious were moral, and the non-religious always live immoral and selfish lives.

But that would be absurd. A Christian might argue that she has a significantly better basis for reaffirming right and wrong[40] than does a non-believer; but such thought by no means always translates into action. Nor could Christians think that, as a class, they (let alone the merely 'religious') always 'live better' than the non-religious.

Rather, the point is twofold. First, faith in God provides a basis for ethics that can point the way for any specific individual to live more morally than they themselves would otherwise. A believer struggling with major emotional wounds may still act nowhere near as unselfishly as a non-believer blessed with a healthy family background and deep psychological integration. But the difference, the believer will affirm, is that she has come to the place where healing and long-term growth can be found, rather than attempting to live morally by her own strength.

And second, that just as statistical trends grow clearer in larger populations, so if we think of entire societies there begin to be certain discernible differences. One survey published by Social and Community Planning Research showed that only 11% of weekly churchgoers said they would pocket £100 found lying in the street, compared to twice that number in the general population. Similarly, far less weekly churchgoers would keep extra change given them by mistake in a shop. Those with no religion were, by every measure, the least honest. Again, a recent analysis showed that the majority of US charitable giving comes from active believers; weekly attendants at religious services gave an average 3.4% of their income to charity, occasional attendants 1.4%, and non-attendants 1.1%. 'One of the clearest findings of all research on giving and volunteering is that the volunteer or donor is likely to be an active Christian. More than income, age, race or education, faith predicts giving and volunteering.'[41] Again, the large-scale Patterson/Kim survey of 1991 showed that, among Americans, the 'very religious' were more 'moral' on 'questions generally accepted as defining citizenship', more truthful and less prone to petty crime. They were far less likely to 'have a price', that is, to express an openness to abandoning spouse or parents if the money offered them was high enough.[42]

The precise interpretation of all this may be debated, but it seems clear that, on a collective level, faith is linked to altruism and morality in some significantly supportive manner.[43] Indeed Lord Denning went a great deal further: 'Without religion there can be no morality; and without morality there can be no law.'

But that question has been answered in our culture, at least for the time being: we are now turned firmly away from any such God. So where have we come to instead?

We cannot conclude that no workable, non-theistic ethical system exists; but the impression academic ethics gives us is one of deep powerlessness and disarray. Increasingly, our professional ethicists face the judgment of the 'anti-theorists' (with feminists prominent among them): the whole discussion is seen as abstract, rationalistic, and taking place in a distant academic ghetto. Realistically, as we look at our post-God society, the charge seems justified; the impact of academic moral thought, even at its best, seems negligible. One meets many people whose lives have found ethical direction from Camus, or Jesus, or popularizations of Marx; but one meets very, very few for whom even Rawls or Hare have that kind of significance.[44] The entire debate seems utterly remote from ordinary people; it offers little practical guidance and almost no significant grounding for a counter to self-interest.[45]

Indeed, Singer may be right that, when academic ethics has had a cultural impact, its effect has most often been to deny any rational, objective foundation to right and wrong: Wittgenstein, Russell, logical positivists like Ayer, existentialists, and more recent postmodernists[46] and sociobiologists[47] have all agreed on that. Many of the last century's philosophers have argued that 'good' or 'bad' amount to no more than personal preferences, comparable to preferences regarding a football team. Or, as Mackie says, claims for the existence of objective moral value (his example is the wrongness of deliberate cruelty[48]) are, in the absence of God, simply false. 'It is important to note how often in widely different modern philosophical contexts something very like emotivism's attempted reduction of morality to personal preference recurs', says MacIntyre.[49] Meanwhile, attempts to re-establish ethics without God have turned out 'by and large to provide means for a more accurate and informed definition of disagreement rather than for progress towards its resolution'[50], serving up only a 'cafeteria of conflicting moralities'. Annette Baier argues that in practice the teaching of such approaches serves primarily to breed scepticism among its hearers.[51]

In short, then, whether deliberately or not, the practical effect of contemporary secular philosophy is to destroy any confidence that there are objective reasons for being altruistic or unselfish. As we will see later, cutting-edge evolutionary science is having the same effect. Ultimately, MacIntyre concludes, the only viable options are to recognise the death of all ethics, with Nietzsche, or else to find some way to restate the ancient frameworks.[52] But we no longer believe in God; and the academic ghetto has found nothing to put in his place.

Towards the end of his major study Reasons and Persons Derek Parfit writes,

When he was asked about his book, Sidgwick said that its first word was Ethics, and its last failure. This could have been the last word of my Part Four. As I argued, we need a new theory about beneficence… Though I failed to find such a theory, I believe that, if they tried, others could succeed.

Parfit recognizes that his own conclusions about ethics 'undermine our beliefs about our obligations to future generations'; he feels that there 'must be a moral objection' to policies such as carelessness about nuclear waste that jeopardise the world future generations will live in, but

Since I failed to find the principle to which we should appeal, I cannot explain the objection to our choice of such policies. I believe that, though I have so far failed, I or others could find the principle we need. But until this happens [mine] is a disturbing conclusion.'[53]

Hare wrote in his introduction to Moral Thinking (p.v): 'I offer this book to the public now rather than later, not because I think it needs no improvement, but because of a sense of urgency… These are issues over which people are prepared to fight and kill one another; and it may be that unless some way is found of talking about them rationally and with hope of agreement, violence will finally engulf the world. Philosophers… have lacked any clear idea of what constitutes a good argument in practical questions. Often they are content with appeals to their own or others' intuitions and prejudices; and since it is these prejudices which fuelled the violence in the first place [54], this is not going to help.'

* * *

'Almost every important tendency in modern thought has questioned the possibility of making moral judgments. Analytical philosophy asserts that moral statements are expressions of emotion lacking any rational or scientific basis. Marxism derides religion and morality as "phantoms formed in the human brain", "ideological reflexes" that are, at best, mere sublimates of material circumstances… Existentialists argue that man must choose his values without having any sure compass by which to guide these choices. Cultural anthropology as practised by many of its most renowned scholars claims that amid the exotic diversity of human life there can be found no universal laws of right conduct… All of science seems the enemy of moral confidence.' – James Q. Wilson[55]

* * *

'An Asian couple were followed off a Harrow bus by five white thugs – two with knuckle dusterswho viciously kicked and punched the man in front of his petrified wife and finally booted him into the path of an oncoming car. Police... have appealed for witnessesespecially a man and woman who were on the 340 bus at the time of the attack. When the terrified woman begged the male passenger to intervene, he retorted: "I don't want to get involved. It's not my problem." The victim was almost blinded in the attack.' (Harrow and Wembley Recorder)

Fear is understandable. And in what sense was it 'his problem'? What will be the results if we lack the 'moral confidence' to say?

'Not my problem'

So now back to the real world. But first let's recap, for readers who may be re-joining us. We jettisoned the God who embodied the heart of our ethics. The attempts of the academic ghetto to provide a replacement foundation for altruism, as against selfishness, are in deep disarray. Major figures argue that moral values have no objective meaning and are entirely a matter of how we feel or what we prefer – preferences comparable to those of musical style or of colour.

But meanwhile, of course, life goes on. On what then should we base our morals?

Our first reaction may be that we can all go on living by our instincts, by following our 'hearts' (thus Star Wars: 'Trust your feelings, Luke.') Feminist writers sometimes come close to this position. Surprisingly, we find it even in Sartre: 'If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.'[56]

But that is a dire situation. At best, the appeal to instinct leads to unresolvable relativism. Some of us have the instincts of the wolf, the rapist or the paedophile. Many of us are good at feeling, instinctively, the need to put the family first, while having very little in the way of instincts that speak up for the unattractive stranger. The torchlight pageantry of 1930s Nazism depended quite heavily on racist instincts. When our instincts collide, what then? Without some additional way to distinguish between good and bad impulses, is there any recourse left but to fight it out?[57]

Many of us will stick with what we were taught in school: right or wrong is what is good or bad for society, for other people. Historian H.A.L. Fisher, for example, at the close of his A History of Europe (1936), speaks of the 'great democratic maxim' of 'securing the greatest happiness of the greatest number' (and shows his alarm at the rise of the very different attitudes of Nazi Germany). But now as we face the new millennium, Nietzsche's cold scorn for 'English flatheads' who have got 'rid of the Christian God, and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality' remains unrefuted at the intellectual level, and is increasingly finding echoes elsewhere. What price, then, the welfare of society as a whole? And how long should we expect it to take for the logic to work through from the academic stratosphere to street level?

Probably it has done so already. Gangsta rap lyrics by the likes of Tupac Shakur or Mobb Deep are as free from 'flathead morality' about society as a whole as Nietzsche could have wished. Was the unanswerable question asked during the riots thirty years ago? In the summer of 1981, Britain's cities exploded. Reports told of children looting shops and their parents arriving with prams to pick up the proceeds (as also, more recently, in Los Angeles). Let's imagine that a bystander had complained, 'But this is not good for other people! This is not good for society!' The response would probably have been 'Sod you, Jack', or something similar. But it could also have been: 'What has society ever done for me? Have you seen the house society has given me? Have you seen what "other people" have done for me in schooling and employment? Why should I care for them?' Rapper Ice Cube remarked in concert: 'Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what the f*** it's ever done for you.' God is dead: why, logically, should you expect altruism or communal responsibility from me?

Do we have a reply? Arguing with a vandal beyond the emotional level isn't easy; whether it's a graffiti sprayer or an executive carrying out the destructive mandates of an ecologically‑mindless corporation. True, if we all operate like this the icecaps and the rainforests will be destroyed, and that could be bad news for our entire race in a few decades; but that's someone else's problem, and I have the bottom line to look after. (As Groucho Marx observed, it's not obvious why I should bother about posterity when posterity's never done anything for me.) A Radio 4 interviewer discovered that  Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne didn't 'give a damn for the rainforest. It's nothing to do with him.' French gangster Georges Courtois told the judge at his trial for armed robbery: 'Society has never given me anything and I therefore have nothing to do with it.' After the more recent Hartcliffe riots local councillor Paul Smith observed, 'Society's offering the kids nothing, so they have no stake in it. There's nothing tying them to the norms, so smashing their community causes them no problems.'

The shallowness of our concern for our society, or our human race, if it conflicts at all with our personal interests, is haunting our politics too. There are many fine things we would like to see happen, but not if they mean any increase in our taxes. Times columnist Barbara Amiel, writing as an unbeliever in 'metaphysical systems', had to concede the point:

In fact, it remains ever true that if a leader wants to mobilize certain highly moral political programmes, it is insufficient to talk only of economic interest... You may have to talk about intangibles such as Christian stewardship to get people to pick up litter or look after their children and ageing parents.

But since we don't now believe – not in the sense relevant here – in the 'intangible' God of Christianity, why should we put responsibility to society or parents above naked self-interest? And why should we forego our immediate satisfaction for the sake of the community or the environment? Some, undoubtedly, will – maybe enough for us to stagger on a bit longer; but many will not; and maybe logic is on their side. So why not 'vote selfish' (altruism and green concerns are fine providing the price isn't paid in my backyard)?

Former British premier Harold Wilson chose to place, at the start of both volumes of his autobiography, the following quote from Aneurin Bevan's last parliamentary speech:

There is one important problem facing representative Parliamentary Government in the whole of the world where it exists. It is being asked to solve a problem which so far it has failed to solve... So far, nobody on either side of this House has succeeded... I would describe the central problem falling upon representative government in the Western world as how to persuade the people to forego immediate satisfactions in order to build up the economic resources of the country... How can we persuade the ordinary man and woman that it is worthwhile making sacrifices in their immediate standards or foregoing substantial rising standards to extend fixed capital equipment throughout the country?

(That was the '70s. The issue now is how to persuade people to 'forego immediate satisfactions' so that their descendants' environment is not permanently ruined.)

'Your-own-folk-morality': Marxism

'The right thing to do is what's good for society.' We don't believe that any more. Indeed, it was British Premier Margaret Thatcher who declared that 'There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.' And plenty of other voices – left-wing voices this time – had long argued that 'what's best for society' usually meant 'what's best for those sitting on the top'. 'Society' has little chance of motivating our views of right and wrong action.

But then what alternatives do we have?

Three have been of particular significance during the last few decades. First, 'New Age' approaches that don't affirm God as such but still have an idealistic commitment to 'good' in terms of furtherance of the cosmic process – sometimes seen in evolutionary terms. Secondly, the 'tribalist' approach – no longer idealistic about humanity as a whole, but concerned to 'do what's right by your own folk'. And thirdly, there is that approach pared down to its simplest terms: what's right is what's good for my family. (Readers who want to skip all three will find we move on to the practical implications in the subsection titled 'After Morality'.)

