Exit Strategy from the Moral Crisis (as revealed in 2020)
What we are witnessing, in all our like-minded countries, is a massive moral crisis. It has been long in the making and now has come to a head. It has many elements and multiple causes. There are ways of rescuing the situation, but these will need time and more than time. It is imperative to begin a well-reflected fight-back.
The moral crisis is evident in the docility of so many when faced by outrageous restrictions and impositions by rogue governments. The pretext used by governments is a novel strain of cold/influenza, scarcely worse or more infectious than others over the years.
The members of key professions have failed in their fiduciary duties, Parliamentarians, including members of the Opposition, have everywhere conceded power to an overbearing executive. Mainstream editors and journalists have sided single-mindedly with a disproven narrative, suppressing debate as never before. Some scientists and medics have been keen to grandstand now they are finally in the limelight while others have allowed themselves to be pressured into silence. A few have been brave.
Our antiquated political structures worked passably well only as long as politicians and, doubtless, behind the scenes, civil servants retained sufficient sense of fairness and the common good as to make the structures work despite their inadequacy. With the demise of strength of character and moral purpose among our elites that has come to an end.
In a moment I shall propose, not for the first time, novel structures to put these wrongs right – novel, but based on the age-old principle of checks & balances, i.e. the division of power.
First some reminders of the nature of moral purpose. Morality is not simply about adhesion to rules or codes. These are, rather, points of departure in a learning process, and must sometimes be set aside. Knowing when to put them aside or, rather, how to apply the multitude of often inconsistent rules, is a matter of judgement, which comes only with experience. Prior to judgement comes character, and this must involve allegiance to a common good, however this is perceived to be.
The motivation for asserting and upholding strength of character is the sense of identity. What sort of person does one wish to be? Without the integrating force of a sense of identity one drifts and ends by being no-one in particular. At best, a conformist.
Character importantly encompasses also a devotion to the place, or places, one has come to occupy in society. Sometimes it may even be literally devotion to a place, or a territory,
Character is not about being all things to all men. It means taking a stand, whether quietly or loudly. Prior to strength of character comes recognition of one’s weaknesses and the search for places where these will do least harm, places therefore which play to one’s strengths. Self-knowledge, imperfect always, but sufficient.
Hence one cannot have, nor should one seek to have, all the virtues. One must also bear in mind that each virtue has a shadow, a vice, when pursued to extremes. (If everyone had all the virtues there would be no need of society: we could all live as hermits.)
The corollary is that one should cultivate, though not to the exclusion of all else, the character and judgement that one’s chosen or assigned role demands. Take pride in oneself. Be too proud to do wrong.
To return to my opening diagnosis. A knowledgeable parliamentarian must filter the views of those he or she represents, form a judgement, and advocate commensurate policies. In the Enlightenment tradition (as defined by Kant’s tract “What is Enlightenment?”) a parliamentarian must proceed conscientiously and with independence of mind. Therefore, they cannot be party loyalists. (There is a detailed explanation of how representative democracy is possible without parties and cartels at . The concept is also sketched briefly further below.)
A journalist or editor must have a curious and questioning mind so that they are keen to publish different takes on any matter of importance. They must not publish propaganda. Truth takes precedence over a good story, which is also an imperative for a historian. Those who prefer the imagination to the facts are free to become novelists or some other kind of story-teller. This too is an honourable vocation, but it is a different one, and the vocations cannot be mixed or changed overnight.
Truthfulness matters. A journalist may use subterfuge to obtain a story, and lie like a spy, but in the reporting it is the relevant truth that must out.
Part of the recent moral decline is the idea that it is alright to twist the truth, or be untruthful, in service to a higher cause. Environmental charities, for example, have been known to be dishonest in the interests of influencing public opinion in favour of the convictions they hold. This perverse notion will have its roots in the advertising “industry,” where it is alright to extol the benefits of a product or service while saying nothing of the downsides. It is an industry which draws substantially on subliminal methods. The ill effects of omnipresent and intrusive advertising extend well beyond the irritant of encouraging people to make unwise choices in their spending habits: it has come to corrupt thought processes and the balance of values which is essential to civilised living.
In US law there is a principle of “discovery,” which means full transparency in a formal process that takes place prior to the court proceedings proper. If one side suppresses vital information, or for tactical reasons reveals it only late, it has lost. Full stop. Similarly said charity must be seen to have lost. It no longer deserves a hearing. In particular, though, the individual or individuals who have chosen to put expediency above principle must be identified and banished from public discourse. For example, after due process, they might be stripped of their academic qualifications and a public record kept of the incident.
Much the same applies to any scientist who gives voice to representations which they know, or should know, to be false, rather than merely controversial. (If a matter is disputed, then this can be said loud and clear, and the reasons for the controversy set out.)
