Travelling North

Article – Can They Be Moral?


Can they be moral?

Recently a friend of mine asked “How can you be moral, and be a Republican?”  He is a very thoughtful and well-read person, and yet he said it with such vehemence that I realised that it was clearly a comment based on deep feelings.  As a result that phrase has lingered in my mind for weeks, making me question what is meant by such an easily used term as ‘moral’.

We often claim that morals are a matter of individual choice.  It is all relative, and we simply say that’s ‘their choice’.  Of course there are occasions when differences in the moral codes can be very important: ask a Christian in Egypt, a Shi-ite in Iraq, or, for that matter, a Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland.  However, my friend was not talking about religious differences, but rather the differences between Democrat and Republican views of the world in the USA, perhaps a somewhat less challenging divide than the sectarian differences that have torn societies apart.  However, politics can be very divisive, and at the heart of his comment was a deeply felt view about the basis of how we should live our lives.

What is this strange thing called a moral code?  As a working definition it can be described as a set of principles or rules which people follow to create a good or a decent society.  According to this definition there are some people we would call ‘immoral’, because they don’t adhere to a set principles or rules to live by that would create a good or decent society.  If we talk in this way, then we are certainly not relativists – we are making it quite clear there are right ways to live, (assessed by such terms as good and decent), and wrong ways.  As Socrates might have said, a moral code defines – for us – the way we ought to live.  Moreover, we usually live with others who share – at least in broad terms – the same moral code as our own.

How do we find this mysterious thing called a moral code?  Some people find their moral code is determined by their religion.  As a result, in many societies, there are groups that follow different moral codes because they justify them on different grounds (for example, Protestants versus Roman Catholics in many western societies).  However, in practice we often find that we are able to tolerate another person’s moral code even though it has a different basis to our own, because we can see that we share a number of fundamental principles, even if we disagree on some of the details.  This is not to ignore the power those little differences can have, as countless religious wars have demonstrated time and time again.

If moral codes for many people derive from their religious beliefs, then within a country with a diversity of religions this raises the question as to whether there has to be a moral code that applies to all the citizens of that country, irrespective of personal religious beliefs.  This is an important issue in a country like the United Sates of America, where there is a rigorous separation between church and state.  An example makes this clear.

Religions differ on their view of what constitutes marriage.  In the west, most religions define marriage in terms of heterosexual monogamy, one man and one woman.  In the Middle East, some Islamic countries allow polygamy; one man may have more than one wife.   Clearly then, given that the US has citizens whose religious preferences include Islam as much as various forms of Christianity, then the only way to keep religion out of marriage is to decide that it is a state matter, a legally recognized union, not a religious one.  However, if marriage is a legal issue, then this raises an interesting challenge – why should a legally recognised union have to be based on the practices of some religions and not others?  Surely, a legal union can be between a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, or, for that matter, a woman and two men.  In a multi-religious nation where state and religion are kept separate, ‘marriage’ should be a legal matter and nothing more – recognising a union, and identifying what that union means in terms of such matters as property rights, responsibilities for children, etc.  That doesn’t preclude having a religious service as well, but the actual union is a matter of law, nothing more.  I am sure I don’t have to tell you that this is not the way most people see this issue in the US at present!

Of course, moral codes do not have to be based on religious principles.  Some find the basis for their moral code grounded in a different kind of philosophy, for example there is one approach called ‘humanitarian’.  This is a moral code that is based on what makes us human, and what we should respect in other humans.  Others look to the principles set out in some key document – the American Constitution, the accumulated precedents developed through the application of common law, the International Declaration of Human Rights.  Yet others establish their moral code from a very simple but basic precept – “do unto others as you have them do to you” (although I still prefer Confucius view of this:  his version was ‘do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you’ – in many ways the negative is far more powerful!).

If moral codes are principles or rules to live by to create a decent or a good society, then this suggests two further topics to explore.  First, how is it that we can live alongside other people who have a different moral code?  Earlier I suggested this may be because we recognise there are some moral principles that seem similar across different codes.  Is this because there are some features of morality that are more universal – deeper, if you like?  Certainly, if we look at the underlying moral principles of a number of religions and others groups in society, we do see many issues that keep reappearing:  respect for the lives of others; liberty; fairness or ‘justice’ in how people are treated.  Even as I type these words, however, I am starting to wonder how often we slide over words like these without unpicking what they may mean to different people.