We'll take the second, 'tribal' one first. It may seem easiest to forget about 'society' or 'the greatest possible number' and base our moral actions on the needs of people we know – people like us. This has recurred frequently since the 'loss of God', and it is stated quite explicitly in some variants of postmodernism. But it hasn't worked, and we need to understand why. We'll look at two examples that have looked well placed to take over the world in recent decades; first of all, communism.

For many Marxists, the only liveable basis for moral action is a class ethic: what's best for people like me, for my class, is what's right for me to do. What we need in parliament, Dennis Skinner, MP, told a British trade union audience some years back, is people 'who will fight for our class and to hell with the national interest.' (He got a standing ovation for that.)[58] And at the level of theory, Marxism is clear. 'We say, our morality is completely subjected to the interests of the proletarian class-struggle', said Lenin. 'We say, anything is moral which serves the destruction of the old exploiters' society and the alliance of all working people around the proletariat.' Anything: 'A Communist must be able to keep a pact or to break a pact', said Brecht; all our ethics are determined by the needs of the working class.[59]

Class morality is now utterly out of fashion. Yet forty years ago, around 1968, it all seemed so obvious; anyone who had a heart was a Marxist. But it may be back, one suspects. With the collapse of any real restraints on the greed of all-conquering global capitalism, Marxism, or something like it, could well start to sound cogent again – probably with a 'green', ecological tinge.[60] In the meantime, though, it's in eclipse. 'Doing what's right for your own folk' proved a grossly inadequate basis for ethical life. What is wrong with it?

Three answers stand out. First, a contradiction at its heart: its theory is about class morality, yet it fires up its adherents because it seems to embody a far more universal justice. Second, it never explains why you should do what's right by your own folk; it relies on you to know by intuition why it matters, why that should take precedence over self-interest. And thirdly, catastrophically, it provides no means of determining what the true interests of 'your own folk' really are – and, again, how to distinguish them from self-interest.

Let's take the first. The ethical motivation behind Marxism – the ethical 'god-replacement' – tends to combine two impulses. At the level of theory, as Lenin said, what mattered was what was good for the working‑class. But what seized the hearts of the '60s generation was justice: what mattered was what was right – or at the very least, what would advance the social evolution of the human race as a whole, because that was self-evidently 'right'. 'At least in many countries of the third world, before being a convincing intellectual challenge, Marxism is a challenge to action and commitment', wrote Samuel Escobar from Peru. 'The attraction of Marxism lies in the call to do something about social evils, to fight for justice, to align with the poor and the oppressed; especially in the third world where social evils can be so blatant.' [61]

But therein lay a fatal contradiction. I watched a Trotskyite selling the Socialist Worker a few years ago. Its front page was on racism: British immigration staff had abused and humiliated an Indian woman on the way through Heathrow airport. And I wondered what it meant for the newspaper seller. The Christian believes that persons of every race must be respected, because each person and race is made in the image of God. But this man believed in a totally evolutionary universe, where the survival of the fittest means, at bottom, the strongest race trampling the weak. So why, for him, was racism wrong? He answered me: Racism must be fought because it divides the working class. What really matters is the interests of the working class.

Well, it made me wonder. Suppose racism unified the working class (quite a possibility: it's not so many years since the dockers marched through London with anti-immigration placards declaring 'Back Britain not Black Britain'); would he be willing to use that to advance the 'class struggle'? And what about the woman herself? She, one imagines, would view her humiliation as a matter of fairness, as a universal moral issue. Could the Marxist explanation really be why her ill-treatment mattered – that such behaviour divided the working class? Surely the thing that fires us up to care – that motivated the newspaper seller to care, I hope and suspect – is not a morality of class interests, but a deep-seated intuition of human value and of universal morality for which Marxist theory had no place. In such cases, Marxist theory and the human intuition of justice are saying two very different things.

That brings us on to the second issue: Why bother? To some of us, it's overwhelmingly plain that something must ('ought to') be done about injustice. To others, the idea of 'siding with our class' is unworthy of a moment away from the MP3 or Nintendo. Worldwide, Marxism today is almost negligible as a force for justice. For successive 'me-generations', intuitions of global injustice have been blunted, or deafened: 'I want my MTV…'. An ever more powerful media system has trained us perpetually to consume, to look out only for our own interests. And so the question is: Why 'ought' I care about the needs of those around me unless they match my own? Why should I identify myself, expensively, with justice or progress?

It's not enough to say that someone who asks such a question doesn't deserve an answer. Hasn't Marxism always floated three feet above the ground? Wasn't there always a gap? Did it ever explain why the suffering of the individual – that tiny atom in the flood of the evolutionary process – should concern us? Interestingly, Marx's lack of faith in any God or 'transcendent norms' meant that he 'believed that in matters of conflict between social classes the appeal to moral judgments was not only pointless but positively misleading', notes MacIntyre. 'So he tried to excise from documents of the First International appeals for justice for the working class.'[62] But then why bother? If you could bring with you an awareness of the need for justice – a 'conscience', in fact – then Marxism would analyse what was going wrong for the poor, and tell you how to solve it. But you had to find that awareness elsewhere, because Marxism could never create it. South Wales, for example, became fertile soil for the growth of passionate communism, but it already had a strong chapel-going culture, and so Marxism could build on intuitions about justice that owed much to the Christian background. It's doubtful whether a socialist revolution has ever occurred where there hasn't been a strong religious culture first; idealistic socialism depends on people seeing the point of putting their neighbour's interests above their own, and that seems to need a religious background. (Maybe we shall only hear about socialism in future from countries where surviving religious consciousness undergirds the sense of community – Muslim socialism, African socialism? Maybe secularization destroys socialism, because it enshrines individual selfishness?)

And so maybe it is too late now to define moral action by loyalty to class or loyalty to the poor; because their problem is not my problem unless it affects me as well. That, at least, was how The Times viewed one of the turning-points of British history: the fatal wounding in 1984 of the old political left, when Margaret Thatcher took on their elite, the hitherto-invincible miners' union. The miners were broken, the left was shattered; and a major reason was that they found no support from other unions.[63] Thatcher clashed with the dockworkers too, and broke them as well; the TGWU, to which the dockers belonged, proved unable to persuade their other members to support them. The Times commented that class solidarity and mutual support no longer functioned because of 'changes in society at large... My problem is not your problem unless it impinges on you as well.' God was dead, yes – but now the old ethics of communal solidarity were dead too. Why bother with anything but self-interest? Am I my brother's keeper?

So here was the second reason why the class ethic died: ultimately, it couldn't compete with selfishness in a secularized society. Historically, British socialism had been rooted in the spiritually-based idealism of Wesleyan Methodism,[64] but its Marxist wing tended to talk (as indeed their theory demanded) as if economic issues were all that counted.[65] Ultimately, then, it seemed to offer little more than a way for those excluded by capitalism to compete afresh for the prizes. But in that case it's all about selfishness; so in a world where God is absent, why bother with communal solidarity any longer than it helps me grab the prizes? Surely the solution to my poverty isn't to fight for the poor but to escape from among them?

Here too, then, Marxism's ethical inadequacy, it's inability to explain why others matter, became fatal. That was its 'external' problem: Why should I bother? But the final reason it vanished, an 'internal' reason, was still more serious: in practice, class-based morality was never enough to live by – indeed, it was catastrophically inadequate.

Ultimately, Marxism contained no ethics. Marx 'never discusses the question of what principles of action are to inform the working‑class movement', says MacIntyre. Ultimately, there is no means of determining who 'your own folk', the true 'working-class movement', are, nor what their true interests are in practice – especially when they conflict with your own. And that became crucial when the class warriors had to decide what to do with real power. 'For us the duty of comradeship results from our duty to international Democratic Socialism and not the other way round', said Lenin. 'This means that loyalty to the aims of the revolution must, if necessary, break the loyalty to an individual comrade and even abandon to the enemy former comrades who have become liabilities', notes Bockmuehl. 'The end justifies even this means. This was stated early by Lenin in theory.' Bockmuehl adds that Brecht, in Lehrstuck: die Massnahme, 'tried to justify this ethic when he described a team of communist agents who decide to liquidate a young comrade (and even demand his approval of the act) by pushing him into a pit of unslaked lime because he has let himself be recognized by the police.'[66] The interests of the proletariat are the fundamental value; and unless some other, alien values (like Christian ones) are introduced, they have tyrannical precedence over anything else – meaning anything smaller, more individual or more local.

But then it gets worse. For if we know no morality beyond our loyalty to 'progress' and to the class that stands in its vanguard – and thus to the leadership who 'know' what that class needs: how could we distinguish right from wrong methods, so long as the leadership's ideas of 'progress' are advanced? Doesn't the end result always justify the means? This is no idle question; perhaps its implications were what broke Marxism worldwide. For the story of communist totalitarianism has made the answers all too plain. 'From the slave revolts in the ancient world to the socialist revolution, the struggle of the oppressed has ended in a new, "better" system of domination', wrote leftist guru Marcuse; 'In this sense, every revolution has also been a betrayed revolution.'[67] Given the egoism in all of us; and given the fact that elite Marxist leaders tended to see themselves as embodying the revolution, and their factional interests as the revolution's own: wasn't their triumph almost doomed to result in elitism and authoritarianism?[68] Doesn't the repeated, colossal terror – the vast slaughters of Stalin's Gulag, Mao's cultural revolution, the Khmer Rouge killing fields – show Marxism's desperate lack of any counterbalance to human power-lust, selfishness and ruthlessness? Doesn't history show that 'class morality', morality based on the needs of 'people like us', can only be a disastrously unclear basis for our ethical action?

Ultimately, then, class morality was doomed to fall apart. Indeed, it only ever flourished among people whose ethics drew on something deeper, some intuitions or prejudices about universal justice. It was never able to explain why your class were really worth your self-sacrifice. It had no way of discerning violent, even horrific, selfishness when that masqueraded as the needs of the class. And it could never compete with the selfishness inculcated by the consumerism of secularized postmodernity.

'Your-own-folk-morality': Fascism and the twenty-first century

'Doing what's right for your own folk' can still feel attractive when our self-interest needs the help of others. But then it can also turn out to be something very ugly.

We have Hitler to thank for demonstrating this most clearly. 'Whoever is prepared to make the national cause his own to such an extent that he knows no higher ideal than the welfare of his nation', he wrote, 'whoever has understood our great national anthem, Deutschland Uber Alles, to mean that nothing in the wide world surpasses in his eyes this Germany, people and landthat man is a Socialist.' Here, 'what's best for people like us' is indeed the 'highest ideal', the ultimate basis for ethics. Himmler stated the implications unflinchingly:

Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death like cattle interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves to our Kultur… Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only in so far as an antitank ditch for Germany is finished.[69]

Thus the theory; death in the gas‑chambers for six million Jews, and millions of Slavs besides, was the completely logical result in practice.

What is astonishing as we read Hitler's Mein Kampf is to see how clear are its principles, and yet how the British liberal intelligentsia of the time refused to see the implications. (Just so, one suspects, we today see the collapse of ethics resulting from the loss of God, hear the many voices saying that right and wrong are illusory and that what is real is the 'play of dominations', and yet choose to think that somehow it 'won't matter', that life will go on as usual and the logical consequences will somehow never take place.) The fundamental idea running through Mein Kampf is one that pointed directly to Auschwitz: the community, the volk, is the absolute, and defines what is right and wrong.

'In giving one's own life for the existence of the community lies the crown of all sense of sacrifice', writes Hitler. '…The basic attitude from which such activity arises we call … idealism. By this we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community.'[70] To such 'idealism' anything that is good for your own folk is justified. 'When the nations on this planet fight for existence … then all considerations of humanitarianism or aesthetics crumble into nothingness... The most cruel weapons were humane if they brought about a quicker victory.'[71] Within peace-time society the same consistent view prevails, where 'duty' to the 'nation' takes priority over abstractions of 'law and order': 'It was then the very first task of a truly national government to seek and find the forces which were resolved to declare a war of annihilation against Marxism', Hitler writes of 1923,

and then to give these forces a free road; it was their duty not to worship the idiocy of "law and order"… No, at that time a really national government should have desired disorder and unrest, provided only that amid the confusion a basic reckoning with Marxism at last became possible and actually took place.[72]

When the interests of the community define what is ethical, then, almost anything can become justified. All this, Hitler knew, went totally against his country's Christian background; he complains that Protestantism 'combats with the greatest hostility any attempt to rescue the nation from the embrace of its most mortal enemy, since its attitude to the Jews just happens to be more or less dogmatically established.'[73] But Christian 'dogma' no longer shaped the national ethic. 'I cannot see', Hitler could argue as a result, 'why man should not be just as cruel as nature.'[74]

Let's not be naive about this. We would never, we may feel, go Hitler's way. An early draft of this chapter read, 'Hopefully, in Europe at least, this mistake will not soon be made again'. But that was a foolish remark, as the mass murders and gang-rape camps in former Yugoslavia showed soon afterwards. 'All over the world', wrote Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in 1999, 'revived nationalisms are replacing dying ideologies. As superstates crumble, old ethnic hatreds crawl out of the woodwork.'[75] Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu demonstrated Fernandez-Armesto's point in a speech that same year:

'Thank goodness we have come through that wonderful period when people's ideological and political convictions meant everything. Today we believe the main accent should be on professionalism, morals and, above all,' [my emphasis, but here it comes...] 'patriotism.'

