Ireland’s Moral Crisis – A Philosophical Perspective: Part 1

Ireland’s moral crisis – a philosophical perspective: part 1

Ireland is undergoing a profound moral crisis and has been since at least the late 1950’s, but it’s only in the last twenty years or so that its effects have become very palpable, and in the last ten, that its consequences are starting to significantly transform Irish society. The domestic pre-history of this crisis is a complicated issue which I will leave aside for the moment. What interests me here are the wider, more universal issues underlying this crisis.

Religion and morality

The salient feature of this crisis is the apparent collapse of the source of moral principles and precepts that were generally recognised as being socially and personally authoritative. Up to relatively recently, the Christian religion was recognised as being that source of moral principles and precepts. In Ireland the main moral authority was the Catholic Church if for no other reason than that the overwhelming majority of the population of the southern state self-identified as Catholics. Even among non-Catholic Christians, basic tenets of Catholic morality overlap to a significant degree with those held by the Protestant forms of Christianity. All Christians acknowledge the binding authority of the Ten Commandments and any disagreement that exists is over interpretation. All Christians recognise that the source of these commandments is God himself.

So, on the one hand we have the content of morality in the form of a ten basic imperatives – thou shalt/ thou shalt not – and on the other, the source of morality itself, which is also its authority – God. If God commands something, then it must be obeyed. On this view, as God is the creator of all that is, it follows that he is also the creator of the moral law and our proper functioning and happiness involves, in part, living our lives in conformity with the moral law. To use an analogy, proper functioning of a device means nothing more than compliance with factory specifications; follow the manual and everything will work just fine. A malfunction happens when something no longer works as the designer-manufacturer intended. But what happens if you no longer believe in the existence of a designer-creator and proper functioning, or, you have lost the technical manual? Or, what if you believe that the source and authority for your precepts of action is not something external and overarching but yourself?

One of the primary features of traditional morality as described above is its absolute objectivity. The moral law, so described, is as objective as the laws of gravity, the major difference being that moral agents are by definition free. A chestnut falls to the ground because as a body it is governed by the laws of motion and gravity. It has no choice in the matter. Moral beings on the other hand always have a choice. They may conform to the moral law or they may transgress it. It is important to note that while we are free agents in the sense that we can choose, we do not have the right to violate the moral law. This is why traditional moralists can talk about the abuse of free will. In order to motivate people to follow the moral law, many of the religions of the world have promoted a belief in divine justice with reward and punishment. This follows from the notion of God as creator and/or ruler on the one hand, and our own ability to grasp the idea of justice. Without divine justice, it would not really matter how we acted, the serial killer would suffer no consequences and likewise those who struggle to be righteous would receive no acknowledgement or vindication. All actions and ways of life would be equal. In sum, the idea of justice itself necessitates the idea of final judgement. This at least is the bones of a well-known argument  put forward  by Immanuel Kant. Divine justice consists of judgement leading to reward, and punishment. But many religions also attribute mercy to God. Our sins may be forgiven if we earnestly seek it from God and our punishment mitigated by true contrition and penance and also in our commitment to making reparation in cases where we do wrong to other human beings. The chief idea I want to emphasise here is that the idea of an external, objective, universal and immutable moral law will always appear to us in the form of imperatives and will imply the idea of eternal consequence. The latter idea forces itself on us because we readily observe that sometimes the wicked flourish and die peacefully in their beds, while the just are penalised and sometimes die horribly.

So far, this should all be familiar enough to anyone who has grown up in a culture or family background where religion plays an important role. But wherein lies the contemporary moral crisis I have been speaking of throughout?

Religion and the moral crisis

Traditionally people have drawn their moral guidance from religion either directly or indirectly. Some religions claim to contain and teach the truth about reality and the human condition, some are less exclusive in this regard. I include atheists in these considerations for atheism is a religious belief – atheism relates to ultimate things, the meaning of life, morality, the source of all things, etc; atheism has the same scope and bears on the same issues as religion. What matters for our present purposes is not whether or not the claims of this or that religion – or none – really is the truth as claimed, but that the adherents of these religions and basic belief systems believe that theirs is the truth.

