Why do Good People do Bad Things?
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous,” wrote Lord Macauley, “as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” The recent outbreak of morality at Westminster in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations is perhaps an indication of a swing of the ethical pendulum from libertarianism to puritanism that in some ways ought to be welcomed. "Something must be done", say the politicians after half a century spent systematically breaking up the foundation of western civilization, the Ten Commandments. Now, in a rare display of inter-party unity, Jeremy Corby is backing Theresa May’s clamp-down on inappropriate behaviour.
Prevention is, of course, always better than cure and for a start, as well as encouraging those who have experienced the unwelcome attention of their seniors, the party leaders could issue a ruling that MPs refrain from inviting members of the opposite sex (or, for that matter nowadays, the same sex) to their homes or hotel rooms alone. MPs could be instructed to leave the doors of their offices open, or at least ajar, when alone with attractive females or, when it is necessary for them to speak behind closed doors, to inform a colleague. This might be regarded as ethical overkill but let's not forget that our parliamentary representatives (or at least some of them) are the cause of their own misfortune. Oh yes, and for good measure, it would be helpful if all women were to dress modestly.
Incidentally, I’m acutely aware that expressing myself in this way opens me to the charge of political incorrectness and misogyny. But it's PC that is at the heart of the current confusion about ethics and morality. Even while condemning those who behave badly, one risks being condemned for straying beyond the prescribed, pedantically patrolled borders of political correctness.
That's why I was heartened to hear arch-feminist Germaine Greer’s comment after Bill Clinton’s sordid relationship with Monica Lewinsky came to light. Ms Greer was one of the few commentators who censured both President Clinton and Miss Lewinsky, describing her as a “minx”.
The Harvey Weinstein debacle, which emboldened women to start blowing the whistle on sexual predators raises another issue. In defence of his actions, the Holywood producer pleaded that the behaviour he was accused of had been perfectly acceptable in the nineteen-seventies. Whether or not Weinstein’s predatory behaviour was acceptable half-a-century ago or not (and I don’t believe it was), who decides what is morally right and what is wrong? How did something that Weinstein claims was acceptable in 1977 become a crime in 2017?
In recent years, a glut of virtue-signalling television shows has allowed us to sanctimoniously tut-tut at the sexist and racist material that accounted for much of mainstream telly in the sixties and seventies. “How did they get away with it?” those of a certain age gasp in feigned horror, forgetting that they once sniggered at The Benny Hill Show, Love Thy Neighbour and On The Buses.
Ah, yes. But we now know better…
How do we know that we know better?
Who decides what is right and what is wrong?
Is it the The TV execs who have turned us into a nation of voyeurs through shows like Big Brother and Love Island (neither of which, I hasten to add, I’ve watched)?
Is it the politicians, who not-so-long ago were called out for fiddling their expenses and who are now being exposed for inappropriate attitudes, actions and aspirations?
Is it the institutionalised Church, which has its own fair share of scandals and which courts public approval by embracing whatever system of ethics is currently in vogue? Why would anyone who needs a message that will change their life darken the door of a religious institution that embraces and baptizes every shade of morality except the morality of the Bible?
Is it the scientists? A few days ago, I came across a photo from 2009 of a London bus blazoned with the slogan: There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life. It struck me forcibly once again that ideas have consequences. Every film director, every movie star, every businessman and MP who was taking liberties with their young female (or male) colleagues was being encouraged to believe they could get away with it. “You’d like to bed that pretty teenager who’s just started working for you? Well, you're the boss. Go ahead. Try it on. After all, there’s probably no God who will judge your thoughts and actions.”
Just days before the launch of those bus adverts, the “confirmed atheist” and Times columnist Matthew Parris had written about Africa’s need of God: “Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem – the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.”
Parris had just returned from Malawi, where he witnessed the stirling work of British development charities. But he witnessed something that “confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.” He had become become convinced of the enormous contribution Christian missionaries are making in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs. “In Africa”, wrote Parris, “Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” Christians, he wrote, “Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life.”
By way of contrast, the gradual encroachment of secularism in the UK since the Second World War has been disastrous. In The Brothers Karamazov, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky hit the nail on the head: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
The twentieth century was one of the bloodiest in history: twenty million Ukrainians killed; fifty million Chinese; one-and-a-half million Armenians; a million Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; one third of the population of Cambodia. Who was responsible for those atrocities? Christians? The kind of people whose work in Malawi challenged Matthew Parris' atheism?
What if Josef Stalin had believed in a righteous, holy God and that the fifteen million peasants he starved to death in Ukraine, instead of being random collections of molecules, had been made in the image of God ? What if Mao Zedong had believed that the fifty million of his own people he killed possessed the inate dignity of being created in the image of the God of the Bible? What if the Hutus and Tutsis who massacred 800,000 of their fellow Rwandans had been reached by the missionaries atheist Matthew Parris admires and had become followers of the God who says, “Love your enemies”?
A young atheist friend sent me the synopsis of a book on morality he was writing. He believed science and logic could determine right and wrong and as I read his manuscript , I couldn’t help comparing his system of ethics with that of Jesus. I wrote a long response, which concluded in this way.
As I sat in the departure gate in Belfast International Airport, I suddenly felt a sense of euphoria because it hit me that your email was one of the most powerful confirmations of the Christian faith I had encountered since my conversion. What I mean is this. A couple of weeks ago, before I received your email, I had once again read Jesus' ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew’s Gospel . As I compared your attempt at a logical, non-arbitrary system of ethics with Jesus' sermon, I thought back to that young Jew, about five years your senior, teaching on a hill in ancient Israel. If Jesus had simply suggested to the thousands of people who gathered to hear him a new moral code based on logic , we should never have heard of Jesus. But he told his hearers to do what he said simply because he said it! And since that time billions have obeyed him! Just look at what he says:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." What other moral teacher ever spoke like that?
Confucius made some interesting ethical observations in the Analects but he never ordered people to follow his moral system on the basis of his say-so. Buddha’s teachings are interesting but he never spoke like Jesus. If you complete your book, I don’t think you’ll order anyone to follow your ethical opinions on the basis that you tell them to do so, no matter how strongly you believe in your ideas. But listen to Jesus:
“Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Jesus was no Dale Carnegie, dispensing advice on how to win friends and influence people. No prophet, sage, seer, philosopher, casuist, motivational speaker, huckster or con man in history ever spoke like Jesus (or, at least, if they did, for obvious reasons we’ve never heard of them). Who did Jesus think he was: God? I think C. S. Lewis’ comment on Jesus is one of the best I’ve come across:
“Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings. I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
However the government chooses to deal with the current crisis of morality at Westninster, it is bound to be be inadequate because they can deal, at best, only with symptoms of the moral malaise that afflicts our elected representatives rather than the root cause of their bad behaviour. So long as we continue to imagine that we are all basically good, we will never understand why "good people" do "bad things". Good trees produce only good fruit. Good people do only good things. It's no use saying nobody's perfect; that's just an admission that we're not good.
Matthew Parris saw the solution in Africa: “Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” It's a pity that Mr Parris saw only that Africa needs a change of heart. So do Harvey Weinsein' columnists. So do Members of Parliament. And so do you and I.