the origin of values

analysis, bbc radio 4, 11 april 2002

KENAN MALIK   Where do values come from? It's a particularly important question to ask at a time when old moral codes no longer seem to command support, and there is great uncertainty as to what should replace them.

FRANCESCA KLUG   There is considerable lamenting of a lack of a common ethos or common set of principles.

KENAN MALIK   Francesca Klug, senior research fellow at the Human Rights centre at the London School of Economics.

FRANCESCA KLUG   There is a view that is expressed by people across the political spectrum, religious people, non-religious people, that anything goes, that we live in a 'me' society; that, for people of a more traditional bent, that some of the old deferential values have now waned, that the old symbols like the monarchy and the church are no longer relevant; that for people of a more progressive hue perhaps there is a view that the 'me' society, where commercialism rules OK, has taken over and a sense of a collective common good is perhaps less apparent than it was in previous years.

KENAN MALIK   In the past, people accepted both their identity and their values with little questioning. Over the past half century, however, both the sense of national identity and the values that underpinned that identity have corroded like an old lead pipe. And, as philosopher Simon Blackburn points out, so too have the institutions that once embodied the values.

SIMON BLACKBURN   In the Britain that I grew up in the middle of the last century, you could assume, rather naively perhaps that medicine could be left to doctors, the state of the armed forces could be left to the generals and the state of the law professions could be left to the lawyers, the state of the Civil Service could be left to the Civil Service. I think there's been a loss of that naivety.

KENAN MALIK   There can be no going back to that unquestioning age, and I doubt if anyone would really want to. And yet more has been lost than simply naivety. Ours is an age of corrosive skepticism, of 'trust no-one' cynicism. It is also an age in which such cynicism has led to a yearning for absolute certainties. And this, as Simon Blackburn points out, makes for a perilous mixture.

SIMON BLACKBURN   I think it does create a rather dangerous vacuum in which any old charlatan can walk with a pre-packed set of answers so I'm quite nervous about that. The increased sense of cynicism, of lack of trust that's there's no-one you can trust, you can't trust the police, the press, the judiciary, the Royal Family, whoever it might be and certainly not Mr Byers and the government, I think that's a dangerous time that we enter because without trust eventually, there's no civil life. One wants to somehow find a middle road between naïve over-confidence and corrosive skepticism whereby you can never take anybody's word for anything.

KENAN MALIK   We'll leave aside for the moment the question of whether the purveyors of moral certainty really are charlatans. But Blackburn is surely right that the loss of faith and the demand for certainty are opposite sides of the same coin. The corrosive effect of cynicism has undermined not simply civil, but political, life too. There is nowadays a widespread disillusionment with politics as an agency of change. A disillusionment that has both driven people to think of political questions in moral terms - morality seems so pristine compared to the dirtiness of politics - and also made them more uncertain about the basis of our moral life, since no source of authority seems untouched by the corrosive spirit of our times.

The question, therefore, is whether there really are any sources of authority left in which we can root our moral certainties. And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter if there aren't?

The traditional source of authority for moral values is God. Here's Denis Alexander who's both a practicing scientist - he is a molecular immunologist at Cambridge - and a practising Christian - he edits the journal Science and Christian Belief.

DENIS ALEXANDER   The ultimate moral values which I believe come from God, through his revelation, through the Bible, through the people of Israel, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and so this is the big metaphysical picture if you like, this is where I think the ultimate values as a Christian derive from, starting from the Ten Commandments and from God's revelation through his people over the centuries but of course supremely as a Christian through the teachings of Jesus himself.

SIMON BLACKBURN   I fear the word of God just gets in the way of ethics. Believing that the answers to everything are there in a particular text, which has no interpretation, no revisions, no updates, needs no scientific investigation, just there and given - I think it's an uneducated view in the strict sense that when we look at the history of human progress, when we look science, when we look at what we know about the world, it never proceeds by simply according final absolute authority to a particular text at a particular time.

KENAN MALIK   Simon Blackburn. Moral values, he seems to be saying, derives from human reason, not divine wisdom. Faith is an obstacle to the application of reason to values, and hence can lead to deeply immoral sentiment. Not surprisingly, Denis Alexander disagrees.

