DAY of 1 May 2010
A Farce of Fairness
by Ted Honderich
The other night the leaders of the main parties in the British election, Brown, Cameron and Clegg, debated for the third time on television. This was 90 minutes of discussion probably at a better level than in any such thing anywhere else in the world. Was it also an exemplification of what is wrong with hierarchic democracy? Of the level of intelligence possible to a political class, or allowed to and by it?
Each of of these leaders declared themselves to be for what is fair, using the very word or committing themselves to the idea by other means. They cried up their particular party's commitment or intention or record of fairness with respect to the economic crisis, or taxes, or bankers, or health, or immigration, or education, or children, or old people, or anything else. Each of Brown, Cameron and Clegg would do or had done this or that particular fair thing. They would take this or that particular fair step after the election.
What was missing was any explicit general summary or principle or encompassing articulation of fairness that would enable or help the people watching to judge what consistency there is in any of these parties -- and what the total of their stuff comes to, what the true sum of their words and intentions is, what the bottom line is in the only sense that matters.
From Cameron, there was piety about some of us getting what we deserve, from Clegg the old and curious claim to liberalism's sole ownership of reasonableness, and I suppose from Brown some bumble left over from Utilitarianism. Cameron did not go so far as to distinguish what is deserved from what is right, and so his fairness collapsed into the proposition that what is right is right. Clegg spent no moment in saying by what argued means he would judge it right to do this about illegal immigrants rather than that. Brown saw no need to explain his fairness except by presenting himself as the Atlas of a world falling around our ears.
This was a farce of fairness.
All three of them should declare their attitude to, say, the principle that what we must do is secure the half dozen great human goods for those who lack them, by any means that will actually serve that end. They must say why that is not true fairness, say what their alternative is, give up the farce of serving by evasion a convention they share, a convention as to possibility and impossibility, a convention whose reality is self-interest.
I will vote for Clegg's Liberal Democrats, as in my view the true Left should in any constituency where the Conservatives cannot win. I will also remember the overwhelmingly greater necessity of the means of mass civil disobedience in support of the Principle of Humanity.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 17 April 2010 by Ted Honderich --
If today were the day of the general election, all of the Left in Britain should vote Social Democrat. That is a remarkable view. But the decades of conservatism in British politics since 1979, including that vicious political tradition's ascendancy in the New Labour Party, make the view reasonable. What is the Left? It is the tradition of humanity, the one whose concern is getting and keeping people out of bad lives. Do you ask to what extent the Left still exists? It persists to the extent, a great extent, to which in a degraded society there persists moral intelligence -- a grip on the desires of human nature and the logic of ordinary intelligence. Why should all the Left vote for the party of Mr Clegg today? The particular reason is that the party has committed itself to something clear, right and strong in our economic situation: increasing public income by £4.8 billion by reducing what is called tax avoidance. This simple action, against what is better called social and legal criminality, is an action without a counterpart in the commitments so far of the two conservative parties. I myself have until today had little tolerance for liberalism, either for its beginning with John Stuart Mill or its nature as conveyed in a piece of journalism. Liberalism has been a tradition separate from that of conservatism, in that the latter is self-interest without a principle of right and wrong to defend that self-interest. But liberalism has been and remains a mess, some decency but restrained by convention and without much resolution. Some messes are better than other things. The mess of the Liberal Democrats, with one resolute thing in it, is better today than the mere petty public relations of the two main parties.