When a sufficient number of people believe in the same thing, say a particular religion, this shared belief has concrete effects on the texture and fabric of their society. It is what we mean when we talk about a certain country being a Christian or Islamic society. All this really means is that a sufficient number of people believe in the truth of Christianity or Islam and the customs and laws of that country will, to some extent, reflect the values and beliefs of that majority.

Now what happens if the individual members of such a society start to lose their belief in the religion, traditional values, and customs of that society? And, why would people start to turn away from the dominant belief system in the first place? What are the consequences of this turning away? What fills the vacuum? These and other related questions directly address the core of what I’m calling Ireland’s contemporary moral crisis.

Over the period of a few decades, Ireland has gone from being a relatively homogeneous Christian society with traditional values and customs to becoming a pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan society. At this point, I don’t want to evaluate this transformation in the sense of trying to discover which is better, however, I want to try and identify the objective implications of this transformation and in so doing, locate what is at the nub of the moral crisis. Only then would it become possible to make an evaluation.

I will take this up in part 2 of this series.

One of the more important roles for philosophers in Ireland today operating outside of academia, is to grapple with the effects of this crisis in the lives of individuals, because the old sources of moral authority and spiritual guidance have broken down or are simply ignored or rejected by a growing number of people, and yet the questions and needs that religion traditionally met have not gone away, nor will they ever go away. As part of its scope, philosophical counselling aims to address some of the effects caused by the decline of religion, traditional beliefs, and customs.

In such a period of tremendous tumult and transformation such as ours, many people are adrift, seeking answers, but are confused by the conflicting messages they are receiving from the culture. The philosopher has a crucial role to play in this, not so much by providing answers, but by providing the intellectual tools and methods by which one can remove confusion, clarify the questions and make informed judgements about one’s beliefs, values, and life aims. Without these tools, one will continue to be prey to the mixed and confusing messages that float around in the culture, to the emotions and desires of the moment or to whatever seems plausible in that particular moment. There is a vast industry that exists to manipulate and direct people’s beliefs and behaviour to the advantage of various powerful interest groups.

Some very familiar examples; the advertising industry uses highly effective techniques, based on behavioural psychology and long experience, to influence people’s purchasing habits. Without a doubt, advertising works, even though it is customary for most people to claim to be unaffected by it. Likewise, the Public Relations industry, closely related to advertising, is expert in manipulating image, appearance, and managing a narrative. They are very adept at producing and maintaining the way things appear and, if necessary, concealing their true nature. All these techniques are brought together and used in modern democratic politics to very great effect, in fact, they are considered essential to the continued smooth running of a modern society*. With the breakdown of the traditional systems which provided coherent narratives, moral direction, and life guidance, the minds and habits of millions of people are up for grabs, and powerful interest groups employ highly effective techniques to harness and redirect them. However, the beliefs and behaviours they promote are not necessarily in your real interest.

Taking up philosophy in some way is probably one of the best defences against manipulation. Valid reasoning does not come to us naturally, we need training in it. For example, there are a great many logical fallacies which have been identified by philosophers and logicians since the beginning of the western tradition. Persuasion techniques employed by advertisers and spin doctors rely heavily on apparently plausible but actually fallacious reasoning. Becoming aware of what they are and why they are fallacious is akin to being vaccinated against disease.

No one wants to be manipulated into doing things they might not other wise have even considered.  It is offensive to our basic human dignity as free agents. But there is a wider issue here which bears directly on our topic, Ireland’s moral crisis. A society consists of numerous individuals and the moral state of a society is simply a cumulative effect created by the day to day actions of its members. The route to overcoming this crisis must begin with individuals exercising real agency. But agency entails responsibility.

Agency comes down to something like authorship, in fact, authorship is a form of agency. I am the author of my own actions. I am responsible for the foreseeable consequences of my own actions. This places a prior and more general responsibility on me: to ensure that my actions are properly informed they must result from a sound reasoning process. Good outcomes are never guaranteed but the probability of such is greatly increased when the process causes outcomes is soundly based. This is what engaging with philosophy can do for us, as individuals and, by extension, as a society.

*In the near future I will publish an essay here which analyses Edward Bernay’s important 1928 book Propaganda which coldly sets out the reasons why the persuasion business is indispensable for the  efficient operation of  modern society. Bernays is often called the father of modern advertising.