DENIS ALEXANDER   I'm fully aware of the argument that if you believe when God says something you do it no matter what then you end up doing all kinds of horrible things which most people would find abhorrent. The Christian world view is a package of theology and ideas about the world which also resonate with what we believe actually works in society, so there is a pragmatic aspect to it, which in that sense gives us the common ground with all kinds of people to actually live together in a pluralistic society. So I think it's obviously a nonsense to say that because God says torture is all right it's OK to believe that. As a matter of fact, he hasn't said that, the revelation we have of God in the Christian view is of an ethics which actually cares for people, which is against torture, which is against depriving people of their rights.

KENAN MALIK   But that's not how people have read the Bible in different ages. The line from Exodus, 'Thou shall not suffer a witch to live' was used for 300 years to burn tens of thousands of witches on both sides of the Atlantic. I'd imagine no Christian, would agree with any of that today. So we are able to stand back form a particular text to decide what is good and what is bad in that text. But if we are able to do this, where do our standards come from? How can we pass judgement on the word of God if all our standards come from God himself?

DENIS ALEXANDER   The primary authority comes from Jesus himself who told us to love our neighbour as ourselves and it's absolutely true that we could take many examples from history where people have taken passages of the Bible out of context as they have taken many other passages out of other books as well. The teaching of Jesus is central to what Christians believe about how they should act in the world and what we see in the teaching of Jesus is the primacy of human value, the fact that we do treat other people as being made in the image of God, as enormously valuable and to be treated with respect.

KENAN MALIK   I believe in equality. I assume you do, many Christians do, many Muslims do, many Jews do. And moreover most Christians and Jews and Muslims say they believe in equality because it is sanctioned by the Bible or the Qur'an or the Torah. But why can't we just throw away the text and say that we have used our faculty of reason to say the equality is good and leave God out of the picture entirely?

DENIS ALEXANDER   When the metaphysical underpinnings of a certain world view are thrown away, it's a bit like a booster rocket, which sets the whole rocket off up towards outer space but eventually it slows down and runs out of steam. When you have the booster rocket in this sense - let's say the teaching of Jesus and what he taught and practised and the influence that he had on the world - when that is thrown away, then eventually the morality goes with it. I think it's very difficult to maintain the kind of system of belief you suggested without some underpinning, without some rationalisation, something that is rooted in something bigger then our own biology and descriptions of our own beings. And I think that's what we're seeing in our own society, that when you throw the God basis out of the window then eventually the Christian morality goes as well.

KENAN MALIK   Despite Denis Alexander's steadfast defence of the importance of theology, it's difficult to get away from the thought that religion simply drapes our own values with stories of divine origin as a way of asserting the authority of those values. To use his own metaphor, whether or not religion acts as a booster rocket, humans themselves must launch it, and decide in which direction it goes. That's why different people in different places, and different ages, read the same sacred text in different ways.

It seems difficult, then, simply to root our values in God. What about the other traditional source of values - nature?

SIMON BLACKBURN  People looked at nature and inferred that unbridled competition and aggression were the admirable ways for human being to behave. I think that was a fallacious inference, a false inference. It came out of reading morals into nature and I think that's a very dangerous thing to do. It's not dead yet in things like some of the extremes of sociobiology but I think we have go to be very careful in that. The human animal without culture might turn pretty nasty and if you think that's what nature requires and you start advocating it, then you're turning the clock back against culture and civilisation.

KENAN MALIK   Simon Blackburn. But perhaps he's being unfair. In the nineteenth century, certainly, social Darwinists argued that morality was rooted in nature's struggle for existence, and that might was right - a justification for racism, colonialism, even genocide. Today, though, social Darwinists (or sociobiologists as they are now called) are a very different breed and tend to find in nature the source, less of aggression and exploitation, than of cooperation and empathy. But this raises the same kind of problem that religion faces: if nature is a text that can be read as supporting both nastiness and niceness, why not simply throw away the text, and agree that niceness is better than nastiness?

