Britain’s parliament is in crisis. This is not a crisis of the Westminster system of government, but of the character of those governing. The revelations of members’ padded expense accounts have stirred a huge outcry from an already skeptical public. Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips didn’t mince words when she summarized this way: “It can’t be emphasised enough that it’s not the system that’s to blame, but the members of Parliament who have abused it. This is not a constitutional problem. It is a moral crisis.”
Phillips is quite correct in her observations, but can the public demand accountability based on morality? That’s the rub. Parliament’s moral crisis is a symptom of the wider moral crisis within society at large. How can parliamentarians be held to a standard that the people who put them in office don’t hold to themselves? As Phillips points out, “This society has accordingly got the Parliament it deserves. And we won’t put Parliament right until and unless we arrest the slide in our wider culture.”
A major problem with morality is that if no one claims responsibility for deciding and acting out the ethical principles of right and wrong, morality becomes a word without meaning. Morality is a system of principles or rules of conduct to which humans conform. Presently our “wider culture” exemplifies the debasement of rules of conduct with little common agreement as to what rules or principles we should be following.
The Church of England’s response to this present uproar provides us a window through which to view the depth of the problem. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has not called for accountability according to moral principles on behalf of the politicians. Rather, he has taken the soft option of saying, in effect, “let us all move forward, they have learned their lesson so let’s have no recriminations.” There was no call for the defining of principles or rules of conduct that our political leaders should be exemplifying. A body that our “wider culture” should be looking to for leadership in moral conduct has abdicated its responsibility and sent a message that morality is not important to the issue.
Is this perhaps because religion in general no longer can be considered the one true source of morality? The continuing revelations of sexual abuse within some religious institutions are of course part of the sad state of affairs. A well-known, but little understood story in the first chapters of the Bible regarding the Garden of Eden and two special trees in that garden sheds light on our current moral crisis.
The Garden of Eden was a beautiful environment for the development of human kind. All that had been created—the earth and mankind—is described in this passage as “very good.” However, it is recorded that mankind was given a mind and the freedom to use it to determine the way he would live. Man was not a god-like robot. The first man was given the choice to decide for himself how he would live. That choice is symbolized by two special trees in the garden. One was called the tree of life and the other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were instructed to eat of one but not the other. There is the heart of the matter. One tree represented man in harmony with God and the principles that would ensure mankind’s happy existence—the tree of life. The other tree, of which they were told not to eat, represented mankind taking to himself the prerogative of determining for himself what is right and what is wrong. Adam and Eve made their choice: by the story’s end they are eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the course of human history is set. The message is that the human race embarked on a life of self-determination. The fact that Adam and Eve were ejected from the garden environment and prevented from approaching the tree of life from that point on is testimony to mankind’s rejection of moral principles which have their root in a relationship with God.
The British parliamentary example is perfect for understanding how this plays out in our lives today. Neither the members of parliament nor the state religious authority turned to that simple and straightforward body of moral principles that has been available to mankind for millennia. Instead, like a modern-day Adam, the government announced the need for a set of new rules and procedures which they themselves would propose and pass in an effort to self-govern.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to prove an effective answer. Until we are prepared to acknowledge a common source of morality that lies outside of human reason, there will be no improvement in the moral crisis that envelopes our cultures.