Brexit, common law and ethical thinking

I have just read two sharply contrasting articles in “Prospect” about Brexit. Jay Elwes runs out the already familiar “we woz robbed” line, embellished with quotes from Popper which could however equally be applied to either side. Roger Scruton on the other hand makes a far more interesting attempt to understand and interpret why people voted as they did, without the patronising assumption that only stupidity or gullibility can explain the vote. Whether he is right or wrong in his particular analysis – and in my view he is far more right than wrong on this occasion – this approach of taking the vote seriously as something whose meaning(s) must be sought and grasped rather than as a nonsensical aberration to be dismissed is surely the best way to move on past current turmoil and division.

In explaining some of the uneasiness the English in particular have always felt towards the EU, Scruton makes a very interesting point about the essential difference between the UK common law tradition and European (including Scottish) Roman law traditions. The first starts from cases, with rules and principles emerging as “precedent” only from the attempt to grapple with the complexities of the particular. The second starts from principles and seeks to apply them to particular cases, giving perhaps an appearance of greater intellectual consistency but at the expense sometimes of shoehorning some of the facts.

This “bottom up versus top down” dichotomy is an oversimplification of course (Sir Roger does not suggest otherwise) but nevertheless of vital importance and not only for understanding the Brexit vote. I have argued in the book that exactly this priority of the individual case over rules should be the hallmark of our ethical thinking across the board, but did not make the analogy that it produces a sort of moral common law, or perhaps simply “common ethics”. The big difference is that there are no judges or experts in the ethical field, we each have to decide our own cases. But the analogy with common law, trying constantly to tread a consistent line but too aware of the complexity of everyday life to take shelter in simple rules, may be helpful in getting a handle on what may otherwise seem a daunting approach to ethical reasoning.

“No one left behind”

Progressive politics, the only form of non-repressive politics, must be based on sound ethical foundations. That is one reason why the effort to articulate such foundations and show how they work both for individuals and communities is important.

Economic systems and solutions must be built on these same ethical foundations – that is where Marxism and many other forms of socialism went wrong because the economics came first, in the belief that economic relations are the determinants of everything else. Well, they may be, indeed they are in the world we have come to accept, but ONLY IF WE LET THEM. And the irony of this wrong approach is that politics becomes a question of which economic policies produce the greatest short term gain, rather than being about the kind of society we live in.

At a time of such political upheaval and revolt against the political establishment as we are now seeing it is high time that we reexamined the basis of that society. What kind of community do we want to create and live in and bequeath to future generations?

But the world, and my country, cannot wait for the outcome and general acceptance of what will always appear to many as abstruse intellectual ramblings. We live in a world of soundbites and we need a good one, quickly, now. We can unpack it later. What would you suggest? Here’s mine, not original but I think it works:

NO ONE LEFT BEHIND.

British air strikes on Syria

I just do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on – or even firing incredibly well targeted missiles at – Syria will help to defeat Daesh, as we are now told we should call the vicious bandits who masquerade there as religious. I do not know whether it will bring peace to that exhausted part of the world. It seems intrinsically unlikely, since three major powers are already blasting away and it seems that their efforts are insufficient, or why else would they be eager for us to have a go? But the intelligence reports and the military knowledge are not something I have at my disposal so how can I make an informed judgement about such a very complex situation? In that I am, ironically, in the same position as most MP’s who voted on the matter, but that happens.

But as I read the reports of this week’s debate in the House of Commons, the principal argument seemed to be the same very bad argument which underpinned our participation in the invasion of Iraq. “Our friends are doing it, we don’t want to be left out or they may think the worse of us.” Killing people to defend others is certainly ethically acceptable in the right circumstances, but killing people to enhance one’s reputation or be part of the in-crowd? I doubt it.

I was left with other serious misgivings, of which two will suffice. First, most people seem to accept that air strikes are only of real use in support of a ground offensive, which makes a sort of sense to a military layman. You can destroy things from the air and you can make life very difficult for those on the ground, but you cannot retake territory. But none of the Western powers is interested in a ground offensive, so a mythical army of 70,000 local “moderate” fighters was conjured up. There is clearly no such army, there is at best a multitude of small rival groups. Even the total number of ground fighters who could be described as “moderate” in their level of fanaticism is probably much smaller than suggested. Many people have pointed this out and it seems now to be commonly accepted but it must have been well known when the case was set out. It was, in fact, a brazen lie.

The second serious objection was to the use of the term “terrorist sympathisers” by the Prime Minister to describe anyone who disagreed with the government case. It is impossible, then, to disagree with the government without sympathising with terrorists? There is no possibility that the government may be mistaken, even on points of detail? This is just nasty, it is bullying of the sort we associate with totalitarian regimes. Logically, it is the weakest sort of argument, nearly always used to bolster a suspect case, the argumentum ad hominem, which translates from Latin to soccer as playing the man rather than the ball. But politically, it suggests a willingness to smear and discredit rather than discuss, a desire not to bother with the real substance of the issue at all. It is the sort of tactic which distorts democracy because it will not concede the essential prerequisite of democracy, that there can be honest opposition. It is one step away from arresting dissenters, and only a few steps away from fascism.

