Monday, 19 March 2012

Not shooting a man pulling his pants up: an example of morality?

In her post below on 'Morality & the Herd Instinct' Rachel writes: 'I don’t think that the issue of morals can help but be troubling to anarchists, being at once matter of individual freedom to choose and respecting the rights of others.'
Before proceeding to answer Rachel, it is interesting to cast an eye over the rich moral contents in the forthcoming physically printed issue of Northern Voices 13: The lead story is an interview with Sylvia Lancaster, the mother of Sophie murdered while defending her lover in a park up Bacup in 2007; then there is the Link4Life attack on the arts in Rochdale; a tribute by Tameside MBC and the local Trade Union Council to James Keogh who sacrificed his life in the Spanish Civil War; a column on bribery & corruption; a piece by the Rev. Father Petty on Philip Morrell, the Burnley MP & campaigner against the First World War; an interview by Barry Woodling with Azeldin-El-Sharif on the Manchester connection to Libya; a piece by Chris Draper on how the trade union bosses in Victorian Sheffield were morally dodgy entitled 'Letters from Ned Ludd's Missus' and another on the twisted historical approach of the British left to less 'morally respectable' events like the Luddites' rebellion.
Postal subscription: £5 for two issues (post included)
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Tel.: 0161 793 5122.


OVER a decade ago a visiting moral philosopher giving a lecture at the Manchester Metropolitan University offered us an example of human morality by referring us to George Orwell's decision, which he took sitting in a trench in Aragon in the Spanish Civil War, not to shoot at a man pulling his pants up after clearly having a crap. Orwell's reasoning, as he described it in his book 'Homage to Catalonia', was that the man couldn't be a Fascist because in his view a true Fascist wouldn't have got himself caught in such a predicament. I recall that Professor Wesley Sharrock, from Manchester University, challenged this arguing this he had 'never understood' that passage in Orwell, and he asked: 'Are we to believe that Fascists don't have a shit?'

The answer to Prof. Sharrock is to be found in Chapter4 of 'Homage to Catalonia', where Orwell writes about the nature of that war in which 'very likely a Socialist or Anarchist trade union member ... has been conscripted against his will [to fight for the Fascists]'. On the Aragon front Orwell describes how the rival troops made moral appeals to each other, and the militia men would shout the slogan: 'Don't fight against your own class!' Orwell writes: 'There is little doubt that it had some effect; everyone agreed that the trickle of Fascist deserters was partly caused by it.' Was that just an example of a moral confidence trick in the view of Rachel and Nietzsche?

In the 1970s, Kenneth Clarke, the art historian, commenting on capitalism which he described as 'Heroic Materialism', dismissed Marxism as an alternative to capitalism by saying then that it was 'Intellectually and morally bankrupt'. No doubt Nietzsche, and perhaps Rachel, would consider any appeal to morality as a weakness, but I think we know given the history of the 20th century what Lord Clarke meant by saying that by the 1970s Marxism as a political force was 'intellectually and morally bankrupt'.

The notion of moral constraints ought not to be snubbed by anarchists, and human beings, it seems to me, have to make decisions according to some standards and do have moral duties to each other. We can't avoid that by holding up a cookbook according to Marx or anyone else. The extreme question then arises: 'Had Robinson Crusoe any duties on his island?' Mary Midgley in her book 'Evolution as Religion' claims that there is a serious disagreement here, but one that can't 'be sneezed away just by saying "it depends what you mean by duty".'

Did the group organising the Manchester Anarchist Book Fair last December have a moral duty to invite the Northern Anarchist Network [NAN]? It could be argued that the 'Gang of 5' who organised it were an independent group who had the right to invite whoever they wanted and even to declare the NAN not to be 'anarchist' if they so choose to. The question then strikes us 'Is that fair?' or 'Is there any natural justice being applied here?' and when we do that, I suggest we are in the realms of morality, fair play and justice.

Mary Midgley, like Kant, even concludes that Robinson Crusoe 'did have duties concerning his island' and that Nietzsche was wrong in taking over 'from the old Thomistic theology which he plundered the assumption that all the rest of creation mattered only as a frame for man.' Barry Woodling and Martin Gilbert in speaking up at the last NAN in Newcastle, were talking of a duty of care that anarchists ought to have for others such as the Libyans in Benghazi a year ago; in opposition to them Dave Douglass admitted that all he had to offer was a cookbook theory of politics. I would humbly suggest that that cookbook is now outdated.

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