Baggini and representative democracy

I read two articles this week by the philosopher/journalist Julian Baggini brandishing the idea of representative democracy to decry in one case the result of the Brexit referendum and in the other Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to abandon the mandate his membership gave him because his Parliamentary colleagues don’t like him being leader.
Democracy is such an important idea in our society that confusion about it is always interesting.We tend to assume that the idea needs no examination. In fact, if philosophy has any purpose at all it is to examine precisely those ideas we take for granted but put great weight on.
It is probably true that difficult decisions are best taken by those able to understand the implications of various courses. Leaders with a certain level of intelligence are a good thing, although they need many other qualities. This is not the same and should not be confused with the probably false idea that government is best left to experts or technocrats. Experts need to provide the known facts but all difficult decsions go beyond known facts and need some judgement about factual uncertainties and more importantly, values.
Moreover it is never obvious or even determinable in advance who will make what will turn out to be happy decisions. Complexity rules out government by continual plebiscite (technologically enhanced Athenian democracy) not because the people are too ignorant or too easily misled to know what is good for them but because the questions are too difficult to frame for a binary (yes/no) answer, not to mention the sheer number of decisions great and small which need to be taken. But this has nothing to do with a certain elite class or even elite individuals knowing better what is good for us collectively. The philosopher kings that Plato wished for do not and never will exist. In that sense, democracy is a process of eternal disappointment, but the alternative is to believe that someone has privileged access to the answers, which is the meaning of fascism (and what it has in common with theocracy).
So we select rulers as best we can, from a limited choice offered to us and bounded by whatever artificial constraints our particular voting system places on the method of choosing. The best ruler we can hope for is capable of understanding and taking into account the expert advice but not being dominated by it, best illustrated perhaps by the political command of a country’s armed forces. Even though we nearly always end up disappointed, we can at least reject those who have tried and failed and those we feel should not be allowed to try. And as long as we can all participate in this process in whatever way our system allows and most importantly revise our choice at suitable intervals, we are protected from at least some of the worst abuses of power. This is the value of democracy, it offers no miracles but a measure of protection well worth the two cheers Forster proposed.
Returning to Baggini’s two targets, it is certainly arguable that we should never have referendums and instead leave all major decisions to our elected rulers. With hindsight, our ex-PM might agree! But the argument, such as it is, is just about our constitutional arrangements, not about the intellectual capacity of the electorate. It is particularly weak in the case of Brexit because we have had several referendums on major constitutional questions before and even a referendum on the EU. An alternative view is that since we choose leaders within a given constitutional framework, major changes to the framework itself should not be taken by those leaders but put to the governed. In that view the referendum came rather late.
(Remainers, of which I think Baggini is one, seem always to assume that Leavers can only have been misled or stupid, but people voted Leave for many reasons, some good and some bad just like Remainers. Not least, although many supported a free trade area they simply did not see the point of a federal Europe, which is the goal and lodestar of the EU institutions and many of the member governments but for which interestingly no one argued a positive case.)
As for Mr Corbyn, it is hard to see why any idea of representative democracy even touches his decision not to stand down as leader of his party. A party, after all, is just a group of people hoping to convince the electorate at large to allow it to rule. That group can make its own internal governance arrangements but there is absolutely no reason why it should mirror those of the state. It could choose to privilege the opinions of those it has succeeded in getting elected into Parliament, but it need not and it has not. So, whether Mr Corbyn is right or wrong to stay as leader of his party against the wishes of his MPs just has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a representative democracy.

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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.

Work and welfare

Suppose that, through the use of machines, sufficient resources could be produced without full employment. The balance between the forms of work and welfare that we are used to would have to change. Since we are arguably in the middle of a transition to such a state now we need to think about how they might change. Otherwise, and we can already see this happening, we will move back towards three broad tiers of society – the top wealth owners who can easily live and even get richer on what are basically rents; those with relatively secure jobs or other job related incomes like pensions or small businesses; and the “precariat” as they have been aptly called, who rely on occasional work, zero hours contracts, welfare benefits etc and for whom poverty is never far away. So far, so Victorian, but the enormous danger is that this structure of society is not stable, not in equilibrium. It depends at the very least on the acquiescence of the precariat, whether through the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, through apathy and inertia or, more likely, through a conviction that the order of things is too complex to change, one of the main axioms of neoliberalism.

The era after the industrial revolution led both to unprecedentedly nasty wars which were in large part the spilling over of commercial (imperial) competition into violence and to violent revolutions within some societies. Although ultimately better conditions for workers were brought about particularly by pressure from unionism and the labour movement generally, in many societies it was a close run thing. This degree of progress was accompanied by a partly successful push towards democratic control of societies, but not universally and not without some dark diversions through dictatorships of different kinds. We cannot be confident that the outcome of re-running the experiment will be equally benign, especially when democracy has been corrupted to the point of uselessness by the introduction of deliberately undemocratic structures like the European Union on one hand and on the other, by the blatant manipulation of public emotions without regard for truth or balance which is what now passes as political skill.

Thus it is important to consider how work and rewards are or can be related in society. In the ancient world the balance was very different and NOT working was often the prerogative of the citizen. Slaves worked, citizens didn’t, at least well-to-do citizens didn’t. There may have been other civic obligations, like fighting in the army, but labour for income was not something on which citizens prided themselves.

In fact, in aristocratic societies both yesterday and today the elite do not work but own most of the wealth and receive and spend most of the income. Typically these have been rentier societies, with the income of the elite coming from wealth (generally land) and very little else. In more modern societies the particular form of work we call entrepreneurial activity became more valued, although much of what passes as high entrepreneurship today remains rent-seeking behaviour dressed up with bustle. But in the twentieth century income distribution generally became more tied to work and median incomes were gradually and slowly raised as labour pressed for their effort to be recognised in income distribution. That process has been reversed or at least halted in the last few decades by neoliberalism, with huge pressure on wages except at the very top to benefit profits. The highest “wages”, those of the most senior executives, have become in effect rents on the holding of high office in a company, out of all proportion to effort or effectiveness.

All this is worth reciting only to show that the relationship between work and reward is and always has been complicated. It is simply a myth that work and reward were always linked closely together. “If you don’t work you don’t eat” may sound robust and fair and may be so in some limited scenarios, but as a depiction of real societies it has seldom if ever applied and it has very rarely applied to elites. It is not a principle on which any complex society has been based and it is doubtful, even by the time all the humane exceptions to it have been allowed, whether it ever could be. So although the new predicament of how to distribute the goods and necessities of life if sufficient were available without everyone working needs to be thought about very carefully, the link it seems to threaten between work and reward is not universal, nor eternal, nor even particularly common.

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.