What of David Miliband’s Moral Philosophising?

It might be remembered by some an article written by staunch atheist A.C. Grayling, the philosopher at Birkbeck college, who during the first time a Labour party leadership challenge against Gordon Brown was on the cards in 2008, spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of David Miliband becoming the new PM for his atheist beliefs.

The many reasons, written almost like a list of guidelines, that Grayling figured an atheist PM would be beneficial included scepticism towards publicly funded sectarian faith schools, belief in the disestablishment of the Church of England, a down-to-earth approach that dissuades the belief that paradise will be better for the poor, and the likelihood that the “Atheist leaders will not be tempted to think they are the messenger”.

Of course the 345 comments made below the article were mostly covered by criticisms of this very flawed and idealistic approach. And rightly so, for it would not be unheard of that a person of faith can feel uncomfortable with some of the peculiarities of faith schools or the notion of paradise used to justify poverty, nor is it inconceivable that a person of faith can support secularism and not think they are the messenger.

On the flipside, it is also not a given that an atheist be immune from the criticisms that are usually reserved for the religious. For example, Grayling states rather specifically;

Atheist leaders are not going to think they are getting messages from Beyond telling them to go to war. They will not cloak themselves in supernaturalistic justifications, as Blair came perilously close to doing when interviewed about the decision to invade Iraq.

Now of course Miliband is a supporter of both wars the UK is currently engaged in, and whether we like him or not Tony Blair did not use anywhere near the same level of spiel as Bush for the war, in fact in any public address regarding Iraq Blair seemed to me rather more apologetic, and less hubristic than his US counterpart (even if his private convictions tell a different story).

But recently Miliband went one further in actively (though not consciously) proving Grayling’s opinions wrong that a leading atheist politician is any better than one who believes: by justifying the use of terror in certain exceptional cases. Contrary to the opinion that Miliband is acting on a series of rational atheistic principles, structured by the enlightenment period, as no doubt Grayling assumes, his sentiment is actually the heir to some very specific Christian codes, namely that of Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic scholar and father of Thomistic theology, who first posited the doctrine of double effect, or DDE, which provide specific guidelines for determining when it is morally permissible to perform an action in pursuit of a good end in full knowledge that the action will also bring about bad results.

The formulation of the doctrine is based on four principles and are as follows, firstly that the action taken is entirely a good action, secondly that the bad result is not at all intended, thirdly that the good result is not in direct consequence to the bad effect (such as is dissuaded by Paul in the Romans 3:8 “Do evil that good may result”) and then lastly that the good result be proportionate to the bad result.

So when Miliband, in reply to Matthew Paris on whether violence is justified, said

I think I’m right in saying that one of the ways in which the ANC tried to square the circle between being a movement of political change and a movement which used violence, was to target installations rather than people … there are circumstances in which it is justifiable, and yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective – but it is never effective on its own.

he was actually using arguments that conflict with the most developed philosophy to have emerged out of the enlightenment period – utilitarianism – which looks at the overall manifestation of happiness, rather than what good can come out of the ends.

Overall, what Miliband’s recent statement means is that though a person might be an atheist, it doesn’t necessarily mean to say that they are any less predisposed to the tenets of the Christian legacy, so perhaps this isn’t a good reason to support Miliband as leader after all (It is also an interesting point of note here that Grayling in his article was using Blair, who had recently converted to Roman Catholicism, in parallel with Miliband. In a philosophical paradox, can Miliband’s words imply that in a way he is just as Roman Catholic in his actions as Blair is, although perhaps not consciously acknowledged?).

Recently Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, warned those on the left wing of what he called the “liberal drift” in the financial sector, encouraged by Ramsay MacDonald and Tony Blair who were both, as Cruddas tells us, “fatally attracted to wealth and power.” But the liberal drift does not stop here. Utilitarianism as an ethical model has dominated British left wing politics to the point that liberalism and socialism in Britain have almost become synonymous (to whom does Nick Cohen refer to as the liberal-left in his book What’s Left?? Everyone on the left, by his own admission). So why, I ask, is it disturbing that a politician should start observing moral philosophy, as it has so disturbed Chekov? I don’t think it could have arrived at a better time.


This entry is in response to Three Thousand Versts article Miliband’s terror comments were irresponsible as part of the Bloggers Circle experiment


4 Responses to What of David Miliband’s Moral Philosophising?

  1. Seth Payne says:

    Utilitarianism has its place in the formation of public policy but can be extremely dangerous, depending on how the one performing utilitarian calculus defines and quantifies “happiness.” Certainly, happiness for some may come at the extreme misery of others. Thus, I think it is wise to employ utilitarianism as a “secondary” ethic, as it were. That is, the public must have some sense of its values — i.e. that the taking of innocent life through terrorism is wrong — and *then* apply utilitarian calculus to policy choices.

    • Well yes I think you might be right, but if happiness is achieved as an end, irrespective of the ratio of good and bad, then we might need to look further than the principle of greatest happiness. Of course with the double effect principle, the ratio of good and bad needs to be proportional, which might also become a problem in public policy, namely who defines and quantifies happiness, like you said. My point at this stage, however, was to say that employing utilitarianism might obfuscate – for want of a better expression – the greater good. This is all theory of course, but what Miliband came close to doing today – much to the dismay of some bloggers – is use moral philosophy in determining right and wrong, when is it morally permissable to use force etc etc. And this isn’t a pro-war stance either, in fact it enables me, also as a non-pacifist, to broaden my reasoning for being anti-war, if you see what I mean.

  2. Seth Payne says:

    I do see what you mean. Excellent point.

  3. Thank you, I didn’t know if I was clear or not, and its usually the latter

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