Beyond Black and White: The Complexities of Morality…

Many Protestants of my generation (over 60) will have had a similar upbringing to myself, attending Presbyterian Sunday School each Sunday at 10:30 and then the main church service from 11:30 to 12:30. Despite the fact that attendance was compulsory (according to my parents) I enjoyed the experience, taking the words of ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ literally and feeling inspired by religion and later wowed by the 1977 Jesus of Nazareth series. Initially, I felt immune to those preachers who focussed on the ‘hell and damnation’ version of Christianity, but as the feelings of a normal teenager took hold, I felt the odd moment of guilt, because while I still wanted to be ‘good’, the temptation of premarital sex seemed to be everywhere. (Appearances can be deceptive in North Antrim.)

At university talking to Catholic friends, I found their experience of religion was similar, with the ‘Catholic guilt’ being similarly focused on the ‘original sin’ of puberty. The Biblical symbolism of Genesis, being naked, eating forbidden fruit and an encounter with a serpent had seemingly impacted on us all, affecting some more than others.

In later years I read an impressive book called Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison by Dorothy Rowe, who among many other observations pointed out that some people build a mental prison called depression because of guilt and a fear of something much worse. Depression can be chemically caused (eg Post natal) but (despite the fact that religious belief can be beneficial to mental health) for some people, their moral beliefs can warp their thinking, closing off choices that might lead to happier more productive lives.

For most of us, even those who have never experienced religion or depression, the desire to be guilt free, to have society’s approval and be one of the good guys, to metaphorically wear the ‘white hat’ is central to our personality. Having been taught as children to see things in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we tend to allow this binary mindset to persist into adulthood

So how does this desire to be ‘good’ relate to politics?

Most of us will be aware of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ where we publicly express opinions that demonstrate our good character or social conscience to others because we want approval, we want to be seen as virtuous. That desire to be virtuous can be beneficial, but sometimes when we wholeheartedly believe the virtue of our own beliefs, the temptation is to assume that those who disagree with us lack virtue. If they are misinformed, we explain the issue to them but if they refuse to accept our explanation, are they wilfully bad people?

As a student in the early 1980s I campaigned for gay rights, partly because it gave me the rebellious fun of winding up those I viewed as misusing religion for their own ends and partly because it made me feel ‘virtuous’ – I knew I was on the right side of history. However, when my teenage rebellion encountered the issue of abortion it was impossible to ignore the fact that some of those wanting abortion banned were good people who made valid points. I could not pretend that all good was on one side or the other. Abortion was a necessary solution to an unsatisfactory world, there was no perfectly good side.

When John Hume began the Hume-Adams dialogue in the 1990s he was attacked by people that I then respected, for ‘talking to the IRA’. I could understand those unionists who thought it was the wrong tactic, but I could not understand those who tried to attribute malign motives to his action – personally, I thought it was a chance worth taking.

The assumption that a person who disagrees with you politically is someone who ‘lacks moral clarity’ has always struck me as lazy and arrogant. It is always worth bearing in mind that they may have information, or experience, or a sense of direction that we have not considered. We make better choices and find unexpected solutions when we properly explore the advice of those with whom we disagree.

Some situations are so awful that there is no ‘morally good’ solution, the desire for a Biblical black and white version of right and wrong gets us nowhere. Gaza is one of those awful situations where being a problem solver involves taking moral risks and may involve solutions that do not cure every injustice. We need to stop trying to demonise each other in our search for moral perfection and listen to all sides.

We exhausted ourselves, expressing similar outrage and anger over the Gaza War in back in 2014 but offered no solution and then we lost interest; we allowed the same Israeli-Palestinian problem to fester until the recent outburst of violence caught our attention again. We should not allow the same tragedy to repeat in another 10 years. Anyone offering a solution should be asked to explain in detail how their strategy could play out over the next 15 – 20 years; will it really solve the problem of how Palestinians and Israelis cohabit? If that strikes us as too complex or tedious, we should remember that it is not our children who are dying. We are outsiders, this is not about us, or our morality and we cannot dictate a quick and simple solution to match our attention span.


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