MM 2001: Towards a grand universal morality

December 21, 2000

We need to create a new moral framework, says Fay Weldon (right), for a society in which science can overturn nature and religion has lost its role as a guiding force

Science - which these days seems to be where the ethical debate focuses, with its clone/not-to-clone concerns - has for some time been in search of a Grand Universal Theory, or Gut. The sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, in his recent book Consilience , even looks forward to the day when Gut will include the vaguer sciences of economics and sociology. All will be seen at last as subject to the same immutable laws.

But could we not aim even higher? Could we not look forward to Gum, if we're in the business of bathetic acronyms? A Grand Universal Morality, to which even Gut, once achieved, would be reckoned subservient? A set of commonly accepted laws of behaviour that, in the absence of the religious strictures that used to guide us in these matters, would cover everything from genetic engineering to business practice, to our visit to the therapist, to the television programmes we watch, to railway timetables, to all aspect of our lives?

We need some fresh set of universal laws, a new Ten Commandments, a new Sermon on the Mount, to help our ethical committees through the new Godless technological age. How they flounder at present! There may be a God, a Prime Mover, a supernatural Moral Arbiter, but we have to behave as if there were not. Even if there were, as anyone who has read the Book of Job will know, humankind has always been required to act as moral tutor to the Creator.

"Wilt thou condemn me?" demands God, "that thou may be righteous?" Well, yes. It has been evident from the beginning that God has no sense of justice or he would not be so unfair in the way he doles out the good and bad things of life. Our new morality is going to have to get by without reference to the Deity.

Leaving God out of the moral equation also suggests that we leave out "nature" - a term that over the past 30 years or so has, for many, become synonymous with "God". These days, nature is seen to have a will and a personality, to impose punishments and offer rewards, and has been imbued with a moral authority to which it is not entitled. Nature, or the summation of past evolutionary events that have brought us to this point, may in hindsight seem purposeful and to know best, but it does not. Humankind uses its intelligence to know better: ask any woman on hormone-replacement therapy or any soldier taking malaria pills. It is no use citing an abuse of natural processes, any more than it is of divine ones, as our excuse for resisting scientific progress. Our ethical committees have to come up with something better. Let them go still further and arrive at the Laws of Gum, the non-scientists' answer to Gut, a set of rules that will apply in all areas of our lives.

I know the acronym has an element of the absurd about it, but that is to the good. Any Zen master knows that the absurd leads to wisdom. Moral frameworks, taken too seriously, imposed too rigidly, can lead to the Inquisition and Marxist states. The new universal morality needs to be benign, flexible and accommodating. The great thing about Gum is that, in the words of the old music-hall song, it can be left on the bedpost overnight.

In most sexual matters people tend to do this anyway: the sexual imperative can overwhelm, at any rate temporarily, but failure in sexual morality should be one of the least concerns of Gum. It is the area where our control over our species' nature is at its weakest - and the race has to survive. President Clinton failed in sexual morality but otherwise made a more than good-enough president. Nor does Gum worry too much about hypocrisy, which is not the worst of vices: we may point the finger and sneer at the hypocrite but at least he, or she, in unreasonably claiming virtue, acknowledges that it exists. And what we are after is universal acknowledgement. Lip-service is better than nothing.

Gum, as it happens, was also the name of Moscow's great department store through the Soviet era: another useful metaphor. A beautiful and romantic building, all levels and wrought iron, though mostly empty of stock. But customers did not give up just because there was nothing to buy: they went along, in hope. An empty edifice, like lip-service to virtue, is better than nothing. It gives promise of good things to come. Sometimes, likewise, our new Gum will seem denuded, empty of stock, all form and no content, but what more can we expect in such a rapidly changing society? We will not lose heart. There need to be empty rooms, because something we had not thought of is bound to come along.

The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount set themselves up as all-embracing and did very well for the millennia to which they applied, but they fail to cope with the astonishing advances of the new technological world. What is a father, what is a mother, what do we count as life? When does life start, when does it not? If we say at the moment of conception, or eight cells later, then abortion turns into murder. If we do not, what is the rationale for not using stem cells from the human foetus? Faced with the prospect of science growing replacement limbs and organs in tubs, we have no guidance. Most people just feel "yuk". The religious cite the Bible, new-agers cite nature, in the hope of validating this response, but it is an uneasy premise on which to formulate legislation.

