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Root Causes Relating to the Fragmentation of Moral Authority
Whilst it is not my intention to give a history lesson, it is important for us to appreciate just what has happened over time and I have found the following parable written by the American Philosopher Alasdair Macintyre most helpful. He writes, "Imagine that at some time in the future there is a widespread revolution against science. There is a series of ecological disasters. Science and Technology are blamed. There is public panic. Riots break out. Laboratories are burned down. A new political party comes to power on a wave of anti-scientific feeling and eliminates all science teaching and scientific activity. A century later, the mood subsides. People begin to try to reconstruct what was destroyed, but all they have are fragments of what was once a coherent scientific culture: odd pages from old books, scientific instruments whose use has been forgotten, bits and pieces of information about theories and experiments without the background of knowledge of their context. These pieces are reassembled into a discipline called science. Its terminology and some of its practices resemble science, but the systematic corpus of beliefs, which once underlay them, has gone. There would be no unitary conception of what science was about, what its practices were for, or what the key terms signified. The illusion would persist that science had been recovered; but it would have been lost, and there would be no way of discovering that it had been lost."
This, Macintyre argues, is what actually happened to moral thinking in the 18th Century. This period, known as the Enlightenment, "succeeded in destroying the traditions to which the key terms of morality belonged ..... The words survived like â€“ good, right, duties, obligation, virtue- but they became severed from the context that gave them sense."
Two Canadian writers, Middleton and Walsh explain this by using interesting and helpful illustrations of the carnival and the circus. Think for a moment about the Circus. Usually there is one central ring and this is where the main performance takes place. In addition to the main performance there are often a number of sideshows which we can view on our way in or out of the Big Top. In fact, most of the side shows are identifiable components of the main programme.
As mentioned earlier in my references to Jonathan Sacks and Michael Polanyi, the main philosophical activity and influences emanating from the "centre ring" that shaped our society for many centuries was Christianity. However, in the 18th Century, at the time of the "Philosophical Enlightenment," this influence was pushed aside, lost its hold of the centre, and was replaced by philosophy. It was believed that reason alone could and must be able to solve all moral problems and difficulties.
Christian Religion, though important in the past, had caused too many problems and conflicts and there was now a new and better way to approach our world.
Jonathan Sacks poses the question, "When the profession of a faith is no longer needed for citizenship, what else weaves the strands of private lives into the fabric of a shared existence? Nineteenth-century thinkers, with few exceptions, had no doubt. It was the existence of a shared morality."
The expulsion of Christianity from centre stage in Europe in the eighteenth century to be replaced by philosophical rational thinking is not the end of the story - in fact, the hoped for "common morality" was itself removed from centre stage. It also became fragmented to such a degree that, if we stay with the image of the circus, there is now no influential presence in the main centre ring. All that remains are the sideshows.
"Far from the erosion or even eclipse of religious belief that the Enlightenment so confidently predicted, the Enlightenment itself has been eclipsed, resulting in a veritable smorgasbord of religions and world views for our consumption."
Perhaps the most succinct summary of what has happened over the past two hundred years resulting in what we experience today, is expressed by Jonathan Sacks when he writes, "For centuries Western civilisation had been based on a Judaeo- Christian ethic. That was now being abandoned, systematically, ideologically, and with meticulous thoroughness."
Macintyre writes, "We have long assumed, that there are standards of rationality, adequate for the evaluation of rival answers to such questions, equally available, at least in principle, to all persons, whatever traditions they may happen to find themselves in and whether or not they inhabit any tradition." However, this is a false assumption. Reason alone does not solve our complex difficulties â€“ argument is endless â€“ the experts fail to agree.
The conclusion for some, therefore, is that "Ethical action is dependent on indwelling a socially embodied narrative, on membership in a concrete community oriented to a distinctive perspective, heritage and vision of life." It was Macintyre who said, "I can only answer the question, 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'
In the light of this, there has been a suggestion that one way forward is to create "moral communities." From within such communities there would be "tradition and reason" exercised in the process of making moral decisions. A cautious and qualified suggestion that the Armed Forces could become such a community was made by Professor Torrance.