By Rabbi Mordechai Rose
Modern liberal society has created a new system of values which it believes are superior to those of any society that has existed up until now. The primary principle of this system is that the individual should have the freedom to do whatever he or she wants — as long as it does not limit the freedom of another individual. Almost the only yardstick to judge the rightness or wrongness of any action is — “does it respect the freedom of the individual?” If it does then it is good; if it does not, then it is bad. Intolerance of the freedom of individuals to do whatever they want is to be abhorred; such intolerance contradicts the primary value of neo-liberal thinking. In this worldview, there are no ultimate rules of what is right or wrong. In fact, the belief that certain actions are inherently bad, even if they are freely chosen, is unacceptable because it is inherently intolerant.
All this puts modern liberal ideology on a collision course with traditional religious belief. Religion says that there are certain actions that are inherently wrong even if they are freely chosen and even if they may give the individuals personal satisfaction. Pre-marital relations and promiscuity in general would be examples of this, since traditional religions encourage only committed marriage relationships. Yet to the modern liberal way of thinking, the concept that certain freely chosen actions are inherently wrong clashes with the fundamental freedom of the individual to choose.
The recent proposal that RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) should become compulsory in all schools has inevitably become a battleground where the liberal and religious ideologies clash head-on. The liberal ideology demands that children are presented with all the possibilities of relationships so that they can choose which one they want. It would still be permissible to teach that religion does not allow certain types of relationships — as long as educators present the child with all the alternative views as well. The child must know that it is also possible to choose a promiscuous life-style if he or she wants. He or she must know that there are alternative same-sex relationships as well. Only in this way will the child or young adult be able to choose freely what he or she wants. Not to present all the possible choices would be an infringement on the freedom of the individual to choose.
The religious view wants to teach that only committed male-female marriages are permitted and any other type of physical relationship is undesirable and wrong. This is part of the absolute value system of religion. But from the secular liberal point of view, to teach the child that certain actions are wrong, even though they are freely chosen, is in total contradiction to the ultimate value of life — that the individual should be free to choose. According to this way of thinking, deeply held religious ideas of absolute right and wrong are inherently intolerant and are therefore unacceptable.
Modern liberal ideology presents itself well. It is the defender of human liberty, the promoter of tolerance and equality. Yet it does not seem to produce a stable and successful society. Before our eyes, we see a breakdown in values. Youth gangs, muggings, robbery, sexual and racial abuse seem to be on the rise. Respect for authority and the rule of law is waning. Why should this be when the aims of liberal society seem so positive and praiseworthy? The answer may become clear if we try and define some of the essential elements necessary for the existence of a harmonious and successful society.
If a group of a thousand people suddenly found themselves washed up on a desert island without communication with the rest of the world, what type of rules would they need to establish in order to survive, succeed and prosper? It is clear that if each person were only to think about his or her own survival on that island, about his or her freedom to do what he or she wants, there would be nothing to bind the group together and there would inevitably be conflict. They would have to put the value of the common good as their first priority. Each individual would have to work out what part he or she could play in helping the entire group. The members of the group must say to themselves, “If we are to survive, we cannot afford to think only about ourselves but about what is good for everybody — even if this is not what each one of us might want individually.”
Herein lies the fundamental flaw of modern neo-liberal thinking. If the overriding value is that all individuals should be free to do what they want and enjoy themselves as much as they can, this will create a society of individuals where each person seeks their own personal pleasure. There will be nothing to bind them together into a cohesive group. Our children are being educated to know all the choices and to see the world as not much more than an arena to fulfil their desires. We are producing a society of self-seeking individuals where the major value is to tolerate all types of life-choices and the major enemy is the intolerance of alternative life-choices.
