A prominent Irish academic, who often likes to set the cat among the pigeons, a former head of one of the country’s universities, Dr. Edward Walsh, has written a searing critique of the Republic’s political system and the mediocrity it has induced in the body politic. “The intense crisis that now engulfs us highlights the deficiencies of Ireland’s system of governance. Talent is the glaring deficit. The 15 people who currently serve as Government Ministers are well-intentioned, hard-working people but generally undistinguished in terms of expertise, experience or achievement. Not one of the many Irish people who have proven themselves internationally serves in government.” (The Irish Times, July 6).
Talent is important, but it is not the only thing that is important. A far more worrying issue affecting our civic life is the deficit in understanding of the ethical and anthropological principles which should be at the heart of our political culture. If this is not already wreaking havoc it is certainly sowing the seeds of disasters to come. Anyone who watched Irish Television’s political analysis forum, Frontline, recently (Monday, July5, http://www.rte.ie/news/2009/0921/thefrontline.html ) would have been given an occasion to reflect on the consequences of this deficit. In both sections of the programme the speakers and the audience were essentially grappling with the question of the nature of family and the rights and duties of those who make up families. The issues being discussed were civil partnerships in the first segment and legislation for children’s rights in the other. In the context of both issues, only a handful showed any grasp of what family really is in terms of man’s and society’s fundamental nature. It was truly scary to hear talk of “new family forms”, “new family identities” and a complete refusal to address David Quinn’s questions about the fundamental identity of family based on natural motherhood, fatherhood and childhood and its crucial role as the essential bedrock of society. The political challenge which the majority of those taking part saw in front of them was how to regulate and legislate for any number essentially artificial arrangements at the expense of the one natural form of family that we know is at the heart of our civilization.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached at a service for the new British Parliament last May. He appealed for a deeper vision in politics and among the approaches which he saw would limit such vision was one where “we try to make sure that government controls all outcomes and averts all risks by law and regulation.” This, he said, “produces a culture of obsessional legislation, paralysis of initiative and pervasive anxiety”.
Politics, not only in Ireland but almost everywhere, has surrendered itself to this search and has abandoned any grasp it had of the fundamental nature of man, his dignity and his destiny. All that, politicians now say, is none of our business. Life-style choices are now what is going to dictate legislation and what legislators must respond to. The State is relegating its role to that of “making arrangements” for any number of life-styles likely to be chosen by individuals regardless of any moral principles which might be involved. Morality is identified as an exclusively personal matter. The only moral responsibility which this kind of politics accepts is the simplistic and shallow Benthamite one of trying to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number, something very different from a politics based on the pursuit of the common good. For “the greatest possible number” please read “the greatest possible number of votes”.
But there are serious voices calling a halt to this myopic madness. The financial mess which the Western world has landed itself in – and landed almost the entire globe in by default – has some messages not only for financiers but for all those whose actions have a direct bearing on the common good. Niall Ferguson’s new book, High Financier: The Lives and Time of Sigmund Warburg, has just been published by Penguin. In it he sets up Warburg, a financial giant of the mid twentieth century, as a contrast to the financial bandits who roamed Wall Street and other places over the past three or four decades.
“The real lesson of history”, Ferguson argued in a Daily Telegraph piece last week, “is that regulation alone is not the key to financial stability. Indeed, over-complicated regulation can be the disease it purports to cure, by encouraging a culture of box-ticking ‘compliance’ rather than individual moral judgement. The question that gets asked in highly regulated markets is not: ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ but ‘Can we get away with this?’
“What is more important is to instil in financial professionals the kind of ethical framework that was the basis of Siegmund Warburg’s life and work. ‘Success from the financial and from the prestige point of view… is not enough,’ Warburg told his fellow directors in 1959. ‘What matters even more is constructive achievement and adherence to high moral and aesthetic standards in the way in which we do our work.’”
This is the real crisis in our society and the moral ineptitude of the vast majority of our political representatives is at the heart of it. They have simply abandoned the moral ground. They defend their amorality on the basis of a confusion of morality with religion. They do this especially when they encounter moral arguments from opponents who also hold religious convictions. The most recent Irish example of this came from Justice Minister Dermot Ahern when he professed himself to be a Catholic but then declared that he leaves all that behind him when he walks into the legislature. This of course was the identical compromise deemed necessary by John F. Kennedy to help him secure his election as President of the United States back in 1959. “While we all have our beliefs and religions, I don’t think it should cloud our judgement”, Ahern said in an Irish Times interview. We might wonder not just what kind of faith is behind that remark but what kind of intellect produced it. It is as though these politicians are reading Christ’s stipulation, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s” as “Forget about God when you render to Caesar what is his.” Any reading of Catholic teaching – which as a professing Catholic Mr. Ahern might be expected to know something about – particularly, for example, one of the great encyclicals of the last pontificate, Faith and Reason, will lead any thinking Christian to see that a religion which clouds his judgement is a false religion.
But Ahern is just one example. Cross the Irish Sea, cross the Atlantic and you will find many more. In an interesting article in the New York Times recently, columnist Charles Blow observed a shift in the Democratic Party toward a more religious profile. He wondered about its consequences for the party. He asks whether the growing religiosity on the left will push the Democrats toward the right.
“At the moment, that answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, unlike John Kerry before him, Barack Obama made a strong play for the religious vote on his march to the White House. It worked so well that it’s likely to continue, if not intensify, among Democratic candidates. On the other hand, the religious left is not the religious right. The left isn’t as organized or assertive. For the most part, it seems to have made its peace with the mishmash of morality under the Democratic umbrella, rallying instead around some core Democratic tenets: protection of, and equality for, the disenfranchised and providing greater opportunity and assistance for the poor.”
Most of this is of course little more than religious window-dressing. Recently the Obama Administration signalled a determination to defend the Day of National Prayer in appeals against a decision by a Wisconsin federal court judge that held the Day violated the First Amendment’s non-establishment of religion clause. It goes back to President Truman’s time. Yet plainly such religiousness, when covering anti-life agendas in other matters, implicitly re-defines religiousness as a mass subjectivism devoid of reasoned and justiciable content, a force which can swing almost in any direction.
The key phrase in Blow’s piece is “mishmash of morality”. Politicians there as elsewhere are moral followers, not leaders – with a few exceptions – and when this “mishmash of morality” is what prevails in society, as it is increasingly doing, then this will be what you get in politics as well. The moral arbiter of our time, dictating the moral standards of our time, is what has come to be called “political correctness”. As a result – again an Irish example – you have a legislature working itself into a fever over the so-called morality of stag hunting when it practically unanimously slides legislation through unopposed on an issue touching on and compromising the understanding of the morality of one the most intimate and sacred of human acts.
Perhaps we are dreaming impossible dreams when we look for moral leadership from our politicians. As a class have they ever given it? The shining examples of such leadership have been few and far between – Cicero, Thomas More, William Wilberforce, Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln and not too many more. Few statesmen have the sensitivity of conscience of Thomas More who spoke of those who shirk the responsibilities of political leadership as being “ like the cowardly ship’s captain who is so disheartened by the furious din of the storm that he deserts the helm, hides away cowering in some cranny, and abandons the ship to the waves—if a [leader] does this, I would certainly not hesitate to juxtapose and compare his sadness with the sadness that leads as [Paul] says, to hell….”
Many great political and moral reforms in democratic societies have been driven from the bottom. The movements which abolished slavery had to drag legislatures to the point where they conceded. So the battle for the good life, the moral life, has to be first fought elsewhere. As long as we neglect to fight it elsewhere we are in danger of our legislatures leading us further and further into the morass of mishmash morality. If the euthanasia movement can succeed in getting public opinion to be indifferent – and it is indifference which is the real destroyer – about whether you and I have a right to terminate our lives at will, or – as they have done in most Western societies – be indifferent to the rights of unborn children, then the politicians will follow and legislate for these horrors. For them, consciences do not enter it. Their business, as they see it, is to make the necessary arrangements to keep the traffic flowing smoothly – and the votes coming their way. As this happens the consequences will become visibly disturbing and result in serious social dysfunction. Edmund Burke foretold the consequences for his time when the observed the self-serving and egotistical architects of the French Revolution at work:
“When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, and the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.” And he added: “On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations or can spare to them from his own private interests.”
There are people in Ireland today who feel helplessly adrift in a society which is being slowly moulded in a very ugly way. These other words of Edmund Burke resonate poignantly with them: “There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-informed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely…” For them it is no longer so. Why it is not so will be perfectly obvious to anyone who revisits the debate in the Irish Senate on Thursday, July 8, (http://debates.oireachtas.ie/DDebate.aspx?F=SEN20100708.xml&Node=H2&Page=4) where a truly shocking spectacle was laid before us of the majority in that house savaging a handful of public representatives who professed rational and conscientious objections to a very suspect piece of legislation which is now going to the Head of State to be passed into law.