I do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on Syria will bring peace. But I know that the way we came to that decision has made me ashamed of my government and fearful for my country.

Neoliberalism enslaves us

Neoliberalism is very different from an older style of conservative politics, which followed Burke in urging caution about institutional change because institutions may embody the wisdom of previous generations. Neoliberalism is broadly the theory that society should be governed by the market rather than by values, or even that economic goals are all that matter. It is thus the political embodiment of unfettered capitalism unconstrained by values of any kind.

Political opponents of neoliberalism currently lack a convincing answer to it because such an answer has to attack the basic premise that economics is the only proper foundation of public policy. But that requires a strong, widely accepted foundation of some other kind. Our pluralist, relativist society generally lacks such a thing, a familiar theme of course on these pages. What we lack in particular is any shared sense that there are ethical and social values which take priority over market forces.

Even old political standards like fairness, justice or equality, while they may have emotional resonance, lack intellectual traction because they only work if they are embedded in precisely the kind of shared value system we lack. As things stand they are often empty terms, bandied like playground slogans. We may have a sense that certain things are unfair, for example, but it is a shifting sense. Is it fair that some people are more talented than others, or have the ability to apply themselves and so become more successful? Surely such random talent is not fair, but crucially it is not an unfairness to which we generally object – think of sports stars for example.

So we can tolerate some kinds of unfairness but not others and we need a further test of when “unfairness” is unacceptable – which just shows that unfairness as such is not the problem. We need a test for something like “morally unfair” but we don’t have one because we don’t agree about morality, ethics, values or whatever you want to call it. It is thus a shared ethical framework we lack, because we have come to think of ethics as a matter of personal opinion, culture or taste.

So the really desperate problem today for parties of the left, as for those on the right who dislike neoliberalism, is that there is no coherent value system shared by enough of us to which they can appeal to show why certain political approaches are unacceptable. The central issue is about values or ethics but our values are fragmented, dispersed. This is one reason why the left has increasingly become a coalition of single cause pressure groups, many based on identity.

If we have values at all, they must be based on what is most important to us and what, if we are behaving in a thoughtful way, we structure our behaviour and indeed our whole lives around. So to share individual values requires that we agree on what is indeed most important to us. It makes sense that if a collection of individuals – a society – agreed in this way they would want their priority expressed in the way their society was organised.

What doesn’t make sense is that there might be new “values” which only emerge at the aggregate, social level, as traditional political values tend to do. If this were the case there would be a potential conflict, in fact an impossible dilemma, because individual and political values might point in different directions. If every individual’s values are based on what is central or most important in that person’s life, how could anyone agree to put those values aside for a collective goal?

The only way to resolve this dilemma is to base political values, such as they are, on the values of individuals. They cannot be based on economic theories, on the distribution of income and wealth,
on class, still less on theories of historical destiny, but on the values by which individuals live. The issue then becomes how a modern society of many cultures, views, beliefs and interests can find sufficient common ground to share such values.

This is not comfortable news for the left. It implies that a central question of politics needs to be the search for a basis on which we can share values – a search which neoliberals may be expected to disrupt and pour scorn upon. It is not just a matter of a new political slogan but a foundation on which individuals might anchor their own lives, so that politics could become an expression of people’s aspirations rather than a dull spectator sport.

Science and values

Although religion is still a powerful force in our world secularism has never been stronger. In recent years we have even seen a tide of quite strident anti-religious secularism, not content merely to abandon faith but to blame it for all the wrongs of the world. This is surely too much. While some authoritarian religion can lead to great harm – as ISIS for example shows us – much religion sets out to do good and often achieves it in places where no one else is interested in going.

But in any case, secularism has yet to match religion in the crucial area of values. Values are the answer we give to the question of how we should live and direct our lives and actions. They matter because they give meaning and direction to our lives and societies. We seem to need such meaning and direction, perhaps because we are uniquely story-driven creatures – we need narratives, we like things to make sense. Cruder forms of religion may view values as divine laws, but convincing arguments against that view have been known since before Plato. Better religious narratives regard some transcendent goal or mission as being at the heart of who we are and how we should live. Secularism has been curiously unable to supply a rival heart.

In part this is because modern attacks on religion tend to be inspired by science, or more exactly by scientism, that fascination with science which assumes that since it is the best way we have of finding out about the world there can be no questions other than scientific ones. One way of looking at scientism is that it elevates the objective observer to such a point that subjective experience is ignored. But the subjective matters, it is where we live, how we experience our lives.

“How should I live my life?” is a reasonable question, which certainly can and should be informed by whatever facts are available, but is not itself a question of fact. It is the central question of values and moreover for each of us it is actually more important than any question of fact. Science, let alone scientism, cannot answer it.

