What’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong. It should be that straight forward shouldn’t it? In the recent televised grilling of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May both leaders were presented with scenarios to test their leadership acumen. Though both answered they have been criticised for the lack of clarity; they have been accused of equivocating over major policies. The issue here is that there appears to be an expectation for a definite response to essentially moral questions, this is ultimately often impossible. Where this issue should be put right and clearly enacted is within law but as we are all aware, the law is not black and white, instead undulating between shades of grey. This is the way things have to be. There is no such thing as a moral absolute and nor should there be in a civilised society.
One such example is the issue of security. Jeremy Corbyn was challenged during the interview to state whether his view that debate and discussion should be utilised in place of lethal force extended to the hypothetical scenario of ‘killing one known terrorist to keep safe the civilians they intended to harm’. The purpose of this enquiry was apparently simple; does Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to see peaceful resolution to conflict impact negatively on his ability to keep the British public safe? The question however was fundamentally flawed, instead of getting to the root of the Labour leader’s views and ability to protect the public, it was in essence a corruption of the ethical ‘Trolley Problem’ to which there is no good answer and from which it is not possible to draw any meaningful data. The issue is that Jeremy Paxman clearly anticipated that Corbyn would deal in moral absolutes and had expected that when challenged he would either undermine his own position or show perceived weakness in the face of adversity. However, I would argue that neither of these outcomes is a legitimate inference from any response to the question. Morality has to be flexible in order to be effective, whilst it is certainly a good precept that murder is wrong, there have to be exceptions to that rule. A society that deals in moral absolutism is less safe and stable than one that is flexible and deals in facts. Whilst the actual answer to the question would surely be along the lines that whilst it is desirable to preserve all life there must be instances where this desire is usurped by necessity but there must be irrefutable evidence of both intent and ability to cause harm that could not be prevented without such action, this does not provide a suitably succinct sound bite for media and public consumption. What they want to hear is an absolute; ‘yes of course I would take that action’. This is not the way to govern and it is not the way to build an effective and forward thinking society.
Theresa May was also questioned over her failure to meet immigration targets during her tenure as Home Secretary. Again, in theory this should be relatively straightforward, if the target is 100,000 net then once that figure is reached there should be no more immigration applications accepted. However this again does not take into account significant changes globally during that time. May took office in 2010 with the campaign promise to bring immigration down to under 100,000 however, in the ensuing years significant global conflict (particularly relating to ISIS and the Middle East) precipitated a global refugee crisis. As confirmed by Migration Watch refugees and asylum seekers are included in the published statistics for net migration, this again presents us with a difficult moral problem. The absolutist position would be that the UK has hit its annual limit and therefore there will be no more migration, however the morally right thing to do is to assist those in desperate need. I will qualify this by stating that I don’t believe the refugee crisis to be the cause of the Conservative failure to meet targets but in such a situation it is not possible to maintain a hard line against such an unforeseen global catastrophe. The plan has to change.
These kinds of examples bring us to larger concepts of what is right and what is wrong, on the broad scale this is what politics is all about; making moral decisions on complex issues. Should those doing well financially have to lose a higher proportion of their hard earned income to fund those who are providing little to the society? This is seemingly straightforward enough, if you are doing well through your own endeavour then you should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of your labour and those that are not providing the same as you should not be bailed out using your money. However, this argument does not account for those who are unable to work through disability, mental illness or responsibilities as carers. These people deserve to be looked after and the only way to do this is via progressive taxation. In this instance the morally absolute position is Objectivist; let those who earn well have a high quality of life and those that don’t have to live with what they achieve, but all reasonable people recognise this to be an unacceptable position to hold. It would also be unwise to hold a morally absolutist position the other way as this gives rise to abuse of the system and will inevitably stifle economic growth on both a national and interpersonal level. There has to be a give and take, there have to be checks and balances, this is the fundamental basis for Western democracy and law.
I would rather have a leader whose morality is not absolute as such beliefs impinge on the ability to govern effectively. Politicians are often unfairly accused of equivocation, of not answering the question or avoiding issues completely. There can’t always be a definite answer to every question posed. There can’t always be a decision reached that aligns perfectly with personal morality. Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are both human beings, they have opinions and core beliefs shaped by their experiences, whether or not we believe the same things as them we have to accept that sometimes there are times when they have to make exceptions to the things they are known to believe in. Let’s not forget the examples of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the demagogic impulse to give concrete answers to issues before knowing the full facts gives rise to constant U-turns and voter disenfranchisement.
We all have beliefs, we all have ideals that we hold dear and we all know where our ‘line in the sand’ is drawn across the spectrum of issues. The key is to realise that that line is in sand and not stone, it can be redrawn and sometimes, in extremis, will have to be. There can be no moral absolutism if we hope to function as a society and as a part of a civilised world.
This issue leads to further questions concerning the political system across the Western world, that is to say, the pitfalls of party politics.
In the vast majority of democratic states a system of Party Politics operates. Within this framework a person who ascribes to a particular viewpoint assigns themselves to a political institution which most accurately represents their views. However, in the majority of cases one’s views are not in fact entirely aligned with those of a mainstream party. The system of party politics seeks to group people and in fact is one that is, in my view, coming to an end.
Think hard about what it is that you believe, what course you know to be right for your society. As you assess this think about the core issues; those which mean the most to you. All of us know the traditional ‘Left/Right’ divide given to us by the French Revolution and know roughly where we sit on that spectrum. To think of this as a linear divide is a fallacy.
Generally people will divide themselves into groups roughly analogous to a political party; in the UK if you are anything Left of centre (socially liberal to Anarcho-Syndicalist) and hope to have any societal influence you are best placed becoming a member of the Labour Party and conversely if you are Right of centre (socially conservative to Fascist) you are best placed becoming a member of the Conservative Party. This however does not reflect the variety in the views of the population. How does one view influence another? How does your view on free market capitalism influence your view on abortion? In theory those are non-overlapping magisteria however in a system built on party politics they are inherently intertwined. In most Western societies if one knows a person’s view on, for example, defence spending it is possible to guess their view on gay marriage. This is something that, though normalised, should not be true.
Personally, for example, I believe in the welfare state, I believe that it should be there as a safety net for anyone who falls on hard times and that healthcare should be free at the point of use, however, I also believe completely in freedom of speech and freedom of enquiry. Though these ideas were traditionally vestiges of the Left in recent times the latter have become a sole preserve of the Right. In the General Election I am therefore faced with the task of ranking my beliefs in order of importance and selecting a party which most represents my views. In the UK this may be essentially a pointless exercise because of the system of representative democracy operated; it is about selecting the lesser of two evils. On the other side there are people for whom immigration is a major issue but who also believe in social equality (albeit for ‘natives’.) In America it is not possible to find a party who are anti-abortion and anti-gun or pro-abortion and pro-gun and therefore we are all faced with the need to pick what is most important to us; in the latter case this can come down to an issue of faith vs nation.
In essence the democratic system means that instead of being encouraged to consider each issue on a case by case basis, people either act with a hive mind and thoughtlessly back a party regardless of the intricacies of policy or become disengaged with politics and vote purely on either personality or an individual policy (e.g. the cult of Farage/Trump or the UKIP protest votes). This is no way to gauge public opinion and in fact creates a system whereby political thought and action converges on the centre ground. These parties then only differ on a few issues. In the UK this really boils down to immigration, European relations and welfare spending. It is for this reason that there is such a high level of citizen disengagement with politics. In either the UK or the USA you know that though there may be a party that fully represents your views there is no chance of them being able to ascend to power, therefore you are faced with the choice between broadly left wing or broadly right wing; and due to the constituency system it is clear whether your opinion will have any impact on the direction of your society before you cast your vote.
In essence society is haphazardly divided into Left and Right but this is not how the majority of people think and act. Our views are shaped by personal experience, through independent thinking, through background and assessment of the issues that mean the most to us as individuals or even as loose groups (e.g. those with a religiously conservative viewpoint are unlikely to be in favour of sexual liberalism and those from areas where heavy industry predominates are unlikely to be concerned with farming subsidies). Instead of allowing this individuality of thought we each, every 4 years, have to make a choice between our views and the views on offer; each of us going through a mental checklist ticking off each side’s policies, following this up by eliminating those who have no chance of election and casting a vote for one of the ‘big three’.
It is because of the dominance of party politics that the stereotypical figure of politicians has come to be one whereby principle and personal conviction are irrelevant. Instead of facing up to issues and answering questions directly they are vague, they will often replace the asked question with their own and answer that instead (Ed Miliband was adept at this; ‘Look, if you’re asking xxx then the answer is xxx’) or they simply do not answer. This homogenisation of politics has led directly to the public love and votes of ‘characters’ like Farage, Corbyn, Johnson and Trump. These people may not have the credibility of ‘career politicians’ but by being ‘different’ and ‘out there’ they appeal to many of the disenfranchised masses, the public desire is for absolutist politics. Their views and policies almost don’t matter, the swell of public support for them is directly reflective of a break in the party political machinery.
The age of party politics will soon come to an end as factions are already forming within all established parties; the Tea Party, the Eurosceptic Left and Europhilic Right, Momentum, the list goes on. Ultimately what needs to come is a truly representative democratic system, something akin to the proportional representation system whereby a vote for a party, group or even individual who adheres to your own views completely is not a wasted one and is instead one which can affect meaningful change. Though compromise is always going to be necessary it should not be as it is now where important views have to be ignored or disregarded for the sake of broad brush politics.
These two issues are completely intertwined; what we have is a public desire for concrete answers to difficult issues despite knowing that nobody we vote for will represent our opinions fully. There is a desire for absolute morality as a show of strength in spite of each of us making moral decisions daily based on evidence, circumstance and issue. The political world is a confused mish-mash of double standards. Every individual knows what it is that they want and what it is they believe but there is not an adequate way to express this so instead they look for strength of conviction on the key issues. This inevitably leads to voter regret and disenfranchisement; if you vote Conservative because you believe they will be strong on immigration and then later down the line have to decide whether you can afford to treat your cancer because of further privatisation of NHS services you will regret your choice because for you this was not what you voted for. On the one hand this could be ascribed to a lack of engagement with party manifestos but on the other it could be viewed as high level demagoguery; the parties use ‘hot button’ issues to entice voters, knowing that they will be unable to stop ideological changes during their time in government. Changes they know would be unpopular if highlighted as major campaign pledges.
One thing I am sure of is that it is unreasonable to expect politicians to be morally absolute when we ourselves are not. Sometimes they are evasive in interviews and this should be challenged but sometimes they don’t give a concrete answer to a question because simply, there isn’t one. Due to the system of party politics voters are encouraged to think in terms of absolutes; ‘immigration should be lower’, ‘factories must not close’, ‘the NHS must be better funded’, but this doesn’t take into account the reality of any situation. In politics, as in life, there can be no absolutes. I would rather be governed by a serious process of checks and balances rather than through moral absolutism.
Fundamental rights and freedoms as codified in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights have to be the basis for moral and political decisions worldwide but personal, national and party political morality has to be fluid within these confines to enable an effective and fair governance.
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