Unfortunately, we find that no matter how sophisticated and well administered our legal systems, and no matter how advanced our methods of external control, by themselves these cannot eradicate wrongdoing. Observe that nowadays our police forces have at their disposal technology that could barely have been imagined fifty years ago. They have methods of surveillance which enable them to see what formerly was hidden; they have DNA matching, forensic laboratories, sniffer dogs, and, of course, highly trained personnel. Yet criminal methods are correspondingly advanced so that really we are no better off. Where ethical restraint is lacking, there can be no hope of overcoming problems like those of rising crime. In fact, without such inner discipline, we find that the very means we use to solve them becomes a source of difficulty itself. The increasing sophistication of criminal and police methods is a vicious and mutually reinforcing cycle.
What, then, is the relationship between spirituality and ethical practice? Since love and compassion and similar qualities all, by definition, presume some level of concern for others' well-being, they presume ethical restraint. We cannot be loving and compassionate unless at the same time we curb our own harmful impulses and desires.
As to the foundations of ethical practice itself, it might be supposed that here at least I advocate a religious approach. Certainly, each of the major religious traditions has a well-developed ethical system. However, the difficulty with tying our understanding of right and wrong to religion is that we must then ask, "Which religion?" Which articulates the most complete, the most accessible, the most acceptable system? The arguments would never stop. Moreover, to do so would be to ignore the fact that many who reject religion do so out of convictions sincerely held, not merely because they are unconcerned with the deeper questions of human existence. We cannot suppose that such people are without a sense of right and wrong or of what is morally appropriate just because some who are anti-religion are immoral. Besides, religious belief is no guarantee of moral integrity. Looking at the history of our species, we see that among the major troublemakers-those who visited violence, brutality, and destruction on their fellow human beings-there have been many who professed religious faith, often loudly. Religion can help us establish basic ethical principles. Yet we can still talk about ethics and morality without having recourse to religion.
Again, it could be objected that if we do not accept religion as the source of ethics, we must allow that people's understanding of what is good and right, of what is wrong and bad, of what is morally appropriate and what is not, of what constitutes a positive act and what a negative act must vary according to circumstances and even from person to person. But here let me say that no one should suppose it could ever be possible to devise a set of rules or laws to provide us with the answer to every ethical dilemma, even if we were to accept religion as the basis of morality. Such a formulaic approach could never hope to capture the richness and diversity of human experience. It would also give grounds for arguing that we are responsible only to the letter of those laws, rather than for our actions.
This is not to say that it is useless to attempt to construe principles which can be understood as morally binding. On the contrary, if we are to have any hope of solving our problems, it is essential that we find a way to do so. We must have some means of adjudicating between, for example, terrorism as a means to political reform and Mahatma Gandhi's principles of peaceful resistance. We must be able to show that violence toward others is wrong. And yet we must find some way of doing so which avoids the extremes of crude absolutism on the one hand, and of trivial relativism on the other.
Kenn Nesbitt is new Children's Poet Laureate(Jun 12 2013) Kenn Nesbitt has been named the new Children's Poet Laureate: Consultant in Children's Poetry to the Poetry Foundation, which noted that the two-year position...