Saturday, 29 December 2012

Why politicians should talk about morality

Wars are declared righteous, welfare reforms are presented as fair and legal changes are called abhorrent, but many politicians still claim their job has nothing to do with morality. It is bizarre that although politics and its language is value laden, some politicians seem to think ethics is relegated to the world of churchmen and philosophers. This was crystallised in a recent Question Time episode when Charles Kennedy was asked about former minister Sarah Teather’s description of the welfare cap as “immoral”. Kennedy replied that he would “leave that to Anglican Bishops to talk about immorality.”

But, the debate around a welfare cap – either you believe it is unfair families are facing upheaval and worse due to staggering rents no government has bothered to tackle or you believe it is unfair that the state is forking out tens of thousands of pounds to enable some families to live in places most working people cannot – is essentially a moral debate.

So many policies are presented as edging us closer to greater virtue, happiness or autonomy and yet politicians are still reluctant to fully accept that this counts as a debate essentially about right and wrong, justice and injustice. When proponents of the Iraq War emphasised the cruelty of Saddam’s regime and our duty to save Iraqi civilians, when Iain Duncan Smith decries generational unemployment or David Cameron claims the idea of prisoners voting makes him feel sick, particular ethical arguments are being applied. Similarly, opponents of the Iraq War, welfare changes and not giving prisoners the vote, are also making moral claims. Is it right that we wreak havoc on another nation whilst claiming it is for the sake of saving their citizens? Is it right that people are dying whilst being judged fit for work by Atos? Is it right that people cannot have a say in the future direction of their country?

Perhaps it is a sort of modesty that means politicians do not want to make too many claims about morality. Since what is right and wrong is thoroughly contested it can be arrogant and dangerous to start commanding and condemning from on high. There is a long history of men who think they know best telling everyone else how to behave and there are many areas of life in which we certainly do not want governments wading in and moralising.

Obviously there should be liberal rights that protect people from overzealous governments. However, governments have functions that go beyond protecting freedom of thought and liberty. States go to war, run services, set taxes, decide immigration policy, deal with law and order, provide refuge and much else besides. People live and die because of what the state does and does not do.

Politics is irrevocably moral and it is false modesty to claim otherwise. It needs a fresher and fuller exchange of views and honesty that these are usually immersed in moral ideas. Then in public debate these different accounts of the good society should be lined up and assessed. No one vision can be applied in its entirety and there will necessarily be compromise. However, it is just ridiculous to argue that the debates over war or welfare reforms or voting rights do not hinge on moral debate.

This was first written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here.

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