Changing morality

The same two books, both with an anti-British tone, have recently been reviewed together in numerous magazines. The review I first saw was by journalist Mihir Bowes for the Irish Times. The one book, by a Professor at Stanford University, tells us that the idea of British exceptionalism as a driver of Brexit was based on a wholly unjustified view of our empire as a triumph. In fact, from the conversations I have heard, the motivation for Brexit and so the justification for our exceptionalism wasn’t the empire, but an exaggerated view of our courage compared to the nations conquered during the second World War and, as far as the French are concerned, our victories at Agincourt and Waterloo. There is also the failure amongst exceptionalists to recognise that the plucky British spirit of WWII, was forced on us by the malign force known as Hitler. It resulted in privation during the war years and for years afterwards.  And it is obvious that the own goal of voluntarily leaving a large trading block has no moral equivalence to declaring war on Hitler. It is a category error to compare the two, although the economic consequences may be similar.

The other book is a book about slavery. Padraic X Scanlan, a history professor in Toronto, has written Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain. It is claimed to be a major rewriting of history and is in support of BLM. The conventional view is that Britain can be proud of being the first country to abolish slavery (in fact, he tells us, Haiti and some northern US states did so earlier), and that royal navy ships hunted down slave ships. The reality we are told (as if this was something new) is that the British abolition of slavery was a slow, tortuous process, with slaveholders who were members of parliament given plenty of opportunity to state their case. Although the slave trade was abolished in 1807, it was 1833 before parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. But even then, the 800,000 British slaves did not go from the plantations to freedom. They had to serve six years of apprenticeship, so that they might not “recur to the primitive habits of savage life”. He also points out that the dying wish of William Wilberforce, the father of the anti-slavery campaign, who died before the Bill was passed, was that compensation be paid to slaveholders. Pleas had been made that widows and orphans relied on income from the slavery plantations of the Caribbean.

Our involvement in slavery obviously has relevance to BLM, but what is said by the author as reported in the article seems to me to be divorced from reality. Over recorded history, every tribe and country has been involved in slavery at one time or another. That our ancestors actually took steps to try and bring it to an end is a lot more that most others did at that time. There is the example that appeared recently of Colonel Rigby, our man in Zanzibar until 1861. He kept a journal in which he recounted his horror at the slave trade when 'the northern Arabs...did not hesitate to throw their slaves overboard to avoid the seizure of their boats'. The journal also shows his frustration with the sultans of Zanzibar, Oman and Barghash, who did little to 'control' the slave trade. He writes of a meeting when 'I remonstrated with [the sultan] forcefully about the scandalous shipment of slaves going on... no attention is paid to treaties'.

But I also part company with the writer and reviewer because they are applying current moral standards to times past. During that era, obviously that 'section' of our moral code was evolving. We would now say a good thing too, and not before time. They though would not have been nearly so certain. That Wilberforce felt that slave-owners ought to be compensated is at first astonishing, but has to be seen in the context of a perception of inevitable hardship amongst fellow Brits, most of them not well off. This was a factor dissuading some in Parliament from bringing slavery to an end at all - at a time when by no means everyone was convinced of the moral case for abolition.

Which takes us on to what we mean by morality. Unless you subscribe to a religion of some sort, then there is no such thing as a moral imperative, some sort of timeless, overarching absolute requirement to act in a certain way. Our ‘moral rules’ are behaviours which adapt over often long periods of time, to enable human society to function in a way which promotes its survival. Our behavioural norms have undergone enormous change over the millennia and that our attitude to slavery took a long time to change and, towards the end, took a number of attempts before it finally succeeded should not be a surprise. Many wrongly imagine now, as did our ancestors in past centuries, that current social norms somehow reflect an ultimate truth. So then, that society took a long time to coalesce around the abolition of such a long-standing and deeply-ingrained thing as slavery should not be surprising. After all, for most of our history, slavery merely reflected the natural order of things. And, despite our efforts, slavery is still widespread.

Of course slavery is not the only thing where our morality has changed, and changed substantially. We have in the past discussed the great importance of upholding ones honour, to the extent of getting into fights (amongst the lower orders) and having duels (amongst the gentry) to do so. Vengeance for slighted honour was vital and the hatred engendered by it could last for generations. Somehow we seem to have abandoned this obsession. The gradual introduction of an increasingly comprehensive criminal code was key to this. It gave a societal instead of individual remedy for actions which fell within that code and at the same time discouraged people from attacking others for minor slights, as they themselves would be prosecuted. Our moral code has changed so radically that a homicide rate which was around 32 per year per 100,000 people in the 13th and 14th century fell to a rate in the UK in 2019 of only 1.14 per 100,000 people - a thirtieth of the rate 600 years ago. Who then would have predicted that?

The emergence of a state that was actively supportive of its citizens came into existence in the UK as a reaction to the two World Wars. Prior to this, we had a public morality amongst the middle and upper classes which said that it was an individual’s responsibility to look after himself. Any state aid given was given very sparingly and grudgingly, on the basis that it would encourage feckless behaviour amongst the lower classes. However, Lloyd George, the prime minister, towards the end of the ‘Great War’ promised ‘Homes fit for Heroes’. Even before the First World War slum housing had been an embarrassing issue which governments, entrenched in the Victorian morality of ‘self-help’, had done little to resolve. The scale of the problem became apparent when thousands of men who lived in these squalid conditions had been rejected by the Army as they were not fit enough to fight. And then there were the hundreds of thousands of men returning from the horrors of the Western Front who would expect the country to reward them for their heroic efforts. The Russian Revolution of the previous year was a reminder of what could happen if those in power ignored their plight. As a result the government put in place funding for local authorities to build ‘Council housing’. The Welfare State came into existence later on in direct response to a similar realisation that the people, who had suffered very badly during the second world war, would expect far more after ‘their’ victory and their sacrifice. And so our moral code changed yet again in the general direction of socialism as a result of factors which few in Victorian times would have predicted or approved of.

But the Professor also seems to think that unless we know and accept our ‘real’ history, we shall never be able properly to address the claims of Black Lives Matter. But, granted the unlikeliness of the population as a whole ever getting to grips with history in any depth, that means that the BLM movement is doomed to failure. However, life doesn’t work on the basis of what historians turned polemicists think. Social attitudes change in largely unpredictable ways. Teaching us about our past in the hope that we will accept guilt on behalf of our ancestors is unlikely to work. We have known about our past for a very long time and done very little in response. We have instead to be persuaded that the situation, including that of a shortage of good housing, is unacceptable to us by reason of what we can see around us now. And that comes about in serendipitous ways.  Marcus Rashford and his mother have convinced us of the need to address significant inequality in the present - without an appeal to any history other than their own. In turn, their involvement came about as a consequence of being a star football player (Marcus, not the mother) and the Covid pandemic. I think that gives us a clue as to the unpredictable way the world really works, as opposed to the carefully crafted view from the Ivory Tower.

Paul Buckingham

18 January 2021

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy