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9 September 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Moral clarity

It's time the left found a language with which to defend its core values

By Jonathan Derbyshire

I was struck by something my colleague Mehdi Hasan said in his post yesterday about the brutal, and fatal, attack on 67-year-old Ekram Haque outside a mosque in Tooting, south London. The left, Mehdi wrote,

needs a strong, wide-ranging but balanced narrative on violent crime, and youth offending, that goes beyond the obvious socio-economic factors to explore the growing moral and cultural void at the heart of modern British society. Indeed, the left needs to reclaim the language of morality.

This resonates with Stuart White’s analysis in the NS of an emerging preoccupation on the centre left with “remoralising society”. Stuart detects a deep moral anxiety about “a social ethos that is individualistic, consumerist, materialistic” and its corollary, a “concern to promote a society in which people lead lives that are much more informed by a sense of the common good”. The implication of this account, and of Mehdi’s remarks, is that the left has for too long felt uncomfortable with “values”-talk, wrongly believing it to be the preserve of the moralising right. That is a historic victory for the right — historic in the sense that it’s the result of a decades-long “war of position” waged by conservative intellectuals.

Whatever the reasons for the left’s abdication of the language of fundamental values — and I think they are various, having to do with, among other things, the influence of a debased, relativistic version of liberal pluralism and the lingering effects of a marxisant mistrust of the language of morality as fatally utopian — this is a defeat that must be reversed. Susan Neiman makes this point in her wonderful book Moral Clarity:

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Right-wing talk of moral clarity and honour and heroism is often empty, but that is not the same as being meaningless. Empty concepts remain concepts, in search of an application. The left, by contrast, has deflated the concepts themselves. What the left lacks isn’t values, but a standpoint from which all those values make sense — and a language with which to defend them.