But we're not just talking about the shift in mood in Russia or former Yugoslavia. All over the world, the collapse of beliefs that might have given us a broader vision has meant we tend to cling to some smaller group for survival, and our postmodern ethics can all too easily centre on 'our own folk'.[76] Here is leading American postmodernist Richard Rorty, advocating something rather too similar under the title of 'pragmatism':

The pragmatist... can only be criticised for taking his own community too seriously. He can only be criticised for ethnocentrism, not for relativism. To be ethnocentric is to divide the human race into the people to whom one must justify one's beliefs and the others. The first group – one's ethnos – comprises those who share enough of one's beliefs to make fruitful conversation possible.[77]

Rorty's 'ethnocentrism' embodies the nightmare the two thirds world encounters over so many environmental and other issues: the postmodern West feels little need to justify our actions to anyone outside 'those who share enough of one's beliefs to make fruitful conversation possible' – meaning, people like ourselves, people shaped by the same interests (and media) as ourselves. ('Such recommendations have a less than benign aspect when we consider how easily public opinion can be manipulated and consensus-based values engineered to serve some very illiberal forms of political behaviour', writes Sri Lankan Christian Vinoth Ramachandra. '…But how can such a critique emerge from intellectuals who can no longer distinguish between truth and what the majority have come to believe?'[78]) Rorty's denial of any ethical accountability beyond his 'own folk' may well sound like a kind of politically-correct fascism. How can that be? Postmodernism is supposed to be violently anti-fascist, and Rorty presents himself as a liberal. Yet, if we are brutally honest, there are significant links between postmodernism and Nazism. The rhetoric of both owes a heavy debt to Nietzsche, while among the fathers of contemporary postmodernism both Heidegger[79] and de Man had clear Nazi ties. Remove Rorty's liberal intuitions, and his ethical method – divide the human race into the people to whom one must justify one's actions and the 'negligible' others – may suit something far more brutal. It did so in Europe, only sixty years ago.

We need to recognize what's happened. After World War II, both Christians and their liberal-humanist opponents agreed that right and wrong were things which anyone sufficiently enlightened, anyone sufficiently liberated from prejudice,[80] should be able to see and understand. Theoretically at least, then, both were committed to dialogue. But postmodernism is something else. Here, it's argued that there is no longer an ethics for everybody; indeed Rorty implies that ethical issues may be beyond discussion unless you are 'one of us'. (Compare the slogans: 'It's a gay thing; you wouldn't understand.') You do what seems best to your own people; there is simply no point in trying to talk about it with anybody else.[81]

But if that's the whole story, it may not be long before the shooting starts.[82]

New Age Ethics

So now we're 'without Marx or Jesus'; neither God nor loyalty to our 'own folk' is giving us much of an ethical base or counter to selfishness. But in the '80s, the swing of fashion brought a new option to prominence; in place of the hippie aligning his actions with the Marxist 'dialectic of history', there came the 'New Age' yuppie exploring alternative spiritualities and seeking to align with the 'cosmic process'.

'New Age' was a cover-all title for a wide range of attitudes, fads and philosophies. But certain ideas characterised many parts of it: the unity of everything, the divinity of everything, our divinity as human beings, the need for a change of consciousness to recognise this divinity, and the faith that this change in consciousness is beginning.[83] 'New Age' approaches offered a new optimism, a new sense of community, and a new foundation for ethics: the belief that a process is working itself out in the universe, and actions that advance or harmonise with that process are good.

How far did this give a genuine basis for a post-Christian ethics? Unfortunately two crucial 'internal contradictions' soon surfaced at the heart of much 'New Age' thinking. First, there is the idea that we are all God. ('Free will is simply the enactment of the realization you are God, a realization that you are divine', says Shirley MacLaine.[84])

On the surface, that's an attractive notion. And it might seem to have obvious ethical value, because then, as Blake said, 'Everything that lives is holy'. But deeper reflection soon reveals a problem. Can God sin? How can anything God does or wants be wrong? What values or 'checks' can possibly be set over against anything the God that I am may desire? But if there are no such checks, then whatever I desire is right: and an ounce of self-knowledge should dispose of that pretty falsehood.

Shirley MacLaine sets out the issues with enthusiasm in her series of best-sellers, and what emerges soon begins to sound like ego-worship. 'Each soul is its own god. You must never worship anyone or anything other than self. For you are God. To love self is to love God.'[85] 'I was beginning to see that we each did whatever we did purely for self, and that was as it should be.'[86] 'Purely for self': it is not surprising to find MacLaine announcing on other occasions, 'I want to prove that spirituality is profitable', and, 'I've liked moderate success, but I've... not wanted gigantic success. I'm changing now. I want gigantic success.'[87]

Many acolytes of alternative spiritualities would look down on MacLaine as a popularizer; but the lack of safeguards against selfishness surfaces elsewhere. 'A spiritual path is valid for us if it is appropriate to our needs as we ourselves define them', says Mark Satin in New Age Politics.[88] 'You know, God is everything – He is every thing', declares the 'channelled' spirit guide Ramtha. 'So any thing you do you have an inner action in divinity. Remember that, and do what you want to do' – adding elsewhere, 'Don't worry about your fellow man. If you become happy, however they look upon you doesn't make any difference. The fact that you are happy and in service to Self is quite enough.'[89] And this is Swami Muktananda, a key influence on Werner Erhard (founder of EST and Forum): 'Kneel to your own self. Honour and worship your own being. God dwells within you as You!'[90]

But what if, in reality, many of the problems in our culture are related to our egoisms – to our pride, greed, over-consumption, self-pity, self-centredness? How does 'kneeling to our own selves' help us in practice? There is huge credulity in 'New Age' at this point: that if we all pursue our own self-interest, everything will turn out alright. It sounds an improbable, even childish, Utopia. (But there's a curious parallel with the optimism expressed by extreme laissez-faire capitalism, that the totally free play of economic self-interest will ultimately benefit everyone in society. 'New Age', unlike the '60s counter-culture, fits and reflects capitalistic individualism in a number of ways – and hence offers all too little challenge to its excesses.)

A second strand of much 'New Age' thought makes matters worse, namely the attempt to 'transcend' or obliterate all categories, including those of 'good' and 'evil'. Marilyn Ferguson asserts in the key 'New Age' text The Aquarian Conspiracy that good and evil are to be transcended by an awareness that 'unites opposites';[91] Fritjof Capra, in the equally important The Turning Point, looks towards an ultimate consciousness 'in which all boundaries and dualisms have been transcended.'[92] 'Until mankind realizes there is, in truth, no good and there is, in truth, no evil – there will be no peace', Shirley MacLaine's 'Higher Self' tells her.[93] Eastern religious thinking lies behind this abolition of good and evil: 'By ceasing to do good to one's friends or evil to one's enemies [one] attains to the eternal Brahman by the yoga of meditation' (Hindu teacher Shankara); 'Conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind' (Zen master Yun-Men); 'In this world nothing is wrong, nothing is even stupid. The sense of wrong is simply failure to see where something fits into a pattern' (Buddhist Alan Watts).[94]

But what if all boundaries really are gone, all opposites transcended? It might seem that our immersion in the divine order of creation points us automatically towards an ethic of right action. (Jonathan Porritt: 'Many Greens believe that salvation lies in opening our spirit to the presence of the divine in the world, acknowledging joyfully a sense of wonder and humility before the miracle of creation, and then going out and taking action to put things right, inspired by that vision.'[95]) But one wonders how far that 'sense of wonder' can function with any real relevance to the messy interactions of urban personal relationships. It helps our ecological commitment, but isn't it rather in a separate universe from the question of whether to be selfish in the home or the office, whether to attempt to steal someone else's wife? And again: does a voice whisper that, at bottom, this is all sentimentalism? That an ethic that truly arises from identifying with the developing processes of the natural world will simply be the survival of the fittest, in which the strong sustain themselves by devouring the weak?[96]

What, after all, is the ultimate logic of being 'beyond good and evil', of all opposites being transcended? Does 'New Age' talk of transcending the opposites in safety merely because it still smuggles in an ethic of love and goodness from discarded Christian beliefs? For it seems that the pantheistic, Hindu‑oriented ideas that underlie most 'New Age' philosophies ultimately render moral issues irrelevant. If, in the end, all is one, what meaningful understanding can we have of 'good' and 'evil'? Brahma is revealed in Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, portrayed as smeared with human blood and chewing raw flesh,[97] as much as in more amiable expressions. As Davies observes, in Hinduism 'God is both good and bad... Man does not have to try to be good, but is perfectly free to copy either side of God's nature.'[98] That possibility was raised bloodily in the 'Manson murders', when guru Charles Manson ordered his disciples to carry out the ritual murders of Sharon Tate and others. Manson, said an acquaintance, 'believed you could do no wrong, no bad. Everything was good':

Charles Manson was absolutely sane: he had been there, where there is neither good nor evil... If the ultimate truth... is that "All is One" and "One is All," and that in this One all the opposites, including good and evil, are eternally reconciled, then have we any right to blame Charles Manson?… Charlie, so far from being mad had a lucidly logical mind.[99]

'If God is One, what is bad?', Manson asked in an article in Rolling Stone.[100]

Nor is Manson the only straw blowing in this particular wind. The supposed spirit-guide Ramtha said through one 'channeller' that

Every vile and wretched thing you do broadens your understanding... If you want to do any one thing regardless of what it is, it would not be wise to go against that feeling; for there is an experience awaiting you and a grand adventure that will make your life sweeter.[101]

'There are no victims in this life or any other. No mistakes. No wrong paths', asserts Jack Underhill, publisher of Life Times.[102]

Ultimately, then, 'New Age' spiritualities seem to offer no real counter to self-interest. Not all religions are the same; what you 'worship' determines your moral vision. 'No mistakes. No wrong paths'; if, in the end, all is one, doesn't that make the rightness or wrongness of our actions unimportant? Does wrongdoing matter very much? Often (it seems to me) the kind of person drawn to alternative spiritualities may well be strongly motivated by intuitions that lead towards altruistic and admirable behaviour; but it is questionable if the 'New Age' beliefs help or hinder. Again, if the self is God, can the self's desires be, in any meaningful sense, 'wrong'? Indeed, doesn't a great deal of 'New Age' practice come down in the end to 'self-fulfilment' – either as a brief, undemanding 'tourist spirituality', or as a route to self-enhancement, 'self‑actualisation', increased efficiency or some other self‑oriented aim?

'New Age' teachings are ecologically positive, certainly. But, in ethics as a whole, and as a counter to egoism, ultimately irrelevant?

Evolution and Ethics

But the term 'New Age' feels outmoded now. In the last decade, yet another 'god-substitute' became fashionable: evolution. The respected Demos think tank suggested in 1997 that neo-Darwinism was becoming the dominant intellectual paradigm, taking over the central explanatory role that Freud or Marx or existentialism had held for previous generations. So what does it mean for ethics if evolution becomes the dominant way that we understand human life and society?

On the one hand, the evolutionary metaphor, combining physical, social, spiritual and cosmic evolution, is central to the vision of many 'New Agers'.[103] For them, 'evolution is God in process', to use Miller's phrase.[104] An ethic follows from that: 'Anything that moves a part towards its fullest development and fullest integration with the whole is good', says Lawrence LeShan; and anything that does the reverse is bad.[105]

But this ethical implication can come only because the 'New Ager' invests the evolutionary process with some wise, progressive purposiveness, seeing it as expressing, or undergirded by, the divine Self. Take that mystical confidence away (and it has its own ethical difficulties, as we saw in the previous section), and evolutionary theory begins to sound very destructive of ethics.

