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Rocco Buttiglione Responds – The Moral Maze Part II

Which brings us on to possibly the most difficult moral question both in Europe and America: the moral question of abortion, where rights come into conflict.

Certainly. Listen, in the case of abortion there are plenty of reasons to believe that there are two subjects involved. If there are two subjects it’s a question of rights; if there’s only one, it’s a question of morals, but where there are two subjects, there are rights. And the right to life of the baby should be protected. I know in much of the legislation it’s not like that, but, European legislation in general, for example in Italy but also in Germany, doesn’t say the baby doesn’t have the right to life. They say that the right to life of the baby should cede to the right of the mother to health and they also say that it’s for the mother to judge this right. So abortion always remains morally wrong, the opposite of a value, but it’s not punishable because, in the case of conflict, the right of the mother prevails.

A satisfactory balance? I don’t know. I think that defending the right of the baby against the mother is correct but it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible. I believe, and this could help find common ground with people who have fought against the theme of the right to life, for a phase of European history, we can find ourselves in agreement on one point: let’s reinforce the alliance between mother and baby, because the best way to defend the rights of the baby are to strengthen the alliance between Mother and Baby.

I know the Italian situation, and it seems to me that 10-15% of abortions happen for economic motives, predominantly. A small amount of economic assistance helps the mother to form that bond with the baby. In other cases the problem is more complex, because a woman who has to have a baby needs support and society today doesn’t give it to her. She needs to have a man nearby, she needs to have her mother nearby, not just a man, but also a mother and maybe a father as well. She needs a context. Where the woman doesn’t have it, let’s try to build it. Let’s work on a politics that makes this society, that’s hostile to mothers and babies, more welcoming to mothers and babies. If we do this, I believe the instances of abortion will diminish hugely.

It’s a difficult question in Italy, because here abortion is regulated and available. In Ireland, while the law theoretically permits abortion, in practice it is unavailable. Women who want/need an abortion have to travel to England. Is it a mistake to ban abortion by law?

The problem, it seems to me, remains the same: if abortion isn’t recognised by the law, one should try to avoid a situation where a strong social domand grows for it and to avoid it you need to practice a politics that sustains the mother and reinforces the bonds between the mother and baby. This is what I’d do, because if the demand for abortion grows it’s because the alliance between mother and baby has been weakened, and that means that the society is hostile to mothers and babies.

The same is true for euthanasia, which thankfully we don’t have [in Italy] and I don’t think it should be introduced. But to not introduce euthanasia we need to create a politics for the aged, because if we leave our elderly abandoned, depressed and desperate, facing illness, the temptation towards euthanasia becomes very strong. If instead we take care of our elderly, make them feel that their life brings joy to someone, if we manage to keep them in the family, the elderly would never ask to committ suicide. The motive for turning to euthanasia is desperation. Let’s avoid making the elderly feel like invalids, let’s give them a meaning in the last phase of life.

And those who suffer from incurable diseases and have no hope of living without pain?

Well, this isn’t so important because palliative medicine has made extraordinary progress, so physical pain isn’t the primary reason for euthanasia.

Perhaps, but for example if I have an incurable disease and I have the possibility to take these drugs, to use this palliative medicine, but I choose not to, because for me this is no life, isn’t that another argument?

I don’t think it’s like that. If my grandchild comes to see me, if I have friends, if I have children prepared to take care of me, it’s an empirical fact: one doesn’t ask for euthanasia.

Let’s phrase the question differently: who controls life? For some life comes directly from God, but if one is a non-believer…

This is a philosophical argument, if you want we can talk about it because I’m, by profession, a philosopher.

Well, that’s why we’re here

Let’s take the political approach first. We know empirically that the depressed and desperate ask for euthanasia. If we can prevent them from arriving in this condition of depression or desperation, thus they won’t seek euthanasia. Let’s try to lessen the social pressure on those seeking euthanasia. This is a major task for the family, for children, who need to feel a responsibility towards their parents. Or in a society that, sadly, doesn’t have many children, that there’s a social responsibility to stay close and provide refuge.

Man never asks to be killed, unless he’s forced, where he’s subjected to violence. Certainly, if I were sick and my daughter came to me to say: ‘Dad, you’ve exhausted us, we can’t take anymore’, probably I would ask to be killed as well. We have to rediscover a humanity, which can help us recognise this fundamental truth that life is a gift from God and no-one has the right to dispose of it. But it’s not enough to affirm that theoretically. We have to create a context in which the real person can recognise it.

