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Islamic State are clear about their values. Are we clear about ours?

16 November 2015

1:38 PM

16 November 2015

1:38 PM

Here we go again. The same mantras are dusted down: we must be more assertive of our values, less tolerant of extremism, we must challenge Muslim separatism more effectively, demand better integration.

And in my opinion the same root question is somewhat evaded: what exactly are our values? It is easier to assume that this is obvious – and it gives an impression of toughness. For example Boris Johnson today: ‘This is a fight we will one day inevitably win – because in the end our view of the human spirit is vastly more attractive and realistic than theirs.’


But what is our view of the human spirit? What is our ideology, our creed? There are various words we can reach for – freedom, democracy, liberalism, maybe enlightenment. Fine words, of course, but there’s also an air of vagueness. I find it odd that there have not been more attempts to define our values in the years since 9/11. Very few intellectuals seem to ask the most basic questions.

I think we must be clearer that the ideology of the West is rooted in a moral ideal, in the belief that all human lives matter, and should be allowed to flourish. This is best described as ‘humanism’. This of course entails the freedom to express one’s core beliefs, which might or might not be religious, so the ideal of secularism is crucial. So I see ‘secular humanism’ as the necessary pithy summary of our values.

We must celebrate this ideal more clearly and more proudly. And, I think, we must be more honest about its intensely ambitious moral content. To call it ‘realistic’, as Boris does, is not quite right. It is primarily idealistic, as it is rooted in an ideal of universal human flourishing.

I think we need to talk about this more, rather than imply that we all know what our values are. As there seems no real forum for such naïve self-analysis, I intend to pursue the issue rather doggedly in my contributions to this website from now on.


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