Monday, Nov 9th, 2009
The justification for burning heretics was perfectly simple: dissent threatened the survival of society. Nothing was worse than anarchy. This is a viewpoint most people in the West today find pretty much incomprehensible. It is a self-evident truth to them that morality must be a matter of individual choice. And if you believe that, the arguments around the Tim Nicholson case are very difficult to resolve. If there is a moral imperative to preserve the human race, or as much of it as possible, collective consequences must follow. It is not enough for us to do the right thing. Others must as well. If you don’t believe that, then there is no point in agitating for success in Copenhagen.
But if collective consequences follow, others must be forced to do things against their will by our moral imperatives. This is exactly the quality that is supposed to be so very obnoxious about religion.
The idea that morality is and must be a matter of individual choice is taken as axiomatic in these debates. It is thought true in the sense that it is held to describe a fact about the world. Very often the same people who believe this will also believe, and maintain with equal vehemence in other contexts the belief that morals are merely opinions, or at least that there couldn’t in the nature of things be moral facts: true or false statements about whether something or someone is good or bad.
This was neatly if not nicely expressed by one of the commenters on Tim Nicholson’s article here, who said
You may believe less flying and driving, and more wind farms, and so on to be moral imperatives. I don’t. You are entitled to your beliefs, and should not be persecuted for them. But they are just beliefs. You want to argue the politics of how to respond to climate change: great. But you can stop wrapping your proposed solutions up in ‘moral imperative’ cotton wool.