The driving force behind the recent prominence of evolution has been the new, high-profile field of the sociobiologists; and their assessment of morality isn't very conducive to our taking it seriously:

Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place [by natural selection] to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God's will… In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.[106]

'Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond or without this… Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, it is illusory.'[107] 'As any evolutionist will point out, often we perform better if we are deceived by our biology… We think that we ought to help, that we have obligations to others, because it is in our biological interests [that is, our genes' interests] to have these thoughts'; if we ceased to believe in objective moral obligations, we would cease to act in the ways that our genes need us to act.[108] In short, our moral sense is merely, in Helena Cronin's phrase, 'just another of natural selection's tricks'.

So morality's claims to refer to objective right or wrong are illusory; and the fundamental reality is the struggle for survival of the genes. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, has done as much as anyone to popularize the idea that the blind, selfish processes of genetic evolution are the basic reality behind our existence. But he tries to deny the ethical implications. 'If we tried to learn personal lessons from evolutionary biology we would all the time be doing very unpleasant, very selfish things to each other', he wrote in the Observer; 'Fortunately, we do not live in a Darwinian world. Civilisation has changed it very radically.' And again, in an Express article:

It's very important that Darwinism, as a system of values, is deeply pernicious and evil and should be fought against. A Darwinian society would be a very unpleasant society in which to live... We have been given our brains by selection. Now we can use them to rebel against the tyranny of our selfish genes.[109]

It's a remarkable idea, at a time when more and more areas of human behaviour are being seen as the fruit of our genetic inheritance. From where do we get the power, or desire, to transcend the dictates of our genes? (As Steven Rose observes, Dawkins can only make good his escape by invoking some mysterious 'non-material, non-genetic force moulding behaviour' – a dualism that sounds curiously similar to Christian faith.[110])

It is harder still, however, to see where Dawkins is finding his alternative ideals in the name of which we are to 'rebel against the tyranny of our selfish genes'. His own theory suggests that, first, any idea we adopt we may well be choosing not because it is true but for biological reasons; and secondly, the one thing we can apparently be sure of is the fundamental reality of universal struggle for the survival of the fittest. All of which leaves us almost naked against the impulse that, in the end, life is just an unending battle where 'you've got to stick up for your own'. This is doubly true when a different set of 'cutting-edge intelligentsia', the postmodernist followers of Foucault, are insisting that right and wrong are only artificial social constructions, and 'only a single drama is ever staged in the world of human relations', namely the power struggle, the 'endlessly repeated play of dominations.'

The fact is that evolution points easily to a set of ethical intuitions very different from the intuitive liberalism Dawkins seems to value. The vital chapter of Hitler's Mein Kampf titled 'Nation and Race' is grounded on evolution and the survival of the fittest. Hitler, as a racist, argues that mating of races at 'different levels' is

contrary to the will of Nature for a higher breeding of all life. The precondition for this does not lie in associating superior and inferior, but in the total victory of the former. The stronger must dominate and not blend in with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man… Nature looks on calmly, with satisfaction, in fact. In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak and sickly or less determined succumb… When man attempts to rebel against the iron logic of Nature, he comes into struggle with the principles to which he himself owes his existence as a man. And this attack must lead to his own doom [or as evolutionary theorists would say today, reduces his own fitness for survival]. Men… owe their higher existence, not to the ideas of a few crazy ideologists, but to the knowledge and ruthless application of nature's stern and rigid laws… This preservation is bound up with the rigid law of necessity and the right to victory of the best and strongest in this world. Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.[111]

He made the same point in a 1944 speech to officer cadets:

Nature is always teaching us…that she is governed by the principle of selection: that victory is to the strong and that the weak must go to the wall. She teaches us that what may seem cruel to us… is nevertheless often essential… Nature knows nothing of the notion of humanitarianism which signifies that the weak must at all costs be surrounded and preserved… On the contrary, weakness calls for condemnation. War is therefore an unalterable law of the whole life – the prerequisite for the natural selection of the strong and the precedent for the elimination of the weak.[112]

Quite apart from the slaughter of the Jews, these ideas found logical expression as 80,000-100,000 physically and mentally impaired people were massacred.

We asked earlier whether post-God liberal humanism has any convincing basis for arguing that all this is not merely unpleasant, but abominably wrong. Here we face a related question: doesn't the dominance of the evolutionary paradigm serve to support Hitler's kind of thinking, and (in the absence of any powerful alternative) make it more difficult for us not to act in comparable ways? Later on in Mein Kampf Hitler returns to his theme of the 'obligation' to act in tune with the evolutionary process: our responsibility is to:

promote the victory of the better and stronger, and demand the subordination of the inferior and weaker in accordance with the eternal will that dominates this universe… And so the folkish philosophy of life corresponds to the innermost will of Nature, since it restores that free play of forces which must lead to a continuous mutual higher breeding… Such a reckoning of real world-historical import [follows] the eternal laws of life on this earth, which are the struggle for this life and which remain struggle.[113]

If we ask for the implications of evolution in ethics, there they are.

Finally, we should face the extent to which current cutting-edge evolutionary theory is placing a huge question-mark over unselfishness, or 'altruism', in general. The major step here was the work of William Hamilton. Hamilton suggested that altruism might appear unselfish, but in fact it is just another expression of the survival mechanisms of the 'selfish gene'. Natural selection favours the genes 'for' altruism, in that a particular genetic population is more likely to survive if individuals within it are 'altruistic' in the sense of being likely to give up their lives for the community's benefit; by promoting such behaviour, the gene perpetuates itself. To this way of thinking, altruism becomes an expression of the fundamental 'selfishness' of our genes. And this applies even to parental affection: Hamilton has suggested that parental care is merely a special case of more general "altruism", in that the reason why parents are motivated to care for their own offspring is because those children are likely to perpetuate the existence of genes like their own. So not only can the evolutionary paradigm be read as legitimating selfishness or racism, its effect here is to actively undermine unselfishness (or at least to raise questions about it) as a sign of captivity to genetically-rooted drives – a genetically-inspired delusion. To the extent that we are persuaded that 'natural selection is both sufficient and true', says Ghiselin, 'it is impossible for a genuinely disinterested or "altruisitic" behaviour pattern to evolve.' 'Evolutionary biology is quite clear that "What's in it for me?" is the ancient refrain for all life', writes Barash.[114]

But the argument then goes further. What is the root of counter-reproductive behaviour, of acts of radical self-sacrifice?[115] Not all such behaviour can be explained either in terms of the benefit to our kin or our group, or of the indirect benefits they bring to our own reproductive attractiveness. Thus many recent theorists have suggested that 'altruism' – that is, behaviour that decreases the agent's own reproductive success – must be the result of manipulation by the action's beneficiary. 'From this perspective nearly any interaction… where one individual benefits at the expense of another, can be viewed as coercion or manipulation and take the form of parasitism, competition or predation… In this way every act of apparent kindness becomes ultimately self-interested or involuntarily manipulated'.[116] Dennett cites George Williams: 'As a general rule today a biologist seeing one animal doing something to benefit another assumes either that it is manipulated by the other or that it is being subtly selfish.'[117]

Apply this to human behaviour (for how could it be different?) and you get Wright's position: 'What is in our genes' best interest is what seems "right"… Moral guidance is a euphemism. Parents are designed to steer kids towards "moral" behaviours only insofar as those behaviours are self-serving.' Wright cites Christ as an instance of the manipulativeness involved: Christ's preaching, he says, took the 'form of exploitation… amplifying the power of Jesus.'[118] Leading sociobiologist E.O. Wilson likewise argues that religious altruism such as that displayed by Mother Teresa is rooted ultimately in self-serving group loyalty.[119] But, argues Ruse, we must deceive ourselves into believing in the 'collective illusion' of morality, otherwise the system wouldn't work; self-deception is essential if we are to go on being manipulated by, and manipulating, others.[120]

What is the effect on us – or our culture – if we really come to accept (or even half-accept) these ideas? The belief that there are no disinterested behaviours, concludes Schloss, forces us to seek to explain or 'deconstruct those behaviours that appear disinterested'. The truly 'scientific' mind must look, under the appearance of unselfish actions, for the reality of 'manipulation, parasitism, competition, or predation'.

'Pity crosses the law of development, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends those who have been disinherited and condemned by life…

'The weak and the failure shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall even be given every possible assistance.'

'What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity.'
–Nietzsche, The Antichrist[121]

'The poison of the doctrine of "equal rights for all" – it was Christianity that spread it most fundamentally', said Arthur Gueth, director of public health in Nazi Germany. 'The ill-conceived "love of thy neighbour" has to disappear, especially in relation to inferior or asocial creatures.'[122]

British society is now seen as a free‑for‑all where it is everyone for his or her self, according to 89% of the 1,130 people who responded to a Gallup poll carried out for Granada Television's World in Action programme.

The Last Sandcastle: the Family

So then: There is no God who could show us today what is right or wrong, and why we should not be selfish. Nor will class loyalty; 'New Age', or our newly-dominant evolutionary theory. Indeed, 'New Age', and still more the cutting-edge of sociobiological theory, may logically encourage us to thoroughgoing selfishness. What then?

In practice, many of us look to the family as a final base for a post-God morality; when all else is gone, I may reasonably judge my conduct by what is best for my family.[123] After race ethics and class ethics, it is the final expression of 'doing what's right for my own folk' as the basis of right and wrong.

One suspects this is the functioning ethics of many Britishers. A top England cricketer, asked why he played in South Africa while the country was still under a UN boycott because of its immoral regime, is reported to have said, 'I don't know much about apartheid... I did what was best for my family and therefore for me.' One of Scotland's leading footballers remarked likewise, 'A professional footballer has a duty to his wife and family to earn as much as he can from the sport as quickly as he can.' An extreme example was a man shown on television who made a living by kidnapping children in divorce cases. When the court gave the child to the mother, he would kidnap it for the father. The interviewer suggested this was an unpleasant way to make a living; he replied, 'My family have to eat.'

What is good for my family is right; what is bad for my family is wrong. Here, at last, is something practical that we can and do set against self‑interest. And it does seem a sufficient basis for many people's lives.

But it's very, very fragile – as is revealed by the divorce rates. Unfortunately, the family unit is in deep crisis too. In Britain, at least one marriage in three ends in divorce. 'What is good for my family' can no longer serve as a basis for our ethics when the family itself is gone.[124]

But where that last alternative to self-interest collapses, we may be losing our final sandcastle against the incoming tide. What will then be left?

With God dead and no other compelling basis for altruism, should it surprise us if we sense a trend towards evolutionary jungle law – the survival and indulgence of the strong, at the expense of the 'weakest links' in society? For one moment, we should face the worst-case scenario of what that means. Self-defence courses notwithstanding, the 'weak' in our society will include women, and children. Logically, then, with our ethics collapsing, we might expect there to be higher rates of rape, and child abuse. And, as we know, there are.

Now ethical ideas aren't the only things that regulate our behaviour; most of us clearly have very deeply-felt, innate moral intuitions, and there are limits beyond which we just won't go. Yet taboo activities do fascinate and magnetize many of us. At this point sexual violence and paedophilia may lie outside the boundaries. But already we see 'daring' writers emerging who 'explore' for us the 'complexities' of these taboos also. The People v Larry Flynt, the Oscar-nominated bio-pic presenting a supportive image of the editor of porn magazine Hustler, was seen as right-on in many American circles, despite Flynt's reported use of pictures including women being forced into a meat-grinder, tortured or drinking from lavatory bowls.[125] (Flynt's opponent was a 'Christian fundamentalist', and it seems that the need for right-thinking folk to stand together against fundamentalism took obvious precedence over Flynt's treatment of women; revealingly.) As for paedophilia, there are not a few serious academics now questioning how – in the absence of a clear moral framework – we can 'know' the difference between a healthy and a 'sick and freakish' love for children. Such certainty, they argue, is in fact an arbitrary cultural agreement driven by fear, desire and denial; paedophiles are often gentle, loving, and non-threatening.[126]

Taboo actions fascinate; and taboos themselves shift, when there is no significant ethical force to maintain them. As we've seen, we do have very little left, post-God, to set against the evolutionary law. By that law the strongest do what they will, and the weaker suffer. Is this already happening? There were fifteen thousand indecent assaults on women in Britain in one recent year; a London survey found that one woman in six claims to have been raped.[127] Across the Atlantic, 13% of male undergraduates admitted forcing themselves on a woman physically; and more than 50% said they would if they could get away with it.[128] ('No Means No'? It doesn't, replied the jocks on one campus: 'No Means More Beer.') Child abuse is an increasing problem, with, according to some estimates, a million UK children being sexually abused before the age of 15.[129] 'In my work as an inner-city doctor', writes Theodore Dalrymple, 'every day I meet people who, earlier in their lives, were beaten unmercifully, locked in cupboards, tied to beds, scalded deliberately with hot water, and even permanently maimed by the vicious adults who brought them up.'[130]

Jungle law is already partly operative; the question is what we have left to set against it. The lasting wreckage in so many lives is already catastrophic. But we cannot regard it as illogical or incomprehensible; we've been choosing for this ethical jungle for a long time now.

