The above marks a profound loss of confidence in scientific rationalism and in the associated moral speculation that dates from the Enlightenment. It points squarely to the normative basis of such speculation. Consequently, it also challenges the application of that speculation—particularly economic speculation—to public policy problems. Economic speculation in its Newtonian guise is simply one way, among many possible ways, of speaking about the social world. It heralds a search for alternative ways of talking about, and trying to make sense of, the world and its bewildering confusions—as a source of existential comfort and as a guide to actions. In the face of this confusion, however—and our inability to firmly ground our speculations—public policy formulation has to be seen as an experiment in which the criteria for success and the evaluative vocabulary are cultural artefacts—inventions of the human heart and mind.

Speaking within the Protestant tradition, leading American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) shared this loss of confidence. For him, there was simply not enough intelligence to conduct the intricate affairs of a complex civilisation, though he believed initially that intelligent analysis and experimentation could help overcome social evils. He believed also in the incommensurability of individual and group morality. Like James, Niebuhr was convinced of the indeterminateness of the universe and the relativity of all human knowledge:

God, though revealed, remains veiled; His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways. The worship of such a God leads to contrition; not merely to a contrite recognition of the conscious sins of pride and arrogance which the human spirit commits, but to a sense of guilt for the inevitable and inescapable pride involved in every human enterprise.[20]

For Niebuhr, as for a majority of the population including me, God exists, and consequently, absolute truth exists. This provides an absolute basis for human hope and morality. God’s transcendence, however, places that truth beyond our reach. Consequently, God’s absolute truth can never become fully our truth, nor can we know how much we possess. This should come as no surprise, as Sidharta Gautama (the Buddha) warned us 2500 years ago to stop speculating about absolutes. The human search for knowledge is necessarily tainted by self-interest. Consequently, the truth we know is necessarily personal and limited. Nevertheless, we continually proclaim our personal truths as universal in the vain belief or hope that we are masters of the universe. The Enlightenment merely succeeded in displacing the Christian vision of God—as creator, redeemer and sanctifier—from the centre of the universe. It replaced this vision first with a more limited and non-Christian, anthropomorphic, masculine vision of God as a rule-maker, and then, in turn, with man within nature and, for some true believers, with humans as the servants of ‘THE MARKET’. Surely in this age, the idea of men, let alone their artefacts—markets—being at the centre of the universe is bizarre. Furthermore, the idea of nature as the ultimate ground of all being is not much of a god around which to build a life or a moral discourse.

The Enlightenment’s assumption that the universe is rational and benevolent is fundamentally wrong. The price of freedom, of change and of progress is finitude, failure, uncertainty, decay and sin. At best, the universe provides a partially stable background against which we make our play and narrate our stories, including the stories of our own lives. All too often, the social worlds in which we create our knowledge narratives are dominated by power, selfishness and passion. In this climate, the scientific tradition and economic thinking all too often become the tools of the dominant social group. ‘No society and no social group can ever escape the vicious circle of the sin which aggravates human insecurity in seeking to overcome it. All societies and individuals must therefore remain under the judgment and the doom of God.’[21]

Consequently, Niebuhr rejected faith in progress, pointing out that necessarily selfish groups dominated societies and that scientific knowledge, popular education or universal Christian love could not end group conflict.[22] Belief in human progress and scientific achievement were the height of sinful pride and led unavoidably to disastrous failure. The greatest intelligence and the noblest ideals inevitably led humans to set themselves above God’s teachings. Only a profound humility before a transcendent God—which acknowledged our finiteness—and limited vision could help alleviate much social oppression. Of course, this critique of human dogmatism extends to dogmatic absolutist claims within Christianity itself. Consequently, for Niebuhr:

[T]here is no historical reality, whether it be the church or government, whether it be the reason of wise men or specialists, which is not involved in the flux and relativity of human existence; which is not subject to error and sin, and which is not tempted to exaggerate its errors and sins when they are made immune to criticism.[23]

If the ‘Children of Light’ were ever to establish a humane and stable society, they had to abandon excessive faith in the goodness and rationality of humanity and recognise human sinfulness and self-interest. This vision was attainable only on the basis of revelation. I would not limit that revelation to the canonical texts of the Bible but would extend it to that revelation of the divine mystery in other religious traditions . This view does not lead to any reinstatement of natural law, certainly not to any assertion of absolute human rights, let alone absolute property, or to the reinstatement of some form of Aristotelian virtue, however much the moral vocabulary derived from those traditions might continue to figure in social and political discourse. Rather, it leads to a humble journeying, an uncertain search for the right and the good. It is always uncertain; it is always a groping. Dogmatism has therefore to be forsworn as we can see only a partial and distorted vision of the kingdom. The kingdom that can be grasped is not the kingdom. Reality always falls short of the kingdom, though it is an image of the kingdom that inspires a striving for newness of life.