There is another problem too. Many sociobiologists today accept that no moral lessons can be drawn from nature. But they also suggest that human beings are simply physical beings like any another. We live in a fully determined universe, they argue, and such determinism calls into questions what are often considered special human traits, such as free will. Here's Colin Blakemore, professor of physiology at Oxford University.

COLIN BLAKEMORE   We are part of physical world. I mean, we're made up of the bits of machinery that everything else is made up - the molecules and the atoms and the forces and all of that sort of stuff. So, we're part of the physical world. And you have to say, either all of that stuff including us, the stars, the planets, people and plants and everything on the earth are determined by a set of physical rules, causal rules, or there are exceptions to that. And if there are exceptions to it, if we're an exception in the sense that our actions are not absolutely determined by a causal sequence of events - as you say, going back to the Big Bang - then, my goodness, that is an enormously fundamental catastrophic challenge to our logic, to the way that we think about the world, to science.

KENAN MALIK   But if free will is an illusion what can moral values possibly mean?

COLIN BLAKEMEORE   Ha, I wouldn't advocate that just because I think that all of our actions are determined we should just throw caution to the wind and become totally anarchic and abandon the courts - of course not. I mean, society has to work. It designs for itself - again, all of this is, in a sense, determined - but designs for itself a complex process, a set of rules, people know what those rules are, they learn about them when they're kids, they know that there are policemen on the streets, they make decisions causally determined with the knowledge of the law in their heads. So if they disobey it, then something has to be done to constrain society and make it work. So you have to detach, I think, the crude notion of responsibility that there's an evil person sitting in there who has to be punished. Well, I don't think, you know, there is a person sitting inside us - there are brains sitting inside us and physical machinery sitting inside us - not persons. But unless you did something to stop actions which disturb and perturb the society that you live in, then a society would no longer work.

KENAN MALIK   So what you're really saying is that moral responsibility has no real meaning but it's simply something we've invented because otherwise we cannot make society work?

COLIN BLAKEMORE  That's close to what I'm saying, yes.

KENAN MALIK   What Colin Blakemore seems to end up with is a concept of morality robbed of any moral content. The problem lies not so much with his determinism as with his insistence that such determinism must render free will, and hence moral choice, illusory. The logic of this argument seems to be that any moral values will do - so long as they allow the machinery of society to function.

Such relativism is also at the heart of a very different kind of philosophy that has gained ground over the past century - the belief that values are not rooted in the natural or the supernatural worlds, but are self-created by human cultures. In which case it seems to follow that there could be no universal values, for every culture would establish its own distinctive moral rules.

This denial of universal norms strikes most people as profoundly wrong. After all, should only the lucky ones who happen to be born into the right societies possess freedom from arbitrary arrest or torture? One attempt to reject such relativism, without invoking the aid of either God or nature, has been through the idea of human rights. Here's Francesca Klug.

FRANCESCA KLUG   We're all human beings and that's the essential nature of what human rights thinking is all about. It's in a sense extremely simple - the idea of the essential dignity of every human being and therefore the essential equality between them.

KENAN MALIK   Human rights a set of basic rights and protections - such as the right to liberty and the protection from slavery and torture - that are supposed to apply equally to all human beings. As the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, 'Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.'

For advocates, human rights constitute a 'higher law' that constrains the actions of government and individuals. But it is precisely such constraints that worry critics such as David Chandler, a lecturer in international relations at Leeds Metropolitan University.

DAVID CHANDLER   I see human rights really as a very confident and relentless critique of the political sphere, a sphere that's posited on the idea that human beings are capable, are rational and self-governing, and a human rights approach really says, 'Well that's wrong. You know that's like Enlightenment optimism. The reality is that humanity is pretty barbaric, that people aren't really interested in politics and a general good, and that the way forward is really to protect people against themselves.' I think that's the essence of it. It's really saying that human rights or this ethical judgment of the importance of certain values should be privileged and protected from ordinary people really. It should be privileged above the sphere of democracy, it should even be privileged above the idea of equality under the law.

KENAN MALIK   Human rights, in other words, like all ethical constraints, are profoundly anti-democratic. But isn't David Chandler putting democracy above justice? Is it not better to have a just society than a perfectly democratic one?

