Morality for the Me generation

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics
December 25, 1998

According to the dust-jacket, Mary Warnock's modest volume on ethics has "caused uproar among thinkers and campaigners I such as Mary Whitehouse, Ann Widdecombe and Dominic Lawson". It is tempting to conclude that Warnock must be doing something right if she has managed to upset these stalwarts of religious conservatism. On balance, though, it is hard to see An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics exciting much popular outrage. While it was certainly written with the educated lay person in mind, it is far too sensible and surefooted to be remotely controversial.

Warnock simply wants to place morality at the centre of our lives, though not in the glib fashion that conservative commentators recommend. She shows that an appreciation of the ethical is essential to human existence, but her experience in public life ensures she is alive to the dangers of a moral absolutism that isolates itself from the experience of individuals. The book's strength is that it does not peddle a moral philosophy produced "Oxford armchair-style", to borrow a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre. Warnock writes with the authority of someone who has shaped public policy on key ethical dilemmas such as the education of disabled children and in vitro fertilisation. The discussion of abstract, philosophical principles is placed in the context of her own practical experience.

This is exactly the right approach for a book about ethics, and makes an important point: morality is not purely a matter of following theoretical rules, but depends on particular judgements in unique circumstances. It is,as Warnock puts it, "a matter of trying to be a particular sort of person". Her approach to individual morality is, therefore, largely Aristotelian, but she hesitates about transferring this approach from the private realm to the public, avoiding the move that recent neo-Aristotelian writers such as MacIntyre might advocate. Certainly, her argument presupposes an account of what it is to be an individual human being, but at a political level she remains defiantly liberal. Warnock's experience of developing policy has led her to advocate a public morality that is broadly acceptable. The "acceptable" is what society must settle on if radical differences of moral opinion emerge. Public policy, for Warnock, has to be utilitarian: it has to weigh up the costs and benefits of legislation to every individual.

In some sense, these public ideas depend on a shared private morality. Lessons in citizenship, the fashionable nostrum of the moment, are beside the point for Warnock. Instead, we should concentrate on helping children to discover that there is such a thing as private morality - "a system within which they can personally and individually set goals for themselves,and which will help to give significance to their lives". Such a morality starts from a sense of altruism, entailing a recognition of the needs of others and an assumption that there are values that human beings hold in common. "Human beings at large are all in the same boat, and it is a precarious boat that will sink if there is no co-operation among those on board," says Warnock. The advantage of this metaphor is that it stresses the contingency and indeterminacy of human existence, allowing for the tragic choices that sometimes emerge in ethical decisions.

Objective moral values are, therefore, very much on the agenda, and Warnock takes on a range of objections to this view, culminating with a vigorous attack on postmodern relativism. Like Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, she believes that postmodernism's attempt to relativise facts and values indiscriminately can only result in disaster. The pernicious influence of these continental imports is corroding the minds of a generation, replacing the Socratic spirit of sceptical inquiry with a universal cynicism. Like a lot of critics of postmodernism, however,Warnock underestimates the strength of this relativist current in western thought. It is not simply a modern fad that can be restricted to opaque French theorists such as Derrida and Foucault. They are only modern exponents of something much more powerful: a tendency implicit within modern western thought, possibly from as far back as the Enlightenment. MacIntyre saw this clearly, which is why he recommended a return to Aristotle. Warnock's response to this challenge is too simple, but in this she merely typifies the blank incomprehension felt by many Anglo-American academics when confronted with this complicated subject.

In any case, this criticism should not detract from the book's other excellent qualities. It is lucid, accessible and brims with humanity. Warnock should be applauded for her achievement.

Ben Jackson is a graduate student in the department of government, University of Essex.

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics

Author - Mary Warnock
ISBN - 0 7156 2841 0
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £12.95
Pages - 129

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