Private Morality and Professionalism

April 8, 2010


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Regular readers may have noticed that this blog went quiet for much of the early part of the year.

That was due in large part to the trouble I had trying to get to grips with a story which I considered of great importance. I just wasn’t able to put the issue into the right order to do it justice.

At length, the story ceased to be topical, I admitted to myself that I had missed my chance, and got on with writing about other things.

However, the recent Chris Grayling storm has brought some of the same issues into focus, and gives me context to return to my confused drafts of February.

The vital story I was unable to discuss topically was the decision of Wayne Bridge, the England left back, not to make himself available for selection for the 2010 World Cup.

To recap the story for those with short memories, Bridge was living with and had a son with a young lady called Vanessa or Victoria or something. At some later point the couple were no longer a couple, but coupling was taking place between Vanessa and the England captain, John Terry.

Bridge appears to have taken this badly. He refused to play for England, a decision made much more significant by a long-term injury to serial adulterer Ashley Cole, leaving Bridge an important part of the England defence alongside John Terry.

The affair reached a climax at a match between Terry’s Chelsea and Wayne Bridge’s club Manchester City, where Bridge pointedly refused to shake hands with the opposing captain, an event which had been the supject of considerable action at the bookmakers’. Once the wagers had been settled, the story began to fade away.

What interested me was the widespread idea that there was something wrong in Wayne Bridge subordinating his professional role as a footballer to his other roles as a man and a lover. There seems to have been a clear expectation that Bridge had a duty to stand alongside John Terry on the pitches of South Africa, whatever their private relationship.

I consider such an idea extremely destructive to society. Many of us spend much of our lives involved with our work. If it is accepted that our private judgement of morality has no place there, whether in the stadiums of the Premier League or the offices of the city, then morality has been eliminated from about half of our society.

Is such personal moral judgement really so important? Yes it is, and the case of the suitors of Miss Vanessa demonstrates why. Apart from the question of professionalism, many have criticised Wayne Bridge on the grounds that she had already left him before carring on with John Terry. That is a significant point, but for me to assess it fairly I would need detailed knowledge of the relationships between the three people. That would require that there be extensive coverage of the events (which, as it happens, there was), and also that that coverage be reliable and truthful (which strikes me as so unlikely that I haven’t actually bothered to ascertain the details of the story as they have been presented, though I care enough about it to write all this screed). The reality is that even in a story like this, played out (thanks to Justice Tugendhat) on the front pages, the only people in a position to make meaningful moral judgements are the participants themselves and those very close to them. The person on the spot has to make their own judgement. If they are constrained to subordinate their judgement to that of the Football Association or the News of the World, then morality is left with a busted metatarsal.

OK, so why am I bringing it all back up, now that the world has happily forgotten the most recent melodrama of footballers and their molls? It is because one of the causes of the decline of private morality has now hit the headlines. This is the story of the guest house which turned away a respectable middle-aged gay couple. Like Wayne Bridge, the proprietors of the guest house made a moral judgement that is at variance with that of most of the population. In this instance the facts are not in question, only the moral rules applied. But if we take away the right of a guest-house owner to apply their own moral rules, it does not follow that they will instead apply ours. They will, like the rest of our society, retreat into jobsworthism and deem all behaviour not actually illegal to be none of their business. (I would go further – even illegal behaviour will be tolerated unless the police can effectively prevent it, since they are the professionals and as private people it is “none of our business”)
I would like to see it accepted that making moral judgements is always our business, whether we are full-backs, B&B proprietors, or bankers. We won’t all be applying the same moral rules, but that can’t be helped. The only choice is between personal morality or no morality.

I do accept that while the discrimination at the B&B might seem harmless enough in Cookham, it would be a very different matter if gays faced “not wanted” signs at every turn.

So to see the other side, take the case of Constance McMillen, who wanted to dress in a tuxedo and take her girlfriend to a school dance. In Fulton, Mississippi. The school cancelled the prom rather than let her attend, and when a private alternative was arranged, she was deceived into going to the wrong venue.

