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On keeping religion in politics

On keeping religion in politics

When one of the UK’s most respected moral philosophers, Mary Warnock, publishes a book with the title Dishonest to God: On keeping religion out of politics, it is impossible for Theos not to engage with the arguments. What role should Christianity have in contemporary politics? What moral framework should underpin our laws? Are there absolutes to be drawn on in public policy or is it all a matter of perceived consequences? Nick Spencer and Jennie Pollock spoke to Baroness Warnock in a conversation that touched on religion, morality, politics, public opinion and, most sensitively, abortion and euthanasia.

Nick Spencer       Can I begin by asking why you wrote Dishonest to God?

Mary Warnock     I’ve been brooding about it for a long time I wrote it specifically now, partly because I hadn’t got anything else to do, but secondly because I was very much conscious of the way that religion cropped up as an obstacle to legal change. The most recent case was that of changing the law about homicide in general but particularly assisted suicide. That had become a sort of urgent issue because of the DPP’s [Director of Public Prosecution’s] guidelines on taking people to Switzerland. I thought it might be worth looking back on similar moral issues that had cropped up.

NS       You say early on “It is seldom possible now to assert that ‘this is not a court of morals’. Many judgements, especially in the higher courts, turn on whether or not a human right has been violated”. I was reminded of Charles Taylor’s discussion of the ‘deep diversity’ in a lot of Western cultures. He argues that there is a kind of profundity of our ethical diversity now, that probably wasn’t there 50 or so years ago; a growing depth of different ethical positions. Do you identify with that?

MW     On the whole I don’t agree with that. I suspect that part of the passion - and one has to call it passion - that lies behind the Human Rights lawyers and the people who drew up the Human Rights Act comes from a desire to draw attention to the opposite, namely that there is a fundamental core of deep moral agreement between people.  To talk about Human Rights suggests that there are some ways that nobody ought to be treated and that there is a good deal of agreement about it.

NS       But where then does your statement that it is seldom possible now to assert that this is not a court of morals come from? What caused the shift from adjudicating on purely legal grounds to adjudications drawing on conceptions of the good?

MW     It is partly the consequence of the Human Rights Act, as I’ve said. If somebody claims that their rights have been violated, they are making a moral claim, and therefore the judges in such a court are bound to make moral judgements. This remark about the increased moral content came from Tom Bingham who’s just died. He used to be Lord Chief Justice and was a very, very good judge and a marvellous man. He was talking about the kinds of moral issues that crop up in medicine, and in public policy in general, that are very often Human Rights issues.  I gave the example in the book, and I think it’s quite a powerful one, of a Human Rights claim against doctors who sterilised a mentally disabled woman against her will. This was a question of whether her rights had been violated.

I think the habit we’ve got into, which I don’t altogether approve of, of talking in terms of Human Rights only thinly disguises the fact that all of these are moral problems. There’s not a list of rights that you can look down and check off whether this is a violation of a right or not. You’ve got to make a decision that a right has been violated, therefore you’ve got to say to yourself, “Is it a human right not to be sterilised?” What you’re saying there is “Is it morally wrong to sterilise somebody without her permission?”

NS       And how do you inform your decision on an issue like that?

MW     It’s got to be in terms of weighing the possible wishes of the person against the probable consequences. This is always how legislators have to make their moral decisions, in terms of the consequences that they foresee flowing from the act. This is why people who rely on a religious dogma get themselves in to difficulties, because they are saying ‘We must legislate against this regardless of the consequences’. That’s not the way laws are made, nor should it be.

NS       Are you not in danger of moral relativism there?

MW     No. This is the great question and it’s right to bring it up. I think that, if you go back to the original Utilitarians, particularly Bentham who was a great jurist – but dotty, obviously – the insistence is that the only criterion of whether a law is a good law or a bad law is the consequences of that law for society as a whole. That was an absolutely fundamentally right thing to say – it reflects how things are. His dottiness came in supposing that you could calculate exactly whether a law was good or bad by looking at the consequences and weighing up this person’s happiness, that person’s happiness, how intense, how great, how widespread. But the notion that you have to take into account, in legislating, what the consequences will be for society seems to me to be absolutely true.

NS       That wouldn’t be a view denied by religious participants in public debate, would it?

MW     Well, I don’t know. If you take an extreme theocratic power like the present government in Iran, then what they would be inclined to say is that a woman who has committed adultery is deserving of the death penalty by stoning. And if you ask, “What are the consequences for society?” the answer is, “That’s irrelevant”. The danger of a theocracy is precisely that in an extreme case they are likely to say that the consequences are irrelevant.