In summary, Niebuhr added to pragmatic and relativistic social theory a profound appreciation of human evil, an appreciation founded in his Christian tradition, but absent from Enlightenment optimism. This optimism was, however, an illusion. Marxism was distinguished from liberalism only by sharper and more specific schemes for identifying and providing an elite with power. This critique of Marxism’s particular claim to certain knowledge of the end towards which history must move—and its associated willingness to sacrifice every value to that end—applies with equal force to alternative pretensions about the end of history and to any absolutist faith in markets and freedom of contract. Importantly, for Daniel Boorstin:

To say that a society can or ought to be ‘unified’ by some total philosophical system—whether a Summa Theologica, a Calvin’s Institute or Marx’s Capital—is to commit oneself to an aristocratic concept of knowledge: let the elite know the theories and values of the society: they will know and preserve for all the rest.[24]

Such elitism was the very reverse of the intellectual humility that Niebuhr called for. Of course, the acceptance of a relativist position can all too easily lead to an acceptance of the political and economic arrangements of the current dominant state—the United States—as the norm.[25] The particular danger for us is that the American anti-statist tradition that dates from Locke—and which was encouraged by secularised American Calvinism and by Spencer’s social Darwinism—will become the moral standard by which we should judge our institutional and organisational arrangements.

Consistent with Niebuhr, Stackhouse[26] advances a biblical covenantal view of justice, supplementing the Catholic model of ‘subsidiary’ with ‘fairness as equity’. As we saw in Chapter 4, the idea of covenant comes from the social and religious history of the ancient Middle East, where divine authority was invoked as a witness to morally binding agreements. The Old Testament related how this ‘“basic”, “mutual”, oath-bound creation of responsible relationships’[27] was recognised to be a close analogy of the way in which God related to humanity and a model of how we should relate to each other under God. It involves also a revelation of the nature of a just, merciful God who engages directly in the formation and sustainment of righteous living in community. This justice of a covenanting God is pre-given in that it is constituted by a standard and ultimate end that humans do not make; it is unfinished in that the standards of right and wrong, good and evil are neither fully recognised nor completely fulfilled in this life. Thus, the deontological right and the teleological good must be fulfilled and joined for full justice. Stackhouse recognises, however, as does moral philosophy more generally, that a tension exists between these two views of justice, which has not been reconciled.

As was shown in Chapter 4, the development of the idea of a social contract was influenced by those Old Testament covenant ideas. A fuller understanding of the implication of those ideas was, however, lost in Locke’s appeal to the natural-law rights and in deism’s limited vision of God as a rule giver. This covenant view leads directly to the rights of humans to develop religious, educational, social and political organisations to exemplify their best vision of the ultimate good and how it is related to what is right. It recognises, however, that an individualistic understanding of human rights provides only a partial understanding, for it fails to recognise that humans are inevitably relational beings, called to live in groups and to assume associated responsibilities. Freedom and rights are best used to fulfil responsibilities in interpersonal and civil life. Consequently, Stackhouse sees contract theories among those who see no need for a higher moral law or greater purpose—and for whom morality consists of whatever is agreed—as a degeneration of the covenantal idea and the greatest temptation in the West.[28] Rather, ‘the full actualisation of the right and the good in our inner lives, in our human relationships, and in the matrices of social life cannot be attained on humanistic grounds alone but…a divine initiative must be taken’.[29]

The social-contract tradition involved a progressive impoverishment of the covenant idea with the progressive secularisation and impoverishment of the natural-law ideas that underpinned Locke’s account and resulted, inter alia, in the reification of the concept of freedom of contract. It is, however, degeneration implicit in Locke’s appeal to a natural law assessable by human reason. It was only late in the day that we came to realise that the appeal to nature involved in that process of secularisation effectively removed the moral content of the tradition. In contrast, Stackhouse’s covenantal account of justice would lead directly to a relational view of the law of contract such as that advanced by Macneil—a view concerned far more with the substantive outcomes of contractual relationships, which recognised a substantial duty of care on the part of the parties towards each other.

Of course, none of this means that I believe we should accept direction on particular moral issues from self-righteous, authoritarian churchmen—in fancy dress or otherwise—who claim to mediate between God and the rest of us. It should be clear also that I have little sympathy for Calvinism with its claims of divine election—in either its traditional or secular forms. For non-believers also there should be little attraction in the residual transcendentalism in Western epistemology, moral and political philosophy and science. There could also be an understandable reluctance to accept any moral guidance from the above overtly theological traditions, particularly when they are in conflict. Nevertheless, at a practical level, non-believers might be prepared to see them as particular distillations of human experience and as legitimate contributions to moral and political discourse and to the application of the practical reasoning and wisdom that Aristotle advocated. Overt theological insights are not the only or necessarily the most important source of moral insights in contemporary society. We are the inheritors of a long political and moral history and we would be unwise to disregard that history and its lessons, particularly in respect of our willingness to exploit our compatriots in the name of high principle. In addition, we are the beneficiaries of an extraordinarily active popular discourse on the human condition—all of which can contribute to our moral understanding. In that sense, religious authorities are not the only, or necessarily the most important, source of revelation in contemporary secular society. After all, Bob Geldof and Bono are among the great prophets of our age, challenging individual and communal indifference to Third-World suffering, particularly in Africa.