It is the West's problem. Islam sets its face against human cloning, knowing it to be satanic. Bad enough to usurp the Creator's business through painting and sculpture, let alone attempt the real thing. Buddhism shrugs: what does the body, the shell, matter? The soul enters where it wants. But the cultures derived from world religions other than Judaeo-Christianity are not the ones deep into genetic technology. Floundering ethical committees are a symptom of the technological society.

Scientists have to give up saying, as they are wont to do, that it is their duty "to find out" and it is for society to decide what is to be done about it. First locate "society". In any case, society is helpless, because without God, without nature - the latter being the very thing genetic scientists are trying to overthrow - it is fazed by the enormity of the proposition set before it. It cannot get its head round it. Look, scientists are saying by inference, supposing humankind abandons the age-old way of creating new generations sexually, almost at random, and takes to the test-tube instead? Do we not actually have to? If we give up halfway we will get the worst of all possible worlds. Have we not already drastically intervened in the "natural" processes of selection of the fittest through our medicines? So that for the first time in human history, to cite just one consequence, men now outnumber women? And as the dominoes from that begin to fall, population in the West drops below replacement levels? The chemical contraception techniques we invented 40 years ago separated sex from reproduction. People have spent the years since worrying about the sexual consequences - promiscuity, the end of marriage and so forth - when they should have been worrying about the end of procreation. We scientists cannot back out now. Even if we wanted to, it's too late.

Society as a means of controlling science sucks, but scientists would rather not admit it. They are carried away with the excitement of their task, and who can blame them? Theirs is the triumph of the inquisitive over the bland, complacent and dull. Theirs is to explore the stars, discover the secret of the universe, remake humankind, everything that is exciting. They do not want to be stopped. Society is not sure it wants to try, either. Who wants to be Galileo's persecutor?

And is it not almost impossible to ban knowledge anyway - the internet, that other product of lawless technology, being what it is? The Rule of Law itself falters. Society must formulate the Laws of Gum pretty quickly, and require its scientists to adhere to them, if it doesn't want a nightmare vision of the future to come true.

Gum has to be light-handed. It has to allow science some degree of freedom, or science will turn nasty again and devote its attention, as it did through the 1970s and 1980s, to developing weapons of mass destruction. Gum must be flexible, pragmatic, even devious; a guiding principle, or group of them, that can be accepted on an individual level yet apply to governments, to corporate business, to accountancy, to education: something that will get us through the phase of communicative consumerism through which we pass, in which information (the internet) begins to take the place of wisdom, the imperative of communication (our mobile phones) to take the place of friendship, in which we prattle about peace, gentleness, sharing and caring, and the value of "lasting relationships" while using films and games to excite our own innate desire for bangs, crashes, unhealthy sex and violence. "Simulated" becomes more real than real.

The influence of society is now so great on the individual, especially on the young - as schools impose right thinking and feeling on them, and, as in the absence of religion, parental values falter and fail - that the need for a formulated morality becomes increasingly acute. We are no longer in the grip of the work ethic, for which the old rules worked, but in the grip of the consuming ethic, in which they do not.

Governments cheat and lie, why shouldn't we? The lottery takes away our idea that money is for earning: why not steal it? We are educated not to become wise and help build a good society, but so we can get good jobs and spend our earnings. If something makes a profit that is moral validation enough. Big Brother gets the ratings so why bother with anything better? Standards fall as the lowest common denominator takes the moral high ground. The danger is that consumerism becomes its own good, its own ethical content. But Gum cannot spend its energies disapproving. It has work to do.

What a triumph it would be if Railtrack, for example, had an ethical director on its board and debated whether it was its greater duty to maximise its profits at the expense of its customers or to look after its customers at the expense of its shareholders, and did not take it as read that it was the former. Gum might even poke its nose into the real world, and impose its own tax, the social tax, that would work rather like VAT, to be costed into any enterprise. If you inconvenience society, you pay, and the more you inconvenience it the more you pay, until it becomes more worth your while to do the right thing than to do the wrong thing. But that is another story.

In this climate it is useless for the government to exhort parents and schools to educate their children as to what is right and what is wrong. In a godless society, they have no idea themselves what is and what is not. There is socially convenient, and socially inconvenient, what is punished and what is applauded - but that is about it. Children themselves are better at knowing. "That's not fair!" they cry, left to themselves. Good or bad, right or wrong are words for the way justice is achieved. Darwinists account for the instinct of justice by talking about the survival-friendly nature of altruism; churchmen claim it is God's gift to us. Parents, being practical, use it to socialise their children. But children still lack rules by which to pace their own moral development. Sunday school used to do it, but who goes to such places any more? Hymns sung in school assemblies would suggest a world beyond the practical, but, apart from the occasional Morning Has Broken , school halls have fallen silent for fear of causing political or religious offence. Children stand around waiting to be fed and are given stones.

