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A conscience issue

Hunting high and low

Fat-cheeked Tony Blair impersonator David Cameron has confessed to what the Guardian‘s headline describes as a “history of hunting”, which makes fox-hunting sound like a psychiatric disorder (see David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence), or perhaps a crime? Oh, well, it is a crime, at least for now. But well-hairsprayed PR man David Cameron thinks it ought not to be:

If the Tories won the election, there would be a free vote on hunting because it was considered “a conscience issue”, Cameron said.

A conscience issue is certainly an interesting way of putting it. Technically “an issue of conscience” is already the conventional term to describe matters on which party leaders do not “whip” the vote, but it inescapably has more general resonances too. The phrase drips moral empathy for fellow human beings searching their consciences for the truth, which is a nobler and more elevated practice than democratic public debate. But scrutinizing one’s soul is all that it is ever possible to do in such circumstances, for if the law tries to ban certain activities, it apparently becomes a “farce”:

“For someone who feels passionately that it should be banned, I would just argue that there are some areas where when you take the criminal law into that area it makes the law a mess, it makes the law a bit of a farce, and I think the hunting ban is a good example of that.”

It is an impeccably liberal position, of course, to insist that law and morality should not be coextensive, but is the reason for this really that the law would inevitably become a “mess” or a “farce”, rather than, as one might think, that it would lead to a tyranny of majority ethical prejudice? Certainly the present government has proved itself capable of turning the law into a “mess” in numerous other areas, not all of which, one presumes, dead-eyed marionette David Cameron would claim as conscience issues.

To describe hunting as a conscience issue is to acknowledge that there is something wrong about it, at least in some people’s view. But shiny-faced automaton David Cameron is quick to discount any perceived wrongness by first demoting such a view to the status of a “feeling” (even if the one who so feels “feels passionately”), and then immediately changing the basis of the discussion to one of bureaucratic difficulty: legal messes and farces. And so we, along with Conservative Members of Parliament, are left with no guide but our own personal consciences when deciding whether to get up in the morning and sit on a big quadruped in the hope of killing another, smaller quadruped with a pack of one’s own yapping quadrupeds. Like a public utility company, the moral question is now privatized.

The position that certain ethical questions are “conscience issues” over which presumedly reasonable people can disagree is, of course, a kind of moral relativism, and once you set foot on that slope it proves itself terrifyingly slippery. Soon enough, the new Tories will all be quoting Zizek and trying to understand terrorists, which will at least inject some entertainment into the forthcoming election of doom.

What do you consider a conscience issue, readers?

  1. 1  Rich S  October 7, 2009, 1:17 pm 

    A “dead-eyed marionette”? That rings a bell, is it an insulto-reference?

    I agree with every single one of your Cameronian adjectives, and as RE hunting “the unspeakable etc” still stands as the finest summary.

  2. 2  Steven  October 7, 2009, 1:52 pm 

    Hmmm, I appear previously to have called Boris Johnson a “dead-eyed puppet”. I apologise to readers for any confusion caused.

  3. 3  richard  October 7, 2009, 2:00 pm 

    Is this not the very basis of politics, though – a continuous negotiation to establish the rules of society?

    You say hunting is an ethical question, that is, it is to be discussed in terms of shared standards for behaviour that define our society, and Cameron says it’s a conscience issue, a matter of personal values, or not-shared standards for behaviour; i.e. specifically not ethical. Banning hunting explicitly states an ethical position: it says that this society considers hunting to be wrong, and imposes penalties for doing it. Not banning hunting places it in the realm of personal conscience: to misquote an old Islamic saw; what is not forbidden is permitted, but not necessarily encouraged.

    So Cameron proposes a vote on whether hunting should be banned or not, presumably hoping to test whether it turns out to be an issue of ethics or one of conscience. The bolitics* here residing in the fact that such a vote has already happened, in the recent past, and it has, in fact, been banned.

    *I’m suggesting we swipe bolitics from Arabic, in which it is a dismissive term meaning “corrupt horse-trading dressed up as public debate, recognisable by its specious arguments, pious posturing and terrible consequences.” cf. biznis.

  4. 4  Steven  October 7, 2009, 2:17 pm 

    It could be argued that, to the extent that “personal values” inform one’s interactions with other people (and, some would say, animals), they are necessarily ethical rules (or moral rules: I’m not distinguishing between the terms here). In that case, it looks as though it might even be somehow incoherent to suppose they could be private. (Just as a language cannot be, like the man said.)

