March 23, 2008

Reflexive morality

I think Rowan Williams really gets at something important in his argument here about the essence of Christianity. Dr Williams's article is an interesting one because it captures something important about human psychology- in a way its a counterpart to Barack Obama's speech recently about race. Both are very Christian documents but encapsulate truths which I think go beyond Christianity. You can see morality in two ways- you can see it as a set of things which allow you to make a judgement on others, ethics as a foundation for law in a sense- or you can see morality as a set of things which allow you to make a judgement on yourself. Partly this is a tempramental distinction. The first attitude of course is neccessary for the construction of a political theory: law is related to ethics and is the imposition of public ethics upon private lives, I don't think anyone could disagree with that. However I do think we often lose the second element of that dual conception of morality- that morality is not merely a system for the examination of others and their division into good and bad people, but it is chiefly a system for the examination of ourselves. When one listens to some commentators, particularly but not exclusively on the right, you get the sense of stern upholders of rectitude who rebuke the sinners of this world: but actually that's not true and anyone who has examined themselves thoroughly knows that its not true. As soon as you think about your own actions you realise that moral humility is the only route to any understanding of yourself or others. And that means that it becomes very difficult to say that there are people who deserve being discarded- because in reality their misfortune is often more a result of chance than of moral or other desert. Politics can too often turn as the Archbishop states into a round of recrimination that doesn't solve any problems but just makes those recriminating feel better about themselves. That is not productive and does not recognise the humanity of those who we are opposed to- as soon as we fail to do that, we have lost the argument and in my judgement become immoral.