Moral arguments for independence

For avoidance of doubt, this is not a pro- or anti-independence piece; it is an exploration of some proposed moral reasoning, offered because I think the reasoning is interesting generally, not just in the question of independence. If I am right, which I may not be, two specific moral arguments for independence, and one specific moral argument against independence, are shown to be weaker than they might appear; hundreds of other arguments are in play, which I do not address at all here; I do not hope or expect anyone to have their mind changed about how to vote on the 18th September by this piece; I post it only because I hope one or two people might find the explorations of moral reasoning here to be of some interest.

The Sunday Herald yesterday ran an advertisement carrying the names of thirty-four Church of Scotland ministers committed to a claim that a yes vote in the independence referendum would improve social justice in Scotland; the advertisement featured the logo of ‘Christians for Independence’ (who have a website with very little on it, and seem to exist online essentially through a Facebook group); The Herald ran an article about the announcement which contained a little more detail. Three individuals were quoted, two of them offering (what could be constructed as) moral arguments in favour of independence.

A former Moderator of the Kirk, the Rt Rev. Andrew McKellan, was quoted as follows:

The worst thing in Scotland is Trident. September 18 is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to remove the worst thing in Scotland. Speaking against nuclear weapons is good, campaigning against nuclear weapons is good, and praying for their abolition is good.

But what will change everything is voting ‘Yes’ in the referendum. Living in a Scotland free of nuclear weapons will make everything else better.

The Rev. Peter Macdonald of the Iona Community was quoted addressing the core claim of the advertisement:

I was a member of the Labour Party for 30 years until last year. Now I no longer believe a Westminster government is capable of delivering the socially just and equitable society in which I want to live. The British State no longer serves the needs of all its people. Economic policies pursued have favoured the wealthy who have grown richer and stigmatised the poor and vulnerable who are paying for the failures of the private financial sector.

Finally, the Rev. Norman Shanks was quoted with a more basic belief about independence:

I shall be voting ‘Yes’ on September 18 because I believe that, free from the constraints of Westminster, an independent Scottish government will be able to shape our nation’s future in ways that are more sensitive to the needs, hopes and aspirations of Scotland’s people.

Now, this last claim may or may not be true, but it is essentially a political not a moral claim; both someone who agreed with it – the Rev. Mr Shanks, say – and someone who disagreed with it would agree on the moral principle that ‘Government should act in ways that are responsive [better than 'sensitive', I think] to the needs, hopes, and aspirations of the governed people.’ Their disagreement would come on whether Scottish independence from the UK would tend to increase or decrease the ability of Government to do that. (I suspect that one of the reasons the economic questions seem to be weighing so heavily on people’s minds is this: it seems reasonable to assume that an independent Scottish government would be more focused on specific Scottish needs, but if it were considerably poorer, it might nonetheless be less effective in meeting those needs than a richer, less focused Westminster government.) The former two claims, however, suggest moral reasons for voting yes; if they are right, and in the absence of any other good arguments, it would be an ethical imperative to support independence in the referendum.

Are they right? My judgement is that one might be, but it relies on an undemonstrated premise if it is; the other is wrong; both judgements depend on some interesting moral reasoning which is worth exploring.

Peter Macdonald’s argument, and the main argument of the advertisement, can, I think, be constructed more formally as follows:

Y1. It is a moral good for governments to serve the needs of all governed people;

Y2. An independent Holyrood government would serve the needs of Scottish people better than the present, or any future, arrangement of a Westminster government devolving certain powers to Holyrood;

Y3. Therefore an independent Holyrood government would be a moral good.

Thus constructed, the argument appears valid, and Y1 appears plausible (a decent political ethic would interrogate the word ‘needs’  quite heavily; Macdonald appears to understand it primarily in terms of a welfare safety net; traditional political theory tends to emphasise security as the basic duty of government, rightly or wrongly). Y2, however, requires demonstration; there is a live narrative in Scotland that we are instinctively more oriented to social justice than others in the UK, but I am not sure what the actual evidence is for that narrative.

That said, even granting Y2, there is another hidden gap in the argument, which gets us into interesting ethical territory: as it is constructed, the argument regards only the people of Scotland as morally significant, not the people of the rUK – or rather, it probably smuggles in an additional premise:

Y4. Scottish independence will make no difference to the ability and willingness of the Westminster government to serve the needs of the people it continues to govern.

If Y4 is true, then Y3 follows logically from Y1 and Y2, and voting for independence is shown to be an ethical imperative. Macdonald would seem to believe Y4, in that he claims that the Westminster government is simply failing to serve the needs of its people (and presumably he believes that this will not change if Scotland becomes independent). This view seems rather extreme, however; in particular, it would seem to assume that the neo-liberal economic consensus between Blair’s Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives is now immutable, which seems to be reading rather a lot into a couple of particular blips in recent political history.

At this point, there is a moral argument on the other side sometimes advanced (particularly in Guardian comment pieces…): Scotland should vote no for the sake of not condemning the rUK to decades of neo-liberal dominance by the Conservatives (and/or UKIP, possibly). Formalised, this argument would seem to look something like this:

N1. Social justice is a moral good.

N2. Social justice is more effectively pursued in UK politics by left-leaning parties (Labour; SNP; PC) than by right-leaning parties (Conservatives; UKIP).

