Rational Morality was released last week, intentionally opening with an introductory chapter that concisely explains the importance of ethics through use of a news story which we all find morally abhorrent: the Jimmy Savile scandal. Upon Stuart Hall’s prosecution today, resulting from the actions of that same police investigation into Savile, I am providing the introduction to the book in its entirety below.
Often there is confusion as to what morality means in the modern world—what relevance do ethics or morality have in our lives? The easiest way to explain is through the media portrayal of events that touch us all.
As I write this in the first months of 2013, there remain news reports and stories circulating in the UK media which relate to one of the most heavily covered stories of 2012. It began when interviews emerged in October 2012, airing on a TV documentary, alleging that the well-known celebrity Jimmy Savile (who died in 2011) had misused his position of power in order to commit sex crimes on five different females in the 1970’s. As a result, the police began investigations and quickly gathered that he may have abused up to 25 victims. This figure rose dramatically over the coming months to around 450 potential victims coming forward (to date), with many of the targets of abuse being children or other vulnerable individuals.
A report released on January 11th 2013, jointly produced by the Met Police and the NSPCC, said the scale of the sexual abuse was ‘unprecedented’ and described Savile as a ‘predatory sex offender’. His victims ranged in age between 47 and just 8 years old–adding the further offence of paedophilic sex abuse to the already horrendous stories.
Unsurprisingly these crimes shocked and appalled the British public, as well as audiences around the world. We were shaken to our core to learn that a celebrity had managed to use his status to sexually abuse and exploit young children, patients dying in hospices and many other innocent victims. Many of the abused will be scarred for life, or may no longer
be with us.
It is our reaction to these crimes that underpin our ethics. We don’t just find Savile’s actions distasteful, we find them morally abhorrent. We don’t think it is okay to do what he did and we think he should have been stopped from doing so. This is morality, and that we desperately desire for sex offenders like Savile to be stopped, or locked up, shows our will for there to be an observed moral code. We don’t think that someone like Savile should be allowed to do what he likes at the victims’ expense, so we don’t believe that morality should be relative to each person and instead we think that it should be objectively applied to anyone who does what he did (regardless of their position of power and influence or personal tastes).
Already it has been easy to explain the idea of morality and ethics at an important level. By using the examples of news stories it is easy to show what ethics are, how strongly we want them and that we want this system of morality to be objectively applied. This, in a nutshell, is how ethics work.
This might lead you to ask, what is the purpose of this book, if we already have an observed and demonstrable form of morality in society? Well, another major news story doing the rounds might explain it: same sex marriage. For the past few years same sex marriage has been debated, and was opposed by many Republicans (among others) in the US and many Conservatives in the UK. Still many states in the US do not allow for gay marriage, and the UK plans to allow for it although does not compel any religious group to perform same sex marriage services. Unlike in cases of sex abuse, opinion is not as unified on the moral issue of gay marriage. There are passionate voices arguing for it and against it.
Yet, if one is to analyse the content of the arguments on same sex marriage, there really isn’t a big debate to be had. Religious groups have no evidence for their own spiritual beliefs (being, as they are, personally posited truths), and yet the marriage ceremonies which they can perform have legal recognition (and legal benefits, in some places). However, they are being legally allowed to discriminate based on sexual orientation when it comes to performing these ceremonies, even though the law says that discrimination is illegal as a general matter.
There are only two possible, rational solutions to the same-sex marriage issue when we are given these facts as outlined above. The first is that religious groups are forced to allow same sex couples to marry, so as not to legally discriminate based on their own personal opinions. The second is that religious groups give up the legal and state-influencing powers they have, due to the spiritual, illegal and non-rational justification they wish to give to discrimination. These are the onlytwo moral options: there is no middle ground, just as there isn’t with the Savile case. Doing anything other than this (such as allowing same sex marriage, but not making all institutions that need to recognise it do so; as has happened in the UK) is to arbitrarily allow for discrimination. That is an abuse of the kind of fairness which we seem to want in cases like Savile’s.
What the same sex marriage debate shows is that although we have a functioning system of morality in some areas (such as where societal opinion is rationally unified against sex abuse), it is completely uninformed in others (where it should be converged against discrimination in the case of gay
marriage, for example).
The analysis of these two news stories gives a good grounding on what morality is, but also with the problem of morality in society. Almost everyone recognises the immorality of what Savile did, probably because it is already legally and culturally forbidden, and yet relatively few recognise or are disgusted by the immorality of discrimination or other rationally indefensible moral acts that are not already culturally forbidden. We seem to understand the reason that we need morality, as exemplified by our opinions on things like murder and violent abuse, but we seem to misunderstand that morality doesn’t just stop with what we currently find as immoral; it extends to things we may never even have thought about before, or things that we don’t currently legislate for. It should work based on fairness, not familiarity.
These stories show that ethics is still an extremely relevant subject. We want the vulnerable to be protected, we want aggressors to be stopped and we want fairness to persevere. We may wish to sum up the theoretical issues that these very different examples raise in three sets of questions:
1. Should morality be relative, or objective?
Is it definitely our split personal opinions on gay marriage that are wrong, or are we instead wrong to have a largely unified opinion against sex crime? Can an objective view of morality even be defensible within a modern, scientific view of the world, when morality seems to be opinion based and not fact based? In other words, how can an opinion on a moral issue be equated with being a moral fact, in the same way that physical science like physics or chemistry talks about facts? Are we deluding ourselves?
2. If morality is objective, then how can we fully judge what is right and what is wrong?
How do we know what is objectively wrong and what is objectively permissible, and how do we best make these decisions?
3. What is the real world effect for each of us once we have these answers?
What would a rational morality have us do? And why should we care to do it?
Don’t worry if these questions feel very vague or unexplained for now, as they will be explained in detail at different stages. Roughly speaking, the following pages are my attempt to answer these questions—and a few more—whilst formulating a fresh, modern and more rational way to think about morality. A way in which morality can be viewed as a form of science. If at any stage things seem like they have gotten too complex, or too theoretical, always draw it back to these kinds of simple questions; ethics is about events and happenings in the real world, and should be able to be understood by anyone. The theory, as referenced throughout, only exists so as to back up or else correct our opinions, by pointing out a more thorough understanding of the real world. That’s all theory is and thus it should never be needlessly complex. This is my adopted philosophy, and there’s no better place to quote one of my favourite historical influences, William of Ockham:
“It is pointless to do with more what can be done with fewer.”
I hope that the influence of this single line will become obvious the more you read.
Rob Johnson, March 2013