Jeremy Clarkson at the Memorial Hall in Chadlington
On Radio

Lost in the Moral Maze

What is kindness, and is it the highest of virtues?

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“We should be kind, while there is still time”. The words belong to Philip Larkin, moved to tears of remorse after he caught a hedgehog in the blades of his mower. But what is kindness, and is it the highest of virtues? Good questions, one might have thought, for Radio 4’s long-running debate The Moral Maze.

The answers from the four guests will have perplexed, and possibly angered, many listeners. Surely it is not too difficult to agree that one should try to avoid offending others, though it is not an absolute rule. Newspaper columnists are frequently unkind about people in high places, but their readers expect no less. That’s one reason people buy papers. They want salt in their porridge.

Almost every edition develops into an ideological tug of war with the rope gripped most tightly by zealots

It was one of those columns, by Jeremy Clarkson, which served as the McGuffin for the discussion. “Jezza” (as we didn’t call him at school) has apologised for giving Meghan Markle, the semi-royal sponger, a frightful shoeing in the Sun, but was his offence greater than that of the Guardian columnist, now at the Sunday Times, who invited readers to mock “little icky Christianity”, for which no apology was considered necessary?

The Moral Maze has good intentions, and with Michael Buerk at the helm it has one of the sanest voices in an embittered world. Yet almost every edition develops into an ideological tug of war with the rope gripped most tightly by zealots who, in their eagerness to conquer the peaks of moral purity, refuse to cede an inch.

Two guests invited to talk about kindness were prime examples of a certain kind of “activist”. A lady from the Hacked Off campaign should remain anonymous. She is young and, on the evidence, not very articulate. She kept parroting “that’s not up for you and me”, an original if not meaningful use of the preposition.

The other lady we should name. Edith Hall, a professor at the University of Durham, is the sort of person attracted to these discussions like wasps to jam. Her first touch was to rebuke Buerk for interrupting (“neither positive regard nor civility”) when the host was merely trying to retain order, and the rest of her performance was coated in honeyed layers of self-regard.

Ash Sarkar. Credit: Matthew Chattle/Alamy Live News

She was “suspicious” of talk of kindness, because it was “always class-based”; the deference of upper class men to those down the social order. She preferred terms like “positive regard” and “civility”, though as she talked down to the panellists it wasn’t easy to stifle a chuckle.

The lady is a classicist, so there was plenty of Aristotle and the theory of language. It’s food and drink to academics, and Professor Hall did not stint on the mead, which she swilled by the quart. Meanwhile the discussion slipped further towards an etymological horizon where professors bask in the moonglow, waited on by students freshly converted.

However hard Melanie Phillips tried to suggest that kindness was not a political act, but a human quality rooted in sympathy, the more vigorously Prof Hall clung to ancient Greece. To such people, of sharp if narrow intelligence, abstractions always trump human traits like kindness. What fun they must have in the land of the prince bishops.

She found a soulmate in panellist Ash Sarkar. Buerk likes to describe her as “a libertarian Marxist” (think “non-scoring centre forward”), and she did her best to live down to that portrait. She too wasn’t much interested in kindness. Far too bourgeois. For her it was a life and death struggle with injustice, police violence, imported racial politics and war. Like Mr Toad, Che Guevara came out for a spin, as he tends to in Miss Sarkar’s world. To use one of her favourite words, he’s “cool”.

Now he comes across as a man weary of life, who struggles to express himself clearly in fully-formed sentences

Since The Moral Maze set off in 1990, the star panellists have included David Starkey and Hugo Gryn; an historian and a Rabbi, each equipped with a fully developed intellectual apparatus. Ash Sarkar, to put it politely, does not fill those boots. As soldiers used to say, she’s as dim as a Toc H lamp. She brings nothing to the show, and ought to be sent packing.

Giles Fraser should also be looking over his shoulder. Buerk, ever generous, calls him “a priest and polemicist”, the second part of which may once have been true. Now he comes across as a man weary of life, who struggles to express himself clearly in fully-formed sentences. He sounds defeated, and it is rather sad.

Tim Stanley is bright, if self-obsessed, and prepared to take seriously what the guests say, however profoundly he may disagree. But the most reliable panellist remains Phillips, who has the strongest journalistic instincts, and adds a touch of asperity. Michael Portillo, alas, seems to have been dropped. It would serve the show well to bring him back, and introduce an intelligent voice from the left, like Philip Collins. There is certainly room for improvement.

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