So it is futile to try and base values somehow on neurology or evolutionary biology, for example. Yet if we are to live secular lives we need to think about how to discover or construct an answer to that question about how to live without falling back on faith. One type of answer is provided by secular political ideology. The last century was torn apart by such ideologies and today many countries including our own are in the grip of neoliberalism, the ideology of the markets as sovereign and money as merit. But beyond that, among the majority who don’t think about ideology consumerism has replaced values – how we live has become a matter of what we own and what we consume. This produces a restless, shifting, unsatisfiable form of life, because the essence of consumerism is that it must keep generating new wants to drive new consumption. Consumerism dangles the very next purchase as the key to contentment, but consumers who ever achieved contentment would bring the system to a shuddering halt.

So where else can secular society turn for values? Back to the beginning, to the question faith used to answer so well when we all believed. What do we put at the heart of our lives? It has to be something consistent with who and what we are, so immortality for example is not on the table! It has to be something which can stand alone, so wealth for example is not the answer, for only a fool would accept being rich and miserable. It should ideally be something constant, something which does not change throughout the course and the vicissitudes of life and it should ideally be something common to all. So the field narrows quickly to one answer – our most central aim is to live happily.

Although this is a very old answer, it has often been rubbished by moral philosophers (even as eminent as Kant) because happiness is so difficult an idea to pin down. What makes one person happy revolts another, it is rightly said. But this criticism repeats the mistake of scientism, confusing the objective with the subjective. If we regard living happily as a matter of the way in which we deal with both the problems and the pleasures of life, it becomes primarily a matter of how we approach and to an extent manage our own inner lives. This is no less than an active approach to subjectivity. That change in perspective brings happiness back into the frame as the obvious central objective of human lives freed from dependence on the supernatural.

There is much more to the argument, but happiness in this sense can provide the foundation of robust individual and political values which are human both in the sense that they do not rely on anything outside humanity and in the sense that they can be understood and adopted by any human being.

UN Development Goals

The UN has recently adopted new development goals which admirably aspire to commit governments to the elimination of poverty, among other things. It may be slightly unfair to say this, but new goals were necessary because the old millennium (Millennium! Old!) goals had failed to produce the results they were meant to produce – there was some progress on some goals, just not enough on enough.

Sadly, the new goals are unlikely to be more successful. In the first place, there are seventeen of them, each divided into many sub goals, more than 150 in all. (I haven’t actually counted!) Any manager will tell you that 150 goals is too many. It is a sufficient number for every country in the UN to claim that it has achieved its own impact on the final document, which is perhaps the hallmark of such diplomatic efforts. But the targets are too diffuse to create real pressure, real focus. Every country will be able to say in the end “Well, we made progress on some goals but of course not all were possible.”

Secondly, as many have pointed out, there are likely to be many tensions between so many different goals but there is a particularly stark contradiction between development goals which hold out growth as the answer to poverty and environmental goals contained (again presumably for diplomatic reasons) in the same document which require slower growth. Unless very different patterns of growth can be found, more growth is likely to mean more environmental impact. Something will have to give and in the meantime existing levels of environmental impact from growth are likely to increase poverty in many parts of the world.

Third, there is a danger that well-meaning people will mistake this declaration for a statement of world values, as happened with the declaration on human rights. These are diplomatically negotiated aspirations, not values. They may be very useful as part of the process of mobilising opinion in favour of desirable goals or even in encouraging people to think about values. Equally, they will almost certainly be appropriated at some stage by corporations who will argue that advancing their corporate interests will further a development goal and is therefore the moral duty of governments.

It is possible that at a practical level some clearly stated and agreed goals could act as a focus of collective action which embodied shared values. But such high level goals are not values. What would happen, for example, if by some miracle they were all achieved – we would presumably set new goals but would that mean new values? That would be a very strange result.

Collective goals should spring from our values, not the other way around. More importantly, these goals tell us nothing, or very little, about how to live our individual lives. Do we for example subjugate our personal goals and aspirations to the UN development goals? That would lead to a sort of developmental totalitarianism. On the contrary, we can only test the relevance and significance of these goals against values we already have. Is sub-goal no. 47 for example (whatever that is) a goal worthy of our wholehearted effort and support? We do not know unless we already have a value framework we can apply. Again, values must lie at the heart of everything we do and thus the search for shared values is no ivory tower game but an essential, civilisation defining activity.

Paris

What can be said about the atrocity in Paris? No words are enough. But this is what happens every day to the ordinary people of Syria, Moslems, Christians and everything else. Every single day, and with the knowledge that tomorrow will be the same. And then we blame them for trying to escape or bring their children to safety?
Please don’t react then by blaming immigration from the war zone for putting us in danger. Yes, our compassion will be exploited by the violent deluded few and we should do what we can to stop them, but not by abandoning compassion or embracing hatred as they have done.
Those who flee are just as much victims as those who have died. Fight the madness, search for every possible means to end the violence, impossible though that seems, but stand beside the victims.