Why don’t liberals talk about morality?

First a confession: I understand what is going on with the global wunch crunch far less than I’m comfortable with. The world’s leaders seem to be making up as they go along, adopting a throw everything at the market until something sticks approach. Gordon Brown’s plan looked like it was going to pay off at the beginning of the week; now it looks like we are rapidly heading back to square one. None of it makes sense to me; I find it highly ironic having people complain about the “complexity” of Georgism earlier this week when it is kindergarten stuff compared to the very monetary theory which currently has the whole world prolapsing.

All I know is this: the last period of recession (also known as the Thatcher years, named after the genius who deregulated the UK money markets in the first place) sucked. Trust me, I was there. The one good thing that came out of it was Ghost Town by the Specials.

I’m a religionist by degree, and the City currently looks disturbingly like a millenarian cult run by a bunch of lapsed members of gamblers anonymous. Any day now I half expect the monkeys to hole themselves up with their partners, their children and lots of guns in One Canada Square and start chugging down the Kool Aid.

I know that people were slapping their foreheads over the Enron debacle, learning absolutely nothing in the process.

In the early nineties I worked in a comic shop for my Saturday job. As the recession carried on, some other bunch of geniuses decided that their money was better invested in comics than stocks and shares. Result? Spider-Man #1 sold 2.5m copies, X-Force #1 sold 4m copies and X-Men #1 sold 8m copies. All three were dire and most of the latter are still sitting in dusty boxes in the few remaining comic shops that survived the inevitable crash, but their awfulness was totally eclipsed by all the other cash-ins, cover variants and stunt publications that were to follow. Lesson learnt? People are short-sighted idiots and will lose their shirt investing in anything once the mania sets in.

If I’m brutally honest, I don’t think there are any regulatory reforms that will fundamentally change this. I certainly do support land value taxation which would at least make our housing and property market relatively immune to the vagaries of speculation. At least land doesn’t go anywhere. Other ideas such as the Tobin Tax may sound good in theory but will always be undermined by tax havens. And past experience suggests that even the tightest of regulatory regimes will have loopholes that can be exploited, and it was loopholes that got us into this mess.

The real problem appears to be rooted in the fact that people just love a free buck. The National Lottery has been a massive success, and not because of its “good works.” When George Osborne called for the threshold of inheritance tax to be risen, benefiting just the richest in society, it was enormously popular. Liberal Vision assure us that the public wants tax cuts not just for people on low and middle incomes but for the rich because that’s what they aspire to be. Now they may be over-egging it (our tax cuts policy doesn’t appear to have gifted us with a sustainable rise in our poll ratings), but there is no denying there is a grain of truth in it.

My question is, isn’t all this naked greed and individualism, well, wrong? Isn’t it enough to be able to live comfortably and securely? Isn’t it leading to environmental degradation? And is it really making us happy?

My fellow liberals tend to get terribly upset with me when I bring up morality, but isn’t that at the heart of the problem? I don’t offer any solutions here, but it does strike me that until we recognise that fact and start talking about it seriously, we won’t actually get anywhere.

I for one think that liberals should talk about morality. Not the shallow kind that organised religion is obsessed with; denying children life-saving vaccines for fear of recognising they might have sex one day while embracing war criminals into their flock. I’m talking about the sort of morality that values humanity above all else. The sort of deeply felt morality that inspired social entrepreneurs such as Joseph Rowntree.

Liberals accept that it is almost always counter-productive to censor; but why does it follow that we should be shy of censure? I say it is high time we reclaimed morality from the likes of the Daily Mail. We have big problems and we need nothing less than a shift in global consciousness in order to solve them. To achieve that, we need to start talking about big concepts. It’s time we did.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Neil Bradbury 17th Oct '08 - 1:43pm

    I agree James. The problem is that morality is clear and understandable with the public when it judges others and victimises people.

    A Liberal morality of tolerance and that there is no one path of truth alone is a hard one to sell. It ends up as being presented as about fairness and equality. But terms like this are so abused by others they have little value.

    I would say that we need to return to a morality of voluntarism in the earlier 20th century context, with the promotion of self help, of mutuality and of encouraging the voluntary sector. This links into the theories of community politics before it became just about delivering FOCUS and getting EARS data.

    I worry sometimes when I see people singing the Red Flag at Glee Club or advocating state regulation of every aspect of our lives at conference. We need a morality that cares about society but is free of a statist vision. It’s available in spades from our Liberal predecessors, we need a politician of greater ability than me to put it together in a bold way.