DAVID CHANDLER   I think the problem with justice is that once you talk about justice without ideas of democracy and accountability, that you're really moving towards a world of vigilantism in a way, that today people are very critical of a politically beleaguered framework in the international sphere, that the UN Security Council formally has to give the go-ahead for military intervention, that international law is formally based on the consent and treaty-making between different governments, and argue that surely justice isn't served by that but my argument really is that once you undermine that sphere of political and legal equality, that justice is really determined and decided by the powers that are strong enough to be able to do the intervening, so if you look for instance at say the war over Kosovo, although everyone would agree that it wasn't justified legal, in pure legal terms, people would argue that it's legitimate because it's an ethical intervention based on protecting the rights of others but once you move, once you see the justice outside the bounds of legality, it's a question of who decides. Who decides whether a war is just? Or unjust? And once you remove the, even the sort of fairly thin level of international institutions that exist at the moment, at the end of the day it's really only the interviewing powers that decide what justice is and I think that sets up quite a few problems.

KENAN MALIK   Not many people, perhaps, will be persuaded by this answer, but even some proponents of human rights, such as Francesca Klug, agree that there's a problem here.

FRANCESCA KLUG   There is an ongoing and historic debate within the human rights world about its tension with democracy. If you think about it logically, rights conflict with each other and you cannot escape from the fact that you're going to have to have a referee to determine where the balance should lie in any particular circumstance and you can argue about whether that should be judges or whether that should be parliament; but in the real world it can never be an absolute idea except perhaps at the most extreme levels such as the requirement not to torture people, the sanctity of the right to life, but even that can have limits in certain circumstances such as self-defence. So in reality I think that the human rights community have done themselves no favours by presenting this as a kind of truth, as a kind of uncontested idea. It can never be an absolute idea and in that sense it can never be a universal idea.

KENAN MALIK   But if there's nothing absolute or universal about human rights, as Francesca Klug suggests, and if they are to be contested through the democratic process, in what way are they distinctive from any other kind of political claim? And how is it possible not to fall once more into the swamp of relativism? Here's Francesca Klug again.

FRANCESCA KLUG   Human rights is essentially a set of ethical values but its strength relies on people being persuaded politically in my view rather than simply legally to support them. I think the essential point about human rights thinking is that it's universally applicable but it is not a missionary religion. It is not saying that this idea is the truth and that everybody who doesn't accept the truth is somehow outside this group. Quite the contrary. It's saying this is an idea which we, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the judges who are interpreting a convention hold by and put forward. It is a contested idea that at its essence is the concept that the rights or the claims that it is upholding as the right claims are applicable to every human being in the entire universe. But it is not something which is, which is dogmatically applied. It must be an idea that is constantly open to contestation, or it is nothing.

KENAN MALIK   The philosopher Martha Nussbaum goes even further in linking politics and ethics.

MARTHA NUSSBAUM  Political values are one part of one's moral values. John Rawls used a nice image. He said they're a module which you can link to your moral values in which way you think best. They have to be one part of that and it's important that they are consistent with whatever else you believe or else you're going to be in a lot of tension and contradiction, but on the other hand, they're only a part. There are lots of things such as the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, the destiny of the soul after death, that politics shouldn't take a stand on, because that would be demeaning and disrespectful of people who have different religious views about that. Our ethical lives cover more aspects than our political lives. Our political lives are one part of our ethical lives.

KENAN MALIK   For David Chandler, though, the attempt to link ethical and political values is a bit like regarding Manchester United as both Premiership champions and relegation contenders.

DAVID CHANDLER   Essentially they're opposite sides of the spectrum. The more that ethics and morality become central to politics, the more you find that political discussion, political decision-making is restricted to a sphere of elites whether it's moving issues towards the judiciary which the Human Rights Act does, or towards ethics committees and people that have a moral standing in society. Once an issue becomes a human rights issue, what you're really saying is that we should be safeguarding these questions from the dangers of the ballot box, from the dangers of a democratic process.

