I occasionally get annoyed with well-meaning but essentially wrong-headed legislation that assumes people are going to behave well. Much of NZ’s more recent industrial legislation is founded, for example, on the principle that employers and employees are fair and reasonable. I happen to think that most employers and most employees are fair and reasonable. But they’re not the ones that go to law. Industrial law is to cover unreasonable behaviour by an employer or an employee (or both), so a law that assumes reasonable behaviour is a law that favours those who wish to behave badly.
And that, I think, is the basic flaw in the premise that society can cut itself adrift from its Judeo-Christian ethical foundations and continue to function. Yes, it is absolutely true that most people are fair and reasonable. Yes, you can point to a proliferation of examples that prove that there is nothing to choose between the behaviour of secularists and the behaviour of people of faith, when it comes to how they treat their neighbours.
But then we get an Andre Breivik.
In some respects the way he thinks is all too familiar. It represents an extreme — a hyper-extreme – corollary to a moral code based only upon autonomy and rational choice.
Breivik made a conscious choice. There is no question whatsoever that he acted freely. He was not angry. He even practiced meditation to control unruly passions. “First of all,” he testified, “if you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years. We have seen from military traditions you cannot send an unprepared person into war.”
This has a familiar ring to it. Euthanasia and abortion are nearly always justified by invoking autonomy and choice, as well. In these cases, it is rationalised as a choice which hurts no one else. But harm to others is not the central issue for supporters. They argue that the act of making a fully-informed, voluntary choice determines the essential goodness of the action.
Breivik’s murderous day in July last year blows this approach to moral reasoning out of the water. Choices cannot be good or bad simply because they are made freely. Only if the action is good can the choice be good. [Michael Cook: Lessons from the island of Utaya]
Secular and religious alike, we can agree that Breivik was wrong, and that his actions were evil. It seems to me, though, that Jews and Christians (yes, and members of other religious traditions) have a coherent world-view that allow them to explain why it was evil. I see no such coherent argument for securalists, because secularists have no coherent basis for calling an action good or bad in and of itself. Any action can only be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in relation to something else: ‘good for…’ or ‘good to…’ or ‘good before…’
Yes, they can agree, Breivik’s actions were bad because they injured the wellbeing of those killed and their families, breached the Norwegian social contract, placed an economic burden on the Norwegian justice system, or whatever. Or, you could (as some secularists do) apply to some universalist view of human rights (though I’ve never heard an explanation of where those rights come from if there is no-one to grant them); Breivik breached the human rights of those he killed in the most obvious and concrete fashion. All of these statements are true. But Breivik himself has other things to say, to explain why his actions were (in his view) good and necessary. I don’t deny that secularists can weigh his claims against other claims and come up with a decision that Breivik is wrong. I just don’t see how, in the final analysis, their opinion is of more value than Breivik’s own unless we acknowledge an external measure of good and evil that they explicitly deny.
Dorothy Sayers had her Lord Peter Wimsey say: “The law is framed on the assumption that my life is sacred; but upon my word I can see no sanction for that assumption at all, except on the hypothesis that I am an image of God – made, I should say, by a shockingly bad sculptor. And if I see no sanctity in myself, why should I see it in Finland [the context was the Russian invasion]? But I do. It seems altogether irrational.”
There are a number of secular moral systems. Each of them seeks to find a definition of good and bad, and a foundation for such definitions, without relying on a concept of a Law Giver. I admire the attempt. I even agree with the findings of many of the systems. But I think they’re ultimately making the same mistake as New Zealand employment law; they provide a moral code for people who behave morally. And that, it seems to me, entirely misses the point.