If we consider the advances made in technology, do our morals need also to change? An example: if up until now we’ve been preoccupied about our social and sexual conduct, and the influence that our actions have on those near to us, today, thanks to progress in technology and information, we know that our actions and choices have an impact also on people that we’ll never know. In this context is it moral to buy an SUV that consumes huge amounts of petrol? The majority of our houses in Europe and America aren’t energy efficient and waste energy and heat. Can we define this as imoral?

Things can be immoral because they’re always wrong, or because they’re wrong due to the circumstances. So it’s obvious that morality on every level redefines itself, but always partially. It never becomes correct to kill an innocent person. But lots of things can be right or wrong depending upon the context in which they’re found.

Once dying from hunger was a regular and natural fact, unavoidable. Today we’re able to do much more to prevent people from dying from hunger and often we do it, because a new moral dimension has emerged. This is true for the environment as well. There’s a beautiful passage from the encyclical Centesimus Annus that touches on the responsibility towards the environment. So we need to recognise that this brings a new ethical reflection. With a caveat. Friedrich Nietzsche, who may have been debatable as a philosopher, but was certainly no fool, wrote that often love and compassion for those far away from us is a way to hide the hate and contempt for those near to us. Often these things are a way to take away from our actual moral obligations. Nietzsche says this. I admire the mother of a family that collects offerings to help babies who are dying of hunger in Burkina Faso, but if that woman doesn’t take care of her own children, then there’s something wrong with that woman. Often you hear it said: ‘I’m fighting to save the Amazonian rainforest’. Wonderful, something with a definitely positive moral value, but thinking I can calmly betray my wife, ignore my children, cheat my friends, and have my conscience at ease because I’m fighting to save the Amazonian rain forest – It doesn’t work like that!

We asked the former Anglican Archbishop of Edinburgh, Dr. Richard Holloway, about your case last year. He commented on the blocking of your nomination: “I think it was the right thing to do, but I do not think he should have allowed himself to be nominated in the first place. There is a valid secular ethic that operates in Europe with respect to sexual and racial minorities, so any public official whose private religious convictions are opposed to these values should refrain from serving in the public realm”.

I think he’s mistaken: it’s as if to say that a European State ideology exists, that Christians and all those with firm moral convictions are second class citizens. The thesis is different: each of us has the right to his moral convictions and the right to candidate themselves for any public role, and when one candidates oneself for a public position, one should be judged politically. Is there a reason that emerges from one's convictions that impedes the carrying out of a public function? If there isn’t, why should you be blocked from taking on this public position? Probably this gentleman was ill informed. He doesn’t realise that in the European Union the Commissioners are nominated by the governments and there are only two reasons for which a Commissioner can be refused: one is incompetence, the other is for moral unworthiness. Are Christians morally unworthy for public office? Is it right to ask one to swear an oath to this secular ethic? And who defines what this ethic is? A majority vote? I think instead that it was a giant act of discrimination, fed by an ideology that’s harmful for Europe, because the European Union shouldn’t occupy itself with moral questions, they’re not part of its competence, they’re the competence of nation states.

Let’s imagine an extreme case, to explore this further: if a Muslim Minister, in favour of sharia law, was nominated as a Commissioner, would it be acceptable?

Would this Muslim minister be able to say ‘I’m in favour of non-discrimination in public life, in my private life though I believe that the sharia should be applied?’ Could he say that? If he could, then fine. It would be difficult for him to say that, because the sharia is about both rights and morals. The difference between rights and morals that I formulated earlier on is consolidated by the Catholic Church, it unfortunately isn’t in the Islamic world. Though there is a new Islam that’s trying to build this distinction. If you go to Turkey, you’ll see that the new Islamic party is trying to create the distinction between rights and morals. If it manages it, I wouldn’t have any problem accepting a Muslim Commissioner.

While we’re talking about Turkey, let’s talk also about the European Consitution, the one that was proposed without Judeo-Christian roots. I read an interview you gave in the Times in which you stated: &ldquothis is the Europe we have and we must struggle to make it better. It would be terrible to abandon it in the hands of our opponents”. In this context, who are ‘our opponents’?