It's seldom that Wales beats the All Blacks at rugby. But one famous occasion saw them coming very close indeed, then being 'robbed' at the last moment when All Black Andy Haden jumped out of a lineout, succeeded in persuading the referee that he had been pushed, and so secured the penalty that won the match. (Welsh friends of mine turned the TV off before the penalty: they knew Wales would lose now, and they knew why.) In a subsequent radio interview, Haden was unrepentant; anything that led to victory and was permitted by the referee was acceptable in modern sport. Commenting on this, star Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe observed that in fact modern organized sport first arose in a cultural context drawing heavily on the Christian moral code: 'A key word was "ethics"... Fairness lies at the heart of sporting competition. Take this away and you have a very different activity.'

'Fairness', the commitment to the 'rights' of those opposed to you: is this a notion left over from a context prioritizing something other than the will to power, to victory? The postmodern alternative would be more about conflict: 'Winning isn't the main thing, it's the only thing.'


'You have a rival for promotion. When he loses the latest sales figures, do you produce them from the Atari Portfolio in your pocket?

'Well, you've got to look after No.l haven't you? It's war out there.'

– Part of the wording Atari Corp (UK) chose for their 'Business is War' advertising campaign. When ethics is dead, what's left is war. This, too, was foreseen by Nietzsche.


'After this war two torrents will be unleashed in the world: a torrent of loving-kindness and a torrent of hatred. And then I knew: I should take the field against hatred.'

– Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life, writing shortly before she was sent to Auschwitz and murdered


'Future historians will record that we of the twentieth century had intelligence enough to create a great civilization but not the moral wisdom to preserve it'

– Christian mystic A.W. Tozer, in Man the Dwelling-Place of God

After Morality

We've watched so many sandcastles succumb to the incoming tide. God is dead and, 'post-God', we've found few compelling reasons for acting unselfishly. We aren't always logical, and from time to time we will be intuitively unselfish (African famines on TV, extinction of the whale), according to our moods. But from time to time we won't.

The logic works through slowly, of course. Older, Christian-based moralities will survive better in some areas (particularly rural ones?), though these differences are being eroded by our all-pervasive media. And all of us avoid meaninglessness; deep in our hearts we try to act as if our intuitive ethical frameworks were realities. Yet the lack of any real basis means we are going against the tide. The term 'moraliser', observes Melanie Phillips, is now a 'term of abuse which has become for the left what the insult "do-gooder" has long been for the right.'[131] Indeed, in some quarters we now find an almost knee-jerk reaction against thinking ethically. When some especially abhorrent crime gets committed, the humanist end of the media usually warn us frantically against 'moral panic'.[132] Not long back I was looking at posters for the charity 'Make Children Happy' and thought how absurd it would be to launch a charity called 'Make Children Good'. We aren't 'into' goodness today – not at all.

But what kind of consequences should we expect when 'thinking morally' and 'doing good' are both negative ideas? What results should we expect as the lack of any effective 'post-God' ethic becomes widely realized?

First, it adds to the loads on our consciousness that we examined in earlier chapters. 'Where men... act in the conviction that "nothing is true, everything is permitted"', suggests Stern in his study of Nietzsche, 'that there is no authority to appeal to – their style of life is more troubled and more sordid than before.'[133] Stern is supported by Patterson and Kim's survey of American values, where they conclude that the loss of right and wrong

raises fear and doubt, which often lead to depression: Did I do the right thing? Does it matter anymore? Does anything matter?... In interview after interview, we saw men and women grappling with the consequences of their new freedom to define their own moral codes. If no one I can trust is available to counsel me, how can I be sure that what I'm doing is right? Is the other person – my lover, my business partner – playing by some set of reasonable rules? What are the rules? Their rules? My rules? No rules at all?[134]

Second, there is likely to be a problem in the area of leadership. 'Today there is little shared sense of what it means to be heroic', writes Keyes,[135] citing Becker's observation that the contemporary crisis in youth culture is 'precisely a crisis of belief in the vitality of the hero-systems that are offered by contemporary materialist society'. 'Who are our heroes?' asked Polly Toynbee in Radio Times:

We no longer believe in altruism, which is the essential ingredient for heroism. Psychology has suggested to us that everybody does what they want to do, for their own personal satisfactions. Some want to be nurses, social workers and probation officers. Others want to make money in the City. There is less a sense of a value judgment in favour of those who devote their lives to helping others, because it is suggested to us that it is part of their inborn frame of mind to gain more satisfaction from that than from other apparently selfish occupations.

From India, Mangalwadi argues that 'Once the twentieth-century western world denied its transcendent faith, it lost its ability to produce heroes of its own'. The 'main heroes that the West celebrates', he adds, are Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King – all of whom are from outside the post-Christian, de-ethicized mainstream.[136] If it exists for us at all now, 'heroism' has been divorced from goodness and has primarily to do with fame or novelty.[137]

'No More Heroes'; no more saints, either. In his eulogy at Princess Diana's funeral, Earl Spencer was anxious to distance his sister from any notion of 'sainthood', for example because of her 'mischievous sense of humour'. Somehow, 'saint' implied a lack of humanness. Ethicist Susan Wolf wrote a famous essay attacking the whole notion of 'moral saints', as being 'dull-witted, humourless or bland'. 'I don't know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them', she begins, adding, 'By moral saint I mean a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.'[138] Wolf's idea of sainthood is a caricature (though medieval Catholicism did plenty to make sainthood and humanness seem incompatible), but it surely matches our cultural mood; we don't believe in saints, any more than in heroes.

All in all, then, as Blake Morrison says, we no longer know what a 'good' person is (in a genuinely Christian context Christ would provide that definition, but who now reads the Gospels?) But when we don't have much clue about 'good people', it becomes hard to believe in trustworthy leaders. Which in turn has implications for democracy; why should I bother to vote for Tweedledum rather than Tweedledee, if each is as crooked as the other? In a recent survey, 89% of Seattle teens said they knew of no leader of integrity. And there is an inevitable next stage: they didn't want to be leaders either.[139]

(But this leadership vacuum could be fatal in what may be our last chance to avoid massive environmental crisis. If we miss it, one suspects the next generation will view us as the ones who created huge problems for them by refusing the altruism of self-restraint; the ones who refused or denied the issues of moral justice that could have curbed our soaring population growth and pollution. As they grapple with the results of our loss of ethics, we must hope they do not hate us. For then we shall be the weak, dependent in our turn on their altruism; or, at any rate, on their paying us our pensions justly according to the promises we made to ourselves.)

But other consequences come much closer to home. One could be a loss of faith in the legal system, like that proving so costly in America. If there is no true ethics, it is hard to see how law can be justified; respect for law assumes an ethical basis to the system, and that assumes a 'real' morality. ('Without religion, no morality; without morality, no law', to quote Lord Denning again.[140]) With 'objective' morality gone, law becomes just a humanly-constructed game. Or, alternatively, it is merely an expression of the interests of the powerful; American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote as early as 1926 that 'When it comes to the development of a corpus juris [body of law], the ultimate question is what do the dominant forces of the community want and do they want it hard enough to disregard whatever inhibitions may stand in the way.'[141] Either way, law ceases to be an impartial public resource. In secularised areas of America we see already how far the legal practitioner has sunk in public esteem – from someone who applied the objective norms of justice to someone who gets rich by playing the system; hence What To Do With a Dead Lawyer and similar joke‑books. (Q. Why are scientists using lawyers instead of rats in experiments? A. There are more lawyers to begin with, they multiply faster, and laboratory personnel become far less attached to lawyers than to rats. Then, too, lawyers will do many things rats won't.)

The crisis in law after the loss of God was particularly evident in the Nuremburg trials of those responsible for the Nazi Holocaust. Legal positivism – the dominant humanistic tradition that saw law purely as a human construct, with no basis in external, objective ethics – had no basis on which to judge the Nazis; their actions may have been grossly immoral, but they had not been in any way illegal. Many of the charges brought against the Nazis 'could hardly be legitimated by positive law', notes Morrison.[142] Their actions had not breached any existing laws; their atrocities had been carried out according to a functioning legal system. On what basis, therefore, could they be found guilty? 'It was difficult to hide from the fact that from a legal positive perspective the decrees promulgated by the Nazis were valid law. Even the Holocaust was possibly legal, buttressed by the fact that it was carried out in the name of the (Nazi) good.'[143]

In the ensuing debate, some argued for the Nazis' condemnation on the basis of 'natural law'. Hart, in contrast, the central figure of British legal positivism, took the view that human beings construct our own ethics; thus the legal system is a social contract without any metaphysical foundations.[144] But how then could the Nazis be condemned, if legal systems are merely something we construct according to our preference?

Clearly, the Nuremburg trials assumed that there was something deeper than our self-constructed legal structures; and indeed that each person was responsible to disobey a violently unjust legal system, in the name of a higher moral law. The Nazi mass murderers could only be judged (and were) as gross offenders against such a law. But where can we get such a law from, now that God is dead? If we have no answer, should not the mass murderers have walked out of Nuremburg free? And have we anything more to say to their recent successors?

But a society that has lost faith in its legal system, and has no universally‑shared belief‑framework to put informally in its place, is obviously headed for the jungle. Anyone who travelled much in post-communist Russia will know the situation where the law has become disrespected and been replaced by force and bribery, expressed in the omnipresent mafia and an often-corrupt police force. ('"Legal" is meaningless here', a Russian friend told me recently as we walked down the street in St Petersburg.) The Russian Interior Ministry stated in 1999 that 40% of the economy and 50% of the banking system was controlled by organized crime; 'Corrupt officialdom pervades the economy, organized crime pervades officialdom', concurred the Economist.

But all that is not limited to Russia. We have sometimes wondered 'when Russia will catch up with the west'; yet the real issue may be how long it will take for the postmodern west, now almost equally short of ethical convictions, to catch up with Russia. Already in 1999 a British National Criminal Intelligence Service document suggested that police corruption had become 'pervasive', reaching 'two-thirds-world levels', and that lie detectors and drug testing were needed for police detectives. With the 'post-God' undermining of a 'love for your neighbour' public-service ethic, the number of people who go into police work motivated at least in part (as many have been) by idealism is likely to decrease. Police activity then can become a power game played by man-made rules with an ever-decreasing connection to objective ethics, or to any compelling sense of right and wrong. In the drug trade in particular, the sums involved are so huge that it can take an officer of real moral vision to resist being 'corrupted'; but from where is such a vision to be maintained?

At the least we should expect the 'kickback' and 'corruption' to become increasingly widespread. These things operate in any society; but if there is no convincing ethical reason for opposing them (and there is one for embracing them: the good of my family), they will logically become more common. If, as many postmodernists say, power is all there is, well, power corrupts. So the ethical crisis, post-God, crosses the gap from the intellectual stratosphere to the universal street‑level backhander. And at worst, a general collapse of ethics in the legal and police systems means, quite simply, a jungle for us to grow old in.[145]

The large Patterson/Kim survey of American values offers pointers as to what it can mean to be a western society that really disbelieves in goodness and badness. 74% of Americans said yes to 'I will steal from those who don't really miss it'; 53% said yes to 'I will cheat on my spouse – after all, given the chance, he or she will do the same'. For $10 million, 7% of respondents said they would murder a stranger, 3% would put their children up for adoption, and 16% would leave their spouse. (For some reason, the figures stayed roughly the same for $5 million and $2 million but dropped sharply at $1 million.)[146]

That is what we admit to the pollsters; and it seems we have little now but social constraints to set against our selfishness. But, with their ethical basis disappearing 'after God', those social and legal constraints are crumbling too.

