Now let the real battle begin

We need new ways to decide ethical issues

"I have deep respect for those who do not agree with some of the provisions in the bill because of religious conviction," wrote Gordon Brown the day before Monday's Commons vote on hybrid embryos. "But I believe that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures and, in particular, to give our unequivocal backing, within the right framework of rules and standards, to stem-cell research."

In those two sentences Brown managed to capture all that is wrong in how we approach public debates about bioethics.

Brown's words are typical of the way religious views are "respected", only so that they can then be ignored. The debate then proceeds on fatalistic, utilitarian premises: there is no other option; we have to do this for the greater good. Both these moves are not so much steps forward as sideways, avoiding the tough issues and disagreements.

Take the engagement with religion first. There is a curious implicit pact here, whereby atheists, agnostics and believers alike all accept that faith stands somehow to one side of rationality. The devout gain respect and immunity from rational prosecution, at the price of being excluded from intellectual debate. Non-believers get to keep the civic sphere entirely secular, at the price of having to back off from believers. At one level, this is right. Much religious belief is a matter of faith, as impervious to rational scrutiny as the Vatican is to women. However, when it comes to specific matters of morality, the idea that religious convictions need respect, not interrogation and defence, is absurd. The world's major religious texts have nothing to say about stem cells, not least because those words do not appear in any of them. It may be a matter of faith that Christ rose from the dead, but Christians have to defend anything they say about the first stages of life.

For example, in his Easter Sunday sermon, Cardinal Keith O'Brien quoted from a letter he and several other church leaders had signed: "This bill goes against what most people, Christian or not, reckon is common sense. The idea of mixing human and animal genes is not just evil. It's crazy!" It is not good enough, on reading this, simply to nod sympathetically and say, "I respect your view." For one thing, the respect is not reciprocated: scientists and supporters of the bill are being accused of doing great evil. What we should do is demand that the central claims be substantiated, which, in this case, they are not. As a matter of fact, opinion polls repeatedly show that most members of the public do approve of embryo research, interspecies or otherwise. More importantly, if anyone other than a church leader accused something of being evil and crazy, we would want to see some reasons why we should agree. Instead, we smile, and move on.

Once religion is set aside, the debate then tends to proceed in a crassly simplistic way. Most of the time, the argument is no more than the claim that the benefits of the research will be enormous, and therefore we must do it. But this is far too quick. Using the terminally ill for experiments might teach us things future generations will benefit from, but that doesn't mean we should do it.

Yet it suits people to stop the debate here, because the real issue is much more complex: What is the moral status of embryos? Bishops simply assert they are as precious as full-grown human beings, scientists avoid answering the question altogether, and between the two camps, the fundamental issue is passed over in silence.

This fudge suits the religious lobby more, for it leaves unchallenged the view that cells from which human beings grow are precious. A similar silence has occluded the morality of abortion for decades. But if we thought 14-day-old embryos and aborted foetuses were as fully human as we are, then no appeal to the balance of costs and benefits could justify their routine killing. People talk as though foetal life has an important moral status, but act as though it does not.

Artificial divide

The contradiction can be resolved in one of only two ways: either we agree the bishops were right all along, or we face the facts squarely and stop the pretence that anything growing in the womb is important, and as human, as a tiny baby. The latter need not lead us down a slippery slope where human life in general is granted less respect. Nor would it entail treating stem cells with no respect: it is good for us to practise reverence for life even if, on reflection, we do not always think it is worth preserving.

But how can we debate these deeply divisive issues, when people's fundamental convictions are so different? What is needed is a way to bring religious perspectives into public discourse without diluting the essentially secular nature of the public square. This might sound impossible, as it is too often assumed that a secular politics requires people to leave their religious beliefs behind them. But that is a mistake. Democratic politics in a pluralist age requires, not that people set aside their fundamental commitments, but that they discuss their differences in a common language. The absence of God will inform someone's opinions on morality, but one cannot expect arguments in public debate to carry any weight if they start with an assertion of atheism. Catholicism may inform someone's beliefs on birth control, for instance, but we cannot be expected to agree with them on the basis of what the Pope says.

What both sides must do is to make their case in terms the other can assess and understand. Arguments for stem-cell research need to appeal to facts about the actual, not imagined, nature of early embryos, as well as serious thought about the potential social consequences of entirely new ways of doing science. Arguments can also draw on religious insights, just as long as they do not assume any particular theological framework. One can talk about the need for humility, deep respect for human life and the dangers of hubris without invoking St John's Gospel.

The justifiable desire to keep religious dogma out of public life has led to an unjustifiable tendency to treat religious views as a whole as separable from civic life. It is in the interests of everyone, believer or not, to end this artificial divide and start a real intellectual tussle in which secular and sacred views battle it out, rationally and in the open.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times