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 8 April 2010 by Ted Honderich -- The admirable writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft said in The Guardian the other day that British politics is now boring and off-putting. So too will the coming election be that, he said, and indeed an orgy of dishonesty and evasion. He is not alone, as the number of people voting in the election may show. But it is not just that our society has fallen further in terms of public intelligence, which like any intelligence is a matter of ordinary logic and hence truth. It is not just that there is not much to choose between Brown and Cameron in their running true to the little boy's rule of the new low politics -- avoiding the proper response to a question, which is an answer. What is at least as destructive is the absence on the scene of the clear and tough decency of the British Left in politics. Who cares and who can like politicians who underpin and oversee conventions in a society that ensure that there is no longer the true challenge, however ill-fated, of the rightness that is an actual humanity. Such a thing is informed by that ordinary logic, which is partly completeness -- not leaving things out, bringing them together. Britain does less of that now than at any time in the past half-century. We judge our repellent bankers and the pyramid of money-grubbers under them. We do not do the elementary thing of noting, about Islamic terrorism, not only that it has to be defended against, but that it is owed in part to sharing our perception of our society, now clearer than ever before.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 29 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
In the good discussion after a talk in Cambridge the other day about the Principle of Humanity, terrorisms and terrorist wars -- you can listen to a recording of it all -- the resourceful post-doctoral researcher Olaf Corry persisted with a question. Could the principle really be shown to support exactly the proposition that their terrorism in historic Palestine is the moral right of the Palestinians with respect to the end of their getting an autonomous state in the last 1/5th of historic Palestine? Why doesn't the principle say the last 2/5ths? After too much generalizing, I did get around to the idea that 1/5th is possible, but we have to judge that to go for 2/5ths would be irrational in that it would entail pointless suffering. But of course any such particular proposition, say about the minimum and maximum penalties for a particular offence in law, can be questioned. Why not a somewhat smaller minimum or a somewhat larger maximum? Do the factual propositions offered in defence of a particular answer leave the answer 'arbitrary'? No they don't, say I, and we must not be put off trying to say what is right forcefully because the factual propositions are harder to support than the Principle of Humanity itself -- because probability is harder than morality. One of many facts of convention in our societies of hierarchic democracy is that specific propositions on the side of humanity are distrusted -- another example is the proposition that the best-off decile of population in the hierarchic democracies has at least 1000 times the political influence and power of the worst-off decile. There is also the proposition that mass civil disobedience doesn't work. Try Wikipedia on that.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 26 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
Darling, the politician in charge of the economy of Britain, to whom I am as reluctant to extend the honorific 'Mr' as to any of his colleagues, is reported this morning as intending to make cuts in public services 'deeper and tougher' than those of Thatcher in the 1980's. It is no less than monstrous that nothing worth the name of thought, as distinct from vicious convention, has governed the government's response to the economic situation. Let us momentarily engage in what in the present day is pointless, some thinking. The economic situation gives new edge to the question of justice. How should the things we all want, the great goods of human life, be distributed? Is the answer the Principle of Utility, to the effect that the distribution should produce the public good in the sense of the greatest total of satisfaction? Of course not, since that distribution could also be unjust. It could include a victimized underclass of servants. Should the great goods be distributed according to distributive justice or desert, maybe economic contribution? Of course not, since talk of desert, as in the case of punishment, is talk of what ought to be -- which is the question asked. Should the distribution be in terms of distributive justice, equality? Of course not, first for the reason that another distribution could make everybody better off. Should the distribution be in terms of the economic convention of our hierarchic democracy? Of course not, because it is morally stupid, which is to say owed to arranged ignorance of alternatives. Here is my answer to the question of justice. The distribution should be what is rational in getting and keeping people out of bad lives, the distribution of humanity. Therefore Darling's policy, far from being that of reducing public expenditure, should principally be the policy of increasing public income, through a transformation of taxation and the possibilities of avoiding it. Taking from the rich and we richer. Do you disagree? Can you also disagree with me and say there should be no actual thought on the question of justice?
