"The past is a different country, they do things differently there  

In his novel “The Go-between”, Leslie P Hartley wrote: “the past is a different country; they do things differently there”. I don’t know anyone who has read his book, but this phrase has become very well known – because it tells us a truth. Our morality has changed very much, not just over the course of millennia or centuries, but even over the last few decades. I’m reminded of this because this year we have seen the homosexual community celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passing of a law to decriminalise the practice of homosexuality in private between consenting adults. But if we look more closely at the effect of this Act of Parliament, we can see in retrospect that 1967 marked only the beginning of a slow change which would take a long time to unfold. This initial change in the law was the result in part of the Wolfenden Report of 1957. The report was summarised by the commission producing it as follows:

"Unless a deliberate attempt is to be made by society, acting through the agency of the law, to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business....The law's function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others... It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour."

In fact, the recommendation of the commission was ignored until 1967 when the labour government decided to implement it. The reason given at that time was that the criminal law should not penalise homosexual (men) because they were already “the object of ridicule and derision”. The comments of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary at the time, captured very well the attitude of the government: “... those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame during the whole of their lives...”. During the debate, Lord Arran, one of the sponsors of the bill, in an attempt to minimise the criticism of the proposed law said:

“I ask that [the beneficiaries of this law] show their gratitude by conducting themselves in silence and with dignity...any form of ostentatious behaviour, now or in the future or any form of public ostentation would be unacceptable and make the sponsors of this bill regret having done what they have done.”

So then not exactly a ringing endorsement of the right to live differently. It was only in 2000 that finally the law abolished any difference in treatment between homosexuals and heterosexuals. And now after 50 years it’s almost obligatory in this country to be homosexual or at least to have friends who are out and proud!

But the world in general remains very divided. We see very obvious distinctions between the countries in Europe and even more in the world as a whole. Mainly we see this in ex-communist countries and those which are predominantly Muslim. There is still a major difference in attitude in countries with a majority of either catholic or evangelical Christians, such as in countries in Africa or South America. But also in the UK. In Ulster the law itself is different. It does not for example permit abortion except in very extreme cases where the mother is virtually at death’s door. It certainly does not permit marriage other than between a man and a woman. This is principally thanks to the attitude of the party which holds the majority of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the DUP – the democratic unionist party. It was founded by Reverend Ian Paisley, a so-called Christian, who in today’s terms would be regarded as a ‘hate preacher’. The Church which he founded was and is fundamentalist in the worst sense. Paisley died some years ago, but his spirit lives on in the professed morality not only of his church, but in the manifesto of his party and in the opinions of its members. Creationism is not a part of the manifesto, but is widely subscribed to by the party faithful. In fact the party is similar in many respects to the Republican party in the USA - its members are not convinced, either, of the probability that man is the cause of global warming, despite all the evidence.

In contrast, in Southern Ireland, a country which was more catholic then the Vatican until a few years ago, there is now a prime minister who ticks all the boxes – his father is Indian, his mother is Irish and he himself married his (man) friend two years ago after a change in the law to permit it - despite the fact that he is Catholic.

Clearly, therefore we have a problem reconciling the very diverse opinions of what is moral, or even in deciding what morality actually is. Obviously for someone who is not religious, even the concept of morality is a bit of a problem, but it is a word and as such has a meaning which is generally accepted. And the concept is not confined to religion, but is used in a neutral way to indicate the type of behaviour which is generally accepted by society and is considered to be for its benefit. But it seems to me that we have to accept that there should be exceptions even for behaviour which is generally accepted. If that behaviour were based on an error of fact, for instance, would it not be sensible to oppose it? In the past, homosexuality was regarded as a wicked and perverted choice. Now we see it mainly as a product of genetic difference, perhaps pushed along by early upbringing. And we also now see that psychopaths are such as result of their genes rather than being ‘evil’ in the sense of being inhabited by the devil. Indeed, a psychopath may never commit a criminal act – he may instead become the CEO of a listed company.

In reality, much of the difference which we see in the morality of the past as compared to the present is the product of a different understanding of the facts. For instance, when there was a strong belief in the existence of witches it can reasonably be said that it was morally justified to burn them at the stake to protect society. From our present position we can criticise the methods used to demonstrate the guilt or innocence of someone accused of witchcraft, but much of life in that era was based on superstition. It was a world in which people in general were not exactly well-educated and interference in daily life by the devil and his minions was accepted as a fact. To imagine therefore that a witchcraft trial should involve the presumed characteristics of witches – for example not sinking if thrown into a pond or an incapacity to recite the Lord’s Prayer without hesitation – would make sense. And for this reason one can say that the trial process was morally justified, however absurd or cruel it may seem now. Certainly the people of that time would have been convinced of their moral justification simply because they were, in their understanding of the facts, safeguarding their society. But the horror now produced by such methods underlines even more the need to be sure of the facts before condemning someone for his actions or for his character. Objectivity is fundamental even for morality, - however strange such a concept may be.

Paul Buckingham

June 2017

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