Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cameron criticizes "secular neutrality"

Here's an interesting speech by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, arguing for more engagement from the Church of England in restoring a sense of right and wrong in UK society.

The Prime Minister said that faith helped people to "have a moral code" and that it was correct to pass judgment on others. "Those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgment on the behaviour of others, fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality, or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code," he said.

It's not entirely surprising for a Tory Prime Minister - even a very socially liberal one like Cameron - to call for a return to traditional values in one form or other. Cameron believes the summer riots in the UK were largely caused by moral failings, not poverty or less social spending or police tactics.

But what is interesting here is he specifically disagrees with the idea of the secular, neutral state which merely referees rights. This is heresy from the point of view of the broad postwar liberal ethos.

I've been arguing that this kind of secular neutrality effectively destroys any real society. It removes any possibility of genuine change in our institutions to take advantage of technological change. The left undermines genuine change.

Society needs incentives for people to do the right thing, and as a sign of what a society values. 

Of course, the word "incentive" sounds very clinical and corporate, the kind of thing overpaid CEOs claim they need from supine board compensation committees. Call it "carrots" instead. 

It is much broader than money, which has been the most successful incentive system in human history.  It is what earns people respect, or nudges them to cooperate or produce things of value to others. It helps restrain bad behavior and predatory selfishness. 

Religion is the oldest way humanity has evolved to deal with these issues - which is no doubt why Cameron is complaining the liberal Church of England is not doing enough of it.

But the older great religions cannot accomplish that task by themselves now. Theocracy has its own problems, which is why the West came up with the idea of a secular state in the first place. 

However, if there are no carrots for doing the right thing, then society withers. 

A neutral state undermines the ability to have the right carrots. It leaves money and trashy celebrity as the main residual incentives. It is a future of reality tv stars and connections and sleaze.

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