It is seventy years since George Orwell lamented the decline of the English murder, perhaps as a metonym for national decline in many other fields of human endeavour. As someone who has, over the years, had quite a lot to do with the English murder, both as expert witness and newspaper commentator, I am inclined to agree with him. With the abandonment of respectability as a desirable goal in life, murders no longer take place where they are unexpected or unlooked for. They are now merely brutal or stupid: no English murderer would play “Nearer My God to Thee” on the harmonium having just drowned in the bath his recent bigamously-married bride, as did George Joseph Smith.
The superior quality of old murders over new, however, may be an instance of the numerator-denominator problem. Time weeds out the memory of ordinary murders, as it weeds out that of ordinary books, leaving only the classics behind. From this process, it is easy to deduce a superior general quality that in fact never existed and is purely artefactual or illusory.
Be that all as it may, I still greatly enjoy accounts from what Orwell called the golden age of English murder. In fact they remain, as ever, a source of prurient pleasure, but also a source of reflection on the human condition. For example, I was recently reading (again) about the case of Herbert Patrick Mahon, responsible in 1924 for what was once universally in England known as the Bungalow Murder.
Mahon was a handsome and charming married man, a successful salesman on a good salary, a swindler and a Lothario, who seduced a woman called Emily Beilby Kaye with a view to obtaining her savings. She, however, took him seriously and, not knowing that he was already married, demanded that he marry her when she became pregnant by him. He took her for a romantic weekend to a bungalow near Eastbourne, supposedly just before eloping with her to South Africa, and killed and dismembered her. Before he could fully dispose of the body, he invited another woman, Ethel Duncan, down to the bungalow for another romantic tryst. She lived to tell the tale, including at Mahon’s trial; but as she arrived and departed that trial, the crowd that gathered outside the court, instead of being sympathetic to someone who had, after all, narrowly missed being murdered and mutilated by a monster, hissed and insulted her. Among the names she was called were “Jezebel” and “harlot”, appellations that suggest that those who hurled insults outside courts were in those days at least better educated than are the similarly-inclined today.
Poor Ethel Duncan! She was regarded as a Jezebel ex officio, as it were, for even if, as was likely, she had been unaware that Mahon was a married man, she was obviously prepared to have extra-marital sexual relations with him, and that was enough to label her as a scarlet woman. Could anyone imagine such indignation nowadays attaching to so minor infraction of the moral code—even if it were regarded as an infraction of the moral code at all, that is? From the point of view of distance from our own moral sensibility, 1924 might as well have been 4000 BC and Britain the Trobriand Islands.
And that, by natural extension, brings us to the difficult problem of moral relativism. I leave aside the question of the sincerity of those who shouted “Jezebel!” at Ethel Duncan: the question of whether, at some level in their minds, those who screamed this abuse at her did not know that their outrage was fake or at the very least exaggerated, more to exhibit their own rectitude in public and enjoy the pleasures of indignation than to do good or prevent harm. This is a perennial problem of public expressions of moral outrage, to whatever it attaches. But the undoubted fact remains that the past is another country where they do things differently. We are as appalled by the censoriousness of our ancestors as they would be by our licentiousness.
Of course, we would claim moral superiority over our ancestors on the grounds that we are less hypocritical than they; but I am not sure that this is so. In the first place, there are far worse things than hypocrisy; for if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue, at least it acknowledges that there is a difference between them. The only way to eliminate hypocrisy from the human repertoire is to have no standards at all, since practically no one, except for saints, lives up to the standards he proclaims; besides which, a society without hypocrisy, in which all were saints, would be decidedly uninteresting, combining discomfort with dullness. But in any case, it is not certain that licentiousness is without hypocrisy of its own: a man may be in theory relaxed about sexual conduct, but devastated by his consort’s infidelity. The promiscuous jealous murderer is far from unknown, and is a figure to make Mr Pecksniff seem like a model of probity.
The arguments in favour of moral relativism are not negligible, however much we may dislike them or wish that they were weaker. It is undoubtedly true that other peoples at other times have had very different moral convictions from our own; it is difficult for us to recapture or feel Pythagoras’s moral enthusiasm for the avoidance of eating beans (though a physiological explanation of it, the high prevalence on an inborn error of metabolism in Mediterranean populations, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, might lessen our puzzlement). Indeed, sometimes we have difficulty in recapturing the moral enthusiasms of our own earlier selves, let along those of other people. One of the horrors of Islamic fundamentalism is surely that it dreams of reinstituting by force a moral code that, however suitable or enlightened it might once have been in the conditions in which it arose, if it ever was, is obviously and grossly inappropriate to modern conditions.
Once this is admitted, what defence—I mean philosophical defence—have we against total relativism? Do we have uncritically to accept that nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so? In one sense, this is obviously true, for if there were no thinking beings in the universe, everything would be morally neutral. But this, I imagine, is not what Hamlet meant: he meant that goodness or badness do not inhere in actions themselves, but in our reactions to them, and a good sophist (I mean one who is dialectically adept) can justify anything and its opposite.
I am not going to unravel a problem that has puzzled philosophers since the beginning of philosophy. Perhaps buried somewhere deep in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society there lies the one true solution to the puzzle, but if so, wide publicity has not been given to it, or not wide enough for me to have heard of it. One of the reasons that our moral disputes are often so heated is that we are all unsure of the grounds—the metaphysical grounds, that is—for our opinions. I will observe only this, that while I have met many people who in theory are moral relativists, I have never met any who are moral relativists in the sense that they do not believe their own moral judgments to be indubitable. They argue as passionately for their own judgments as any person who believes that the moral code is written in tablets of stone, as indubitable as the Koran at its outset claims to be.
Against moral relativism may perhaps be set the fact that there has probably never been a group of people, a culture or a civilisation, which, if apprised of the conduct of Herbert Patrick Mahon towards Emily Beilby Kaye, would say that it was anything other than appalling, or that it was in fact quite justified by her conduct. Would the latter be argued even in the Islamic State? Even there, I suspect, she would be dismemberable, morally-speaking, only after some kind of trial in which a code of dismemberment was applied by a recognised authority.
I have wandered some distance from Orwell’s golden age of English murder. Perhaps part of that age’s attraction is that it so easily allows one to combine the pleasures of prurience with those of philosophy, of illicit thrill with intellectual exploration. Indeed, if there were not evil in the world, what would there be for intellectuals to read or write about? Functionalist social anthropologists thought that every social phenomenon served a function. No doubt there is a circularity, or a nondisconfirmability, to this argument: but as an intellectual, I cannot help thinking that a perfect world would be very imperfect.