Our opponents are those who would put Christians in a second class. Those who think one has to swear an oath of loyalty to secularism. But what type of secularism? That of Kant? No. The ethic of relativism? Those that think that a man with strong moral convictions can’t be democratic? Here I’d invite you to read the wonderful pages that Plato dedicates to the crisis of democracy. One who has no firm moral convictions, why should he refuse corruption? Are the rights of the citizens best preserved in the hands of those who don’t have moral convictions or in the hands of those who have moral convictions? Behind this affirmation there’s a mistaken linterpretation of Karl Raimund Popper and the idea that to have strong moral convictions is to have the temptation to impose them on others. This could be true in some cases, but not in others. Christians know that God wants to encounter every single person through their own free will. A world in which everybody did the right thing because they’re obliged to, and not because they decide to by their own free will, wouldn’t seem like paradise, it would seem like hell. And so freedom in democratic societies is preserved perfectly well if we have people with strong moral convictions, amongst which is the obligation to respect the freedom of others, rather than putting us in the hands of moral relativists.

At the same time, why is there the need to introduce these Judeo-Christian roots, that perhaps not all share, into the European Constitution? Doesn’t it exclude ‘others’?

It’s not to exclude. We don’t want to make Europe a confessional state, we want a Europe that’s faithful to itself. A youth who puts his parents in brackets will never become a fully grown adult. You have to reckon with your parents, argue, and reconcile. One has to have a living relationship with one’s roots. A man without roots will never do anything great in life, because he has no energy to draw from. We know that Europe has Judeo-Christian roots, it's a fact…

But it has other roots as well…

Well, infact I had proposed the formula 'Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman'. Who were the founders of Europe? Jesus, who was a Jew, and Socrates, who was a philosopher. The Europeans have always had a huge debate about Jesus and Socrates. Some say that Jesus wasn't the son of God, but that he was a philosopher, a great philosopher. Take Hegel: in his youthful writing The Spirit of Chrisitanity and its fate, he saw Jesus as a great philosopher but not the son of God. Others, Christians, say that Socrates wasn't just a philosopher, but a sort of pagan John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ. Both legitimate opinions. Europeans recognise Jesus, recognise Socrates, and participate in the dialogue between Jesus and Socrates. If you don't recognise Socrates and don't recognise Jesus, you can't be European.

I'm currently [interview took place in March 2006, before the Italian election in which the centre-right coalition, of which Buttiglione's party, the UDC, formed a part, lost] the minister for Cultural Artifacts in Italy. These cultural artifacts are a treasure for humanity, and in particular Europe and the West. They are made up of 80%, perhaps 90%, of churches, abbeys, paintings with religious subjects, and naturally there are references to classical mythology. If you don't recognise the spirit of the classical world, if you don't recognise the stories of the saints and the Scriptures, you can't understand them [the artifacts]. These are our roots and we have to reckon with our roots. We can reinterpret them in a non-religious way, which has been done more than once, but if we cut off these roots we're no longer ourselves.

You say to me that there are other roots than Christian: certainly! But it's unquestionable that, from a simple quantitative point of view, the roots are predominantly Christian. Also Jewish, because the Jews were in Europe before the Christians, and also because between Christians and Jews it's difficult to draw a distinct division, given that we're a Jewish heresy – in a certain sense Christianity is a Jewish heresy. We've fought, as is normal in families, but without doubt there is a harmony. And the Enlightenment? The Enlightenment is a recitation of Christian values. And in fact, where there isn't Christianity this recitiation is impossible.

The problem though is for those who are neither Christian or Jew, for example the Muslims in Europe, who can argue that there is a Muslim history also in Europe. Isn't there a danger that if we place a preamble referencing Judeo-Christian roots in the Constitution, that we'll also have to take into account this history?

Islamic roots in Europe? You can say what you like, but it's unquestionable that their bearing on our history has been infinitely less. Christianity is a cultural fact that's present also in Islam. If you read the Koran, a large part of the Koran centres on the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Will we say that Europe is whatever, or will we recognise that Europe has a history? Europe has a history, it's not open to discussion. And it's our history. We have to reckon with this history. The Judeo-Christian roots can easily be accepted by a Muslim and I don't see why it should be seen as an offence. I'll give you an example: last year during the festival of Hannukah I was in Washington and I went to dinner to a friend’s who is Jewish. I participated in the festival of Hannukah, reciting Jewish rituals, or at least I tried – my Hebrew isn't good enough! In any case, the display of Jewish symbolism didn't offend me. For me they were symbols that have a great cultural value. Why does someone coming into Europe have to feel offense at the Christian nature of our religious symbols? He/she is coming into a house that has a history.

The Moral Maze Pt I – An interview on A discussion on religion and ethics with Richard Holloway

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