Columnist, novelist and critic Joan Smith's book Moralities: Sex, Money and Power in the 21st Century
heralds the emergence of a new humanist morality. What we are in fact seeing, Smith argues, is "the ejection of Church and State from our private lives and the adoption instead of a secular code based on justice, equality and human rights". She argues that the change of focus from private to public morality suggested by the increasing tolerance in sexual matters has enabled us to concentrate on the more important political, economic and environmental issues that are the rightful concern of all; "The great battle of the 21st century will be between global capitalism and universal human rights". Smith is optimistic about these changes and believes that we have before us the opportunity to build a new kind of society, fully secular and opposed to all kinds of fundamentalism.
Smith is at her best when detailing the destructive foreign policies of Britain and the US--be it the overthrow of the democratic government of Chile in 1973, turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses of repressive regimes, collaborating with tyrants or simply relating the brutal facts about torture, arms trading, the environment and the increasing divide between rich and poor. The critique of global capitalism--the exploitation of vulnerable labour forces and irreplaceable natural resources--is balanced by hope for the democratising potential of the communications revolution where increased access to information and the capacity to share it with people struggling against repressive regimes has, in places, revitalised leftist politics.
As a committed humanist Smith takes it as read that "belief in a supernatural deity is not necessary to lead a moral life" and she is surely right to say that "religious convictions are a very poor predictor of how well someone is likely to behave." Where the analysis takes a dubious turn however is in her agreement with Nietzsche, that "the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad." The "religion" that Smith invokes in this book is indistinguishable from an aggressive fundamentalism and usually allied to reactionary forces while secular humanist morality is allied to progressive forces. One of the questionable implications of this rhetorical strategy is that religion is to blame for the moral shortcomings of British and US governments while a secular morality is responsible for the better performance of Scandinavian countries in dealing with child poverty for example. Optimistic in tone, well written, broad-ranging and provocative on issues like sex, marriage and monogamy, Smith's analytical weaknesses are more than compensated for by generally sound social and political history. Thus, despite the limitations of the "religion-bad, humanism-good" framework (a framework which fundamentalists simply reverse), Moralities is a welcome attempt to nudge humanist undertakings and commitments to the fore. --Larry Brown
About the Author
Joan Smith is a columnist, novelist and critic. She is the author of the highly praised MISOGYNIES and five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC. She has written columns for the Independent On Sunday and the Guardian and her reviews appear in the Financial Times, Sunday Times and Independent. She is one of the presenters of What The Papers Say and a regular contributor to BBC radio. She lives in London.