Is it absolutely important?

Someone known to me supported fox-hunting only once it was banned. Quixotic and contrary, perhaps; but one point of Don Quixote was his principles. It is not always the case that running contrary to the changing times does mean going against what is good. Liberty is a good.

It is hard to depict a hound breaking a fox’s neck as good. It is easier to show video of hounds flinging the dead body about after and implying that it still lives. It is easier to depict communal livelihoods as good. These things get complex as your circle of interest expands and with it, what you are willing to take into account. When foxes are the only and an absolute concern, the matter is clear. But defending a hunt community is not my point here.

The point is that we are paralysed when we try to resolve our competing conceptions of the good. For those who see fox lives as an absolute good, there is no compromise to be made. (Those who see human lives as of relative value, will often not compromise on abortion rights.) This is the fault-line in liberal democracy, as we know. Once values cease to be shared, no social compact survives it. Yet the search for ‘British values’, ‘shared values’, and so on, really does prove worthy of Don Quixote.

We cannot agree on what we should value, or what we should ban. Even so, increasingly we police and criminalise people for infringing these very matters in which there is not agreement. Rather than remain in logjam, perhaps we should shift the focus.

Perhaps we need to agree on what people should be left alone to get wrong. Those people who care very much on an issue will think a certain action very wrong indeed. But could we ever agree to let it be wrong?

A religious age had a quicker route to this. Everyone always knew that injustices happened in life — or at least we did know that, before the fantasy of total control and moral hygiene took hold, and absolute risk management morphed into utopian certain-security dreams. Then, a religious person could say: I will leave that to God’s Judgment. God knows. God will judge. This person will have his reward (or what else is coming to him) in the end.

Our materialism, and the reductive way in which we understand materialism, has led us down a cul-de-sac from which it is hard to remember spirituality as opposed to physicality or any notion of a final judgment on the shape of a life. From anticipating heaven on earth in millennialism or socialism, we have lost sight of heaven altogether. The only justice to be done must be done on earth, where — as we used to know — it cannot be done.

In fact the contradiction is not just basic to a liberal democracy without shared values: it is fundamental for any society replaced by market forces. The ‘moral’ causes that make the running, garner the support and are enforced by the state on its people, will be those which fund themselves well, best mainstream their ideas and whip up the greatest emotional, not rational, sense of belonging. There will then be no mercy.

We have to set limits to our justice, if we want it to be manageable. Religion says God has set limits to His. He respects our free will. Origen, the early Christian, wrote that Pharoah in Exodus was allowed to harden his heart so that one day he would and could repent. There are sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance: defrauding folk of their wages, and oppressing the poor, among them. As societies we might need to set our circle differently, but we could retain some absolute no-nos — and it would be good to think that defrauding the worker and oppressing the poor might make the list.

Infantile, sublimated sado-masochistic fantasies of vicarious punishment and absolute majesty are undermining the rule of law. But it might be safer in the end, and easier to find social peace, could we set limits to our own supposed omnipotence — even if we do not think that the evil-doer is ever going to be punished for failing to do our will.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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