It is hardly
possible to get through a week in Britain without reading or hearing
some discussion of a moral problem, dilemma, or challenge. Between
fending off or falling foul of criticisms of abusing their positions
for personal advantage, or equally of using their wealth to secure
positions of privilege, British politicians have also been debating the
ethics of war, the liberties of religious denominations and faith
schools, the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide, and the
sexualization of children. Such topics form the staple diet for radio
and television discussions, for print media and for online commentators
and bloggers.

Consider two prominent areas of current concern: sex and money. As
in the U.S., there has been widespread condemnation of the salaries and
bonuses paid to bankers, broadcasters and executives in public
services. Apart from their faults and failures, it is often said to be
simply wrong that there should be large inequalities of income and
wealth within society. On the other hand, there is the view that
aspiration to affluence is a good thing. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown
recently put it, “the driving force behind New Labour remains the
insight that all people have the chance to rise as far as their
­talents take them … we stand for an age of aspiration in which a
strong economy can provide greater opportunities for people to get on
in life.” But if getting on is good, and rising as far as your talents
will take you is right, then how can there be a duty to limit
aspiration by restricting rewards, particularly when these may be
necessary for the recruitment and retention of those who have the
skills to create and maintain a strong economy?

As for sex, we find ourselves in a very confused condition. On the
one hand celebrating sexual freedom, guilt-free pleasure, social and
recreational sex, made ever more youthful by the lowering of the age of
consent and ever more present through the media and internet. Yet on
the other, we agonize about teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted
diseases and the sexualization of the young. To quote from the recent
report commissioned by the U.K. Home Office (roughly equivalent to the
American Justice, Interior, and Homeland Security departments):

It is a drip, drip effect. Look at porn stars, and look how an
average girl now looks. It’s seeped into every day: … We are
hypersexualizing girls, telling them that their desirability relies on
being desired. They want to please at any cost.

Apart from recent headline issues there are ongoing debates about
reproduction, abortion, gay partnership, marriage and family life,
schooling and higher education, public support of the arts, the
treatment of animals, the environment, and so on. Then there are the
rafts of ethical issues about conduct within various professions and
fields of activity: medicine and health care; science and technology;
policing and the legal system; social work and welfare; not to mention
sport and journalism.

Seen from the inside, these debates and controversies each have
their own particular features, but stepping back some common patterns
begin to emerge.

First, there is often superficial agreement on form but deeper dispute about substance.
It may be agreed, for example, that at the heart of an issue lies the
question of welfare, but then it is disputed quite what welfare
involves, and whose welfare takes precedence. Equally, it might be
accepted that an issue is about rights, but there is fierce
disagreement whose rights are ‘genuine’ or which are more pressing.
Again, all parties might insist on the need of principles and codes of
conduct, but then disagree fundamentally on what these should be and on
how they should be interpreted.

Second, there is an inverse relation between the increasing number
and complexity of the issues that confront us, whether personally,
professionally or socially, and the common resources we have to draw
upon in analyzing and resolving them. Social changes have brought some
old issues into sharper focus: fidelity, integrity, respect, justice,
etc. Meanwhile, medical and technological developments have created new
possibilities such as egg-selection, cloning, genetic manipulation,
multiple organ transplantation, electronic surveillance, and weaponry
of mass destruction. Yet over the same time-period, from the second
half of the twentieth century onwards, our ethical currency has been
devalued and our moral reserves have been diminished.

These two patterns—first, agreement in form but disagreement in
substance; and second, increasing problems and diminishing
resources—are connected, and are largely traceable to a common cause,
namely the decline of Judaeo-Christian belief and practice. Such a
suggestion will immediately prompt some readers to think that this is
just the old complaint of the religious conservative that the world is
going to hell in a handcart. What I want to suggest, however, is a
somewhat different analysis which poses a challenge as much to a
certain kind of religious believer as to a familiar sort of secular
atheist. In short, I propose that our problem is that we need, and
generally now lack, a philosophical understanding of human life.



The fact that we describe ethical challenges in certain ways
using the concepts of human welfare, of equality of respect, of demands
of justice and charity and so on, is not a creation of recent times but
has a particular cultural and intellectual history. Central to this
history is Christian moral theology, in which were fashioned the ideas
of human dignity, of the inviolability of the innocent, and of the duty
of concern for those in material and spiritual need. Certainly in the
last two centuries there have been important developments in moral
philosophy that were not avowedly religious, and indeed often came from
the pens of agnostics, but of itself this does not challenge the claim
that the core ideas originated in a Judaeo-Christian understanding of
human nature.

