(New Statesman) Matters of life and death: Rowan Williams and John Gray in conversation

John Gray:…I think the further away secular humanism is from its Christian roots, and the closer it gets to a certain kind of Enlightenment rationalism, in many ways the more illiberal it gets, because in Bentham’s calculus, it could turn out that a widespread cruelty to some small minority could by some calculations turn out to be felicifically or utilitarianally maximal, so why not do it? The only argument Bentham could give then would be to say, “Well, maybe you’d be giving too much power to the majority.” I think the revulsion of modern sensibility is not only that it’s dangerous to do this; it’s that securing pleasure from the suffering of others is in and of itself bad. I can’t think of a classical author or a classical philosopher who says that.

Rowan Williams: Neither can I, and that takes us back to the question of how we think of ethics in terms of the universal recognisability of human dignity, human worth, the claim on our attention – and again, it’s something we’ve learned. I remember reading a book by Joanna Bourke about the early debates on animal rights as well as on women’s rights, and she quoted a pamphlet written by a woman in the early 19th century saying that animals appeared to have more moral recognition in some philosophical discourse than women did. Putting that alongside the endemic racism of a lot of 18th-century thought and it was clear that for some very influential thinkers it was simply not obvious that you recognised the same humanity in people of another race. The universalist claim that there’s something recognisable in the physical humanity of another is an ethical fact of real substance.

Part of the typical secularist narrative is that there is a steady advance in liberality of spirit, in inclusiveness of sympathy, which has something to do with the liberation of individuals from the slavery of dogmatic belief. The Christian response would be, I guess, to say the idea that belief in God is a slavery really assumes a very powerful, very persistent and pervasive version of the religious story in which God is a very large version of what we are, and therefore is in competition with us: because he’s very big and very powerful, he will, on the whole, win such competitions, and therefore we’d better be on our best behaviour. Whereas if certain aspects of the Christian story are foregrounded more obviously, what you end up with, I believe, is the notion that because God has no interests to defend and is in no sense in competition with us, then the dignity of humanity is something we can affirm without any trouble, and without any offence or diminution to the honour of God. And my own liberalism, such as it is, would, I think, be rooted in that sort of conviction: there is something about humanity as endowed by God with the dignity, the beauty, the creativity that we see which again becomes a significant factor in our moral thinking.

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Posted in Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Religion & Culture