Let me use as an example the concept of the ‘sanctity of life’, a way that some people describe the view that any good moral code should respect the lives of others.  If the right to life is shared among many religions, the term ‘sanctity of life’ turns out to be a loaded phrase.  It is code for a set of beliefs about when life begins, and who has the right to determine whether or not a fetus can be aborted.  This is a contentious issue.  If people in the US have never been killed for being Roman Catholics, some have certainly been killed for assisting in abortions.  From the moment the Supreme Court determined the view that it is a woman’s right to determine whether or not she should have an abortion (at least up until the point that the fetus could not survive outside the womb), there has been a steady process of restricting and narrowing that right.

This may seem to be an argument about facts (when does life begin?  Is a fetus a sentient human being?), but it is also a moral argument – who has the right to make such decisions?  Those who are arguing for a change in this regard put forward an interesting argument: believing that life begins at conception it is suggested that the Supreme Court should overturn that Roe v. Wade decision – as this was a decision that should have been “left to the people” rather than having it placed it in the hands of unelected judges. ‘Left to the people’ means, of course, leaving it to governments –at the Federal or State level, to determine their own abortion laws.  In other words, some are arguing that this should not be a matter for the Supreme Court, whose task it is to interpret laws in relation to the Constitution, but should be determined by elected state or federal assemblies.   But isn’t that the reason we have a Supreme Court, to ensure that matters are not just determined by votes, but to ensure they can be checked and overturned if they do not meet some fundamental (moral and Constitutional) principles!!

This example leads us on to a second topic:  is a moral code a static thing, or does it evolve and change over time?  Certainly this has led to many schisms in the world of religious groups:  the issue of change pits the orthodox, the fundamentalist, (those who see that everything must be understood as it was first written down) against those who are reformists, (willing to reinterpret what was said against the changing nature of the world in which we live).

The battle between traditionalists and reformists is constantly being fought through arguments about interpretation.  There are many interesting examples, but one that still causes a great deal of concern and political maneuvering concerns the second amendment to the US constitution, which states:  ‘A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’

What does this amendment mean?  The US Supreme Court, which is constantly asked to interpret the meaning of the Constitution and its amendments, recently stated that the Second Amendment protects the individuals “right to keep and bear arms.” This interpretation is seen as supports the right of all law-abiding Americans to exercise the right to own firearms and to use them for such activities as hunting, recreational shooting, self-defense, and the protection of family and property.  Is that what the Amendment says?  The Supreme Court says, “Yes”.

Some people would argue that such an interpretation can only be justified if you remove the first 13 words – “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”:  if the security of the state is now maintained by a paid militia (the armed forces, and all those other agencies like the CIA, FBI, etc.), then there is no longer a need – or a necessary right – for people to be able to keep and carry firearms.  Funnily enough, if you were a fundamentalist – someone who reads the whole text and defends it as it is written – then you would seem to be on the side of restricting the use of arms, wouldn’t you?  It seems that some support the Supreme Court when they like what it says (support the right to own firearms), and disavow its right to interpret when we don’t like the outcome (allow women to choose to abort a fetus)!

It is not just a matter of interpretation.  Moral codes can rest on principles that are themselves contradictory or overlapping.  To take another example, Christians are aware that The Bible contains such statements as “thou shalt not kill” and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.  In the face of alternative principles, do we pick and choose, emphasising the one over the other as we see fit?

You are not to kill another person, but of course that is acceptable in war.  Well, it is acceptable to kill soldiers from the opposing army but not civilians – except we accept ‘collateral damage’ (which sounds so much better than ‘civilians killed in military action’).  If you are the President of the US, you may choose to kill people who are potential threats to our society, not people with whom we are at war, and you may choose to do so knowing that there will be extensive ‘collateral damage’.  President Obama has made it clear that he recognises the importance of the debate over the use of drones and missiles, and the debate about the limits to the use of drones continues.  However, while the debate continues so does the use of drones to kill people with whom we are not at war.

On the other hand, while we accept killing is a necessary part of war, we do not use killing as a method of punishment in many societies – except that several still do. This is even the case in some of the States in the US.  There is no evidence to suggest that capital punishment for murder is a particularly effective deterrent, but we do so because it seems to fit the crime (an eye for an eye).

So, let me return to my friend’s comment:  ‘How can you be moral, and be a Republican?’  What did he mean by that?  Is he suggesting that Republican’s do not have a moral code?  To answer that, it might help if we sketch out the key elements of a Republican view of the world.  As one topical example, here is a quote from Mitt Romney’s website:

“Mitt Romney believes in America. He believes that liberty, opportunity, and free enterprise have led to prosperity and strength before and will do so again. America, however, must take decisive action to roll back the misguided policies of the last three years, empower our citizens, and restore the foundations of our nation’s strength.”

“He favors a set of economic policies that will enable every American to get ahead through education, hard work, and a willingness to take risks. Accordingly, he opposes higher taxes that discourage investment and kill jobs. He believes that the tax code needs to be simpler, flatter and fairer. As President, he would work hard to make America once again a country where everyone who takes initiative can flourish.”

This quote is illuminating, containing two very important points.  First, it makes a clear claim about a decent society:  it should be a place where anyone (my rewording of ‘every American’) who gets on and takes the initiative can (not ‘will’) flourish.  It is a world where you are rewarded for you efforts, and your capabilities.  That is an underlying moral value we will examine in a moment.  At the same time, it is making another point – that the current system is broken, and that there is a need to restore America back to the way it was:  a clear comment on what is seen as years of increasing government intervention and control over peoples’ lives.  Restoring the traditional approach will reduce the cost of government – which it is argued is becoming too large a burden to bear – and we will have a sustainable country again (and, incidentally, people will have more money in their pockets as taxes go down!).

This is essentially a ‘libertarian’ view of the world (although, in today’s complicated world, there are now many versions of libertarian:  for the sake of simplicity I am referring to that core version of libertarian which seeks to maximize individual choice, and reduce the role of government).

Perhaps we should begin with the issue of the morality of a society in which people are rewarded according to their efforts.  Surely this is the basis of the market economy, which has delivered so much.  If a person works hard, they will be rewarded in the marketplace.  If they are lazy, they will not get the same rewards.  Fair enough?  What could possibly be wrong with the idea that we get what we deserve, and what we deserve is determined by the effort we put into what we do.  Not only does that seem fair, but it is also a huge incentive to those who start off with little in life:  work hard, and you can become rich, as many others have done before.  This is the “American Dream”.

Is that how the market works?  In the marketplace, you will be able to sell what you have (your labour, your goods, your services) at a price that others are willing to pay.  Just so, said, said Milton Friedman, the economist who has been credited with playing a key role in the development of the political acceptance of the market economy approach in the 1970’s.  But he did add a rather important rider:  Friedman’s view of the market was that it was the best system, provided exchanges were made on the basis that the parties negotiating in the market place were doing so voluntarily, equally, and both were fully informed.

Is that your experience of the marketplace?  If we look at employment, you may be highly skilled, having trained for several years, and then gained great experience in the workplace, but, if the economy or structural reform has created change, your skills may not be in demand.  You may not get a job at all, or receive a much lower salary than you had expected in the past.  You may be new into the marketplace, and employers will pass you over in preference for those with a track record of experience.  Employment is usually a very unequal situation.  Moreover, we do not enter the marketplace voluntarily – usually we need a job.

Perhaps we should talk about buying goods or services in the marketplace.  When we ask questions about something we wish to buy, we have to know what to ask.  If we don’t explore some issues that may be very important – through ignorance – then it is our bad luck if the product does not perform as we expected.  The seller is not going to tell us everything, and is least likely to tell you about the limits of what is on offer.  Most of the time in the marketplace we are far from fully informed, and sometimes we are severely misinformed.

The free and open market is a perfect mechanism for allocating resources – in theory.  In reality, there are few such places.  Most transactions are involuntary, unequal and characterized by imperfect or skewed information.  That means that – aside from the dreams of economists – most markets are far from perfectly efficient.  However, despite this we might want to praise the market for another reason – it allows each person to achieve on the basis of his or her effort.  Accepting that markets are often imperfect, is that not a better approach than having the government telling you what you can do, what you should buy?  What is the morality of the marketplace?  Surely at the very least markets are morally blind?

I would argue that markets are far from morally blind.  They have at their core a very simple moral basis – you get what you deserve.  Hard work and initiative are rewarded.  Indolence and passivity are not.  There is biblical justification for this – just remember the story of the master and the servants to whom he gave a number of talents (money, not skills).  The servant who was rewarded was the one who used his talents to make even more money.  The servant who acted as a trustee for the money he was given was criticised.  My friend’s comments about the impossibility of being moral if you are a Republican may not be correct:  it may just be that he does not like their particular morality (if we can take Mitt Romney’s views as typical).

