Foundations of the Moral Order

By Colin Turfus

Part 1: The Moral Basis of the European Project

The Two Pillars

For over half a century now a project has been under way to transform European society from what it was at the mid-point of the 20th century, a disparate collection of peoples possessed of distinct national identities and traditions, into a coherent unified whole based on principles of co-operation and solidarity. This project has been known by various names through its 60-year evolution but is now constituted as the European Union. Opinions vary as to whether the cost of what has been lost along the way is mitigated by the undoubted gains which have been made in terms of both co-operation and solidarity, particularly when one compares the history of the European project with the circumstances of the half-century which preceded its inception with two world wars, both initiated in West/Central Europe. But it cannot be denied that, in terms of its growth in size and scope, it has been an extremely successful political project. To what can this success be attributed? And why is it that when, as at present, voices of dissent are being heard ever more widely in relation to a growing number of issues which are so obviously damaging the life chances and disrupting the lives of many individual and families across Europe, so many continue to defend the track record of the European Union and maintain faith in its founding vision of a united Europe, indeed of a United States of Europe?

In a recently written report on the subject, written for the Theos think tank [8], Ben Ryan argues that the founding vision was essentially a moral one, based on the twin principles or “pillars” of solidarity and subsidiarity. The former, he suggests, is captured in the May 1950 Schuman Declaration as follows:

“Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

while subsidiarity is according to the glossary of the EU website [9] defined as a principle that

“…aims to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at Union level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level.”

Specifically, it is the principle whereby the Union does not take action (except in the areas which fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

It will be my claim below that the success and enduring traction of the European project in winning the hearts and minds of citizens across Europe and beyond is in its appeal to these two principles; indeed that these two principles lie at the heart of any functioning moral framework.

Following the setting out of the founding vision in the first part of his report, Ryan goes on to describe in a second part how the original moral and spiritual vision has been lost and suggests how the various crises which are causing increasing disillusionment with the European project in a growing number of countries are a consequence of this. The third and final part of his report is then devoted to his proposal for “putting a soul (back) in the union.”

While I concur with Ryan in the broad conclusions he draws in his second part, I will seek to argue that what has gone wrong in the European project is not adequately characterised as simply a loss of moral vision but also has to be seen as a failure to grasp the nature of the moral order and to understand its foundations. I will draw my own conclusions on that basis of what can be done to restore the lost moral dimension and provide a new direction for development in the UK in particular, but more generally across the European continent.

The Solidarity Principle

As I suggested, it is hard to argue against the solidarity principle. It is in our fundamental human nature that we share a common identity with all members of the human race. This has led to the framing of the golden rule, formalised by Kant as we shall see below into his categorical imperative. However, the key point I want to bring out is “common identity.” Whereas some aspects of our identity are shared across all our fellow human beings others are specific to smaller groups or communities to which we belong. The fact that solidarity is premised on a shared identity, and rightly so, inevitably means that a greater degree of solidarity is felt for those with whom we have more in common and with whom we “identify” more strongly. This point was well brought out by David Goodhart [10] in his analysis of UK post-war immigration where he pointed out the unresolved tension at the heart of the “multicultural society” whereby separate identity of minorities is promoted while at the same time the inculcation of a universal sense of solidarity is sought.

Also it is human nature to feel greater solidarity for those with whom we feel most closely connected. But often when greater “solidarity” is advocated these days it is not in relation to those surrounding us in our daily lives but often in other countries or in far remote parts of the world, and/or in relation to people about whose lifestyles and circumstances we know little, but who are perceived or portrayed as being in need. I would suggest that this is probably a misuse of the concept of solidarity which is something that arguably should exist independently of the needs of those with whom we feel solidarity and which furthermore tends to be mutual. Such “solidarity” with relative strangers is more accurately characterised as sympathy or compassion, resulting in an expression of support: no less a virtue but a different one.

Within the European Union, one of the main avenues for the expression of solidarity is through the so-called Solidarity Fund whereby the cost of projects in less-developed areas of the Union (or even in accession states) are subsidised by those in more developed nations. This is done in such a way that the European Union itself and not the donors is perceived as the origin of the funding and indeed such is reinforced by the imposition of large plaques which must be displayed at penalty of hefty fines being levied in the event of failure to comply. In this way, the European project is able to expand and sell itself successfully to ever more countries, to the point where it is now running out of European countries and starting to talk about membership for Turkey. This is perhaps not surprising when one re-reads the excerpt from the Schuman Declaration above and realises that solidarity is there defined not as an end itself but as a means to fulfilling “the plan” through “concrete achievements” (their words not mine).

