The British Public is Having a Periodical Fit of Morality

As Peter Hitchens observed in a recent Mail on Sunday article there is something rather absurd about everyone in December 2021 and January 2022 morally condemning the Johnson regime for holding a few parties at a time when that regime was instructing the people not to hold such parties. It is absurd because everyone should have condemned the Johnson regime for perpetuating an initially awkward but eventually brilliant and completely overwhelming coup by ‘nudge’ and ‘fudge’ whereby ordinary protocols (including established emergency protocols for a respiratory disorder) were overturned for a dystopian, despotic and wholly anti-English policy. (Nudge was the work of SAGE and NERVTAG; fudge was the work of No. 10.)

In our time we can condemn only some things. But we cannot condemn the worst things, and we cannot condemn them directly. What we have is a political culture in which moral condemnation is extremely difficult. I have an explanation for this. But before I explain it, I want to draw attention to two exceptions: that is to say, to two ways in which moral condemnation is possible.

On the one hand moral condemnation is easy if one detects an affront to the officially sanctioned state morality. For instance, one way of doing this is to pose as an excluded minority (good) and morally condemn the supposedly included majority for being intolerant, exclusive, biased, prejudiced, privileged (bad). This is the system aptly dubbed ‘D.I.E.’ – diversity, inclusion, equity – by Jordan Peterson. Another way is to pose as someone concerned about the ‘state of the planet’ (good) and morally condemn anyone else whose behaviour could possibly be explained in terms of their not being so concerned (bad). Another way is to pose as someone concerned about the virus (good) and morally condemn anyone who rejects or criticises any pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical attempts to combat the virus and its supposed effects (bad).

This sort of moral condemnation is absolute, but such absolute moral condemnation is only possible if the affronted cause is a politically correct one (and there are only three: those ‘unholy trinity’ ones of COVID, WOKERY, and CLIMATE). The logic here is: ‘People are dying (actually or figuratively). Something, or maybe someone, is to blame. And something can be done.’ The logic is often poor; the evidence justifying each of the steps is usually worse. Consider, for instance, if I may digress, the logic behind the mandating of vaccines, which I can put in a syllogism. Let everyone intone in the reediest Bertrand Russell (or Pathé News) voice they are capable of:

Vaccines work!
Vaccines don’t work!
Therefore, take a booster shot!

Hence, since everyone seems convinced by such petty illogic, all the absolute moral condemnation of ‘No-vaxx’ Djokovic by compliant tennis pundits and players. Hence also the adoption by Austria and Quebec of extreme, morally absolute, policies: indeed, in the case of Quebec, what we could call a policy of ‘taccination’ = taxation-for-the-unvaccinated.

On the other hand, to turn to the second exception, moral condemnation – and this is where we come back to Hitchens’s point – is easy if one can discover a contradiction or evidence of hypocrisy. If ‘someone says x but does y’ then one has all the ammunition one needs for complete moral defenestration. Johnson’s word was ‘Isolate’, but his deed was ‘Party’. QED. The riled populace, led from behind by its Joshua, Keir Starmer, tweets its media trumpets, walks around our Jericho government seven times in protest, and the walls fall down. Hurrah. The British suffer one of their periodic fits of morality, as Macaulay once put it. Macaulay chose the word fits extremely carefully.

The problem for us is the impossibility of using the first type of moral condemnation and the fatuity of using the second.

In relation to the first, if we can only absolutely condemn someone on the basis of the ‘unholy trinity’ then, alas, it is impossible for us to morally condemn the ‘unholy trinity’ itself. We cannot easily morally condemn Neil Ferguson. We cannot easily morally condemn Greta Thunberg. We cannot easily morally condemn the Colston Four. (Unless they are caught in a contradiction, and are guilty of being hypocritical – as Neil Ferguson conveniently was. But, then, so were Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson…) This means that we cannot easily condemn the politics of our inflated, hysterical state, especially if salaried members of a compliant elite decide to collude in that politics, and create what is called ‘the narrative’.

In relation to the second, what we have to say is that the robust mass of British pagans – and their mouthpieces in the media, The Sun, The Daily Mail, etc. – can only morally condemn something if it is hypocritical, that is, a wrong relative to what someone said and not an absolute wrong. So those of us who think that most modern British politics, and especially the politics since early 2020, should be condemned out of hand, that is, absolutely condemned, as absolute folly and absolute evil, have had almost no way of registering this, apart from agreeing with the Sunday columns of Peter Hitchens, listening to London Calling, following certain limited outlets and writers, and carefully reading the original Lockdown Sceptics, now The Daily Sceptic.

What is the explanation for this? Well, I want to go back a few centuries to talk about two old Englishmen, William Warburton and John Neville Figgis.

