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Julian Baggini: Society has to draw its limits
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Monday, 6 September, 1999, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
New moral purpose: Dangerous ground?

Mr Major: Back to basics. Mr Blair: New moral purpose
The story so far: Two 12-year-old girls get pregnant, a 14-year-old father-to-be says he has slept with 10 girls. Prime Minister Tony Blair calls for a "new moral purpose".

The background: Despite John Major coming to grief after he proposed "back to basics" with scandals among his MPs, Mr Blair re-enters the debate about politics and morality.

E-cyclopedia
The debate: Mr Blair did not actually use the word "crusade", but that is how his position was represented by the newspapers. Perhaps wary of the negative connotation of The Crusades, he instead used the good old New Labour "new".

"We need to find a new national moral purpose for this new generation. People want to live in a society that is without prejudice, but is with rules," he said.


"Government can play its part, but parents have to play their part. There's got to be a partnership between government and the country to lay the foundations of that moral purpose."

An indication that Mr Blair might be on unpredictable ground is newspaper reaction to his statement.

The Sun backed him, but said most politicans wouldn't touch the issue with a bargepole. "It takes a brave leader to launch a moral crusade in this country."

The Mirror said he had sounded "the right note for an increasingly sick society".


But the Guardian was sceptical, saying that when Mr Blair's predecessor Harold Wilson said Labour was a moral crusade or it was nothing, he meant it had a thirst for equality.

To Mr Blair, it says, the words mean "the evils of poor people fornicating".

And the Express added: "Will politicians never learn about people?"

Whose morals are they anyway?

The debate would seem to hinge on what definition of "morals" you use. Once upon a time there would have been no doubt - they would be whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope said they were.

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition (the "accepted rules and standards of human behaviour") points to the nub of the issue: accepted by whom?

In a mostly secular society, with an ever-increasing variety of faiths and creeds, it would be a brave social commentator who could define what the accepted standards are.

But Mr Blair says the government and country must try to do just that.


Former PM Harold Wilson: Despite crusade, government still hit by scandal
Dr Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers' Magazine, said some of the confusion was because morality had got tied up with religion, and so people tended to think there could not be a morality without religion.

"I think a lot of philsophers would challenge that assumption. Why can't you ask how best you should live in a godless universe, or in a universe where God's will is not obvious?


"Even if you believe in religion, there's the old dilemma put forward in a dialogue by Plato, which is 'What is good?' Is the good good because God commands it, or does God command it because it's good? It's a neat way of showing how a morality can be put independently of God."

It's not a new question

He said Aristotle had considered which was the best way to live, in the sense of being the way of life which would make us flourish.

"Now that could be a selfish question, but in fact he said in order to flourish you need certain virtues which are basically incompatible with being a highly selfish murderous individual for example.

"And most of what we consider to be moral behaviour actually turns out to be part of what would be the best way for an individual to live from a selfish point of view as well."

But the question of whose standards remains, and Baggini says, it's a difficult question for any modern liberal society as to what those values are.

"If you acknowledge there is no one undisputed source of moral value, you have to come to a fairly tolerant society, but society has to draw its limits and has to decide that together."

The e-cyclopedia can be contacted at e-cyclopedia@bbc.co.uk.

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05 Sep 99 | UK Politics
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