Another point I would make about solidarity is that it is a property associated with a community rather than with an individual, whereas of course sympathy and compassion represent the personal response of an individual. As I have already mentioned, they are also conditioned on the circumstances of another which elicits the response. A further point I would make is that, in the age of the welfare state and universal care, the meeting of the needs of those facing disadvantage or hardship in developed societies becomes less and less the responsibility of individuals motivated by compassion and more the responsibility of government and (publicly-funded) NGOs. So it is natural that the advocacy of more funds being made available for such purposes becomes a substitute for engaging in a direct expression of compassion for those whose needs we are made aware of through first-hand experience (rather then sound-bites on the BBC News at Ten or artful photojournalism). Even “charitable work” for most of those who engage in it in a voluntary capacity consists of raising funds for organisations whose charitable outreach work is invariably done these days by (well-)paid professionals.

So if UK taxpayers (or those of any other country) are to make available funds to support infrastructure development projects in other parts of Europe, let the case be made by our/their elected politicians as to which projects should be supported where. And let us have our say on the proposals in an election. Then it really will be solidarity and the satisfaction we feel will be all the more for it, as will the appreciation and recognition of those in receipt for that which is freely given. We in Britain are already giving about twice as much in overseas aid as a fraction of our GDP than any other country. It is not as if we need to be led by the example of our partners in Europe to find generosity in our hearts. Though to hear how we are criticised by them for our lack of “solidarity” one might easily imagine the situation to be otherwise.

And let us bear in mind that solidarity is mainly about our relationship with those with whom we live in community. Yes, it makes sense to feel and demonstrate solidarity with the Syrian refugees or the Polish immigrants who have moved in down the road or whom we meet at the local school. But our duty towards those who may be facing difficulty in Poland or Syria is a different matter. We should take care lest we find that our attempts to address their issues based on “compassion” rather than a familiarity with the local circumstances, and driven more by a desire to salve our conscience and/or signal our virtue, may do more harm than good and be rewarded not by reciprocated solidarity but by accusations of meddling or even “cultural imperialism.”

The Subsidiarity Principle

If the problem we identified above with the hollowing out of the concept of solidarity within the European Union to the point where it is largely about the enforced transfer of funds is acknowledged as meriting consideration, the shortcomings in this regard pale into insignificance in relation to the obfuscation and disingenuousness that exists around subsidiarity.

But first, why is subsidiarity important in a moral context? As I stated above, the concept of solidarity (or, if you like, empathy) gives rise to the golden rule and provides the justification for Kant’s categorical imperative which, I shall argue in Part 2 below, is the foundation of the modern doctrine of human rights. If the enumeration and enforcement of such rights were a sufficient condition for the establishment of a harmonious world order (or even a single nation), nothing further would need to be said and the argument for subsidiarity would be more difficult to make. But for reasons I shall return to below, human rights have become problematic in a number of ways.

The essence of the problem is that values and consequently what we see as “rights” have a habit of turning out to be incommensurable one with another. This is a reflection of the fact that our values are intrinsically connected to our identities which are in turn shaped by our history (personal and national) and our community, or more properly in a modern context, the diverse communities, real and virtual, in which we live out our lives. I like to think of this multiple connectedness in terms of an individual living at the intersection of multiple hyperplanes, each with its own set of rules and conventions. As we move around on each hyperplane we follow the conventions appropriate to that social context which are shared, either implicitly (between friends) or explicitly (as, for example, in the workplace). As long as activities on different hyperplanes remain partitioned, this works fine. But such separation is not always possible since the hyperplanes intersect. Also, particularly in the modern multicultural society, the rights of diverse groups thrown together in community to live according to their traditional values and lifestyle may explicitly prevent others from doing so. Whereas in the past this was always seen as a problem mainly for the newcomer or immigrant, the pendulum appears to have swung the other way to the point where the incumbents tend to be the ones who are expected to make concessions in the event that a conflict arises.