Think for a moment of the Pope, too. He is a source of law within the state of the Vatican, and can say, “It’s no good your telling me that the consequences of forbidding contraception are disastrous in Africa. The consequences don’t matter. We know, by revelation, that the use of contraception is wrong.” And that is an appalling position for any government to take.

NS       But that’s not even on the radar in our country, is it?

MW     That’s what Jeremy Paxman said to me just the other day on Newsnight: “But surely that isn’t a danger in this country”. What I think one needs people to realise is just how terrible a theocracy would be if it were possible. The more people are inclined to say, “We must bring religion back into legislation,” the more they’re fudging this issue. Do they want a theocratic Government? If they want religion brought back into Government then surely the idea would be to have a kind of Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury figure who could say, “That law must not be passed because it’s contrary to Christian doctrine”, or “This law must be passed because it’s what Christian doctrine demands”. That seems to be certainly on the radar.

NS      I want to unpack this phrase, which seems to be a key one, ‘bringing religion back into Government’ or ‘bringing religion into politics’. What precisely do you mean by that? There are lots of very different ways in which religion can contribute to political debate, and to the formation of laws to which we are all required to consent.

MW     It’s very difficult in this country to separate a moral view from a Christian view, just as in Iran it would be very difficult to separate a moral view from a Muslim view. In this country all our moral opinions and habits and beliefs and what we count as virtues and what we count as vices have been incorporated into religion, so people tend to assume without question that religion and morality are virtually one and the same. Even if they’re not religious themselves, they assume that the point of religion is to produce a morality. That is embedded in our culture, so therefore of course religion impinges on politics. I don’t deny that for a moment, nor do I wish to say that it shouldn’t, because that would be to unpick most of our moral beliefs. What I’m saying is that these moral beliefs don’t derive from religion. People are perfectly capable of sincerely holding these beliefs, living by them, and attaching enormous value to them without any religion at all.

NS       You talk about this in the book, and suggest that there is a risk of throwing the baby of morality out with the bath water of religion, as it were. That was one of the statements that I had most difficulty with, because it seems to me that one of the strongest messages from atheists and humanists, and increasingly in the press, is that the two are not synonymous.

MW     Yes, I think you’re right. I think that is on the increase and I’m very glad that it is. But I’m not thinking of atheists and humanists.  I’m thinking of yobs and people with no concept of either morality or religion. They are, if anything, inclined to think that both morality and religion are species of preaching, and they don’t want to be preached at. Certainly atheists and humanists and people who so label themselves are capable of thought, but there is a vast number of people, including hundreds of young people, who don’t know what you’re talking about when you talk about religion, and don’t know, therefore, what you’re talking about when you talk about morals. Because they conflate the two, they think of both as people telling them what to do in an absurd, outdated, arrogant, irrelevant way, and I think that this is very dangerous.

NS       You’re giving a slightly apocalyptic vision of young people who are effectively disconnected from a moral compass. Do you really think that is the case?

MW     I don’t think it is currently the case, but I think it’s a danger; and I think it’s true of some young people, not all.

NS       Do you feel that has grown in your lifetime?

MW     Yes, I think so, certainly since around the 1960s.

NS       Why?

MW     I don’t know. People in the 1960s and from then on became increasingly chary of any making any moral affirmations. They didn’t want to adopt a moral standpoint, didn’t want to occupy the moral high ground, didn’t want to be dogmatic. If they were school teachers, they didn’t want to influence their pupils one way or another. The myth of the neutral school teacher grew up in the 1960s, and I agree with Margaret Thatcher that it was incredibly damaging. It’s nothing to do with religion. It’s to do with post-modernism, the belief that children have to find their own standards and so on. It was a whole number of different influences that came together. The absence of religion was one of them, but it certainly wasn’t the only one.

I remember being absolutely enraged by my eldest daughter, who was born in 1950, picking up from school this kind of relativism. If I said “Today is Tuesday” she’d say “Well, that may be true for you…”  It was absolutely maddening. And this is the kind of thing they were being taught at school. It started with the visual arts. You had to realise you can always see an object from different points of view, there are always different points of view, and this was absolutely drummed into children. So they lost the ability to say “Actually, today is Tuesday,” and shut up.

NS       This change coincided with a great increase in affluence and the material ability for people to choose their own ends in life, which itself allowed a moral view to form around it.

MW     Yes, absolutely, the whole concept of erecting choice as something which is everybody’s entitlement, I think has a lot to do with it. Having choice and exercising choice already does suggest a certain affluence in society. You don’t get either choices or the demand for choices if you live in poverty-stricken parts of India. Choice in the economic sense is a reflection of this epistemological choice which suggests you can say anything you like, and it’s just as likely to be true as the next thing somebody else is saying. That seems to me the more damaging of the two because it’s more fundamental and has had a longer influence. 