N3. Scottish independence would change the political reality of Westminster and the rUK such that there would be right-leaning dominance for the foreseeable future – at least for several decades.

N4. Scottish independence, therefore, would deny a moral good to the people of the rUK.

N5. Voting for independence is, therefore, an immoral act.

Again, granted each premise, N5 does seem to follow from N1-N4, and so this is a valid argument which potentially establishes an ethical imperative to vote against independence. N1 I take to be obvious; N2 is seriously contestable, of course, but is certainly assumed by many; we might recast the conclusion as ‘if one believes that social justice is more effectively pursued in UK politics by left-leaning parties  than by right-leaning parties, then it is immoral to vote for independence’, which anyway seems to be the form of the argument that is live in debate. N3 is a claim about political realities that seems plausible on psephological data; N4 is the most interesting premise, ethically speaking: it makes the opposite error to the gap I noted in Y2 above: it either constructs only the people of rUK, and not the people of Scotland, as ethically significant, or it smuggles in an assumption – this time surely implausible – that the promotion of social justice in Scotland will necessarily be unaffected by the referendum decision.

Let me assume, for a moment, that the various contestable claims in both arguments are valid, if only because that is where the ethics gets interesting. The N argument wins if we are classically utilitarian: there are many more people in the rUK than in Scotland, and so pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number would lead us to privilege the good done to people in rUK over similar good done to people in Scotland. I suppose most people would reject this conclusion, however, as being simply counter-intuitive; most of us would feel that in a referendum on Scottish independence there is a proper privileging of the concerns of Scottish people over those of other people. Working this through in terms of good moral reasoning is fairly hard, however.

We might claim that in political/constitutional ethics, we properly give greater ethical significance to the people directly affected by the proposed change, or living within the particular nation-state in question. Claims like these seem to me to be plausible, but they do not help us here: people in the rUK are directly affected by the proposed change, and also live within the same current nation-state. There is probably a way of specifying the proper moral evaluations we should make in order to satisfy our intuitive sense that people voting in the Scottish Referendum should be more concerned about social deprivation in inner-city Glasgow and rural Sutherland than in inner-city Birmingham and rural Powys; it is not a trivial piece of moral reasoning, however, and the question of relative weight seems to me to be genuinely live.

What of the second argument? This comes from Andrew McKellen. Again, let me attempt to formalise it:

Y5. The possession of nuclear weapons is a grave moral evil.

Y6. A vote for Scottish independence would remove nuclear weapons from Scotland, so that we no longer possessed them.

Y7. Therefore, a vote for Scottish independence would eradicate a grave moral evil.

Y8. There is, therefore, a strong ethical imperative to vote for independence.

Again, I think the argument is formally valid; Y8 follows from Y7, and Y7 follows from Y5 and Y6. I have a slight problem with Y5, which becomes ethically significant down the road; my problem is that the grave evil is not the possession of weapons per se, but the intent/willingness to use them. On the one hand, suppose there was one Trident missile retained in the National Museum of Scotland; would that be a grave moral evil? I think not – a health and safety nightmare, yes, but not a grave moral evil. On the other, suppose what was possessed at Coulport was not the Trident warheads, as at present, but raw materials and industrial plant that allowed warheads to be quickly assembled if needed; would that remove the grave moral evil? It seems clear to me that the answer is no. Therefore we need to replace Y5 with something like:

Y5′. Maintaining the intention and capability to use nuclear weapons is a grave moral evil.

For the argument to remain valid, Y6 would then need to become:

Y6′. A vote for Scottish independence would ensure that Scotland no longer had intention and capability to use nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, under current plans, Y6′ looks false; an independent Scotland would immediately join NATO, according to repeated affirmations in the White Paper, Scotland’s Future (see pp.14, 26, 29, 206, 215, 227, 234, …); NATO’s present Strategic Concept (2010) commits it to maintaining the collective capability and willingness to use nuclear weapons unless and until complete multilateral disarmament is achieved; this commitment does not seem likely to change significantly under future Strategic Concepts. An independent Scotland would remain willing to be responsible for the use of nuclear weapons; refusing to host them might improve the health and safety issue, but does not materially change the ethical situation from what it is now. McKellen claimed that ‘living in a Scotland free of nuclear weapons will make everything else better’; I disagree. Living in a Scotland that is opposed to the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance is what would make our culture morally better; unfortunately, we are not being offered that choice.


  1. Ken Cochran
    Aug 25, 2014

    Well reasoned ! Social Justice is in the eye of the beholder. Scotland currently sends a significant leftward leaning cohort to Westminster without which the rUK would significantly lurch rightward. You, in a more formal sequence of logic, question whether obtaining ‘social justice’ for 10% of the current UK population and allowing the rUK to establish its own idea of ‘social justice’ without Scottish influence for a population 10 times bigger is a good moral argument. It might be if the rUK then becomes happier with its idea of ‘social justice’ without Scotland’s influence.

    • Tim McKinney
      Aug 26, 2014

      The right to govern oneself is a God given moral right.

      • steve
        Aug 26, 2014

        Maybe, but we’re not being offered that choice. The choice is between being governed by elected representatives in Westminster and being governed by elected representatives in Holyrood…

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