P. D. James has a personal ethic that stands her very well. The aim is, simply, "to love well, work well and try to be good". The problem is that when it comes to questions of working well, which most people do for an employer, to whom they abrogate moral responsibility, the better you work the worse the consequences for society. Perhaps the only good result of the second world war was the Nuremberg trials, when "society", driven as it was to desperation, put its mind to its ethical problems and came up with the principle that obeying orders was no excuse. Which we begin to forget. Perhaps the worst thing to happen under Margaret Thatcher was the ruling that anyone who left their job because they took moral exception to what was going on became wilfully unemployed and so ineligible for unemployment benefit. Gum will have none of that.

I imagine that, when finally arrived at, the great universal morality that will control our scientists, enthuse our corporations and spiritually nourish our children will be based on John Stuart Mill's notion of the greatest good of the greatest number, together with an acceptance that motive counts more than results, and the idea that individuals must work out their own moral values and be responsible for them. And on the notion that you can more or less tell whether an act is good or bad by universalising it: if everyone did this, what would happen?

Thus, in the light of Gum, scientists must decide in their own minds whether what they are doing is right or wrong and behave accordingly. If they judge that cloning serves the greater good of humankind then let them work on it; otherwise let them walk. If they think that danger from the enemy justifies developing a new biological weapon then let them do so. But let them not be tempted by money or praise to do what they feel uneasy about. Let their morality be their own, not dictated by the group's shifting sanities, and society will then be better able to deal with it.

The task of governments, abiding by Gum, is simple - it is to seek the greatest good for the greatest number. How they interpret this goal is up to them - they can see wealth as a good that trickles down so you must preserve the rich, or try to ensure social justice by dirigiste legislation. They should not act to improve their power base or to get elected next time. If their motive is pure, good will largely come of it. (Gum does not much like the word "pure": let us instead say "more noble than otherwise".)

Let the therapy and counselling industries think about universalising the advice they give. Should everyone have their self-esteem improved? Should no one feel guilt? Is advising women to be strong and go it alone really in their best interests? Psychotherapists who work on ending emotional distress rather than on promoting the pursuit of happiness via the relief of guilt will know well enough that they are justified in what they do. Let them carry on. Motive is all.

In a moral society the police will consider the greatest good of the greatest number and decide whether the money spent on victim-support groups is more valuable than money spent on extra police officers on the beat. The soldier will decide whether calling his trade "peace-keeping" is an accurate description of what he does, and feels it his duty to do - defend his country and be prepared to kill and be killed to do it. Or would he do better to join a mercenary force and kill or be killed for money? Gum, the bathetic acronym, will make all things clear.

In 1989 I was invited by the Soviet government to a World Intellectuals' Conference in Moscow. Its declared intent was to find a way to stop the arms race that had been going on for 40 years. But its real purpose was to provide a backdrop for Gorbachev's announcement that the cold war was at an end. The Soviets were giving in.

Capitalism had won, communism had lost. "War is no longer the continuation of revolution by other means," Gorbachev announced. "Frankly, we just can't afford it any longer." It took the West a few weeks before the implications of this sunk in.

In the meantime I had been seconded from the writers' section to a human rights committee. We had an afternoon to come up with a new improved Bill of Human Rights. It was an absurdity, but we tried. It was my job as the writer to list the committee's recommendations. On one side of me was an African chief who wanted me to be his 52nd wife - I could not be in the top grouping because I talked too much - and on the other an Iraqi who was protesting about cannibalism on the Iranian-Iraqi battlefields. "The right not to be a multiple wife," I wrote, on my own behalf. "The right not to be eaten after death," I wrote, on his.

There are so many rights and they are easy to write down. Duties are a different matter: they take longer to define, they are painful, they involve sacrifice and hardship, not just for ourselves but for families, too, thus piling dilemma on dilemma. To acknowledge a moral duty can mean giving up jobs, easy attitudes, pleasures. "Trying to be good", in fact, in P. D. James's phrase. But Gum requires it. Gum, fortunately, like Allah, is merciful, and is prepared to stretch a point or two, recognising that we are morally weak and feeble creatures, and can only take shifts at virtue.

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