What I fear is that people who perceive the dangers of this epistemological openness of relativism either reject religion altogether or fling themselves into the arms of fundamentalism, because fundamentalism is a kind of release from that fear. I very much dislike any suggestion that people ought either to believe or to adopt Christianity because if they don’t it will be the worse for all of us, or to pretend - which I think is the position more or less in the US - to pretend to adopt Christianity because the alternative is relativism. Both of those seem to me to be absolutely dishonest positions to adopt. I’m not in the least hostile to Christianity, but I do object to people lazily thinking “It’s better if one’s a Christian than if one’s not”, because it is meant to be a matter of belief.

NS       I agree that the unexamined religious life as you say is fundamentally dishonest. I suspect we would also agree in rejecting the idea that religious people have an automatic right not only to be heard, but to be obeyed, as though they have some hotline to moral certainty.

MW     This is the exact reason for my writing Dishonest to God - my dislike of that concept. Of course religious people are not only entitled to tell one their moral views, but even may be listened to. Many of them are accustomed to thinking about this kind of thing in a way that most other people are not, and are accustomed to using the vocabulary of morality which a lot of people find very alien. In that sense they find it easier to utter moral propositions than most of the rest of us do. But that doesn’t, as you say, entitle them to claim any special hotline or special authority for the views that they express.

NS       Do you see those who participate in debate doing that? I’ve never, for example, heard an Anglican Bishop get anywhere near the ‘hotline to God’ argument.

MW     No, but this is something I equally complain of, because I think they should say where their morality comes from. They may not think of it as a hotline, but if they believe in revealed religion, and say “I understand the gospels in the following way”, then recite the beliefs of their creed and say “This is the morality you should follow”, they are claiming that.

NS       But that’s not a private hotline, is it, because that’s publicly accessible.

MW     Except that, if I read the gospels historically and always preface what I’m saying about what’s in the gospels with the modifying proposition “This is what St Luke, say, believed” and then go on to tell you what’s in St Luke’s gospel, then I’m not claiming a hotline. I’m claiming a certain amount of historical imagination, perhaps, but we can all have that. I’m not claiming revelation myself. I’m claiming what St Luke or St Mark or whoever it was genuinely believed was the case.

NS       But what happens if you do have a historically-nuanced understanding of the gospels and you believe that they’re revelation and so on and so forth, and then you wish to participate in public life?

MW     Then I would be entitled to do so entirely, provided that I said “I’m coming from a Christian standpoint and the origin and the certitude and the absolute unchangeableness of this moral outlook comes from my Christian belief.” The Archbishop of Canterbury said in an interview with the New Statesman the other day that he thought that religious people were entitled to take part in politics provided that they made clear where they were coming from. And then he said that they shouldn’t expect a free passage because of their faith, and I think that was absolutely right.

NS       Would you apply all that to those who would call themselves a humanist, for example? Because a humanist will come to the political table with a set of presuppositions and commitments that cannot be fully rationally explained and justified. They will have ‘faith commitments’, whether it’s to progress or autonomy or whatever else. Does the stipulation to ‘show your moral workings’ apply to them, too?

MW     I think it applies to everybody, absolutely. Everybody is obliged to answer the question, ‘What is the basis of your belief that one thing is better than another?’

NS       How do we negotiate a society then, in which we will find ourselves in the chamber or round the political table with people who are reasonable and well-thought-through in their beliefs, but who simply have fundamentally different presuppositions, or moral hinterlands?

MW     Well show me those people. Which are they? Going back to the question of Human Rights, suppose that you say that to throw people from their land and repossess it, simply because you want to – I’m thinking of Zimbabwe – is a violation of Human Rights. It seems to me that the only thing you can say about the people who do this is that they don’t give a damn about morals, because I think most people would agree that to be thrown out of your property without reason and without compensation, and cast into the world with nothing is morally abominable.

NS       These are extreme examples, though. What about the more usual moral clashes that go on in the chamber?

MW     I think the difficulty there is that people are very reticent about talking about what they actually mean. It’s clearer in the case of assisted dying than it was in the case of abortion. In the abortion case, more people just fell back on saying “human life is sacred” without thinking, for a moment, what they meant by that. In the case of assisted dying they started by saying “human life is sacred” and then almost every person who took part in the argument switched to what was meant to be a utilitarian, or used an empirical argument that the consequences for society would be very bad if the law changed.

NS       Is that not an example of appropriate public reasoning?