    I like bolitics!

  5. 5  richard  October 7, 2009, 2:51 pm 

    You’re not distinguishing between morals and ethics here? Mary HK Choi put it to me this way; “KABLOOOOW. I’m dead.”

  6. 6  Steven  October 7, 2009, 3:43 pm 

    Nor does Peter Singer, eg.

  7. 7  richard  October 7, 2009, 3:55 pm 

    Interesting. Thanks for the ref.

  8. 8  Bruce  October 7, 2009, 5:01 pm 

    The phrase “conscience issue” puts me in mind of personal decisions on whether or not to BREAK a given law. But it seems redundant in Cameron’s context of creating laws. Clever spin though.

    So, chasing, torturing, maiming and murdering a cute defenseless little orange canine is not only essential for the rural economy, it’s a matter of conscience – we may continue to do it despite the bureaucratic laws in place, because we’re heroically protecting liberties. For conscience’s sake. And to create jobs.

    And the technical term for all this is: democracy.

    I lifted that last line from Steven’s recent Guardian round-up review of non-fiction. Talking off-topically of which, I see that the Medialens crowd are unhappy with Steven’s review of a book. In fact they seem to think he’s a dupe of some Guardian conspiracy to “hit” Medialens:


    (There’s a link in that piece to the Medialens discussion – click the word “something”).

  9. 9  Steven  October 7, 2009, 5:14 pm 

    Hey but wow, I am apparently “hip”! Which just goes to show?

  10. 10  Bruce  October 7, 2009, 5:32 pm 

    In that context it probably shows that you’re “complicit” in crimes against humanity, but with a wide and trendy vocabulary.

  11. 11  Steven  October 7, 2009, 10:13 pm 

    Probably, but I’ll take any sense of “hip” that I can get?

    I appreciate your point at #8 re appeals to “conscience” often being used the other way, eg as reasons to break the law, or — one could add — not to do something generally mandated (cp “conscientious objector”).

  12. 12  dsquared  October 7, 2009, 11:33 pm 

    I’m reminded of the case of Bonnie Schot, whose “conscious [sic] beliefs” rendered her unable to pass a guilty verdict on any accused as a jury foreman, and so irritated the judge in the case that he sent her off for 30 days in the clanger, despite ludicrously obviously not having the power to do so.

  13. 13  roger migently  October 8, 2009, 11:58 am 

    richard: There is another saying, among physicists I believe, that “whatever is not forbidden is compulsory”. I long to see, after he is elected and his consciences have won the day, images of fat-cheeked, shiny-faced, dead-eyed David Cameron riding to hounds relentlessly, remorselessly and for eternity.

    In Australia, of course, we banned the sport of hunting Aborigines on horseback perhaps a century or more ago. Would Cameron have thought that was an ethical/moral issue, or, rather, a private matter for the conscience of individual parliamentarians?

  14. 14  schauspiele  October 9, 2009, 3:11 pm 

    Slightly tangential, but wasn’t Cameron’s last ‘conscience issue’ his vote to lower the limit on abortion? When, of course, he decided that his conscience was telling him that women shouldn’t be permitted to exercise theirs.

    (and did you intend to evoke the rest of the lyrics to a-ha’s chorus?)

  15. 15  Steven  October 9, 2009, 5:09 pm 

    “High and low / Only for you / Watch me tearing this fox to pieces…”

  16. 16  roger migently  October 10, 2009, 1:36 am 

    [@9. What is it like, I wonder, to be the “hip replacement” for a fulminating, blustering establishment liberal? Heads they win. Tails you lose. ]

  17. 17  schauspiele  October 11, 2009, 1:13 pm 

    “High and low / Only for you / Watch me tearing this fox to pieces…”

    I had been thinking of “There’s no end to the lengths I’ll go to”, but I like this much better!

  18. 18  Bruce  October 12, 2009, 6:46 pm 

    FWIW – Medialens apparently had a letter published in the Guardian’s review section complaining about Steven’s review. They seem hyper-defensive to me: their “whole point” line doesn’t address Steven’s point at all.

  19. 19  Steven  October 12, 2009, 11:06 pm 

    Fascinating! But was their letter really “neutered” by the Guardian as they conspiriologically suppose, or did the Guardian actually do them a favour by editing out the “crucial” parts so as to make them seem less ridiculous? I can’t have an objective view, of course, because the Guardian are my corporate paymasters. Let’s ask James Lovelock?

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