'No one has ever given an answer to the simple question, Why not? Why not do any evil I passionately and sincerely and "authentically" want to do, if there is no superhuman lawmaker and no superhuman law? Only because I might get caught, because crime doesn't pay? But crime often does pay: it is estimated that well over half of all crimes are never detected or punished. And if the only deterrent is cops, not conscience, what of the conscience of the cops? Who will guard the guards? And how many guards must we have to police a society of immoralists? A state full of moral subjectivists must become a police state.' – Peter Kreeft[147]

Beyond Good and Evil

Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe, addressing Harvard about contemporary America, observed: 'We have awarded ourselves the final freedom ‑ freedom from religion and ordinary ethical standards.'

Kirilov, in Dostoevski's The Possessed, moves logically from the denial of God to the position that 'Everything's good... Everything.' 'And what about the man who dies of hunger, and the man who insults and rapes a little girl. Is that good too?' 'Yes, it is. And the man who blows his brains out for the child, that's good. Everything's good...'[148] Nietzsche said the same: with God dead, 'Nothing is true, everything is permitted.' Sartre concurred: 'Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist.'

Few of us have read these passages outside a context still dominated, in practice, by 'ordinary ethical standards'. But if 'everything is indeed permitted', if God is dead and we are truly free to (quoting Tina Turner) 'break every rule', what then? Presumably the dominant factors become, again, the fundamental drives such as money, sex, power. (Nietzsche once more: 'Thou goest to woman? Take thou thy whip.') As we've said, it isn't good news for the weak, but this is the reality of the 'animal kingdom'. De Sade: 'Whatever is, is right.'

However, Hitler's question may be the next on the agenda: 'I cannot see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.' As de Sade recognised, some people have a pleasure drive that genuinely receives satisfaction in cruelty. If 'everything is indeed permitted', what cruelties might logically lie ahead of us? The question may seem unnecessary. But can we be so complacent? Again we recall the 'games' of ancient Rome, the crowds entertained by seeing human beings ripped apart. And a look around youth culture might make us wonder: the success of mass‑slaughter video games like 'Mortal Kombat', the best‑selling graphic novels portraying amoral futuristic worlds dominated by bloodshed and 'might is right', the posed viciousness of much hip-hop and heavy metal. And what of the fascination de Sade exerts on writers from Foucault to Barthes to Angela Carter to Camille Paglia? Or Damien Hirst's art show Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away..., which the Independent on Sunday described as combining 'fierce images of torture and violent sex, death, murder and decay'? Or the fashion for 'designer sado‑masochism' (Amsterdam's beautiful Schiphol airport has a video store with a large section marked 'Bondage/S/M'), when S/M so easily leads to pleasure at involuntary suffering, including rape? Or the evident attraction of 'slasher' movies, the endless gory remakes of Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and so many others – or, at the 'classier' level, Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs, Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant (to say nothing of the massive market for 'heavier' video nasties like Driller Killer)? In the Patterson/Kim survey, a remarkably high proportion of Americans reported regular fantasies of violence.[149] 'I wanna destroy', sang the Sex Pistols; the appetite seems to be there, biding its time.

'The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of prey; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some students' rag.'– Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals

'We want to exalt the movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the forced march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist. To glorify war ‑ the only cure for the world ‑ and militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for women.'– Marinetti, leader of the Italian Futurists.

'Yes, I told him, I was a Nazi, I really believed it to be the ideal system... I was completely committed to the whole philosophy. The blood and violence was an essential ingredient of its strength, the heroic tradition of cruelty every bit as powerful and a thousand times more ancient than the Judaeo-Christian ethic' – Alan Clark, minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, in Diaries: Into Politics

So it goes. The fact that the 'civilized' Nazis became a byword for darkness should not obliterate the memory of what they did: Polish rabbis forced to shovel out open latrines with their hands and mouths while Nazi officers observed and took photos for subsequent labelling; the torture and experimentation in the Gestapo cells, carefully recorded by stenographers (usually women); the drowning of so many in urine and ordure; Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Belsen.[150] 'We are British: we are different'? Perhaps.

But in Nottingham a few years back, a judge sentenced a family to prison after hearing how their children, some of them still in nappies, had been pulled from their beds late at night to be sexually assaulted as "playthings" at sex parties. He told two mothers, 'You must have sat there when these parties were going on and heard your children screaming and did nothing about it.'

America? A television programme recalled the incident when American GIs massacred 500 civilians in My Lai, Vietnam. 'I looked out of my house', said one survivor, 'and saw my sister Mui. She was 14 that year. An American was pressing on top of her... At the time I didn't realise what that meant. My sister was trying to resist him. Afterwards, the American got up. He put his clothes on. And then he shot her.' American soldiers who had been present spoke of shooting women and children in ditches so that their corpses piled up tidily, and of slicing off victims' ears and hands. The officer who had trained them said he was 'very pleased with the way they turned out. They turned out to be very good soldiers.'

Back to Europe: 'Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson.' This is from the UN's International War Crimes Tribunal report on atrocities in former Yugoslavia.

Back to Britain: according to evidence given to the Central Criminal Court, children of three families from New Addington, south London, suffered sexual abuse and torture sessions at the hands of their parents. The mothers encouraged the men to sexually attack the children in group sessions; the children were sometimes beaten, both for the adults' pleasure and to make them so frightened they would not tell anybody.

For most of us, gut intuition says: All this is abomination; these are evil. But to understand our real situation, we must face the issue of how (if God is dead) we can meaningfully call them evil; or whether, as so many of our post-God philosophers tell us, our intuitions here are just a matter of 'feeling', 'preference', taste. Richard Monk, head of Scotland Yard's anti-paedophilia unit, told a national police conference that paedophiles were 'evil like Hitler because they actually believe what they do is right. And because they are right and we are wrong they ignore conventional punishment, cover their tracks well and go on offending. The scale of offending is enormous.' Muswell Hill mass murderer Dennis Nilsen wrote to researcher Brian Masters, 'No one wants to believe that I am just an ordinary man come to an extraordinary and overwhelming conclusion.' And here is postmodernist guru Baudrillard, in The Transparency of Evil: 'Everything we thought left behind forever by the ineluctable march of progress is not dead at all, but on the contrary, likely to return… and to reach into the very heart of our ultra-sophisticated but ultra-vulnerable system'.

'Of course', writes Oxford determinist Wilfred Beckerman during an attack on the concept of "moral responsibility", 'cruelty to children or anybody else is indescribably revolting.' ('If one likes to call the people who perpetrate such acts "bad", so be it', he adds. But 'passing moral judgements on people for acts we abhor' is basically an 'absurdity'.) But unfortunately not everyone agrees on what is 'revolting'. And while the fact that such cruelties 'sicken most of us', as Beckerman says,[151] may enable 'most of us' to feel good about imposing our tastes on their perpetrators, it certainly doesn't provide any reason why the deviant himself should not pursue his 'tastes'. Logically, we should not be surprised when we read of that happening. And if we intend judging such matters of 'taste' by popular consensus, we must think back to the Nazi era: there was a time when the savage degradation of an entire race became the fashion.

If there is no God, if 'good' and 'evil' cannot be known to exist, can we say more than this: I feel I have 'natural', 'wholesome' (altruistic) tastes; you have 'unusual', 'sophisticated'. 'deviant' (e.g. sadistic) tastes:[152] and I will impose my tastes on you by force?

It matters if there is no God. My Lai, Belsen, Nottingham; these things are no longer 'evil'. There is no such thing as evil; just each to his own taste.

Hitler liked blue. Rapists like blue. I like green. God is dead. That's all there is?

In Summary…

God is dead: can we any longer say what is right and wrong? If not, what will be the results?

In the academic world, there is no consensus whatever about the meaning of 'right' and 'wrong' after the loss of God. Indeed, numerous voices declare that 'right' and 'wrong' have no objective meaning; they are merely matters of emotions or preferences. No self-evident motivation exists to restrain our selfishness.

So where do we find an alternative ethic? 'Right' is what is best for society, or for the maximum number of other people, we've been told. But there seems no self-evident reason why we should care about society. Or, perhaps right and wrong are what is good or bad for my class; but again, is there any clear reason why class solidarity should take precedence over my interests? Perhaps we could find a basis for ethics in the cosmic progression heralded by 'New Age'; but in actual practice, isn't much of New Age primarily about self‑enhancement, self‑actualization, offering no real counter to egoism? And evolution, if anything, undermines the basis for altruism.

Lastly there is the family: here, finally, is a value we can and do set against self‑interest. But it is very fragile; we live in a culture of soaring divorce rates.

God is dead. So are 'right' and 'wrong' buried, obsolete and useless, in his tomb? Are they just words that are growing more and more meaningless, stupid, unworkable?

But if we are truly 'beyond good and evil' – once the generations pass that have Christian ethics embedded in their subconscious, once a generation arises that really accepts the logic that there is no 'right' and 'wrong', no 'justice', nothing but the compulsions of pleasure and power – what then? As we face the dawning of a violent world without ethics, it matters whether things really have to be this way. It matters whether there is a God.