What about the second part of the Republican agenda?  If you accept that there has been a trend by government to intervene in more and more of our lives, then you can understand why Republicans argue that we need to roll back the reach of government.  If we do this, then we really can reward people for what they do:  let them make choices about what they do.  They can choose to work hard and be rewarded for their efforts – if that is what they want to do.  This, too, is a moral issue.  It is restoring the right of the individual to make choices, not have the government make them for you (except in the case of abortion, of course).  This is the libertarian agenda – that each person has the right to liberty, to freedom to choose what he or she does.  A Republican would regard this as highly moral.

So, why is my friend so vehement that this is not a moral course?  Does he reject freedom of choice, liberty?  Perhaps he has read the same text that the Republicans have – John Stuart Mill on Liberty:

“ the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is selfprotection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

This is a strong call to leave people alone – except where they might harm others.  Of course, the devil is in the detail, and we have to wonder what ‘harm to others’ might entail.  However, it does make it very clear that Mill sees the issue of harm to oneself as a personal matter – and certainly not something on which the government should act and constrain behavior.  Today’s Republicans are simply reinforcing this approach.

Perhaps my friend was thinking of another writer – the 20th Century philosopher John Rawls.  Rawls came up with a very interesting thought experiment in examining what was fair, or just – surely a key part of morality.  His idea was to suppose that we sat down to design an ideal society, but that each one of us is completely ignorant about where we fit in society:  our characteristics, our wealth, our position or even employment status.  We do not know our gender, ethnicity, capabilities, physical character, and so on.  This ‘veil of ignorance’ leads to a rather different set of conclusions from those developed by Mill.  Since we do not know where we will end up in the future, we are likely, Rawls argues, to come up with ideas that maximise the benefit to everyone, irrespective of where they sit in society.

We do not need to go through all of Rawls’ analysis.  He concludes two very interesting things.  First, that everyone should he the same set of rights as everyone else, and that among those rights, liberty is to be paramount.  So, like Mill, he sees liberty as being central to a fair society, and something we would want to embed in our moral code.  Alongside liberty would go some of the other rights with which we are familiar – to life, to freedom to congregate, to health, to education, to trail by jury – I am sure that we could take a number of items from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and feel we have a good set of basic rights.  However, Rawls then has a second point to make which – roughly translated, argues that any changes that take place in how society operates should always be of a kind that advantages the most disadvantaged.

Here is where the ‘veil of ignorance’ shows its power.  As a participant in designing this just society, I may end up at the bottom of the heap, and if that is the case, then I would want to make sure that there would be measures to reduce inequality, and ensure the most disadvantaged become less so.  This would not be by leaving things in the market, but rather by positive measures to enhance equality of opportunity.  This is a very different moral code from that of the libertarians as I have described them so far.  If the view that I have ascribed to the Republicans is one of ‘reward for effort, and liberty of choice’, then this is one of ‘reducing inequality, and caring for others’.

Are Republicans immoral?  I don’t think so, and in that sense, I think my friend is wrong.  You can be moral, and be a Republican.  However, in placing all the emphasis on the individual and their participation in an open market world, I think this is a kind of blinkered morality.  Belief in the power of the market is not an ‘elephant in the room’.  In fact it is talked about all the time.  However, it has become more than just a desirable approach, it has become an ideology, and as an ideology it is most certainly an elephant on roller skates.  Once belief in the value and power of the market moves on to becoming an ideology, it soon runs away from you.  It becomes a world in which everything has a price, and there is a market for everything.

Michael Sandel is an example of someone who has been concerned about the limits to markets.  He has observed that, in recent times, a whole number of things that used to be ‘out’ of the market, and now ‘in’.  He suggests that the use of “markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted.”  He suggests that we should think about two things when we look at the pervasive ideology of the market – inequality and corruption.

Bearing in mind Rawls’ view that fair society would seek to reduce inequality, Sandel is concerned the market based approach will increase it.  People are not equal, not just in determination to work hard, but in terms of their capabilities.  The market rewards those whose capabilities are in demand, and ignores those whose capabilities are not.  The market rewards those who use their capabilities effectively, and it leaves those with limited capabilities on the curbside.  As has been observed many times, “the strong do what they will, and the weak do what they must” (however, that particular formulation doesn’t come from Sandel, but from Thucydides writing 2,500 years ago).

