The Time of Judgement is Upon Us

August 15, 2011

David Cameron has decided that society is on the verge of a ‘moral collapse‘ following the riots. I find it difficult to envisage what a moral collapse would look like, unless it’s a nun tripping over a dildo; such a term appears to boil down to mere rhetoric. On closer inspection, the thrust of his argument appears to be that Cameron thinks far too few people agree with what he thinks right and wrong to be, and this has caused widespread looting:

“No, [the riots were] about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.”

Harsh words indeed. Revealed in this speech is the subtle difference between liberalism and Cameron’s one-nation Conservatism; to him, like Labour, the State is a moral agent:

“Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander.”

Much of the speech is concerned with his efforts to use the State to reinforce a ‘better’ morality. This is something with which I will have no truck. It is not the job of the State to mandate morality; one’s moral judgements are one’s own, and having them imposed from an external source is tantamount to removing that most fundamental freedom.

However, there is a subtle distinction to be made. The freedom I believe to be the object of politics is the freedom of individual judgement; to make judgements on a sound basis about oneself, one’s work, one’s pleasures and one’s place in society. These judgements, when aggregated, form the way in which you encounter the world, and as such, can be shown to be incorrect. This freedom includes the freedom to be wrong, and to learn from one’s mistakes. It does not include the freedom to be wrong to the extent that you harm other people. It also does not include the freedom to be free from the judgements of others.

If I believe your decisions are wrong for you, I must be free to say so, in order that you may factor that information into your own judgement-making. Indeed, withholding that judgement is almost wrong in itself; in a society founded upon the development of judgement, withholding relevant information from a person is to impair their ability to develop their own decisions.

We can see that the rioters were not evil, but more bloody stupid. Their decisions have locked them into a shallow facsimile of a life, put without the structures of a society that offers so much. For example, I have argued that taking a position of responsibility with regard to one’s children is both fulfilling and economically worthwhile in terms of the skills it allows you to demonstrate. Feckless fathers are simply incorrect in their decisions, and should be told so.

But for someone to be incorrect, you must provide evidence as to why this is the case. Reaching for morality short-circuits this process by creating values based on nothing more than the prescription of particular activities, rather than developed judgement. It is the case that one can tell someone whether their activities are likely to lead to adverse consequences in terms of their own priorities – one can tell someone that they’re being daft. The State can tell its citizens when they’re being stupid. It cannot, however, tell them that they’re bad; morality is always something up to the individual.

So, go forth and tell the person playing their music too loudly on the bus that if they don’t turn it down other people will think they’re annoying. Judge the activities of your fellow citizens, based on what you think they should be doing. They don’t have to listen, but they should be told.

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