News reports in the UK these last few days have commented on the resignation of Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser. Alongside the speculation by columnists, bewilderment about the reason for Lord Geidt’s sudden departure has been expressed by none other than the Prime Minister himself. The puzzle seems to be this: that an advisor who had recently expressed commitment to remaining in the post, and had already tolerated being sidelined on previous occasions, should suddenly quit upon (in his words) being “tasked to offer a view about the Government’s intention to consider certain measures…”. Why would an advisor resign upon being asked for advice?
Lord Geidt’s post was that of “Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests”, for advising UK government ministers on their adherence to the Ministerial Code. This is a set of principles and guidelines designed to ensure the accountability of government ministers to Parliament and to the public. I’m no expert in how the arrangement is supposed to work, but it seems to stand as a rule of office accompanied by an advisor who can help ministers, including the prime minister, to abide by it. The Code goes as far as to outline situations in which ministers are expected to resign; it also clarifies that the Prime Minister is the “ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister”. This appears to leave the PM as the ultimate arbiter – and a certain ambiguity about how his or her behaviour can itself be judged.
In the light of this, I think the bewilderment over Lord Geidt’s departure arises from the collision of two different approaches to ethics. The deontological (duty-based) approach tends towards the articulation of principles, rules and laws. The consequentialist (outcome-based) approach focuses on assessing the relative goodness of the results of possible actions. Deontology is mechanical, sometimes criticised for being rigid and insensitive to the uniqueness of each situation. Consequentialism is dynamic, but requires us to know the effects of our actions in advance, and also how to assess their relative goodness. Each is surely part of wise living. Jesus’ teaching includes both commands and consequences, and his apostles’ teaching follows suit. Yet each approach becomes absurd when taken to the extreme. In particular, radical consequentialism can lead to individualistic pragmatism: I do whatever I think will work best for my objectives. I’m reminded of that critical comment in Judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).
And this contrast seems to shed light on the Lord Geidt affair. The Prime Minister’s ethics adviser was tasked with reviewing ministers’ conduct with reference to a set of rules that prohibit certain kinds of action (e.g. flouting laws) and mandate others (e.g. rectifying mistakes). Apparently he resigned after being asked to comment on the ethicality of certain actions that would breach this code. The point was, as I read it, that he felt he was asked an ethically invalid question, tantamount to “should I do the wrong thing?”. But this question revealed that the questioner was taking an entirely different approach to ethics: what should I do in seeking to achieve certain good ends? – and this with a view to certain options that would breach the Ministerial Code.
In fact, we are all used to living with elements of both frameworks. There are laws, rules and norms that we seek to follow without second thoughts; indeed, as we mature, these become second nature to us alongside our habits and reflexes. Then there are actions we take after thinking about the probable and possible consequences, and weighing up the kinds of goodness and badness that might result. Virtue ethics is a tradition that can harmonise between these two approaches. Virtue is the habit of doing good, and it also gives us greater ability to achieve the best outcomes in the decisions that require the most careful attention to likely consequences. Attention to duty ultimately begets wisdom.
Three Christian authors have helped me to think about this. First, in Gospel and Wisdom (1995), Graeme Goldsworthy shows how wisdom arises when people internalise God’s commandments so that they can make difficult decisions in the spirit of God’s law (taking the example of King Solomon’s early career). English bibles don’t use the word “virtue” much, but wisdom is perhaps a close cousin to it. Second, in Virtue Reborn (2010), Tom Wright unpacks the ancient tradition of virtue ethics in the light of God’s promise of new creation. God has created the world in such a way that lawful behaviour tends to deliver good consequences (cf. Proverbs), and although this is sometimes thwarted by evil in the present age (cf. Job), it will be all the more so in the age to come (cf. Revelation 21-22). Finally, Herman Dooyeweerd argues that God’s creation enshrines a continuum of ‘modal’ laws, from the principles we discover in maths, through what we call laws of nature, to a diversity of norms that we discover and actualise in our societal rules and laws. More scholarship is needed on a Christian general theory of ethics (I’m involved in a group working on a Reformational approach – please contact me via LinkedIn if you’re interested).
Let’s pray for Christlike virtue: in ourselves, our colleagues and our leaders – while remembering that faithfulness to promises is a habit that God desires us to share with Him. And as active citizens, let’s remember that the dividing line between democracy and autocracy is the rule of law, and the submission of rulers to it (cf. Deut 17:18-20), while the character of good governors is wisdom rooted in Christlike virtue.
Goldsworthy, G. (1995) Gospel and Wisdom: Israel’s Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life
Wright, N.T. (2010) Virtue Reborn
Image: An official exemplification of Magna Carta, the charter of rights agreed to by King John of England in 1215 that limited the absolute power of the monarch (public domain).