Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Apparently I'm spiritually bankrupt

Well, I do my best.

Others have already commented on the irony of the head of an organisation which conspired to cover up child sex abuse presuming to lecture the rest of us on morality, but there is a bigger problem with Cardinal William's essay. Namely, that the whole thing rests on a gross misperception of the role of government.

Contrary to Williams, government does not exist to legislate virtue. It exists to provide a basic framework to keep people from one another's throats. The aim is not to force people to be good (except in a minimal sense of refraining from killing or otherwise harming one another), but to leave them free to pursue their own vision of the good.

Underlying this is a core belief in personal autonomy - that people are the authors and "owners" of their own lives, and are therefore uniquely privileged to make decisions on how they should live. Liberals regard personal autonomy as valuable, and want it to be respected. Liberal toleration follows from the Golden Rule, or from Hobbesean mutual restraint: if I want my own autonomy to be respected, then I must also respect the autonomy of others. The sole reason for interference in people's autonomy is self-protection, to prevent direct harm to others.

None of this is incompatible with Christianity. What is is incompatible with is the desire that everybody believe and behave exactly as you do. Hence the constant hysterical warnings from our self-appointed "moral guardians" about "spiritual bankruptcy", "moral decline" and such. The "problem" is that their preferred modes of behaviour have failed to compete on the memetic battlefield; they therefore call for legislative intervention to force people to behave according to their preferences. This would be unjustified even if they were right, because it would fail to respect people's autonomy. Freedom includes the freedom to be wrong, and unless there is direct harm to another, there is no justification for intervention. Harm to oneself, or the "harm" of doing or believing the wrong thing, are insufficient.

If Cardinal Williams believes his traditional values and Judaeo-Christian ethic are worth living by, then he will have to convince us, rather than relying on his supposed moral authority. And if he cannot, well, an idea that cannot survive without the backing of the dungeon and the stake deserves to perish.