While I would say that the immediate problem is that she wanted to socialise with people who didn’t want to socialise with her, and that’s a game she can never win, I have to admit that, dances aside, life in Fulton doesn’t look very attractive for Ms McMillen. How would she get by without protection from anti-discrimination law?

I fear she might have to leave. I don’t say that lightly; I know it’s an imposition. But after all, I’m not even talking about the hypothetical case of there not being anti-discrimination law, I’m talking about the actual case, given the US law that prevented the school holding the event without her in the first place. Such laws do not effectively protect anyone, unless they want to spend their lives fighting their neighbours on behalf of the central state. There must obviously be somewhere she can go – for the sort of laws we are talking about even to be possible, the wider population must generally support the tolerance the law mandates.

The less obvious point is that, while the existence of anti-discrimination law doesn’t much help Constance McMillen, the absence of such law wouldn’t much help Suzanne Wilkinson. If Chris Grayling were to repeal the law he voted for, thereby allowing Wilkinson to advertise “No Gays” at her B&B, I strongly suspect that none of the brochures or listings she advertises in would take her money. If she wanted to take a political stand, she could, but if she wanted to carry on a quiet business in accordance with her preferences, a lack of cooperation, and the attrition of local hostility, would mean she would probably not be able to.

I sympathise with her in just the same way as I sympathise with McMillen. There isn’t, to me, one side of this which is “pro-freedom” while the other is “anti-freedom”; rather, the cases really are symmetrical – both women want to make their own choices in an arena that is in the wide grey area between the private and the public, and they both are prevented, as a result of being culturally out of step with their communities. One community has the law behind it, and the other against it, but the practical power of the law is very limited, in both cases, compared to the day-to-day weight of the community’s standards. (John Stuart Mill made quite a point of the fact that community attitudes could be a lot more restricting than actual law).

If the presence or absence of discrimination law does not make much practical difference, either to Suzanne Wilkinson or to Constance McMillen, then what is it for
? Like so many laws, it is primarily meant to send a message, to change attitudes. In the words of the song that passed for a morning hymn when I was in primary school,

And now a child
Can understand
This is the law
Of all the land
(All the land!)

A child can understand that Suzanne’s preference is not respectable, while Constance’s is, because acting on the one is illegal, and on the other legally protected, in all the land, even Mississippi.

My knee-jerk libertarian response is that that is not a legitimate reason for passing a law. But that is dogma and would need some kind of supporting argument.

If we accept that the law is there to shape attitudes rather than to simply prevent the specific things it prohibits, that puts new moral rules on a different footing from old moral rules. Nobody decided that it is now perfectly OK for a man to sleep with his friends’ girlfriends, the way that we have generally decided that it is now perfectly OK for a man to sleep with another man. However, in order to chase those who are deemed to be behind the times, the acceptability of homosexuality, and the unacceptability of discriminating against homosexuals, have been reinforced with anti-discrimination laws. The unacceptability of taking over your friends’ women bears no such official imprimatur, and so, without our really deciding that it’s unimportant, it loses standing from the contrast.

The law is meant to send the message that integrating homosexuals into mainstream activities is good, and excluding them is bad. I don’t have any objection to that message. But is that the message that is really sinking in to our consciences? Or is the real message, instead, that our private moral judgements are to be kept to ourselves, and not acted on in public? Is the message, in fact, that Wayne Bridge has no legitimate grievance against John Terry, who, unlike Suzanne Wilkinson, has done nothing illegal, and that he should therefore shake Terry’s hand and play for England?

And is the message that Margaret Moran didn’t break any rules when she claimed for her house in Southampton? Is the message that I shouldn’t give a second thought to the role I played in the crash of 2008, since I was a professional and I followed the rules? Broken families and broken banks are just things that happen sometimes – maybe the rules need to be changed. If people followed the rules, then nothing else can be done.

That’s morality of a sort, and it works after a fashion, but I’m not convinced it’s better than what went before.

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