  • Peter Welch 17th Oct '08 - 5:05pm

    Me neither: but “A handful of people do indeed go from £15,000 to £50,000 in five years” strikes me as unlikely. Twenty years ago you could move from 8k to about 32k in the public sector in around five years just by starting as a graduate recruit and qualifying as a CIPFA accountant. I would guess that a gradient like this is fairly common for graduates moving into a professional job. I have seen much bigger leaps for people in IT.

  • David Heigham 17th Oct '08 - 6:04pm

    Politics and morality make bad bedfellows because it is rarely the business of politics to censure individual conduct. The proper exceptions to that rule occur in the individual conduct of persons with political responsibilities. For the conduct of others, the business of politics is to supply rules for individuals to keep to so that they will not damage their fellows.

    But we cannot make that sort of statement about the proper business of politics unless we start from a foundation of morality. We liberals have that foundation. A large part of it is expounded by John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty”. The companion values of equality and community, and the resolution that “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” appear on our LibDem membership cards.

    In the regulation of the financial markets, the rules were defective and many people will suffer as a result of individual behaviour which in itself may have been greedy but was otherwise innocent. The lesson is to improve the rules (a few countries had rules which avoided the trouble).

    Incidentally, it is an error to see the wish to gain money as necessarily greed. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, for example, have gained incredible amounts of money; and given the incredible bulk of it away to help others.

  • David Allen 17th Oct '08 - 6:25pm

    The answer to this false antithesis between moral principles and pragmatic consequentialism is simply – you must have both. If you adopt a moral standpoint but don’t bother to put it into practice, then your moral stance is devalued. If you only set out to get rich, but you achieve something socially useful along the way, then you have a moral justification for what you have done.

    Liberal politics is the art of putting moral principles into practice. James is right. The Tories have always had pretty much of a stranglehold on the appeal to self-interest and greed. We need policies that both appeal to moral principle, and will work in the real world.

  • Come on then Joe, educate us please. If it’s hogwash to judge an act on the basis of whether the intentions were noble, and it’s also hogwash to judge it on the basis of whether the outcome was (morally) a good one, what kind of moral judgment can we ever make that is not hogwash?

  • David Evans 18th Oct '08 - 3:34am


    I absolutely agree that liberalism should be moral. Indeed the only valid mechanism for judging all human activity including politics has to be about morals. If I bring my children up as liberals, it is because I believe that being liberal is the correct way to treat others and because none should be enslaved by ignorance, conformity or poverty. If I believe that I and a small number of people like me should be in total control and tell others what to do, I will support an authoritarian party like Labour (New or Old – no difference in that regard). If I believe it is right that the rich and powerful get to keep most of what they can extract from the system, I will be a Tory. Finally, if I believe that it is wrong for our generation of humanity to take everything we want and ignore future generations and the rest of the inhabitants of the planet I will be a Green.

    People who suggest Liberalism is not about morals do not seem to realise the immense debt we all owe to old Liberals and all the great things they did in the late 19th and early 20th Century and who very definitely did it from the perspective that it was the right thing (a good thing) to do. Likewise those who kept the flame of Liberalism alive after the War, when we were down to 5 MPs, and through to the 1960s when Community Politics came along very clearly did it from a moral perspective. I would strongly suggest that anyone who doesn’t understand this aspect obtains a copy of “The political insight of Elliot Dodds” which sets out clearly how the independent, liberal philosophy of the chapel going Christians clearly underpinned their determination to continue to support Liberalism at a time when it was on the verge of extinction as a political force.

    In the members’ forum, there has been a debate about the pay and bonuses received by the bankers who have got us into this mess and I have been astonished and disappointed to find how many consider it the fault of the system and too complex to assign blame to (and extract any form of recompense from) the senior executives who ran the system. Not sure why this is, but it is something that I am trying to explore further, as you are here.


  • I agree that the liberal legacy is one unbroken line of moralists. I am proud to trace my heritage back to the Parliamentarians, the old Whigs, & the Liberal Party as it has always existed & always will.

    Yes, there is a lot of immorality in society, much of which is due to government policy, & none of which has anything to do with the Daily Mail’s opinion.

    It is immoral that countless unqualified students are sent to “uni” every year when they are not up to the demands of a rigorous academic degree, because government policy is to herd them in.

    It is immoral that non-degrees are created & whole “universities” exist to cater to the dimmer scions of the middle class, while talented youngsters from poor families are burdened with debt & put off from applying by the failures of the education system & society in general.

    It is, in fact, immoral that tuition fees were levied at all, as Jo Grimond was at pains to remind us.

