Conscience and Principle

Conscience and Principle

Although, like many people, including many Friends, I have some well-articulated ethical principles, I recognise that some people are less willing, interested or able to articulate the ethical principles by which they live. Under the influence of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre at the time, I realised that there are principles that people are willing state (e.g. not to break the law; to do unto others …) about themselves, and there are principles that can be inferred from their behaviour – either by their action or by their self-restraint. These can be termed respectively de jure and de facto principles.

I am guessing that, like many people, including many Friends, I prefer my de jure and de facto principles to align. I feel hypocritical when what I say and what I do are strangers to each other. I tend not to accuse others of hypocrisy, not least because I recognise that de jure principles may be aspirational. What commands my respect are not pious words but compassionate action. I guess that this sits well with the concept of ‘Faith in Action’.

Many years ago, the Thatcher administration wished to relax the laws governing betting shops, including the introduction of bars selling alcohol, and the employment of young people behind the counter. I consider gambling to be a social ill, and so, in response, I took it upon myself to oppose this legislation as it progressed through its parliamentary process, including writing to each of the MPs considering the bill at the committee stage. I received some help from Helen Drewery at Friends House when the bill disappeared for a while, having been renamed to something anodyne. Clement Freud, then a Liberal Party MP referred to me in discussion as “a killjoy”. Despite my opposition to the parliamentary bill it passed into legislation, albeit substantially reduced in scope, as the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Act 1985.

A recent social media meme proposed that people who felt minded to do so should place a wager with a high street betting company that Caroline Lucas might serve as Prime Minister of a temporary government of national unity. The purpose behind the proposal was to bring the idea to public attention. I have no idea how Caroline Lucas, for whom I have much respect, feels about being the subject of a wager, but I know that I would feel soiled were I, unimaginable though it is, to be the subject of a wager.

Whilst I also know that many people are enjoy gambling, and far from seeing it as a social ill, consider it to be one of life’s many pleasures, I have personally known and heard about housewives who have fed their entire week’s housekeeping money into slot machines. I have personally known and heard about people tens of thousands of pounds in debt as a result of gambling. I know a senior academic manager whose smartphone is constantly tracking online odds for sports betting.

In Sartre’s play Les Mains Sales, the constantly shifting ‘ends’ justify the ever-changing strategy. Am I wishing to preserve the purity of my (in reality, humanly-sullied) conscience by maintaining my principled opposition to gambling, or should I abandon my antipathy to gambling for the greater good of promoting the choice of a pro-European politician to lead a UK government of national unity?

[In researching this piece, I read the Wikipedia entry about Sir Ian Gilmour, who husbanded the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill through the House of Commons. At the time, I viewed him as a Conservative MP on the right of British politics. I was fascinated to discover that the Wikipedia entry makes it abundantly clear that many of the political principles for which he stood would now be far off the left-hand end of the scale of the current Conservative Party political spectrum, and more liberal even than many Liberal Democrats. It would seem that the entire centre of gravity of British politics has shifted substantially to the right over the past thirty five years.]


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