A scientist (or medic) who submits to the dictates of their institution, or as a director gives way to illicit pressure from corporate or state finance, must, in a well-ordered society, similarly reckon with repercussions for their career.
True: telling the truth is not always straightforward. In a personal context, full disclosure is often not warranted and may be wrong for various reasons. Elsewhere, there are such things as business secrets and rightful confidentiality. These qualifications can be condensed to the questions of whether the recipient has a right to know or a need to know. The truth also involves relevance: it is not an accumulation of disconnected facts.
This said, in public life and in a professional context, truthfulness may be awkward, but it is seldom complicated. To this extent, and in these contexts, it is a moral imperative. An imperative that has been outrageously disregarded throughout 2020.
How can the disregard – the habit of mendacity – be ended? Here there need to be institutional safeguards which work from the ground up. Society and civil society are sustained by those whose work involves day-to-day discipline, knowledge & know-how, and long-term commitment. In an extended sense, these may be called the professional classes. They include many lines of work which may not be immediately categorised or thought of as professions. None the less, the people in each line of work will exchange experiences with each other, collaborate as much as they compete, and eventually create formal associations to further their aims and give themselves a public face. The established professions are already organised in this way, with codes of conduct and disciplinary procedures. There is much to criticise in those codes and procedures. Some engage in reckless witch-hunts against mavericks, some are too lenient or unduly harsh, while most use the language of ethics loosely, falsely assuming that everyone has a shared and mature understanding of morals. Much of the time people’s assumptions and intuitions in these matters are neither shared nor mature. The subject is not over-complicated, but it does require some principles and premises in order to be made articulate.
This may be best achieved by speaking with members of other professions. Otherwise groupthink sets in. More importantly, a profession needs the check & balance provided by outsiders, who indirectly represent the wider society. No profession must be a law onto itself. Yet this is what has tended to happen. Doctors adjudicate doctors, lawyers lawyers, and so on.
Such, then, is the argument for institutional safeguards. It must be possible, without resort to the delay, uncertainty, expense and remoteness of the law, to exclude individuals, either temporarily or permanently from a line of remuneration. This can be done by requiring, by statute, all those in professional or executive positions to be members of at least one relevant professional body. If, after due process, they are expelled, they would become unemployable in that function. This would boost the backbone of those who wish to do right but, today, are pressurised into doing wrong or at least remaining silent.
A journalist, for example, might still report, but could not receive any revenues in that capacity. This principle of a prohibition on remuneration is one that could be applied more widely. It is useful for maintaining freedom of expression while still restraining certain kinds of behaviour. Someone denying the magnitude of the Shoah, for example, might be prohibited from earning or receiving money from their fanbase. Holocaust denial and the like must not be allowed to be a business model. Similarly, “professional” pornographers might be prohibited from earning money. If they want to display gratuitously, in their free time, this must be allowed.
A corollary is that those who have professional responsibilities should be properly remunerated, something which no longer goes without saying among, again, for example, journalists. An acquaintance once managed a company with a dozen or score of employees, which was a stressful job. She has been on benefits prior to hiring. She was paid the minimum wage. There needs to be more than one minimum wage.
So much on my proposal for boosting moral fibre. Not high-minded exhortations, or appeals to conscience, but concrete institutional mechanisms along with a concept of motivation, via sense of self (i.e. identity), of why one might cultivate such fibre.
None of this can come come to pass in the absence of radical political change. The recent betrayal of fundamental citizen rights by almost all parliamentarians in nearly all “Western” jurisdictions must say something about the character, or judgement, or both, of those elected under the party system.
There is now, as there was not in the 20th century, an alternative to political parties, an alternative which generates genuinely representative assemblies and still provides for government stability. Various formulations are available at where all conceivable objections are dealt with. Briefly, the mechanism is that one votes for someone one trusts without any “tactical” considerations. It is as if one were appointing an electoral power of attorney. To be elected a candidate must obtain a fixed number of votes. If this person falls short (as most will) they can assign their batch of votes to a like-minded candidate closer to the threshold.
This scheme would replace the internal and often obscure preselection process practised by political parties to generate their party lists or preferred candidates. It has many other favourable repercussions, too.
It may be assumed that such a mechanism would be able to draw on a previously untapped human potential, since many are currently discouraged from politics by the straitjacket of parties. We would have a different quality of candidate and, ultimately, representative. They could hardly be worse, on average, than the current batch.
This does presuppose that those canvassing are honest about their policies and intentions. At Westminster, in the years after 2017 many parliamentarians who had canvassed as supporters of Brexit did their utmost to prevent a genuine Brexit happening. This was early witness to the absence of moral substance among MPs. Part of the rationale behind the mechanisms described earlier to reinforce moral character is that, in such a transformed climate, such skulduggery would be less likely.
Paul Charles Gregory, 13 January 2021