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A Game of Consequences
January/February 2011

Baroness Warnock has just written a book subtitled On Keeping Religion out of Politics. I work for a think-tank, Theos, that seeks to keep religion in politics. It was never going to be a meeting of minds. 

It was, nevertheless, a civilised, thoughtful and illuminating encounter. We met in her House of Lords office and hovered around politics and religion for a while before honing in on the fault line: what is the right balance between principle and consequence in public morality?  Religious dogmatists, the Baroness told me, care only about divinely-ordained principle. 

Reasonable, secular-minded people, by contrast, weigh the consequences of policies and legislate accordingly. Put that way, who could doubt where any sane person should stand? 

Yet, put that way it is misleading. Religious "dogmatists" are not just principle-led. Indeed, they obsess about the consequences of (what they perceive to be) immorality on society. Conversely, consequentialism is simply too pliable to see us through the moral maze. Does it not simply lead to moral relativism, I asked, the slippery slope towards anything goes? No, the Baroness told me, emphatically, it does not. 

And then, towards the end of our hour together, as we attempted to ground our conversation in the concrete, the tone shifted. Was not the rise in abortions since 1967 highly suggestive of the likely consequences of passing legislation permitting assisted dying, I asked?

"But one wants to find out whether there's been anything wrong with the number of abortions," the Baroness replied. "I want to know whether the increase in abortions has been among people for whom an abortion was actually a benefit, a good." Familiar with the argument that abortion was a necessary evil, I was unprepared for one that it was "actually...a good" for some people. I probed.

"There are thousands of girls who become pregnant and wouldn't think of having an abortion because they're not interested. They've got no future anyway and a future with a baby is to them better than a future without a baby. They've got someone to love, they've got someone who'll love them." 

"Is that not a good thing?" I asked. "No, I think it's a terrible thing," she replied. "The joy of having a baby may wear off after it's not a baby but a yobbish teenager, and we've all got to look after these persons. The social consequences are awful."

"The social consequences..." Consequentialism is a slippery beast. So sensible, so reasonable, so scientific, it is, in reality, endlessly malleable, a leaf for every ideological wind that blows. Why did Spartans throw weakly babies off cliffs? Why did Romans "expose" infants (especially girls)? Why did intelligent people fight for the slave trade and against the Factory Acts? Because each believed that the consequences of letting weak or "unwanted" children live, or undermining the national interest, or interfering with free trade, would be deleterious for society. Perceived consequences have a habit of moulding themselves around our existing concepts of the good.

I had expected to get a well-thought-through defence of keeping religious principles out of political debate from my interview with Baroness Warnock. I had not been prepared for what it would actually look like.


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