Free . . . but don’t hurt others

It has various names and tag lines. Live and let live. That’s probably the most popular slogan. It’s also called libertarian freedom. I’m referring to Western culture’s prevailing philosophy, the one which governs and underpins Western democracy and most of our political engagement.

Do what you want, but don’t hurt others.

There it is. In all its glory. It dominates the thinking of the vast majority of social commentators, those who write Leaders in our major newspapers, those who represent the arts and culture. In the past, in a nominally Christian country, we affirmed the value of a particular religion: Christianity. No longer. Now we’re multi-cultural; we’re tolerant. We endorse no one philosophy, with the exception . . ahem . . . of evolutionary biology (yes, it is a philosophy), which we embrace with a faith-like grip. More on that another time.

But back to libertarian freedom.

First, the positive. When you think about it, it sounds pretty good. What’s not to like? Freedom to make my own moral choices – I like that. Don’t hurt others – hard to see a problem there. Superficially, there is much to commend this philosophy. Indeed, it provides Christians in the West with the liberty to share the gospel, meet together regularly, heal on the street, if we so choose. Without it, great suffering ensues. Three cheers for libertarian freedom!

So, yes, freedom – which includes both free speech and free association – are goods which should be recognized. And the ‘don’t hurt people’ is simply a no-brainer.

Actually, hold your horses just for a moment. ‘Not hurting people’ sounds good but when you think about it, life just isn’t that simple. The fact is that avoiding hurting people, which seems like a noble goal, also turns out to be unattainable. Not only that, it’s undesirable. In disciplining my children, I certainly do wish them to suffer, to the extent that they must learn the consequences of their poor choices. And I’m fine with criminals paying for their crimes in prison. In addition, I hurt people every time I drive my car. To a limited extent.

Pain, it turns out, isn’t a universal bad to be avoided at all costs; there are nuances to its application.

But there is a deeper problem.

When you look more closely, the philosophy is so empty, it’s almost hardly there at all. Just saying, ‘I want to be free to live as I choose’ is a morally vacuous thing to state. It acknowledges no familial or societal obligations whatsoever. It is, then, entirely focused on the individual with no recognition of communal responsibilities. It might work for a single-handed sailor, but it doesn’t say enough to help us live together and build a better world. We need a lot more than this.

Second, libertarian freedom, I think, is a fig leaf to cover up a form of nihilism which I hear often on the BBC. You see, we’re world class at using our freedom to run people down, at stating what we don’t like and don’t approve of, but we’re wimps when it comes to saying what we actually believe in. In fact, sometimes it seems as though we live by this philosophy: The one thing we believe in and hold to is the belief that there’s nothing to believe in. This is the result of self-confident atheism, which has begun to stretch its wings in our culture. Just listen to 6.30pm comedy on Radio Four, especially the Now Show, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me return to the emptiness of live and let live. Just stating ‘I’m free’ is like a sign outside your house stating, ‘Keep Out!’ It doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on in the house at all. And therefore, it’s not a philosophy which is fit for purpose in promoting actual values; values, I might add which are essential to the building of healthy families and local communities.

You like serving the poor? Why? Inside your little libertarian vacuum, the only available answer is ‘because I choose to do it.’ Any more and now you’re venturing further than ‘live and let live.’ The moment you say, ‘because I believe it’s a moral duty’ or ‘because my religion teaches that it’s a good and right thing to do’ you’re no longer basing your behaviour on libertarian freedom. Now you’re building real foundations.

The bubble of freedom may give you the oxygen to serve the poor, but it will never ground and justify the behaviour itself. For that, you need more. A lot more.

In the past, religion informed public policy. It provided real, firm, gritty, justification for how to behave individually and communally. No longer. But don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days of Victorian heavy-handed state-religion-imposed morality. Not at all. I like freedom of religion. But Freedom – Capital F – by itself isn’t up to the job of telling us how to live. It’s too flimsy.

But don’t we have Natural Law?

So you want to base a whole-life philosophy on Natural Law? Be my guest. Well done, John Locke. Your problem is that our current account of human origins is constantly undermining the project. Why should a society affirm particular values merely because we’ve ‘evolved’ in a particular way. No, I’m afraid Natural Law – as currently proposed – doesn’t do the job.

In my opinion, without God, you’re just flapping about in the air. Yes, you’re free up there to do whatever you want, but you can’t tell me why I should care for others, value life, give to charity, etc. When you do, you’re just trumpeting your own subjectivity. And simply because you happen to ride the current zeitgeist – that, I’m afraid, does not amount to rational justification.

In the end, I’m with Dostoevsky, who wrote, Without God, everything is permitted. You want to know the number one objection that Muslims have to Western culture? (not foreign policy – that’s different) Its permissiveness. On the back of Freedom, we have imported pornography, the sex trade and ever increasing levels of nudity. Be free but don’t hurt others. Who says people aren’t getting hurt? But I’m straying from my subject.

To continue . . .

To build a society, you need foundations. And foundations, to hold up an entire society, well, they need to be immensely strong. They need to be solid.

Christianity may have been misused and misrepresented over the ages, but at its heart, it has always recognized and championed moral virtues. Not to mention promoting compassion for the poor. Under broadly ‘Christian values,’ at least when people misbehaved, they knew they were misbehaving and that makes a huge difference. A sinner who doesn’t call himself a sinner is a scary thing. And we’re pretty close to that now.

So I affirm that Christian belief is substantial and solid.

Faith, hope and love are not empty values, they’re meaty. They provide a positive, ‘planted flag’ way to live. Freedom, for all its virtues (and yes, there are many without which we are doomed), well, it can never tell humanity how to live well.

You’ve got to believe in something solid for that.

And there’s no one with greater solidity than the man, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person who is of sufficient stature to guide my behaviour and inform my moral choices. To quote C.S. Lewis, he may not be safe, but he is good and that’s enough for me.

© Richard Collins 2015

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