The theme of corruption is more telling.  Sandel is not just talking about corruption in the form of bribes and deals.  Under cover, that kind of corruption always thrives in marketplaces.  In fact, despite laws and regulations there is every reason to believe that corrupt practices are increasingly prevalent the more the market is the sole driver of society.  The only change in recent years is that the forms of corruption are more subtle, and all the more insidious.

However, Sandel is more concerned about another form of corruption.  This is what we might call moral corruption, a process by which we assess every thing only in terms of its tradable dollar worth, and in so doing ignore its intrinsic worth, or other measures of value.  We used to believe that children should not be bought and sold in the marketplace – but now we accept surrogacy and other measures to ‘buy’ a baby.  We don’t allow people to sell their right to vote – not yet, anyway – but we certainly allow people’s votes to be ‘bought’.  The market corrupts the value of things by giving everything a dollar value.  In that sense the market is amoral, rather than immoral.

That libertarian elephant is running away from us rather quickly right now, and it is hard to see how it is going to be reigned back in.  Republicans are not necessarily immoral, but they are accepting an ideology – a blinkered morality – that will slowly drain society of the very things that morality is meant to cherish.  If the only measure of things is monetary value, then morality has no place left – other than to insist on the enforceability of contracts and the operations of the marketplace itself.

Is there more to be said?  I think so, because Sandel’s use of the word ‘corruption’ can be extended not just to talk about moral corruption, but also about the threat the market poses to how we see ourselves as human beings.  This is not just to assert we are not tradable objects, but as human beings we have some unique claims – for ourselves and for all other human being – that that must be kept out of the marketplace.  These are the human rights to which we all lay claim, rights that have been fought for over hundreds of years.  While rights are not cast in stone, many have proved durable over a long time:  they should continue to be scrutinised and debated, but those that we agree and accept should always be protected.  One way to stop the encroachment of the market system is to build a steel wall around our rights, a wall that will stop any elephant on roller skates, however fast it is travelling.

What are these rights?  Here are some for you to think about – they are important, because they are one of the ways in which we might be able to contain the free market from trampling all over us.

The first right is the right to life.  I accept that people may willingly set aside that right if they believe their country is under threat, and they choose to serve in the military to protect the rights of others.  I do not accept the use of capital punishment – I do not think anyone should be in the position to deprive someone else of his or her right to life.  As for the vexed issues of contraception and abortion, I believe that women should have the same right as men to choose not to create a new life, and I also believe that life exists when a fetus reaches the point that it can survive outside of the womb:  prior to that point, the fetus is just a potential person, as is an ovum or a sperm.

The second is the right to liberty, and here I go a long way with Mill.  I agree that we should have liberty in relation to our thoughts, our ideas, our ability to say what we want to say, and over our bodies: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”  Are there limits on this right?  Yes, if someone breaks the laws of the land, knowingly and deliberately, then it may be that they should be deprived of their liberty for a period of time.  However, I think we should be able to see, today, that depriving people of their liberty is done in order to help them learn to accept the rules of society in the future.  Most incarceration today is a demeaning experience, and makes the lawbreaker more like to return to crime than to avoid it in the future.  We can make the experience of prison more focussed on re-education than on merely punishment:  not to do so is to diminish those who break the law, to treat them as less human than the rest of us.

Mill also included the right to travel and the right to associate with others as part of the right to liberty.  As with other rights, the only limits on these rights might be where there are laws, reasonably introduced, which seek to limit travel or associations because of the threat that they pose to others.  As we have already noted, determining what is harmful to others is not easily resolved, and always open to further debate.  The key issues here are fairness (and particularly that such laws apply to everyone, equally) and reasonability (that they can be shown to address a concern, or an issue of harm or potential harm to others in a manner that is demonstrably just and does no more than is absolutely necessary).

The third right is the right to citizenship, to be a full member of the country in which you are born, or to become the member of a country where you choose to move, or from which your parents came.  I have no problem with setting some requirements to obtain citizenship outside a person’s country of birth, as long as those are requirements that are concerned with ensuring the commitment and participation of the person in the new society in which they seek membership.

Beyond these rights, there are others that require much more analysis that this chapter can embrace.  There are rights to education (and in particular that everyone has equality of access to sufficient education that enables them to be fully functioning an contributing members of society), to trial by jury of one’s peers, to safety and protection (through police and fire services), and to health (and in particular that everyone has equal access to sufficient basic medical care to ensure they can live and participate in society without being held back by illnesses and injuries that can be readily and effectively treated).

