Why Harper is rattling liberals

The Prime Minister's ethics are forged in his faith; liberal ethics are rooted in moral complexity

EDMONTON, AB, Jan 23, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper is often accused of political opportunism his full-throated support for the Jewish state – bordering on the devotional – is unconditional. He holds his opinions deeply and sincerely, despite the fact that it might cost him politically in the next election.

What is certain is that Harper’s views are rattling liberal-minded people around the world. He is indirectly branding them as fair weather friends of Israel, morally relative when they should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a democratic ally.

But is that really true? Where should the true friends of Israel stand on the great issues of the day?

Clearly it depends on your ethics.

Harper’s ethics were forged in the moral certainty of his faith. He is the most evangelical prime minister in Canada since Diefenbaker. Unlike most Canadians, he is a consistent churchgoer; he and his family are regular attendees of the East Gate Alliance church in Ottawa. His faith places a strong emphasis on the spiritual authority of the Bible.

And the Bible is clear on the subject of Israel: God has a special relationship with both the Land and people of Israel. Indeed, the word “Israel” is mentioned thousands of times in the Bible; it is second only to the word ‘God’.

Strict evangelicals believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people as an unending covenant to Abraham and his descendants. Moreover, they believe that this covenant is alive and applies today.

There is certainly no moral relativism in Harper’s position which, unfortunately, creates a very sticky situation for liberals whose entire ethical framework is much different.

Since the Second World War liberals of all sorts have tended to be strong supporters of a Jewish state. But their position vis-à-vis the Bible and God’s covenant is much less clear-cut for this position must be balanced by a respect for the rights of others, particularly the Palestinians.

Why is this so?

Well, ever since the Enlightenment, modern liberal ethics have been complicated by the demands placed upon them by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant was one of the philosophers who introduced the idea that morality did not come only from the Bible. For Kant, morality emerged from within; from the concepts and categorical structures of human existence. Kant’s most important contribution to modern liberal ethics was embodied in his idea of the categorical imperative: “Act only on the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

The categorical imperative meant that, for liberals, an act could only be considered just and morally good if the principle-at-issue applied equally to everyone.

In practice, universalizing an ethic in the manner suggested by Kant is almost impossible. As a result, a Kantian ‘short cut’ emerged to test liberal ethics. It operates something like this: if the parties in an action were reversed, would the action still be considered morally good? If it passed this Kantian test, then the action is ethical. If not, the action might still be practical but it would not be considered ethical.

For example, in the 19th century many people supported African slavery in the United States on practical grounds and religious leaders of the day gave moral support to this position by reference to Biblical authority. However, this Biblical authority did not pass ethical scrutiny with liberals because, clearly, slavery would not have been considered morally acceptable if the ethnic positions were reversed.

The great ethical divide between faith and reason has been bubbling away beneath the surface of Western life for centuries.

Bottom line, Kant’s categorical imperative makes the Middle Eastern situation more complicated for liberal friends of Israel than it does for Harper.

For if the present situation was reversed and it was the Jewish people who were being displaced from their homes and businesses by a Palestinian majority, liberals would not accept this as just. For liberals, Harper’s uncritical position is biased, and therefore not ethical and probably damaging to the longer-term stability of the State of Israel and the region.

The only certainty for liberals in the complexity of the Middle East is the ethical ‘North Star’ of human rights. And it is only the universal acceptance of these rights as the ultimate protector of both Israelis and Palestinians that liberals believe will create a morally just solution; the universal foundations for a lasting peace.

Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and co-founder of the Genuine Wealth Institute, an Alberta-based think tank dedicated to helping businesses, communities and nations built communities of wellbeing. Robert is the author of The Creative Revolution, an historical guide to the future of capitalism.

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