There are two opposed approaches which can be taken to address the above issue. One approach is to seek a reduction in the dimensionality of the hyperspace and look to impose as far as possible a one-size-fits-all set of rules which everyone is expected to conform to. This is the essence of the human rights approach whereby making society “fairer” comes to be about identifying groups who are disadvantaged or discriminated against and seeking redress through expressions of “solidarity,” publicising the purported injustices and obliging others (through the courts if necessary) to explicitly acknowledge those rights and to “respect” the chosen lifestyles or belief systems of those asserting them. One can certainly see that there is a strong strand of this way of thinking in the policy direction pursued by those driving the European Project.

The alternative approach is based on subsidiarity whereby we seek to allow established hyperplanes to exist and manage conflict according to agreed rules or compromise. Communities once established are, wherever possible, entitled to self-determination, unless some good reason can be given as to why this is antithetical to the greater public good (a Kantian categorical imperative). Interestingly, this second approach appears to be aligned with the idea of the multicultural society. I would argue that it may be. But it does not, as advocates of the multicultural society often argue, mean that we should necessarily side with the minority community and offer them preferential treatment. Much more could be said here but this point is not central to my main argument here.

In the context of the European Union, though, the half-heartedness of its commitment to the principle of subsidiarity is evident in the very language used. For example, areas where the Union has “exclusive competence” are explicitly excluded from challenge by the subsidiarity principle. But one of the biggest criticisms made against the European Project is the avidity with which it arrogates competences to itself at the expense of national parliaments; and the anti-democratic nature of such behaviour. Of course, the fact power was previously exercised at a subsidiary level but then is arrogated to the centre is clear evidence that the principle of subsidiarity is being turned on its head. How is this allowed to occur? The answer is again clear from the EU’s own words: checks are made, it is claimed, to ensure that action is not taken by the Union which would be more effective if taken at a local level. But who is carrying out the checks and making the decisions? We know the answer to that. And what visibility is granted to lower level authorities of decision-making processes which would allow them to influence the outcome? Clearly subsidiarity properly understood is something which the EU is likely only ever to be able to pay lip service to.

So we come to understand the crippled state the EU now finds itself in, where it maintains its popularity by identifying and paying homage to the twin pillars of solidarity and subsidiarity which support the moral order. But it has hollowed out the one and turned the other on its head. The consequence of this is that it heaps criticism and contempt on countries and groups which seek to challenge its one-size-fits-all policies which are defined as if they were categorical imperatives but are actually hypothetical, conditioned on the support they provide for the advancement of the European Project. It evades the need to universalize its arguments by vilifying the disenfranchised, impoverished masses who suffer the consequences of its misguided economic and social policies, justifying its anti-democratic approach on the basis that its critics are populist upstarts, led on by demagogues and racists and pursuing a self-serving nationalist agenda. It pretends to be listening but is only really interested in being seen to be listening. And rather than exercising subsidiarity it gets lackeys like our Prime Minister David Cameron to trumpet the virtues of the European Project and push it down the throat of the electorate with such force that his reputation and that of his chancellor will probably be damaged beyond repair. And indeed his own party will probably take a long time to recover from the battering it has visited on itself in recent weeks.

************************

In the second part of this essay I shall develop a framework for thinking more broadly about the establishment of a moral order in which some of the issues we currently face, not only in Europe but across the globe, might be better addressed.

References

[1] A. MacIntyre: After Virtue – A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed., 1985 (Duckworth, London)

[2] A. MacIntyre: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1988 (Duckworth, London)

[3] A. MacIntyre: Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, 1990 (Duckworth, London)

[4] S. Dothan: Judicial Tactics in the European Court of Human Rights, 2011, Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 358, University of Chicago, Department of Law

[5] H.-W. Micklitz: Judicial Activism of the European Court of Justice and the Development of the European Social Mode in Anti-Discrimination and Consumer Law, 2009, European University Institute Working Papers, LAW 2009/19.

[6] R. Scruton: A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein 1984 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London)

[7] M. Oakeshott: The Tower of Babel in “Rationalism in Politics” 1962 (Methuen), first published in 1948 in Cambridge Journal, vol. 2

[8] Ben Ryan: A Soul for the Union, 2016, Theos Think Tank Report http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2016/01/21/a-soul-for-the-union

[9] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/subsidiarity.html

[10] David Goodhart, 2013, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration

 

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