The right to health deserves another book on its own, and many have written on this topic.  Perhaps one of our greatest concerns today is that medical services are often directed towards illnesses and treatments that are determined by the size and operation of markets, and not by their impact on overall well-being:  it is bizarre that erectile dysfunction should receive more attention than preventative medicine, and equally bizarre that expensive medical interventions are given to affluent people to prolong the last few months of their lives, when chronic conditions are poorly addressed.  If you want to understand how the market distorts health care, just go to spend a couple of days talking to doctors and nurses working in the emergency department of a major city hospital in the US.

The capitalist market system has achieved extraordinary results.  In at least this respect, Engels and Marx had it right, when in The Communist Manifesto they observed:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.  Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground–what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

Indeed, the free and open market has proved to be the most efficient way of allocating resources that we have discovered.  It can do this far more effectively than governments – provided efficiency is the objective.  It can take monopolies and, through fair and open competition, change them into efficient and productive enterprises meeting needs in the most cost effective fashion.  We have benefitted from the operations of the market, and will continue to do so.

Of course, that does not mean that the way the market operates in practice is ideal.  The idea that companies ‘own’ their staff, that the objective of business is to make a profit for return to its shareholders, that businesses operate outside of society rather than part of it:  all these ideas have righty been criticised and far more appropriate models and approaches have been developed (especially through the writings of Charles Handy, and also through the work of the Centre for Tomorrow’s Company).  However, change is hard to bring about, and the vested interests (of capitalists – as Engels and Marx would remind us) that benefit from the current market model are proving very hard to address.  Markets, in their proper place, and established on a reasonable basis, are great:  markets that extend into areas that should be protected are not!

Engels and Marx were well aware of this, and while their prescription for revolutionary change was not followed, they certainly understood the corrosive effect of markets, and got that right:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.  It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”  It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.  It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom–Free Trade.  In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.  The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.  The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

I wonder if Republicans read The Communist Manifesto.  What a foolish question!  More to the point, I wonder if they realise that the libertarian agenda of the 21st Century, which they so enthusiastically prosecute, is no different from the economic development of the 19th Century that Engels and Marx so presciently observed – together with its consequences.  I wonder if they realise that the (capitalist) free market they so enthusiastically support is encouraging exploitation and the reduction of everything to “a mere money relation”.

“How can you be moral, and be a Republican?”  Have we progressed in our understanding of my friend’s question?   I think we have seen that there is at least one strand inside the Republican party that follows the traditional libertarian approach:  roll back the role of government and maximize individual choice, using the marketplace as the mechanism to allocate resources and choose what you want.  It is a moral position – about the centrality of individual choice – but it is a ‘blinkered’ morality, in the sense that it contains the seeds of its own unraveling.  Taken to the extreme, it is an ideology, and an ideology that treats everything – and everyone – as determined by monetary value.  My friends concern is, of course, about that extremist position.  I hope you would agree that reduce people to things, and their value determined by price, is not moral – it doesn’t meet the criterion of “a set of principles or rules to which people adhere, which create a good or decent society”.

However, not all Republicans are extremists.  Extremism is always an easy target.  Perhaps we should ask another question: How can you be moral, and be a Democrat?”

Perhaps you can already see that the same arguments can be used here as in the original question – just inverted by a mirror, as it were.  The Democrat position, at the extreme, is one where the government could and should intervene in the affairs of the people in any way it sees fit in order to prevent harm or reduce its likelihood.  It should ensure that the costs of important goods (like medical care and education) are the same for all.  It should ensure you wear seat belts and helmets in your car, bright orange sweatshirts when you walk along the pavement, and bulletproof vests at night!  It should determine what foods you can eat, and how they can be cooked (all that regulation about the use of trans-fats).  Sadly – for both my friend and I – it should remove all harmful and addictive substances from the marketplace, which will obviously go beyond cigarettes and recreational drugs (which we do not use!) to alcohol, and full fat milk (which we do!).

I could continue in this vein, and in so doing expose why people on the Republican side of politics are concerned about the extent to which government is already intervening in and limiting the liberties of the individual, and could do so even further in the future.  The problem about being moral is that it is not a neat and tidy business.  Being moral means confronting all sorts of inconsistencies and challenges, and accepting the broad ideologies of political parties (or companies, or churches for that matter) is a way of avoiding addressing moral issues, and letting them slip past unexamined.

September 2012

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