Go to 4. Truth After God


[1] In The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and tr. Walter Kaufmann (1959 edition), p.501.
[2] Ibid, p.517. Sartre makes the same point in Existentialism and Humanism (1968 tr. edn.), p.33.
[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1985 edition). MacIntyre analyses the difficulties in a number of other post‑Enlightenment alternatives in the second half of A Short History of Ethics (1967).
[4] Paul W. Taylor, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton, 1986), quoted in Paul Chamberlain, Can We be Good without God? (Downers Grove, 1996), pp.121, 200.
[5] Address to the Canadian Senate, published in New York Review of Books, June 10 1999. I owe this reference to Vinoth Ramachandra.
[6] Midgley's essay 'Duties Concerning Islands' is reprinted in an excellent symposium edited by Peter Singer, Ethics (1994), pp.374-87. The emphasis in the Grice quotation is mine.
[7] David Gauthier, in Ethics, ed. Singer, p.368.
[8] In other words, if morality is a social contract, it is in fact chosen by and reflects the interests of the most powerful sections of society, not my own.
[9] Cf. Will Kymlicka's essay in another symposium edited by Singer, A Companion to Ethics (1993 edition), particularly pp.189-91. This fine volume contains helpful surveys by leading scholars of many areas we touch on briefly here, which readers wanting more in-depth coverage may well find helpful.
[10] See St Paul's attitude to his 'rights' in 1 Corinthians 9:3-23. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice can be read as a treatment of the insufficiency, for community, of insistence on one's rights; there must be something else, which Shakespeare presents as 'mercy'. Writing as a Christian, John F. Alexander expands the issue into the area of forgiveness with the comment that community inevitably depends sometimes on our 'allowing yourself to be wronged. In my experience, a church (or a marriage, for that matter) can never be at peace if the partners are concerned about their rights. You can only be reconciled if you accept the sins of others in your body, as Jesus did… Peace is not benign intentions but a cross with nails.' (The Secular Squeeze (1992), pp.147-48.) Rights are not enough for community; but how, post-God (now we no longer believe in what 'Jesus did' on the 'cross with nails'), do we empower what is needed to complement it?
[11] Allan Bloom, for example, writes of 'the attempt to found all human relations on contract, the discovery of complementary interests… Abstract reason in the service of radically free men and women can discover only contract as the basis of connectedness – the social contract, marriage contract, somehow mostly the business contract as model, with its union of selfish individuals. Legalism takes the place of sentiment.' (Love and Friendship (New York, 1993), p.28.)
[12] Related to this point is the close of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Kant incurred Nietzsche's wrathful scorn for postulating God to make his system work.
[13] In A Companion to Ethics, p.193. Indeed, evolutionary ethicist Michael Ruse suggests that it probably would be; the biological foundation of our behaviour makes it likely that the altruism we engage in would be limited to those most like ourselves (p.505).
[14] Ethics, p.246.
[15] In A Companion to Ethics, p.243. The founder of utilitarianism was Jeremy Bentham, who took the bull by the horns quite unashamedly: 'Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.'
[16] This is more or less John Hartland-Swan's position in An Analysis of Morals (1960).
[17] Right, and, observes Bernard Williams critically (in Singer, Ethics, p.340), obviously so.
[18] R.M. Hare, Moral Thinking (1981), p.186, and ch.11.
[19] After Virtue, p.67.
[20] Cf. Lyotard's comment on Habermas in The Postmodern Condition: 'Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value… We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus.' (In From Modernism to Postmodernism, ed. Lawrence Cahoone (1996), pp.503-04.)
[21] I invite the reader to check this perception by working through Singer's two excellent and comprehensive collections.
[22] See, for example, the end-point of James Rachels' exposition of ethical subjectivism: 'Thus, as our final attempt to formulate an adequate subjectivist understanding of ethical judgement, we might say: something is morally right if it is such that the process of thinking through its nature and consequences should cause or sustain a feeling of approval to it in a person who was being as reasonable and impartial as it is humanly possible' (in A Companion to Ethics, p.440). But why should they be impartial? The same is true with Sartre. 'One should always ask himself, "What would happen if everybody looked at things that way?"', he says in his famous essay 'Existentialism'; but the 'should' seems to come out of thin air. A third, more postmodern example is given by Linda Lange: 'Postmodern critique of universalism and "totalizing discourse" reads as a critique of power and domination… Yet as such it is often highly inconclusive… We are given a compelling analysis of how denial and silencing of "difference" has been done, but little rational reason why the practice should be given up!' (Quoted in J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger than It Used to Be (1995), p.210.)
[23] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (1989), p.87. His targets at this point are Hare and Habermas in particular.
[24] In Ethics, pp.5-6.
[25] In A Companion to Ethics, p.543.
[26] That would not be surprising. If human beings have no cause to consider themselves as qualitatively different from animals, then animal rights should indeed become a driving force behind ethics. 'Ideology is dead, long live animals', began a 1995 Independent editorial, summarizing the way that the 'struggle to save the whale, the elephant and the panda' had taken the place of religion and ideology in the contemporary mood. (But it will be interesting to watch how the refocusing of the animal rights issue that has arisen from an intuitive insistence on the value of consciousness will in turn refocus the foetal rights debate – or, if it doesn't, why not.)
[27] A Companion to Ethics, p.545. Singer cites the moral realism of Michael Smith, Jonathan Dancy's assessment of what can be salvaged from intuitionism, Rachels' exposition of ethical subjectivism, and Hare's universal prescriptivism.
[28] In A Companion to Ethics, p.409.
[29] Ibid, p.440. And cf. Michael Smith: the issue is 'what we would desire if we were in certain idealized conditions of reflection: if, say, we were well-informed, cool, calm and collected' (p.406). (He does not add 'good-hearted'; does that weaken his position?)
[30] Ibid, p.461.
[31] Utilitarian J.S. Mill's words are striking: 'Nor even now would it be easy, even for an unbeliever, to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract into the concrete than to endeavour to live so that Christ would approve of our life.' (Quoted in Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1972), p.109.) In reality, the model of Christ is far more compelling, imaginatively and practically, than the various abstractions ethicists have advanced such as 'perfectly rational, impartial and benevolent judges', etc.
[32] Moral Thinking, p.44.
[33] This is Paul's point in Romans 7; see also Galatians 3:24. The Bible is indeed structured to emphasize the consequences of wrong action in its early books – our 'first lesson', as it were. But it is the presence of the Spirit within us that actually brings power to enable changed behaviour, as Paul makes clear through Romans 6 to 8.
[34] The form the conundrum takes in Plato's Euthyphro is 'Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it?'
[35] A vital aspect of the primal Genesis narrative is that it specifically rules out driving a conceptual wedge between 'goodness' and 'God'. The temptation to construct good and evil outside the context of loving trust in God constitutes precisely that fatal and unworkable snatching at independence that dooms the entire human race to misery (Genesis 3:5).
[36] The two central ethical commands at the heart of the Old Testament, it may be recalled, were both 'You shall love' – the Lord himself, in the first, and my neighbour as myself, in the second. (See Jesus' words in Matthew 22:35-40.) God is love, and the ethic he calls for consists of absolute reflection of his nature. The New Testament then introduces the empowerment whereby that reflection can begin to come into being.
[37] Quoted in McDowell, p.110.
[38] At this point, it seems to me, Christian faith accepts and responds to the demand of feminist ethicists for a holistic approach that is not restricted to an arid rationalism in the manner of both Kantians and utilitarians.
[39] Thus the God in whose nature Christians ground their ethical life is not merely a distant principle with the addition of a personal name. Instead, he is that multi-faceted, profound reality we term the Trinity: the Father in whom all value consists, the Word who in the fullest manner revealed the Father's nature, and the Spirit who works within us to bring the goodness of that nature into being now.
[40] In other words, a non-believer may well have intuitions about right and wrong that are as accurate, or even more accurate, than those of a believer. But, they derive from the conscience that God has put within human brings, and may in many cases be difficult for an atheist to hold with consistency, as we have been suggesting in the preceding pages.
[41] Cited in Christianity Today, 19 May 1997. This was not merely true of giving to religious causes; two-thirds of the money given to non-religious charitable enterprises came from church members.
[42] James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York, 1991), pp.201-02. This fascinating book reports on a survey of a large sample of Americans. It contains a vast amount of data and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the changing condition of American values. Patterson was chairman, and Kim a senior vice-president, of the J. Walter Thompson agency, and they appear to have gone to considerable lengths to ensure the survey's professionalism and accuracy.
[43] We are using 'faith' in very general terms here: the impact of different forms of faith could usefully be analysed. For example, could it be documented that there is much less bribery in cultures with long-term exposure to forms of Christianity with a strong emphasis on biblical teaching, and on a 'new birth' leading to a radically new quality of life? I suspect that conclusion would emerge clearly from a comparison of the northern European countries with Catholic Spain and Italy, or with Orthodox Russia. The issue could also be explored at the level of comparative religion. Ancient Greek religion, for example, lacked the idea of altruistic agape love that is so central to Christian ethics. Does it make a significant difference to the effect of 'love' as a basis for ethics if one believes God 'is Love', existing from all eternity as a triune community united in mutual love, rather than being solely One, alone from eternity, as in Islam, which rules out 'love' as an ultimate divine attribute? Again, how true is it that the monism of mainstream Hinduism, denying the ultimacy of good and evil, cannot offer a strong basis for morality and law? (See in particular Vishal Mangalwadi's fascinating study India: the Grand Experiment (1997).)
[44] The exception here must be Singer, whose animal liberationism clearly does have major practical impact on the lives of many. But only, we must say, in one area, although a far-reaching one.
[45] Charles Martin observed back in 1973 that a major weakness of overt humanism, and a reason why it was so uncompelling for most people, was that it was so desperately abstract and 'verbal'. (How Human Can You Get?, p.135.) Fred Catherwood's assessment twenty-seven years later is that 'It is easy to get a hearing for the removal of restraints, but to gain wide voluntary acceptance of a structure of individual duties to make those rights effective is beyond [the humanists'] reach' (It Can Be Done (2000), p.107).
[46] 'The denial of the transcendance of norms is crucial to postmodernism. Norms such as truth, goodness, beauty, rationality, are no longer regarded as independent of the processes they seek to govern or judge, but are rather products of and immanent in these processes. For example, where most philosophers might use the idea of justice to judge a social order, postmodernism regards that idea as itself the product of the social relations it seeks to judge… This greatly complicates any claims about the justice of social relations.' (Lawrence Cahoone, in his introduction to From Modernism to Postmodernism, p.15.)
[47] 'Human behaviour... is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function.' (Edward O Wilson, On Human Nature (1978), p.6.)
[48] In Ethics, p.163.
[49] After Virtue, p.20.
[50] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), p.3.
[51] Cited by Dale Jamieson in A Companion to Ethics, p. 476.
[52] After Virtue, p.117.
[53] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (1991 edition), pp.443, 451.
[54] Hare's complaint resembles the comments we have made above concerning the assumptions (eg. regarding impartiality) that take the place of solid substance in much current theory. Yet it is noteworthy that Hare assumes that the problem is linked with prejudices, an intellectual failure, to which the answer is a clearer rationality, rather than the need for something to be done about the selfishness of the will.
[55] James Q. Wilson, 'What is Moral, and How Do We Know It?', First Things, June 1993, p.37. I owe this reference to James Sire.
[56] Jean‑Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, tr. Philip Mairet (1968), p.36.
[57] And once again, modern psychology puts a huge question-mark over the value of our instincts. If they are primarily triggered by our genetic makeup and our environmental conditioning, it seems strange to put too much trust in them.
[58] Cf. The Times, 24 June 1981.
[59] Quoted in Klaus Bockmuehl, The Challenge of Marxism (1980), p.96. Lenin remarked on another occasion that 'Good is what advances the cause of the revolution' (quoted in David Lyon, Karl Marx (1979), p.168.) Stalin's astonishing 1939 alliance with the arch-fascist Hitler exemplified that very well.
[60] An example would be the anger stirred up by the apparent untouchability of the plans of multinationals like Monsanto for growing genetically modified food, backed by the legal force of transatlantic trade agreements. One suspects that if the European governments had not taken a stand on that issue, eco-terrorism would not have been far away.
[61] Samuel Escobar, 'Marxist Ideology and Christian Mission', In Touch (IFES), October 1981.
[62] A Short History of Ethics, pp.213‑14.
[63] No comment is intended about the rights or wrongs of the strike. The point here is simply the way that class morality has declined as a motivating force.
[64] Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour movement, insisted that 'The Labour Movement is essentially religious. Christ's great work was to teach the oneness of the human race, to remove the abuses which divided man from man, to make it impossible for the strong to oppress the weak or for the rich to rob the poor.' Labour prime minister Harold Wilson said that his party owed more to Methodism than Marxism.
[65] Just like their capitalist arch-enemies, of course.
[66] Bockmuehl, p.104.
[67] Quoted in Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (1973), p.145.
[68] Trotsky saw what would happen: 'The organization of the party takes the place of the party [that is, the working-class] itself; the Central Committee takes the place of the organization; and finally the dictator takes the place of the Central Committee.' (Quoted in Lyon, pp.168-69.) They killed Trotsky with an ice-pick.
[69] Quoted by Jonathan Bennett in Ethics, ed. Singer, p.299.
[70] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, tr. Ralph Manheim (1992 edition), p.271. 
[71] Mein Kampf, pp.162-63.
[72] Ibid, p.621. Emphasis is mine.
[73] Ibid, p.103. One wishes that these complaints had been proved justified in the aftermath; in fact, the faith of many parts of the German church had been so weakened by "liberal", doubt-oriented theologies that their resistance was minimal. But the so-called 'Confessing Church' offered a resistance, fuelled by their commitment to biblical ethics, that was as determined as Hitler had feared.
[74] Quoted in Jacques Ellul, Violence (1970), p.130.
[75] Independent on Sunday, 18 April 1999. The unexpectedly strong support received by fascist or neo-Nazi parties in more recent elections has shown the relevance of this to western European countries too.