Going back to our desert island scenario, another factor that would have to be considered would be the creation of stable family units. Human physical relationships are inherently volatile. If every individual will feel free to indulge his every transient feeling of attraction and desire for another individual, this will be a recipe for disaster. There will be conflict and jealousy. Once again the individuals will have to subordinate their transient desires for self-satisfaction for their own good and for the good of society. Every successful value system in the history of the world has come to the conclusion that stable relationships of fidelity and total commitment of one partner to the other are an essential requirement for the long-term survival of society. Sexual promiscuity and the breakdown of the family unit have always been the first signs of the collapse of society. Furthermore, children ideally need to be brought up with the security of having two committed parents who are a constant presence in their lives. This involves the parents committing themselves not to have physical relationships with others even if they might be tempted to do so. This is not a moral judgement, but a practical analysis of what makes society work.
Contrast this with the nature of modern liberal society where promiscuity is rampant and long-term sexual fidelity is extremely rare. But this is inevitable when the overriding value is the freedom to seek pleasure in this world. That individuals should freely choose to be intimate with whatever partners they may choose is seen as a fundamental value of modern liberal society. To discourage such an approach is considered oppressive and the result antiquated and backward belief systems. This may sound logical, but does it not threaten the essential building block of a stable society — the traditional family unit as outlined in the previous paragraph?
A society of free-thinking individuals, aware of all the choices, tolerant of every lifestyle, living for the moment may sound appealing but it is antithetical to the basic requirements of a functioning society. Does such a society have a future?
Another vital requirement for our friends on the desert island is to have some sort of higher ideals beyond just living for the moment and tolerating every lifestyle. If life has no ultimate meaning and we are no more than the most advanced animal on earth, we will not have the motivation to look beyond ourselves towards the needs of others and the benefit of society at large. But if we believe that we are on this earth for a purpose and that our every action is intrinsically meaningful for all of humanity, we will be roused to become better people and to rise above the quagmire of self-seeking desires. We may often be faced with a clash between the indulgence of an immediate intense pleasure and the knowledge that this indulgence might upset or cause harm to another. If life is ultimately meaningless, just a pattern of chance events, why should I forego the immediate pleasure? The challenge will be extremely hard to overcome.
For most of human history, this belief in a higher purpose has been provided by religion in one form or another. The common element of major religions in their refined form is that life has ultimate meaning and that we are here for a purpose and that everything we do is tremendously important. But now neo-liberal ideology has used science as a tool to prove to every sensible individual that all religions simply consist of nice stories that have no scientific basis in reality. They have a role as romantic folklore and no more. But to the serious scientist, it not so clear that we can explain the world without a first cause. The serious scientist knows that scientific theories about the nature and origin of the universe are no more than the theories based on the evidence we can presently observe. Science has not solved the mystery of the origin of life. A person is not a superstitious fool for believing that there is a first cause and that life has ultimate meaning and that there is a purpose and direction to human history. Yet to many neo-liberals, all deeply religious individuals are relics of the past living in a fantasy world. They are the only group of people that are not to be tolerated in a tolerant society — since religious individuals are inherently intolerant!
For centuries Great Britain has developed a stable and ever-more prosperous society based on values that have been developed carefully and gradually over the course of time. These traditional ideas emphasise the importance of marriage, family, honesty, hard work, loyalty and patriotic belief in the role of this country in the development of the world. This was all underpinned by a religious belief based on the Christian tradition. In a very short space of time these inherited ideas have been thrown by the wayside and replaced by a new worldview. In this new worldview all deeper meaning has been removed from life and nothing has ultimate meaning. The much touted “Fundamental British Values” that must now be taught in schools have virtually no connection with the inherited British values that gave this country stability and greatness and brought it to a position of moral leadership amongst the family of nations. They are a strange new hybrid creation that threatens the stability of this great country.
It is the belief of The Values Foundation that we need to return to the treasury of our inherited British values and rebuild the ambitions and aspirations of our society. We need to look once more for a vision which will unite us a country, built on a belief in the carefully nurtured values of British tradition — the importance of stable families, the importance of community and the belief in an ultimate purpose in life. If we fail to do this, who knows what the future will bring?
Rabbi Mordechai Rose is an author of works on classical Jewish thought, academic and lecturer on subjects of Jewish interest.