Guy Crouchback: No morality is to stand on the brink

18 Feb 2009

By The Record

In the course of a quite bizarre diatribe against historian Andrew Roberts’s fascinating book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900,  a reviewer called RJ Stove sneers that Mr Roberts evidently does not know that: “the sole universally obeyed moral law [is that] there are no universally obeyed moral laws.”

If Mr Stove is claiming that no-one obeys all moral laws all the time, he is being, to put it mildly, unoriginal.
The Christian Church has always taught that we are all sinners and no-one keeps the moral law perfectly. Christianity exists to redeem sinful Mankind and if Mankind obeyed all moral laws Christianity would not be necessary.
However, if Mr Stove is actually trying to say that there are no generally acknowledged moral laws, this is just plain wrong.
The major religious and ethical systems of Mankind, arising in all manner of differing societies throughout history, have very close agreement both on the fact that there are moral laws and what these laws specifically contain, althoughthere may be differences of emphasis. When one examines the codes of Ancient Egypt or Babylon, of the Vikings or Buddhists or Confuscians, or of remote indigenous tribespeople, one finds extraordinarily similar injunctions: to be honest and tell the truth, to honour one’s parents, to be charitable to the old, to children, to the poor and sick and so forth. These appear to be immutably necessary for any viable society, and receive lip-service even when they are not always obeyed.
The questions asked to test the soul’s righteousness in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead are instantly recognisable to us.
In 621 BC, the Indian ruler Asoka, horrified by the suffering of war in the Kalinga Campaign, came to desire for all animated things: “security, self-control, peace of mind and joyousness.”
Examples could be multiplied without difficulty. Many are to be found in the appendix to C. S. Lewis’s wonderful little book, The Abolition of Man.
The often blood-thirsty Vikings still had the Elder Edda say: “Man is man’s delight,” and Confucius said the people should be multiplied, enriched and instructed. These values are part of the intrinsic shape of human nature and civilisation.
When the first skeleton of Neanderthal Man was examined, scientists came to the conclusion that Neanderthals were a brutish, utterly sub-human race with hideously twisted limbs.
Later examination showed the skeleton was that of a crippled and abnormal individual, unable to walk, who must have been cared for by others until dying at an advanced age.
Christianity was not an innovation. It took the more-or-less universally-accepted moral code already the common property of Mankind and extended it.
To the negative: “do not harm your neighbour” it added the positive “love and help your neighbour” – plainly not an innovation but a development further in same direction.
C. S. Lewis said of this that of course the morals of Christianity were not novelties and that “our faith is not pinned on a crank.”
The Apostles were able to convert Jews, Greeks, Romans and other peoples of the ancient world with a promise of redemption from sin because they all spoke a common moral language: their hearers already knew perfectly well what sin and redemption were, and understood why the gospel was “good news.” Even people who break the moral law pretend to obey it by appealing to some special aspect of it which they claim takes precedence over the rest. There is a common moral law, and all mankind is bound to it. To believe otherwise is to lead to horror.
Guy Crouchback: