We can learn from America in seeking moral consensus
Can we only become a decent society by becoming a more intolerant society? That is the question we have been asked time and again in the past weeks, as morality and religion have been rolled into the battle for political advantage.
The Catholic bishops apparently endorse new Labour, but then assault Tony Blair for his political equivocation on abortion; Rabbi Sacks lambasts Thatcherite individualism; and between them the Dunblane parents and Frances Lawrence may yet deliver a ban on pistols and combat knives.
Nor does this renewed willingness to judge others stop with questions of life and death. Whether Glenn Hoddle includes Paul Gascoigne in his team to play Georgia will be regarded as a moral judgment as much as a footballing one. In the domain of schools, the Education Secretary wants more made of the virtues of marriage and Labour wants written contracts between parents and teachers.
Most people react with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance at the sight of cynical, self-seeking politicians issuing sermons. Yet to dismiss all this moralising out of hand would be wrong. We should blame the political messengers for delivering their message in such a garbled state, but once the message is decoded out of the distorted language of electioneering, it poses a question we should all acknowledge as potent.
That is: how do you create a sense of cohesion around a common set of moral principles in a largely secular, marketised society, which prizes autonomy and encourages a healthy lack of deference towards social hierarchy and traditional institutions? And if pulling together more means excluding some forms of behaviour as unacceptable - noisy neighbours, unruly children, promiscuous single parents - how is that judgment to be made and enforced?
Society is not falling apart, as communitarian scaremongers would have us believe, but its moral development is markedly uneven. Liberal democracy and the market encourage us to articulate a distinctive sense of ourselves, as the basis for our fulfilment. Our power to articulate what makes us different and distinctive has not been matched by a compensating ability to negotiate, reconcile and incorporate these differences within a shared set of values about how citizens should behave. This mismatch between our ability to articulate differences and our ability to negotiate the resultant tensions exposes a dangerous instability in the ideal of tolerance, which is indispensable to a liberal, pluralistic society.
Sometimes it seems that we have become so tolerant of different lifestyles that we have stopped caring; we become indifferent. But to stop caring about what other people do, to retreat from judging whether their behaviour is right or wrong, is a retreat from morality, into an entirely private world, disengaged from society. If we …