Freedom needs authority and accountability

As a fairly classic introvert, when I have to go on a long train journey I like to book ahead and make use of the ‘quiet carriage’ – the one where people are asked not to use mobile phones (that is, not to have public conversations) or make any other excessive noise. Bliss for introverts!

On my most recent journey, coming back from Cornwall, I was sat opposite a mature couple, both of them teachers – and very quiet they were too. However, the same could not be said for many of the other occupants of the carriage. In particular there was a group of youths who were rather boisterous and a young mum whose progeny was well behaved, but who delighted in telling all and sundry about that progeny, and much else besides, on her mobile phone.

The teachers across from me became increasingly exasperated. When the ticket inspector came along, they asked him if he would be able to do anything. He demurred, clearly feeling rather awkward, and then commented ‘it’s alright, they’re getting off at the next stop’. Which they did, and the remainder of the journey was suitably restful.

However, am I alone in thinking that something has gone wrong with our society? This is in so many ways a trivial example, yet it is one that can give a clear insight into the issues. The train company had set up a carriage for the purpose of being quiet, and this was very clearly advertised within the carriage itself, and by announcements from the driver. That purpose was thwarted by two groups of people, either because they were unaware of the purpose of the carriage or because they didn’t care (I rather suspect the latter).

Those who had the responsibility for ensuring that the purpose of the quiet carriage was upheld were clearly uncomfortable at the thought of trying to ensure that this happened. I don’t blame the conductor for not wanting to make a scene. We are all too familiar with stories where someone tries to uphold civilised standards of behaviour and is then berated with a deluge of foul-mouthed invective (at best) from the transgressor. The teachers, I am sure, were also fully aware of the malign consequences that might have come their way from seeking to exercise any authority.

Our culture worships individual choice, and exalts it as one of the highest of human virtues. The notion that authority is something that is needed for human flourishing is not a comfortable one for us, we would much rather tell stories of heroic individualism, where the single will triumphs over the system.

In doing this we are rather like flowers that despise the soil in which they are nurtured, and on which they depend.

Where there is no recognised authority, those who are able to exercise their will the most clearly will be those who are strong in some way, either force of personality or simple physical strength. Physical intimidation has become a much more commonplace form of negotiation in our modern society, and this is not a sign of health. Without authority the weakest are pushed to the edge, for there is nothing to restrain the vicious.

Where there is a recognised authority, however, and where such authority is generally respected and followed, then a much safer general environment is established, and those fruits of civilisation that require a certain amount of gentility are enabled to flourish. Put differently, without a due regard for authority, we succumb to the dictatorship of morons.

Yet authority is not a single value that can be asserted on its own. How, after all, might we distinguish between competing claims for authority, between the different institutions of civic society, or between different individuals and groups within them? Any form of authority must eventually rest upon a social consensus around what has most authority – that which, when fully appealed to, is allowed to over-ride other claims. In other words, every form of social authority must ultimately rest on some form of religion.

This does not necessarily mean one particular religion – it need not even necessitate any general belief in a God or gods. What it means is that there is something which that society values and holds to be most important within its common life, and which acts as the keystone in the overall arch of shared values, and therefore the shared enforcement of those values.

Crucially, what it means is that those who are in a position to exercise authority are themselves able to be held accountable for what they do. Just as respect for authority would have enabled my train conductor to uphold the purpose of the quiet carriage, so too does a proper system of authority allow those who might be abused by a corrupt conductor (give me money to keep talking loudly) recourse to something higher.

Without this ‘something higher’ – what religious people call the transcendent – human relationships resolve down to something less than fully human, something far more fully explicable by biological processes or comparisons with the animal kingdom. Such a flawed civilisation cannot last, and will be replaced by one that is still able to draw upon spiritual nourishment.

If we wish to live in a society that has recognisable continuity with the very best that our civilisation has enabled in previous centuries – if we wish to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and build sustainably upon their achievements – I rather think we need to pay due care and attention to the role that religion played in their culture. It is as if our forebears had paid in regular amounts of capital into a bank account, which we have now been drawing upon for quite some time – indeed, I would say we are now overdrawn.

To preserve what is excellent requires some account of what is excellent that is independent of our personal choices or whims. It needs an understanding of the transcendent; it needs a religion.

The only question that matters for us in this country is which religion shall be followed.