It’s not easy being an urban, liberal, leftist, greenie these days. Granted, in the eyes of some we have a lot to answer for: welfare dependency, the scourge of politically correct language, defeat in Vietnam and world music just to get the ball rolling. But take it from me; things have never been quite this crook.
Scott Stephens (‘The fake morality of Al Gore’s convenient lie’, On Line Opinion, February 20, 2007) shows just how tough it has become to look at ourselves in the morning mirror by lampooning our sudden interest in all things environmental. Stephens reckons that we’re really only worried about our house prices and that going green is just a way of making ourselves feel better while we consume like never before and plan the next holiday. Self interest, he says, equals fake morality.
So here’s the score. Not only is my godless leftist life nothing more than an entrée to something much less pleasant in the hereafter, I don’t even deserve the consolation of a few self-serving self-deceptions in the prosaic present. Now that’s bleak.
This raises the tricky question of what a real, as opposed to fake, morality would look, and - perhaps more to the point - feel like. How would I know if my moral convictions were real and not simply confected? In fact, come to think of it, in what sense is the environmental future of the planet a moral issue anyway?
If I may indulge in a little philosophical hyperbole, the search for an authentic morality may actually be the biggest question there is, both for individuals and nations. At the very least, it is a particularly pertinent question because of the way high-profile thinking Christians are currently marching away from morality.
Take the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, author of Godless Morality, and Australia’s John Carroll, author of the recently published The Existential Jesus: both argue that the church’s folly is to see its primary roll as moral arbiter for the rest of us. If my reading of both of them is correct, neither would have any truck with Stephens’ implication that God is a necessary - or even particularly useful - part of one’s moral universe.
If truth be known, none of this is news to atheists. We have always known that it is possible to construct a moral framework without God. After all, God doesn’t exist and yet morals do. Simple.
Climate change, like gods, monsters and morals, are human creations. This is a problem for people like Scott Stephens because it means the moral war that we must fight for the environment becomes an even battle between man-made entities: Christian law, economic prosperity, corporate power, political expediency, urban fashion? Without a super-natural imprimatur, there is simply no way of picking a moral winner. No one can claim the moral high ground since there is no high ground to claim.
What this all adds up to is the realisation that important moral questions are no longer, and probably never were, actually moral questions at all. Rather, the existence of God or the seriousness of global warming are, I think, questions of belief, not differences between right and wrong.
This is an utterly crucial distinction. So much of the debate that goes on in our world revolves around accusations of bad faith. Climate change sceptics dismiss “trendy”, “shallow” urban environmentalists, while “real” greenies (presumably identifiable from their lack of dress sense) assume sceptics to be on the payroll of corporations or just in denial. In the realm of moral debate, society’s greatest enemy are “liars” and “fakes”.
This is a serious problem because the most interesting and damaging mistakes in life are usually made by people who honestly believe they are telling the truth, not by Charlatans and con-men. And this is also why the legion critics of postmodernism have all missed the point - it is truth, not lies, which poses the greater threat. What the world needs is less moral conviction and fewer people who “know” that their own exquisite altruism and self-sacrifice will save us all.
The thing which Scott Stephens forgets is that depth of conviction has little if anything much in common with clarity of vision. There is no particular reason why my economic self interest is a less reliable moral compass than the next person’s religious or humanistic fervour.