MW     Well it’s meant to be, but if you follow through the utilitarian argument, it doesn’t hold up. They say that if you allow that there are some cases in which doctors may hasten the death of someone who is dying, and who is absolutely miserable, and who wants to die, and who says so, that this will be completely fatal for society. What you need is a bit of evidence for that, because it’s meant to be an empirical statement. They say “this will be the consequence”, but of course they can’t prove it, because it’s in the future and it’s hypothetical. There is no real evidence for the appalling list of consequences that they say will happen, so one can’t but suspect that really they’re falling back on the perception that human life is sacred.

NS       One of the arguments they would draw on would be the example of abortion. I know that you say in the book that you don’t think there’s an exact parallel, but surely there’s a powerful one. One of the justifications before the ’67 act was that it would make every child a wanted child. Well, we do not live in a society at the moment where every child is a wanted child. There has been a very significant increase in the number of abortions since 1967 and people arguing against assisted dying deploy that empirical evidence in support of their slippery slope argument.

MW     But then one wants to find out whether there’s been anything wrong with the number of abortions. Certainly, the number of abortions has increased and it’s easier to get an abortion than it was. So now we need to know what’s morally wrong with that, other than that human life is sacred. We need to know whether the increase in abortions is a damaging increase, and it may be. I don’t take anything for granted about abortion. I know that generally speaking it’s some thing greatly to be deplored, but I want to know whether the increase in abortions has been among people for whom an abortion was actually a benefit, a good.

NS       Isn’t one of the big problems here that the people it affects most, in the case of abortion, are voiceless? We can talk and debate about whether the lives of those who have had abortions are improved or not improved, but the undeniable fact is that there are thousands of potential lives that we can never hear from.

MW     I think the number of ill-educated people who have abortions is probably equal or nearly equal to the number of ill-educated people who have illegitimate babies because they wouldn’t even contemplate having an abortion. There are thousands of girls who become pregnant and wouldn’t think of having an abortion because they’re not interested. They’ve got no future anyway and a future with a baby is to them better than a future without a baby. They’ve got someone to love, they’ve got someone who’ll love them.

NS       But is that not a good thing?

MW     No, I think it’s a terrible thing, because the joy of having a baby may wear off after it’s not a baby but is a yobbish teenager, and we’ve all got to look after these persons. The social consequences are awful.

NS       Are you saying that those children born to the lower socio-economic grades are somehow less welcome in society?

MW     It’s not that they’re not welcome in society. They just have a worse time. They’re educationally worse off, they’re the underclass, they’re financially worse off, they’re the people who don’t get jobs, they’re the people who suffer.

NS       Isn’t that for us to address by social means?

MW     Well, but how do you do it? Start with the education system. What do you do with them? How do you teach them? There’s no solution at the moment, and it’s very expensive.

NS       I want briefly to explore another interesting and complex area which you touch on in the book, which is the relationship between public opinion and public legislation. How far in a democracy should one take public opinion into account? How do you see that relationship being configured?

MW     I agree with you it’s a very difficult question, and it is going to come up acutely with the present government’s quasi-commitment to a lot of referendums. Every now and then there may be a case for having a referendum. Huge things like whether to abolish the monarchy or whether to leave the European Union are fit subjects perhaps. But I think the idea that you could have a referendum on something relatively trivial like voting reform is starting down a path one doesn’t want to go too far down.

Whatever its defects, constitutionally it is parliament and only parliament that can give the law authority. If parliament is to be reduced to rubber stamping the views of the Daily Mail readership, then God help us. Mercifully, though, parliament has usually taken its responsibilities extremely seriously and has actually led the country and has never thought of holding a referendum - as in the case of capital punishment, which the majority of the people were against abolishing in the 1960s.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that it would be incredibly difficult to word a referendum in such a way as to eliminate the kinds of blind prejudice that parliament has an absolute duty not to succumb to. The question of immigration is the kind of area where there is a lot of prejudice and passion, so a referendum would be terribly, terribly dangerous.

NS       I sympathise with that fear of ‘mobocracy’, but there is a very real danger accompanying it: it’s not too far away from a de facto autocracy whereby public opinion doesn’t actually matter that much.

MW     This is a tremendously difficult problem and I don’t think there’s one answer to it. I think one has to exercise constant vigilance and in each case guard against following public opinion too far. Conversely, if legislators pay too little attention to public opinion, and the law too grossly diverges from public belief, then the law will not be enforced, and that is bad for the Rule of Law, on which society depends.


Interview conducted 19 October 2010.

Dishonest to God: On keeping religion out of politics is published by Continuum priced £16.99.

Image from Tōei's photostream

Posted 11 August 2011


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