Potiphar12's Blog
An Octogenarian in the modern world

PRINCIPLES AND PRESCRIPTIONS

There was a report recently in the Daily Telegraph about a speech made by The Archbishop of Canterbury, saying that “economic recovery is not enough.” He went on to say that society needs to be more caring and should reflect Christian values. Well done, Archbishop. It’s great that somebody should make the point that Christian values underly the laws and rules and regulations that our society makes. We should always ask, about these laws and rules and regulations, “Do they reflect, so far as possible, the principle of love and charity?” Sometimes it looks as if we have lost sight of the principles.

My literary interest has caused me over the past years to study the 14th Century  religious poem The Vision of Piers Plowman. I have finished an exploration of it and understood about 80%. The writer wanders around mediaeval England trying to find out how to save his soul. He talks to all sorts of people and hears descriptions of good behaviour that might help him. He concludes that Charity is what matters, but that humans are so fallible that their practical actions never quite match up with the principle. Human organisations will always, he finds, be to some extent infected by evil. They will always be imperfect.

What Will Langland found to be true in 1340 – 1390 is true today. He and Archbishop Welby are both right in urging us to remember principles. The problem is that translating these into practice means coping with matters of detail. I was at school in the days when corporal punishment was the norm, and suffered more than once. From one event I learnt an important and life-improving lesson. Was it the intention of the teacher that I should benefit in that way, or was he just indulging his sadism? If the former is true, he acted out of love, If the second, then love was absent. So just by looking at an action you can’t know whether to ascribe it to charity or not. Perhaps my schoolteacher did not know himself. That’s how hard it is for an observer to see the principle in the practice. And once you say “We believe in THIS principle, therefore we will make sure people do THAT”, then you have a prescription. – which can never cover all situations. And once you have a prescription you have a safety net which allows people to claim “I did the right thing” even when that seems to transgress the principle. And even when trying to apply a principle, we are influenced by personal views. So we have phenomena like whistleblowers at one end, and, at the other, police chiefs who value organisational loyalty more than honesty.

So when you try to turn a principle into a prescription – which you are pretty much forced to do if it is going to have any influence – you are on dangerous ground. There is no answer to the problem. But perhaps it helps to make a habit of asking, “What does Charity say about this?” Accepting the law itself as the ultimate source of right behaviour is a big mistake.

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