J B S Haldane and many others in the 1920s and 30s were furious communists and they knew quite well what was going on in Russia under Stalin. They were not objective at all, but they hung on to it. They were seeking for something to worship. There was no objectivity; their objectivity – as Einstein said – was confined to the units with which they were familiar, of their work. We can say, “Oh well, that’s gone now.” But if we take today, about ten years ago, in the conclusion of the Reith lectures, Colin Blakemore, a brilliant young physiologist, was saying how reason and knowledge could solve all our problems. He concluded his Reith lectures, “I began my talk about revolution – revolution and science. I end on the same note, revolution – social as well as scientific. It will grow. When the choice for action is transparent, then we shall be able to choose. In the words of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, “We can learn what we did not know. We are not only good at destroying the old world, we are also good at building the new.””
Well the Cultural Revolution destroyed many of China’s greatest art treasures and its language and a whole generation has lost its education; they think now about 50 million people probably lost their lives. In a way he knew, but he was seeking something to worship. There was no objectivity there and the Chinese who was one of those who was responsible for conducting the parties of Western observers, including scientists, throughout, they managed to get in touch with him some years after the Cultural Revolution. He said, “Yes. We deceived you, but you wanted to be deceived, didn’t you?” He saw more clearly into the minds of the many scientists who were communists, than they did themselves.
We can say, “Oh well, perhaps a professional philosopher – and a philosopher who doesn’t get involved in mysticism, or anything like that – surely by reason he can determine right action on the basis of factors we know and come to conclusions.” Well it depends how long you live. There is one great philosopher who spent a very long life much engaged with just such questions – a summary of his book has just been written, an analysis of his ethical philosophy. At one time or another he has held virtually all of the main theoretical positions in contemporary ethical theory. He began as an intuitionist, then, long before the emotive theory became fashionable he adapted a non-cognitive theory of ethical judgements. Finally in old age he has come out for ethical naturalism, a satisfaction theory, against which he had argued so strongly earlier. So in spite of his great brilliance and his length of years, he did not in fact reach satisfaction. The only view that he didn’t pass through was the religious one – he was far from objective in that respect. He said, “Professional moralists have never considered and do not now consider that kindliness, generosity, freedom from envy and malice are as important morally as obedience to the rules of the traditional codes.
It would seem that he’d never heard of things like “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink.” It’s perfectly apparent that in the traditional codes there are many such injunctions. And in his views, which changed, he was enormously influential, because he was a beautiful writer, very persuasive and convincing and his followers also became markedly confused.
We can say, “Well, it may be so, but there are certain things which are obviously good. For instance, in the Middle Ages, the church was open to the peasants. It was the only national institution which was open to them. There was a vague obligation on the parish priest that if a boy was clever, intelligent and pious to give him an integration and some of them did. And at a conference of bishops they had recorded the origins of the bishops, and half of them were from peasant stock. Well now that must be good. But it was argued against very strongly and convincingly, “No!”, because what happens is that this is the one chance of getting out of being a peasant serf. So any boy who is energetic, ambitious and ruthless, he will become an ardent Christian and enter the church, because this is his one ladder by which he can get out of this appalling semi-slavery.
So they say, “Oh well, they would soon have been discovered; they might get up a few ranks, you know, but it would soon become apparent that they didn’t believe in Christianity at all and they were simply ambitious.” Not so. Cardinal Wolseley was of peasant stock and he ruled the country for fifteen years, with Henry VIII who was the nearest we had to an English Stalin. Wolseley was of peasant stock – he nearly became pope, he was fantastically ambitious and it was bad luck that he didn’t achieve his ambition, but he could hardly be called a Christian. Twenty thousand people were hanged in the reign of Henry VIII. You could be hanged for anything, and from there the phrase originates, “May as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb”, and the statute De heretico comburendo: that the heretic shalt be burned alive, was on the English statute book.
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 1: Tradition and Inspiration
Part 3: Seeking for something to worship
Part 5: What is good and what is bad