Democracy is posited on the idea of there being no absolute values. If there were absolute values, why would you need to have a collective decision-making process, that those absolute values would be interpreted for us or laid down by the elite or whoever is regulating society, and I think that the ideas of democracy and the political sphere of equality and decision-making really sort of say that there are universals but those universals really come in the process of how that decision is decided, whereas a human rights approach is really saying that we've already decided what you know the end process is.

KENAN MALIK   This is an argument that gets to the core of the problem with which we've been wrestling: how might it be possible to establish a common set of values? Today, both politicians and the public tend to reach for ethical answers to political questions, in order to root beliefs in some kind of certainty. But, David Chandler suggests, such quick-mix ethical concrete can provide no real foundation to our lives. When we transform political discussions about right and wrong into ethical debates about good and bad, he argues, we expunge reason from politics, and vacate our own responsibility for shaping the values that govern our lives.

The trouble with all this, though, is that we seem to have got no further than we were at the start. We appear to have rejected all the sources of value - God, nature, even human rights judges - seemingly without finding anything to replace them. Are we condemned, then, to live in a nihilistic world?

Possibly not. For throughout these discussions two themes have emerged again and again as crucial: reason and democracy. Even those who look to God or nature for their values accept that ultimately it is through reason that we have to decide which values are good and which bad. It is when we throw away reason, and dogmatically defend values as absolute, that the problems arise.

The question of democracy is more contentious. Democracy doesn't always produce the right results - after all, Hitler was elected on a popular mandate, as critics of democracy are fond of pointing out. In any case how can we trust democracy when barely fifty per cent of the electorate be bothered to vote in many Western nations?

These are both important criticisms, which cannot be done justice in this programme. But in many ways they also miss the essence of why democracy is important. Democracy is not about end results - it's about the means by which to achieve them. Democracy does not tell us what values are good, or how we may come upon them. But it does provide a method of debating such questions. And it provides a means of implementing change. This is why, in many cases, democracy will lead to unpalatable results. It is also why in the long run values that emerge through a democratic process are likely to be both more humane and more robust than those imposed from without. Democracy allows us to get away from the idea of values as eternally fixed, and yet to see them as potentially universal. And if the political process seems moribund today, that surely is an argument to think of how to re-invigorate it, not bypass it by providing ethical answers to political questions?

The only thing of which we can be certain is that we have to do it all ourselves. Not nature, not God, not even God wearing the robes of a human rights judge, can do it for us. Part of what makes us human, Simon Blackburn suggests, is that we have the capacity to stand on our own two feet.

SIMON BLACKBURN  I fear that the tendency to go fundamentalist is a tendency that can't put up with the fragile way in which we stand on our own feet. Not standing on your own two feet but simply submitting yourself to authority is a kind of act of self-deception. It's pretending now that you've found the answers, whereas you've not, you've just given up looking, you've given up thinking about them, the questions, you've just resigned your will to that of the writer of the Holy text and I share that belief. I think there is something deeply unsatisfying about giving up the attitudes associate with enquiry and with testing the structure and seeing whether this bit hangs together with that bit and so on but then I'm a philosopher so that's my business. I'm not going to go round cracking up ignorance and derivatives confidences.

KENAN MALIK   What this requires, of course, is a certain faith in human nature - something at which many people blanch today. David Chandler suggests that underlying the idea of human rights is a vision of Fallen Man needing to be redeemed.

DAVID CHANDLER   Not everyone can agree on what human rights are, where they come from, how they can be implemented but human rights advocates say, 'Well we can all agree on what a human wrong is, we can all agree that torture is wrong, or that genocide is wrong'. But the whole problem I think of regulating society on the basis that we're all liable to commit human rights abuses and human wrongs has a very negative view of humanity and the form of regulation that that sets up that says well we can't really trust people to vote in a government that won't commit abuses, we can't trust people not to attack their neighbours or abuse people around them or their children, that view of humanity and the idea of rights that that sets up isn't rights of, of active rational subjects.

KENAN MALIK   It's a pessimism that can only make more difficult the task of creating a shared set of values, for it can only strengthen the 'trust no one' cynicism that haunts our age. I'm not saying that humans are inherently good or that a little bit of reason will solve all our dilemmas. I'm just suggesting that rather than sub-contracting our morality, we should put a little bit more trust in ourselves.