Madeleine Bunting has an interesting piece in today's Guardian on the lack of moral vision in politics. Where is such vision to come from? What can rescue us from the politically disengaged, anti-social individualism which arises in the absence of any such vision?
In the course of her article, Bunting refers sympathetically to the ideas of the current Reith lecturer, Harvard University's Michael Sandel: 'Most political questions are at their core moral or spiritual, Sandel declares, they are about our vision of the common good; bring religion and other value systems back into the public sphere for a civic renewal.' As Bunting goes on to note: 'His audience will probably wince with horror', his proposals 'will deeply divide.'
Is that reaction of 'horror' the right one? Which side of the 'divide' should we be on?
Sandel is articulating a 'communitarian' philosophy which is also to be seen at present, in a more strident form, in the 'Red Toryism' of Phillip Blond and, more ambiguously, in the 'ethical socialism' of Jonathan Rutherford and Jon Cruddas. The core communitarian thesis is this: 'There is no shared political vision without a shared vision of the good life. Outside of such a vision, there is only a vision of 'atomised' individuals doing their own thing with no morality to define and shape the public square.' Religion can offer one source of vision about the good life.
In assessing this school of thought, a first step is to be clear about the downside to letting political decision-making be determined by visions of the good life, not least those which derive from religions.
So imagine a government proposing to reduce the age of consent for gay sex. During legislative debates on the proposal, a major religious leader gets up in the legislature and tells the nation that the measure is to be opposed because of the alleged incompatibility of gay sex with religious ethics. (My memory is terrible, but I seem to recall the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, doing precisely this in the House of Lords about a decade ago?)
What are we to make of this? Is it appropriate for members of a religion to make laws which limit the freedom of all citizens on the basis of religious beliefs that are specific to followers of their religion?
I'm inclined, as a first approximation, to give a full-throated, hearty 'No' to that question. To allow laws to be made on the basis of religious belief is to endorse theocracy. I oppose theocracy in Iran, and I oppose it here.
The underlying problem - which Madeleine Bunting starts to acknowledge towards the end of her article, but doesn't really confront - is that in a free society there is always going to be a reasonable plurality of views about the good life. A theory of the good life is a theory about what gives meaning and purpose to life. Arriving at such a theory means asking questions like: 'Is there a God? What does he/she/it/they require of me? If there is no God, how am I to live?' So long as there is freedom of inquiry and expression, people will answer these questions in different ways and, as a result, will passionately disagree about the ethics of gay sex, contraception, divorce, women's role in the household, meat eating, and so on and so on. A free society cannot have a vision of the 'common good' if by that one means a settled consensus around a specific theory of the good life.
So the first point is that the 'communitarian' approach to political vision is undesirable because it seeks a degree and kind of moral consensus which we cannot attain in a free society.
But where, then, is a vision of the 'common good' to come from?
The communitarians in effect believe there is nowhere else from which such a vision can possibly come. The philosophical tradition of liberalism disagrees. The fundamental liberal claim is that we do not face a dire choice between theocracy and public nihilism. There is, so to speak, a third way.
The liberal approach is to argue that while citizens might disagree about the nature of the good life, they can and do share certain interests as the kind of beings who struggle to articulate and follow conceptions of the good life. They have interests in life, security, and certain freedoms, such as freedom of conscience, which are strategically vital to pursuing the good life as one sees it. They have interests in access to resources and economic opportunity more widely. They have interests in self-respect and in social conditions that help to sustain their mental health.
For short, we might call this set of interests, instrumental freedom. The task of the state, says the liberal, is to show equal concern and respect for each citizen's interest in instrumental freedom. To be committed to the common good, then, is to be committed to this kind of equal freedom. From this basic principle, liberals then seek to derive more specific principles of justice, to flesh out their account of the common good.
And this conception of the common good can, in turn, underpin an understanding of civic virtue. The citizen of virtue is she or he who acts to promote the principles of justice which secure equal freedom for all. To be sure, this way of thinking about the common good has problems of its own. But it is surely much more promising as basis for a common political ethic in a free society than the communitarian approach.
If all this sounds abstract, one can always take a look at Barack Obama's Inaugural Speech as US President. As I argued in an earlier post, it offers a beautiful restatement of this liberal-republican understanding of a free political community's shared political vision.
Is all this to imply, then, that religion has no place at all in the public forum? Not necessarily. The values that lie at the heart of the liberal conception of the common good are values that can be found in many religious traditions, at least on certain lines of interpretation of these traditions. The stories of religious traditions can provide moving and insightful ways of talking about these values in a way that prompts us to take them more seriously. Religious traditions can, in short, work to consolidate liberal civic virtue. London Citizens, which has roots in many religious (as well as non-religious) organizations, is arguably doing something just like this.
So the answer to the vision thing is, in my view, the old-fashioned liberal one: the common good is the good of social justice, the concrete working out of the liberal promise of equal freedom for citizens of all faiths and none.
Of course, the Labour party has failed to stand up for this social vision in recent years. But that's a reason to reaffirm the vision, not a reason to abandon liberalism for the reactionary politics of communitarianism.