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All rights and no reason: English High Court judges on parade in Westminster (Jeff Moore/Emics Entertainment)

What is the basic moral structure of our lives in the 21st century? Back in the days of the first Elizabeth, we might have said "godliness". By contrast, Victorian moralists would have invoked "respectability" as the umbrella term covering most of the virtues. To be worthy of respect was certainly in the 19th century a powerful drive, and as Christie Davies has recently been reminding us, it went with low rates of crime and very little anti-social behaviour. In the 1960s a kind of anti-moral umbrella term — "liberation" — became all the rage, and it does continue to be confused with the idea of freedom. But the liberated are a good deal less law-abiding and orderly than the respectable, or the godly, used to be. Liberation is very different from freedom.

The point of this question is that some historical periods have a more or less coherent moral structure, while in others, moral sentiments are fragmented. Many people certainly believe that ours is a fragmented age, a view that in its extreme form takes moral principle to be merely a matter of taste, depending on things called "values." All we have, it might seem, is a set of "moralities" — Bohemian, Christian, secularist, professional, sexual, professional, etc. The reality is certainly confusing enough to justify such a judgment, but it wildly simplifies the actual confusions of our time. We expend considerable moral energy on projects for helping the poor abroad, while in everyday life there is evident tension between sexual laissez faire and politically correct authoritarianism. A whole class of legal and corporate officials has been set up to enforce these moral positions in law. And what these considerations make very clear is that moral sentiments in our time are closely entangled with political passions. This was certainly not true of the Victorians.

There is one obvious candidate for the role of an overarching system of morality in our time: namely rights, as authoritatively enshrined in universal declarations presenting, as an abstract code, the way we in European states have learned to live. Traditionalists  ask what has happened to duties as the correlates of rights, but that may be to miss the point. Declarations of rights were basically intended to strengthen the position of those working for freedom in countries where rights were thin on the ground. Cynics might think that adherence to such uplifting declarations was merely a bit of harmless posturing, but the Soviet Union was unsettled by even a formal recognition of rights, and the current turmoil in Arab lands illustrates the potency of Western notions of freedom and democracy. Rights have power. But there are two problems with rights, one logical, one practical.

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