Philosophers can't teach us morals

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The Independent Online
INTELLECTUALS are good at analysing the issues, but hopeless at providing solutions. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in their response to the 'moral crisis' facing Britain today - from the House of Windsor to teenage hooligans and unmarried mothers. Moral renewal, if it happens, will come from below, not above.

This does not mean that intellectuals are unimportant. But they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They have been instrumental in the crisis that we are witnessing.

The most common symptoms of our moral crisis - the breakdown of religious belief, sense of duty, family life - cannot be just a function of economic change. They are not, as Burke, Marx and others have claimed, the inevitable result of capitalism and urbanisation. Nor are they only, as George Orwell argued, part of a 'paradox of progress', according to which moral decline results from a 'softness' that derives in turn from the pursuit of 'mechanical efficiency'. The family, for example, flourishes in affluent societies such as Japan.

No, whenever society's protective beliefs and habits break down, it is not for exclusively economic reasons, but because they have been subjected to intellectual assault. Keynes was right in saying: 'It is ideas . . . which are dangerous for good or evil.' As bearers of these ideas, intellectuals cannot place themselves at the distance needed to offer a solution.

Oswald Spengler argued that in periods of decline, the intellectual class - secular heirs of the priests and rabbis - turns against the religious culture its predecessors helped to create. 'Thought,' Spengler wrote, 'is the late form of religion.'

Schumpeter had the same idea when he noted that 'unlike any other type of society, capitalism . . . by the very logic of its civilisation, creates, educates and subsidises a vested interest in social unrest'.

Cut off from direct responsibility for practical affairs, the intellectual's main chance to assert himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value. This interaction of economic progress with a soured priestly tradition is what is fateful for the moral life of Western communities.

The 'critical project' of the Enlightenment - to subject every belief to the test of reason - has played a central part in forming our age of material progress and moral retrogression. Criticism must be distinguished from doubt. Although the classical doctor Sextus Empiricus believed that spiritual tranquillity was to be found in an equally balanced scepticism, the critical project of modern times has been overwhelmingly directed towards improving the world.

Intellectuals attacked established beliefs and practices in the name of progress. The pursuit of truth may have been one important motive, but few doubted that truth would, in the long run, have better consequences than falsehood. Intellectual activity in the last 150 years has been mainly directed at stripping away our comforting illusions. The critical intellectuals wanted better morals, better societies, better civilisations than older systems of thought had allowed. They have judged the conventional understandings and practices of their day from the standpoint of what they supposed to be impersonal reason, and found them wanting.

Religion, according to John Stuart Mill, was the 'great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions'. By its aid, 'every inveterate belief and

every intense feeling of which the origin is not remembered, is enabled to dispense with the obligation of justifying itself by reason'.

Scepticism became the main defence conservatism offered to the rational designs of the world-improvers, but it provided a delaying mechanism, rather than a fundamental challenge.

Towards the end of his life, Keynes began to wonder whether his generation's quest for a rational basis for morals might itself have been an illusion. Virginia Woolf recorded him as saying he 'would be inclined not to demolish Christianity if it were proved that without it morality is impossible'. He went on: 'I begin to see that our generation . . . owed a great deal to our fathers' religion. And the young . . . who are brought up without it will never get so much out of life. They're trivial: like dogs in their lusts. We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.'

What Keynes had started to doubt was the benefits that could be expected from the destruction of old faiths. What kind of fruit would ripen from exposure to the light of reason? Fifty years later we can attempt some kind of answer. The critical project has yielded not new truths to replace old falsehoods, but value relativism - the doctrine that there is no truth, that everything is a matter of opinion. The 'deconstruction' of all 'discourses', traditional as well as revolutionary, is the final expression of a project that no longer believes in anything or hopes for anything, but simply hates whatever still works, however badly.

THE intellectual class, even when it recognises the problem, is peculiarly badly placed to retrieve anything from the wreckage, because the wreckage is the unintended consequence of its own liberating touch. It cannot try to call a halt, or reverse the trend towards value relativism, because that would be a betrayal of its own language of understanding.

It cannot use the moral language of traditional religion because it is committed to the doctrine that evil acts are caused not by evil but by ignorance and poverty. Thus John Major's much-quoted remark that 'we should try to understand less and condemn more' strikes a jarring note; as do those religious revivals that exhibit sham saviours exploiting their credulous flocks.

But the intellectual class no longer believes any version of the revolutionary language, either. The social service versions of religion, which have always appealed most strongly to the left, have all collapsed. Who can any longer regard Communism as a new religion, the way Beatrice Webb did? Who now tries to conjure up communities from vanishing class solidarities? The only positive language left is a flaccid language of entitlements, underpinned by state-mediated charity to fill the moral black holes left by the decay of civil society.

Administrative and statist language has started to dominate international relations, too, as Spengler predicted: in the bureaucratic conception of 'Europe'; in Douglas Hurd's ethical 'imperialism' to overcome the horrors of mass starvation and genocide. What is simply not faced is that unless 'civil society' renews itself, the state will run out of resources for its benevolence. The 'caring' state will then yield to the power state, power being the classic answer to social entropy. That has already started to happen.

Intellectuals have nothing left to preach. But their analysis may, after all, have its uses. They may be able to suggest new patterns of action to those less burdened by the past. Beyond this, the practice of virtue without hope is itself virtuous in a world of dissolving standards.

These are gloomy thoughts in season, soon no doubt to be banished by the 'green shoots' of economic recovery. Perhaps even the beginnings of a moral recovery are evident in the Irish condolences on the death and injuries in Warrington, in the calls for more emphasis on family life, in the sympathy shown to the family of the Liverpool murder victim, James Bulger. For my part, I remain an intellectual of our times, clinging to the faiths of my generation, knowing they may be false, but having nothing better to put in their place.

(Photograph omitted)