AC Grayling: From Magna Carta to Lady Chatterley: a brief, ignoble history of moral outrage

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The Independent Online

Outrage has a long history. It is the starting point for two of civilisation's earliest literary classics: the Iliad and the Bible. In the first, Achilles is outraged because Agamemnon confiscates one of his slave girls. In Genesis, Adam and Eve outrage God by eating forbidden fruit, and in revenge the creator curses all mankind for ever.

With such precedents it is no surprise that the British have always been good at outrage. King John's barons were outraged by his taxes, so in 1215 they forced Magna Carta on him. Parliament was outraged by Charles I's attempt to override it, so in 1649 it removed his head. In 1739 the whole nation was so outraged that a Spaniard had cut off a British sailor's ear that they went to war.

But it took the Victorian era to refine outrage into specifically moral outrage, with sex and nudity as the chief targets, and offences against religion close behind. In 1877, Annie Besant outraged the public by publishing a birth control pamphlet, and nearly went to prison. In 1881, Ibsen's Ghosts was staged in London to cries of horror over its sordid themes. In 1885, a fierce correspondence broke out in The Times following a letter from "a British matron", who complained of an exhibition of nude paintings which "revolted the sense of public decency".

In this climate it was not surprising that Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure should be greeted with outrage on its publication in 1895; even his wife Emma objected, and the Bishop of Wakefield threw it into his fireplace. Hardy never wrote another novel.

Victorian sensibility did not end with Victoria's death. In the 1920s, a moralistic Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, banned Joyce's Ulysses and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover provoked huge moral outrage. Even when its publication became possible in 1960, the climate had not changed enough to prevent more outrage at Kenneth Tynan's Oh Calcutta! in 1967, or the posture of moral outrage sustained by Mary Whitehouse for most of the decades since.

Moral outrage is aimed at censorship. Recently, the play Behzti was silenced by the moral outrage of Sikhs in Birmingham. The objectors had not seen the play, yet knew that it absolutely had to close. The same impulse attends the outrage over the BBC's airing of Jerry Springer.

A mature society is one that reserves its moral outrage for what really matters: poverty and preventable disease in the third world, arms sales and injustice. Bad language and sex might offend some, who have a right to complain; but they do not have a right to censor. They do not have to watch or listen. It is morally outrageous that moral outrage should be used to perpetrate the outrage of censorship on others.

AC Grayling is a reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London