Warburton was an old eighteenth century bishop. He wrote a volume entitled The Alliance Between Church and State, published in 1736. No one reads it nowadays except a few eighteenth-century historians. In it he argued that the state was responsible for ‘punishments’, while the church was responsible for ‘rewards’. The state had a negative morality, limited to the law; but the church had a positive morality, which was ultimately the morality of the Sermon of the Mount, as modified and mediated for the children of pride who happened to be walking around in England at the time. The ‘rewards’ were partly temporal, no doubt, but otherwise moral, in offering a positive vision of common life, and of course eschatological, in offering eternal life. Warburton claimed that there was an ‘alliance’ between the two institutions of church and state. They were not the same, as far as he was concerned, but they were necessarily related. (I mention this only because the classic English doctrine, found in Hooker in the 1590s and Burke in the 1790s, was that church and state were one and the same.) The relevance of Warburton to our time is that his doctrine of ‘alliance’ enables us to see (more clearly than Hooker and Burke could have done) what the consequences of the separation of church and state were. These consequences were later on explained by Figgis.

Figgis was a monk and historian whose book Churches in the Modern State came out in 1913. In it he recalled Warburton, and, perhaps with Warburton in mind, pointed out that with the separation of church and state it was now almost inevitable that the morality of the people would no longer be the morality of the historic church but the morality of the state. In 1913 this was a prediction. After more than a century we should admit that Figgis has been proved right. Part of what happened was the state did what Hegel thought it should do: it began to take over some of the functions of the church. It offered rewards: at first reluctantly (consider the Poor Law), but then enthusiastically (consider ‘our’ NHS). It had no interest in eternity. So its morality was not absolute, but related to Utility, Happiness, Pleasure, Benevolence, Altruism, Betterment, Progress – all those keywords of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Condorcets, Godwins, Comtes and Mills. The state exists, in sum, as Bentham might have put it, to minimise pain and maximise pleasure. Hence, after a century or two (to speak less abstractly) of Railways, Anaesthesia, the Mid-Victorian Novel, Antiseptics, the New Drama, Vaccines, Cinema, Dentistry, Jazz, Antibiotics, the Motor Car, Cannabis, Pop, Yoga, Punk, Therapy, Aeroplanes, Pacman, Heavy Metal, Anti-Depressants, Plastic Surgery, Emojis and Hashtags, here we are, minimising pain, maximising pleasure 24/7. Woe betide anyone who interrupts my pleasure, or ignores my pain. The result is that political correctness is our state religion.

(Note: I say a state religion, not necessarily a governmental religion; since it can be wielded by its proponents against the government. But, by and large, it is promoted by the government.)

I should perhaps add that the worst thing of all, as far as Figgis was concerned, was that he thought that eventually the church would have to take up the morality of the state. (Welby, anyone? Again, QED.)

It is the decline of Christian certainties which has made all this possible. The modern state, stripped of the church, has established its own morality. This morality is an almost wonderfully historically self-defeating morality – our enemies laugh at it – whereby we absolutely condemn almost everything our ancestors ever did to establish us where we are, and we relatively condemn the minor hypocrisies of those who now rule us. This is the morality of theoretically marginalised class. Since, ironically, this morality has been adopted by the ruling class, and certainly by the higher educated class, it is also the morality of the actually privileged. Almost all of our elites are therefore hypocrites, to a man – and woman. We are in a state which has a morality that owes nothing to the church, which has had to invent its own moral absolutes, and which has done so in self-condemnation. It is what Nietzsche called a slave-morality. It is the morality of slaves. But it is not a very stable morality of slaves, since those who until now almost always formed the slave class don’t believe it while those who are the master class do believe it and, even worse, impose it condescendingly on everyone else.

This is upside-down morality. Expect to be lectured about your privilege by a university teacher. Expect to bow and scrape a bit if you are wealthy or privileged. Expect no consideration at all if you are a member of the honourable old religious working class. And not much if you are a member of the dishonourable old secular working class: unless you can pose as somehow victimised and ask for some sort of stipend or sympathy from the professionally guilt-stricken classes. Expect to be told to wear a mask. Expect to be told to take a vaccine. Expect to be pilloried if you object.

For our enemies the mask is a moral argument. The vaccine is a moral argument. Object to masks and vaccines and you will find yourself morally condemned before you even state your case. Wear a mask or exhibit vaccinated status and a gold circlet appears around your head. This is all very odd; and, even if it is true in early 2022 that we are seeing the beginnings of a change in ‘the narrative’, the fact that any of this could have happened at all should make us all gravely reflect on what sort of society we now live in.

Dr. James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.

February 2023
Free Speech Union

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