Saturday, January 24, 2009

Abortion: How did we get here? On public morality

The answers, of course, are complex. Bill Gairdner has one piece of the puzzle:

Until about the middle of the 19th century, all philosophers, and all religious and political leaders in the Western world accepted as obvious the idea that we live – and ought to live – under a common moral bubble, so to speak. Which is to say that moral standards were considered public by their very nature, rather than private. The mere idea that morality should be something sourced in a personal point of view aimed at serving the purposes of solitary individuals or, even more fickle, something constructed to suit the occasion, had always been considered absurd, if not a sign of moral sickness.

But with the advance of egalitarian democracy came an increasingly shrill demand for individual rights divorced from duties, and with this a weakening of shared moral consensus and an entirely new idea: that each human being lives under his or her own private moral bubble. The most famous articulation of this historically bizarre alteration in the public conception of morality was by J.S. Mill in his little booklet On Liberty in 1859. Within certain confusing limits he basically argued that morality is a private matter and the only case for concern is when we directly harm someone else by our conduct. This is today called Mill’s “harm principle” and it has rapidly become the most common ideal of what it means to live a free and moral life. Indeed, Canada’s own Supreme Court, in R. vs. Labaye (2005), in which a citizen complained that it was indecent and against community standards to allow a swingers’ sex club in a residential neighbourhood, ruled in favour of the club, and in doing so wrote that “The philosophical underpinnings of the ... harm-based approach are found in the liberal theories of J. S. Mill. This philosopher argued that the only purpose for which state power can be rightfully exercised over a member the community is to prevent harm to others.”

And so it has come to pass by edict of our highest court that there is no longer a common moral bubble; that we have no duty to be concerned for others, nor for the greater good, nor for society as something comprised of real relationships that is far more than the sum of its individual parts.