[76] Namely 'what is in the interests of our own folk'; or, 'what our own folk' or 'volk' or 'tribe' hold to be 'correct'. Various postmodernist thinkers have argued that these two tend towards being much the same thing; and, unless there is some strong counterbalancing ethical force, this would seem to be the case. To quote the hip-hop slogan, 'There's no justice, there's just us.'
[77] Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (New York, 1991), p.30. Actually, this community ethic is in the end no real counter to egoism. We all tend to belong to a range of different 'communities', and can usually find one to endorse what we really want to do.
[78] Vinoth Ramachandra, Gods that Fail (1996), pp.5-7.
[79] A good example of ethics as 'doing what's right for your own folk' is Heidegger's speech to the Freiburg students in 1933 when he told them, 'May you ceaselessly grow in courage to sacrifice yourself for the salvation of our nation's essential being... The Fuhrer himself and he alone is the German reality, present and future, and its law… Heil Hitler!'
[80] To the Christian, this would depend on the power and grace of God. To the humanist, 'enlightenment' was more a matter of progressive education.
[81] I was troubled to read a recent piece in which an American feminist asked, 'How could you have a friend who belonged to the Christian Coalition and was an anti-abortionist?' It raised for me the issue, has loving your enemy become something so distinctively Christian? Empirically, a lot of us who are Christian genuinely love interacting with those with whom we profoundly disagree. It is the only way to carry on. (And how else could we learn?)
[82] In other words: once what earlier periods saw as issues of truth become recognised (as postmodernists like Foucault say) as being really issues of power, then the obvious conclusion is that they can only be settled in terms of power.
[83] This summary is adapted from Douglas Groothuis' Unmasking the New Age (1986), a book many readers may find a more useful introduction to the whole area than is implied by the aggressiveness of the title. It is worth reading alongside the helpful collection The New Age: an anthology of essential writings, ed. William Bloom (1991).
[84] Quoted in Groothuis, p.26. Our discussion here is directed at the mainstream of New Age thought, which tends to be monistic or pantheistic. There are exceptions, however.
[85] Shirley MacLaine, Dancing in the Light (1983), p.358.
[86] Shirley MacLaine, It's All In the Playing (1987)p.173.
[87] Quoted in Russell Chandler, Understanding the New Age (1989 edition), p.131.
[88] Mark Satin, New Age Politics (New York, 1978), p.112, emphasis his; quoted in Elliot Miller, A Crash Course on the New Age Movement (1990), p.30. Miller's book is an excellent survey.
[89] Quoted in Miller, pp.171, 239. Don Carson, in The Gagging of God (1996), writes: 'Almost all of this multiplying thought is irremediably selfish. The aim of the exercise is self-fulfilment, self-actualization, serenity, productivity, power. God, if he/she/it exists, exists for me' (p.331).
[90] Quoted in Groothuis, p.21.
[91] Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), p.381.
[92] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point (1982), p.371.
[93] Dancing in the Light, p.357.
[94] Quoted in an excellent survey in Guinness, ch.6, and also p.266.
[95] Quoted in Michael Cole, What is the New Age? (1990), p.86.
[96] The Christian, believing in a Creator God separate from his world, can hold together both insights – that creation is divinely created, suffused with the glory of God and therefore utterly valuable, yet also fallen and marked by a trend tending to destructiveness.
[97] It is from Kali's devotees that we get the English word 'thug'. For centuries, the Thugs killed many of their fellow Indians in sacrifice to Kali.
[98] Quoted in Groothuis, p.154.
[99] R.C.Zaehner, Our Savage God (New York, 1974), pp.69-72.
[100] Quoted in Guinness, p.192.
[101] Quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (1988), p.24.
[102] Quoted in Chandler, p.28.
[103] See, for example, Barbara Marx Hubbard's essay 'The Evolutionary Journey' that William Bloom chose as the opening piece for his The New Age anthology.
[104] Miller, p.65.
[105] Quoted in Miller, p.23. See also the writings of Ken Wilber.
[106] Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, 'The Evolution of Ethics', New Scientist, October 1985, pp.50-52. I owe this and the following reference to James Sire.
[107] Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Paradigm (1989), p.268.
[108] Michael Ruse, in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Singer, p.504.
[109] But when Darwinian theory itself is under threat, writers of this kind can turn as Darwinian, and indeed as ethically totalitarian, as one could wish. Dawkins' American ally Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), p.515, draws a parallel between certain religious beliefs and dangerous animals, concluding, 'Safety demands that religions be put in cages, too – when absolutely necessary.' (His immediate examples are ideas from Catholicism, Mormonism, and Islam.) But you can't put ideas in cages, of course; you can only put their adherents in gulags, like Stalin did. It's interesting to see where Dennett's avowed hatred of fundamentalism points him. The Independent cited another of Dawkins' supporters, this time in Britain, who has suggested it be made a criminal offence to teach children that the Bible is literally true (17 October 1998).
[110] Steven Rose, Life Lines (1988 edition), p.214.
[111] Mein Kampf, pp.259-60, 262. Similar ideas were also present in Darwin himself. 'When two races of men meet', he wrote, there comes a 'deadly struggle, namely which have the best fitted organization, or insights to gain the day'. Indeed, 'At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races' (The Descent of Man).
[112] Quoted in Wayne Morrison, Jurisprudence: from the Greeks to postmodernity (1997), p.302. Morrison notes that the SS training manual stated that 'In so-called civilised nations, a false attitude of brotherly love, which the Church has been especially assiduous in fostering among the broad masses, operates in direct opposition to the selective process' (p.304).
[113] Mein Kampf, pp.348,621.
[114] Quoted by Jeffrey P. Schloss in an excellent survey of the altruism issue titled 'Evolutionary Accounts of Altruism and the Problem of Goodness by Design', in Mere Creation, ed. William Dembski (Downers Grove, 1998); p.238. One reason why this area is receiving considerable scientific attention at present is that, if it existed, genuinely altruistic behaviours that decreased the agent's reproductive fitness would be highly problematic for evolutionary theory, at least in its atheistic forms. Darwin himself said that any characteristic which was 'formed for the exclusive good of another, would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection' (quoted in Schloss, p.238.) Ruse likewise writes that, if there were any completely disinterested moral acts, they would be a 'clear refutation of the evolutionist's case.' Therefore, he logically concludes, although some people pay lip-service to such notions, nobody actually lives by them (quoted in Schloss, p.251). (Considering what counter-argument might be set against this, one is reminded of John Stott's remark that the key challenge facing the contemporary church is to demonstrate a love so supernatural (and transcending the barriers of kinship to such a degree) that the world will be compelled to admit its divine origin.) Is Ruse right or wrong?
[115] 'Much of the most recent work in evolutionary psychology and human moral behaviour attempts to address this issue' of how to explain acts of radical, unrewarded sacrifice for those who are not kin, says Schloss. 'Human behaviour regularly exhibits noncompensatory sacrifice for nonkin'; for example, adoption, heroic efforts to help others across kinship barriers (for example protectors of Jews during the holocaust time), or blood or organ donation for strangers. 'Explaining such phenomena… is widely regarded as the last roadblock to the doctrinal completeness of evolutionary theory' (pp.242-43).
[116] Schloss, p.245.
[117] Dennett, p.251.
[118] Quoted in Schloss, pp.248-49.
[119] Quoted in Schloss, p.250.
[120] In A Companion to Ethics, ed. Singer, pp.507-08. Ruse is worth reading for the clearheaded logic with which he follows an argument through. He has an essay titled 'Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?' (in Extraterrestrials, ed. E. Regis Jr (1985)), in which he builds on the position about morality expressed here by conceding that there is no reason why rape should automatically be 'wrong' for non-human organisms or extraterrestrials. (And after all, if the survival of the race is a supreme moral value, as seems to be the case with some sociobiologists, it does propagate the species. Cf Chamberlain, pp.154-60.)
[121] The Portable Nietzsche, pp.570,573.
[122] Quoted in R.J. Sider, Completely Pro-Life (Downers Grove,1987), p. 42.
[123] Some feminist ethicists such as Nell Noddings have adopted this as an intellectual position, explicitly denying the notion of universal caring: 'I am not obliged to care for starving children in Africa, because there is no way for this caring to be completed in the other unless I abandon the caring to which I am obligated.' (Caring; a feminine approach to ethics and moral education (Berkeley, 1984), p.86.) Noddings is addressing a real issue (that there are too many calls upon us for all of them to be addressed); but her either/or approach seems to leave the door wide open to collective selfishness – and it doesn't give much motivational basis for doing anything unselfish about the economic policies that cause these children to be starving.
[124] We should note one final twist here. For many people, the family is being replaced in significant ways by variable combinations of 'friends' (hence the significance of Friends and other similar TV series). And we may well submit our ethics to this peer-group, in the way we might to a family: what my peer-group defines as good/bad, helpful/unhelpful, is what is right/wrong for me. But peer-groups are unstable and transient. We tend to choose them by how they meet our personal needs and desires; and if they no longer do this, they cease to matter for us. Which means that they tend only to offer very limited challenges to ethical selfishness?
[125] As reported in Independent on Sunday, 6 April 1997.
[126] See, for example, the discussions in Journal of Homosexuality 20, nos 1/2 (1990).
[127] Cited by Professor Anthony Clare in the 8 March 1986 Radio Times. Similar figures are reported across the Atlantic. The degradation and humiliation concealed in these statistics are hard to contemplate.
[128] Cited by Robert Fryling in Student Leadership, Winter 1989, p.8.
[129] Estimates of the incidence of sexual child abuse in Britain indicate a rate as high as one in 50. About a third of victims are under ten years old. (Child Sexual Abuse Team at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London; Times 25 September 1985).
[130] Independent on Sunday 11 March 1999. Dalrymple adds, 'There is no doubt that the extreme fluidity of personal relationships nowadays favours such treatment.'
[131] Melanie Phillips, All Must Have Prizes (1997 edition), p.xxii.
[132] It's worth looking carefully whenever we hear that phrase; it's usually the sign of a liberal-humanist not wanting to face the ugly results of something they've been advocating.
[133] J.P. Stern, Nietzsche (1978), p.97.
[134] James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York, 1991), p.31. Another aspect of the problem is guilt: a sense of guilt can be a profound psychological burden, yet when our moral frameworks have disintegrated there is no way of facing the issue.
[135] Richard Keyes, Beyond Identity (1998), p.17.
[136] Mandela's anthem was Nkosi Sikelele Africa ('Lord God, bless Africa'); Gandhi was a Hindu basing on Tolstoy's and the Quakers' Christian-pacifist ethic (Mangalwadi argues this point with some force, citing the critique by Hindu writers that Gandhi's pacifism was 'anti-Hindu' since 'the Vedas, Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata are written largely in the context of wars' (pp.278-79)); and King, of course, was a Baptist pastor. (Vishal Mangalwadi, India: the Grand Experiment (1997), p.36.)
[137] Keyes, pp.17-20. The Patterson/Kim survey showed that 70% of Americans felt their country had 'no living heroes today'; about the same number felt that American children had no meaningful role-models (p.207).
[138] In Ethics, ed. Singer, pp.345-61. Wolf's essay, it should be noted, is aimed as much at the legalistic inadequacies of utilitarian and Kantian ethics as at the Catholic notion of sainthood.
[139] From Canada, Don Posterski warns that a relativist climate can create a generation of people trained not to believe anything strongly, incapable of anything but passivity: 'Relativism dooms rationality ‑ it generates a reticent, tentative youth subculture. It takes away permission to hold convictions with passion; the antidote to passion is relativism.'
[140] Wayne Morrison's massively thorough and fascinating Jurisprudence: from the Greeks to postmodernism (1997) suggests that the history of legal theory can be viewed as a series of attempts to find alternatives to God as a foundation for a legal system that can command respect. (Morrison himself is clearly an atheist, p.17.) In the medieval 'natural law' system, law had authority because it was directly linked to the will of God. But 'in the work of Thomas Hobbes… who laid out a foundation upon which Austin was to build the modern approach of legal positivism' ('the dominant tradition in the jurisprudence of modernity', p.4), 'the core of intellectual questioning turns its back upon any other-worldly transcendental being – God – as the ultimate author of the pure or just ideal of law. Instead concern is transferred to the authority of the state' (p.6). Since then, the history of legal theory can be seen (p.9) as the 'search for some master-discipline… for a replacement for the transcendental figure modernity dispatched when it turned religion from a relationship with "God" into a mere social and cultural practice. Modernity has thrown up many candidates', and indeed for many observers 'law has lost its identity, it has surrendered to new Gods: it is seen as a servant of economics, of policy, of utility, while we demand that it should be a moral phenomenon' (pp.13-14). Yale law professor Arthur Leff concluded that 'The so-called death of God turns out not just to have been His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative, extrasystematic premises' (quoted in Carson, p.383).
[141] Quoted in Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (1980 edition), p.139.
[142] Morrison, p.314.
[143] p.313. Morrison's whole treatment in pp.312-19 is highly thought-provoking.
[144] The positivist approach had in fact been particularly influential in Nazi Germany. After the war, leading German jurist Radbruch argued that it had left the German legal system defenceless against the Nazis. His own earlier writings had appeared to instruct judges that they could not resist commands of the legal order providing the commanding authority had the valid power to execute its orders. Post-war, he felt the legal system needed some kind of underpinning from a doctrine of natural or even divine right (Morrison, pp.313, 327-8).
[145] There can be major economic implications too, of course. Patterson and Kim even suggest that the 'number one cause of our business decline is low ethics by executives'(p.8), summarizing the findings of their surveys in these terms: 'Many American managers show little loyalty to their company, to their workers, or to the public that buys their products… "You want loyalty? Hire a cocker spaniel!"', to which the workforce responds ('They lie to us every single day') with 'absenteeism, petty theft, indifference and a generally poor performance on the job' (pp.8,147-48).
[146] Patterson and Kim, pp.25,26,65.
[147] In Reclaiming the Great Tradition, ed. James S. Cutsinger (Downers Grove, 1997), pp.18-19. Mangalwadi, writing from India, voices the same concern as Kreeft's final sentence: 'A denial of moral absolutes does not lead to tolerance of pluralism. Rather it produces social chaos, and is inevitably replaced by political absolutism' (p.207).
[148] Dostoevski, The Possessed (1953 Penguin translation by D. Magarshack), p.243.
[149] Patterson and Kim, p.123.
[150] Cf George Steiner: A Reader (1984), eg pp.211, 246.
[151] Times, 17 December 1986.
[152] Independent on Sunday critic Quentin Curtis described Brian de Palma's films: 'A woman is murdered with a razor in a lift, her blood seeping into the corridor (Dressed to Kill); a man is killed with a chainsaw (Scarface); a woman is skewered with an electric drill (Body Double). De Palma apologists point to the style, indeed stylishness, of the execution (if that's the right word).'

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