    The fool’s paradise of unlimited credit was a nest of immorality. It was immoral for people to spend money they didn’t have on buy to let mortgages, hoping to profit from other people, while they couldn’t sustain this “business model”, & their greed blinded them to these economic facts which are being brought home to us, largely as a result of their irresponsibility storing up problems.

    It is also immoral to confuse & burden low incomes with the tax credit fiasco. This is not incompetence, it results from a vision of society which is flawed.

    It is immoral for Camoron & Gideon Osborne to want to abolish tax on unearned income for themselves & their wealthy mates, whilst those who work & pay their own way & want to better themselves in what is indisputably a hard world are held back by taxes direct & even more so indirect taxes such as VAT. Even frank foes of tax & spending have declared IHT to be the least worst tax, & it can in fact be defended on moral grounds. (practical being another matter, but still).

    It is NOT immoral to drink unlimited quantities of alcohol, smoke marijuana, & engage in consensual sex of any variety with another consenting adult (I would add so long as this occurs behind closed doors).

    It is not immoral to oppose the demands of certain Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or followers of whatever for society to conform to their wishes, & suppress anyone who thinks otherwise.

    I appreciate that these putrid right-wing types have made us uncomfortable with the word “morality” but it is ours rather than theirs, & should be reclaimed.

    Additionally, the word “puritan” should be reclaimed: it has been used to describe joyless authoritarians, but in fact the old Puritans had noble ideas, & were instrumental in creating the modern world & liberalism as we currently understand it.

    &, as always, when I reveal my undiluted opinions, I stress that I have no connection to the LDs & they will doubtless rush to stress that they have no connection to me & disown my views.

  • Neil, is it perhaps possible that you have put into Shirley Williams’ mouth some words which she didn’t actually, you know, like, really use? And which perhaps, she didn’t entirely go along with?

    Mightn’t it be better if you just expressed your own opinions, claimed them as your own, and, explained what it is you are talking about?

  • “Q: “Why don’t liberals talk about morality?”

    A: Due to the problem defining both “liberal” and “morality”.”

    Sorry, but no, that’s a cop-out, and it won’t do. Of course there is no universal definition of morality. The South African apartheid regime described racial integration as an issue of morality (or immorality). They did of course take a stance which we would all see as morally wrong. But they were quite right to recognise it as a moral issue.

    All the more reason for us to recognise the moral dimension in everything we do – and also, to recognise that moral issues will not always be simple.

    …And James, I’m really pinching myself now. You have felt it necessary to argue the case that Liberal Democrats should talk about morality. Wouldn’t all our political forbears, from Gladstone right through to people like Steel, Ashdown, Ming Campbell and Shirley Williams, have found it frankly astonishing that in 2008, a Liberal Democrat might not be able to take that for granted?

  • I’m all for morality, but the problem is that morality can only be adjudged accurately with hindsight.

    Prescriptive morality (which is what we’re really talking about here) is based on the flawed premise that the person making the prescriptions knows for certain what they’re talking about and therefore isn’t required to back up those prescriptions with any evidence – doctors at least go through years of training to ensure they can make fairly reliable diagnoses (and even then it’s still only their best guess).

  • Andrew,

    Yes, it is often very difficult to say what is morally good or bad. I quite agree, that is a problem. The issue is whether you should avoid moral questions which are difficult or impossible to answer in an intellectually rigorous way, or, to tackle them because it would be unreasonable (immoral even) to leave them unanswered.

    Sophie’s choice (which of your two children will you sacrifice?) is the extreme example. Of course there is no good choice. And of course, if your enemy is going to murder both your children if you fail to make a choice, then you must make a choice.

    When you make a moral judgment, you are not making the flawed premise that you know for certain what you are talking about. You are doing your best, with your inadequate moral and intellectual equipment, to decide which way to go. Sometimes, however humble and uncertain you are about it, you really ought to make a moral decision.

    Anyway, who said moral decisions were the only difficult ones? Read the thread about libertarianism, and you’ll see just as dense a fog of irreconcilable differing views, even though the subject matter is nominally a purely practical one (how to organise the perfect banking system)!

  • Wow, so no mention of how Clinton, the original modern day liberal leader himself, wanted everyone to own a home, even if they could not afford it? No mention of how he then made government loans to hand out one after another to people who obviously could not pay them off? Gee, I wonder how much THAT helped out economy? This just really makes me want to give MY hard earned money away to lazy ass welfare users, illegal immigrants, and fat couch sitting liberals like YOU! HA

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