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 24 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
Is it right that some have so much of what we all want and some so little, that there is nothing like equality? The question is in ordinary times made quiet by a society's convention that suits those who have so much. It is less quiet now because selfishness has exposed itself. One answer to the question is dear to liberalism and conservatism. It is that men and women must be free to use their strengths and talents. There must be liberty -- and liberty conflicts with equality. That is unfortunate, it may be said, but equality is a lesser thing. Leave aside today the supposed reasons for its being a lesser thing. Ask another question. If you and I are in conflict or competition for something, and our inequality in some way increases, with me getting more and more of the thing, what happens to your freedom with respect to having it? Your freedom decreases to zero, doesn't it? So don't freedom and equality vary together, maybe amount to one thing? Look at the same question a little differently. Those who have more of what we are all want do indeed say that it is for some reason they ought to have more. Some fact F about them. What they are saying, then, isn't it, is that people with equal F ought to be equal in having more of what we all want, and people who are unequal in F ought to have unequal amounts of what we all want? Or think of the those on the bottom of the pile who also want an equality of something, for whatever reason. They want a certain freedom, don't they? It was the neo-Conservative philosopher Robert Nozick, audacious but not very bright, who concealed the simplicities of the connection of freedom and equality.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 23 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
Mr Michael Foot, once leader of the Labour Party, died the other week, and the newspapers recorded his electoral failure as leader of that party, with pictures of him with his stick on Hampstead Heath. Yesterday three members of something different, the New Labour Party, were exposed on television offering to sell their influence in British democracy. Hoon, Byers, and Hewitt, all past government ministers, along with one Butterfill, a Conservative who let us know he was about to become a Lord. What came to mind about Hoon, Byers and Hewitt is that they were not fit to walk Michael Foot's dog. Nor indeed are the present New Labour ministers, Mandelson and Adonis, implicated by one or the other of the above, as proven additionally by their denials. These grubby careerists, book-free, do indeed raise a question about our democracy, about a political class. They remind one of Plato and his reflections of how rulers should be educated and what their relation to money should be. Three years of just philosophy, some of it moral, all of it a concentation on the ordinary logic of intelligence, would have been better than whatever was taken in by the above crew of six at Jesus College Cambridge, John Moores University in Liverpool, Newnham College Cambridge, the College of Estate Management in in London, St. Catherine's College Oxford (PPE), and Keble College Oxford. The six are true to a party that announces a further wonder of policy today, "an end to financial exclusion", which is to say a bank account for everyone but nothing about anything to put in it.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 22 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" Wordsworth's worn but so true thought on the commencement of the French Revolution, which with more foresight he would have carried on to its very end, must have some smaller descendant today. Today it has transpired that even the society most sunk in ignorance by its owners has risen up a little against the inane idea that the aim of selling is ever truth. It has risen up a little against the vicious inanities of an 'industry' whose propositions against health for Americans were merely the stuff of salesmanship of a hierarchic democracy. Despite that democracy, it was possible 15 months ago both to celebrate the election of Obama and to be apprehensive. There can be more celebration today, and more hope. May he do more to emancipate America, and hence what has become its creature, Britain. He and those with him have done something that brings to mind his predecessor Abraham Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves. Let him use his decency next with hierarchic democracy itself, and also with that most salient cause of the world's troubles, which is neo-Zionism, two realities as clear as anything seen by Wordsworth.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 20 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
The Telegraph newspaper, admitted to this house only on Saturdays, for the gardening section, runs true to form in its tendentiousness, under the headline 'Held to Ransom by the Unions', which forgets that the British Airways strike if it happens will be at least as much a work of British Airways as of the cabin staff. The tendentiousness is not merely a familiar fact of some journalism but a contribution to lowering the level of intelligence of debate in a society. Still, the newspaper and I share an attribute, which is running true to form. It is against all strikes. I am for all strikes, putting aside pieces of imagination. May our rail workers join the cabin staff. Should it be embarrassing to be a member of the class of philosophers and be so consistent? Well, on a good day I seem to have the support of the Principle of Humanity. What supports the newspaper? Something, presumably, that justifies not paying the cabin crew more than £15,000 a year but paying the head of British Airways, the virulent Mr Willie Walsh, £735,000 a year, and bonuses. Maybe he gets it for moral confidence.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY of 19 March 2010 by Ted Honderich --
It is probable indeed, according to The Guardian this morning, that William Hague, the Conservative Party's shadow foreign secretary, once the leader of that party, was lying about some knowledge he had. Very probably he was lying about when he knew that Lord Aschcroft of his party, its great financial donor, was avoiding paying tax in Britain by pretending to live somewhere else. As you can read elsewhere, conservatism is the political tradition that has no substantial principle of right and wrong to defend its self-interest. It is this that distinguishes it from the Left in politics and its self-interest. Do conservatives in politics lie more as a result? I think so, despite some truth and much propaganda about the Left to the contrary. Conservatives in politics include the members of the New Labour Party, of course, almost all of them.