Let me offer two examples: the impartial promotion of happiness, and
the respecting of rights. These are particularly relevant, both because
of their rhetorical power in contemporary discussions and because they
are often thought to originate in secular rather than religious
thought. Indeed, they are often paraded as achievements of secular
philosophy working in opposition to religious morality, as represented
by the Ten Commandments and other systems of ‘divine law.’

Many today associate the principle of acting so as to promote the
happiness of all, treating each as equal, with the liberal utilitarians
of the nineteenth century, who avowed it without reference to Christian
doctrine. Yet if one asks why this should be done, and in particular
why each should count equally in one’s regard, it is hard to find a
coherent secular answer. For the Christian, by contrast, the principle
of equality of consideration is rooted in the idea that each human
being, whatever their condition or talents, is equal insofar as they
are adopted children of God whose existence was divinely chosen and
sustained. Likewise, in asking the question “who are we to care for,”
the answer, “whoever one encounters who is in need,” has its origins in
the parable of the Good Samaritan offered by Jesus in answer to the
question “who is my neighbor?”

Similarly, the idea of human rights has its origins not in the
secular enlightenment but in the world of the scholastic theology. In
the middle ages there was a debate over holy poverty, which turned in
part on the question of whether Christ and his Apostles owned anything
individually or held everything in common. The conclusion was that
everyone has inalienable rights of ownership and control over their own
bodies, from which was developed, by extension, the idea that people
have rights over what they create through their labor. These various
ideas of equality of regard, of duties of beneficence and charity, of
the universality of rights of bodily integrity, and of ownership of
one’s body and of the products of one’s labor, are fruits of a
particular religious understanding of human nature. Detached from that
understanding it will only be a matter of time before they dry and
wither. Of course, one might seek to develop equivalent fruits from a
different source, but the question is whether that can be done.


We continue to use concepts and language that have their origins in
a religious outlook, but we now lack the single coherent source for
that use. We speak of “universal rights” and of the “equality of all
people” but by any natural measure human beings are evidently unequal,
so whence comes this elevated status and inviolability? We speak of the
obligation to clothe the naked, and feed the hungry but whence comes
that duty, if not from some broad notion of common membership in an
all-inclusive moral community? And what can be a natural basis for this
that can substitute for the religious idea of brotherhood?

Not only has the original foundation been lost sight of without an
evidently adequate alternative being provided, but in losing touch with
the source of moral meaning, our moral thinking has become confused. On
the one hand we invoke the principle of the inviolability of innocent
life in condemnation of the bombing of civilians, but on the other we
set it aside when it comes to the matter of abortion. We assert the
principle of non-exploitation in opposition to slavery yet countenance
the creation of “sibling saviors” for the purpose of harvesting tissue
from them. We deploy the language of innocence in relation to underage
sex, yet switch instantly to talk of a right to gratification with the
passing of a birthday. We assert the importance of community and of
autonomy, yet legislate to restrict the latter in ways that will
forseeably destroy the former. We oscillate between understandings of
doctors, nurses, teachers and judges as motivated by vocations to serve
the common good, and as salaried service-providers in a consumer
economy. Little surprise, then, that we face confusing and apparently
irresolvable conflicts.


How then to procede? It will not be surprising if a professional
philosopher suggests that philosophy is the place to start, and perhaps
even the place to end. Nor will this seem a novel suggestion to those
familiar with the burgeoning fields of “applied” and “professional”
ethics, which often presents themselves as providing guidance to those
in moral need. But these are not what I have in mind, since applied
ethics generally takes for granted the ethical position it applies, and
professional ethics tends to restrict itself to fashioning codes of
conduct for practitioners in specific fields. Our need, by contrast, is
for an enquiry into ethical foundations sufficient to provide a guide
to life more generally, which is something far broader and deeper.

One thing that philosophy, even of a preliminary sort, does well is
to improve one’s grasp of an issue by clarifying it. Philosophy
involves the analysis of ideas, assumptions, and arguments—and that
brings with it the resolution of ambiguities and confusions. For
example, it is increasingly common in talking of “rights” to conflate
liberties and entitlements. A clear instance of this is the argument
that people have a claim to reproductive services based on article 16
of the Declaration of Human Rights which specifies “the right
to marry and to found a family.” On analysis, however, it is clear that
this refers to a right of non-interference from the state (a liberty)
not a right to the provision by it of the means necessary to conceive
and bear children (an entitlement). Again, in speaking of “acceptance”
there is a tendency to confuse toleration with approbation. So, while
it may be reasonable on grounds of liberal toleration to require
secular humanists to tolerate public displays of religious devotion, or
to require traditional Christians to tolerate public recognition of gay
partnerships, it does not follow that it is reasonable to require
either party to approve or support these. Acceptance-as-toleration, and
acceptance-as-approval are distinct, and it is both a confusion and an
imposition to require the latter on the basis that a liberal society
should be a tolerant one.

The value of philosophical clarification could hardly be overstated,
particularly for a culture that is generally mentally sloppy. Yet
clarity is not enough: for a position can be sparkling in the
distinctness of its formulation and still false. Beyond lucidity one
needs truth. It was, and remains, the business of philosophy
to state such truths as there may be about morality and the conduct of
life. Judaeo-Christian belief and practice in its mature forms was
itself the embodiment of a philosophy of life, but with its decline no
equivalently comprehensive account of human existence has emerged to
take its place.

This matters for two reasons.

First, without such an account we are threatened with the thought
that human existence is absurd and pointless. That was the dread
possibility explored by Albert Camus and the pessimistic
existentialists in the 1940s and ‘50s. For them it raised the question
of whether, faced with meaninglessness, one would do better to kill
oneself. This prompts the question, of course, whether rising rates of
self-harm and suicide among young people today may be connected to a
similar sense of the absence of human meaning.

Second, without such an account we will fail to see the intrinsic value
of every person at every stage of life, and this returns me to my theme
of contemporary ethical conflict and confusion. For what the Christian
philosophy offered was an overarching narrative, an account of human
life in total, from conception through infancy and childhood into
adulthood and old age and towards and beyond death. In that respect it
was a fully comprehensive theory. But more importantly it was one that
identified dignity in each phase, aspect and part of the totality of
life, singly and socially. Within this scheme the value of childhood
was accounted for, as that of old age. Similarly, the value of male and
female, of parent and child, of laborer and administrator, etc., were
each understood in relation to their expression of divinely gifted
powers, and their contribution to the common good of society.

Such a narrative relates persons not as separate, autonomous
individuals but as socially completed persons. It is an evident fact of
human life that we are not regularly or uniformly contoured, like round
pegs fitted to round holes. But what from one point of view look like
awkward and pointless shapes, from another can be seen like the
contours of jigsaw pieces made to fit together to create a larger
picture. What otherwise appears fragmentary takes on a larger and
fuller meaning than could be contained within the boundaries of
separate pieces.  Moreover the fuller narrative, or larger picture, is
one that ennobles human life by seeing it as a sacred creation made for
eternal joy.

None of this, of course, establishes the truth of the
Judaeo-Christian philosophy of life, but it helps to explain the
sources and original meaning of the moral ideas with which we are left.
In doing so, however, it also reveals why in the absence of the
narrative that gave them point, and which integrated them as parts of a
larger account of human meaning, they no longer seem to function to
guide us, so much as to leave us conflicted and confused. Such is the
case, for example, with “respect for life” which is now invoked equally
forcefully by opposing sides in debates about abortion, capital
punishment, and euthanasia; or again “material wealth” which is one day
denounced as an indulgence, and the next praised as an aspiration.

If ethics is ever again to make the kind of sense it did to
generations past, it will have to be set within a broader philosophy of
life. That is a challenge to secularists who have yet to provide a
non-religious alternative, and to Christians who wield biblical
passages as if they were swords provided for the striking down of
unbelievers. For they too need to seek out the larger narrative.
Supposing then that both step up and meet the challenge, how might we
tell which is true? The only possible answer, I think, is that we
should favour that philosophy which best makes sense of human life
including both its intimations of human transcendence and its
demonstrations of human depravity. It is hard to see how such an
account could be other than a religious one, at least to the extent of
identifying something in humanity that transcends its material
foundations and orients it towards some kind of spiritual fulfillment.
Certainly there are intellectual challenges in recovering such an
account, but there are also moral dangers in trying to live without one.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre
for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St.
Andrews, and a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest
books are
Practical Philosophy (2009) and Reasonable Faith (2010. Reprinted with permission from Public Discourse.