Saturday, 24 December 2011

Does the public know enough to condemn or acquit Luis Suarez?

To many, Liverpool’s continued defence of Luis Suarez despite his eight match ban for racial abuse is transparent and shameful. For them, the club is clearly putting petty footballing concerns above the serious matter of fighting racism, indulging their star striker’s bigotry as though it were just another idiosyncrasy. It might just be my pro-Liverpool bias, but I think there’s more to the story than that.

Something that most people seem to have ignored is that Liverpool F.C., its manager and players almost certainly know more about the case than anybody else. There are all sorts of ambiguities and uncertainties about both the incident and the judgement, which only Liverpool, Manchester United and the commission really understand. Since both the commission and Man Utd. have kept silent so far, Liverpool’s statement in response to the verdict is the most direct account of the facts that the public have to go on. Of course, it is hardly likely to be neutral, but it raises a few questions that need to be answered by the official report.

Are the facts in dispute?

The first confusion is thrown up by Liverpool’s defence of Suarez. Much of the coverage of the tribunal suggested that the words uttered were accepted by both sides, and that the case depended on their interpretation, Suarez’s defence hanging on cultural differences. Yet in their statement, Liverpool placed a great deal of significance on the fact that there were no witnesses. Now if Suarez and Evra agree on what was said, it’s not clear why the fact that nobody else heard their conversation should matter. Surely it’s only if there is some doubt about the facts of the event that anybody should find it “extraordinary that Luis can be found guilty on the word of Patrice Evra alone”.

Words or intent?

There is an ambiguity in the F.A.’s statement which might have some bearing on the offensiveness of Suarez’ crime. The F.A. claims that Suarez is being punished for using “insulting words” against Evra. But of course, how insulting certain words are often depends as much on how they are said as on the words used themselves. It is unclear at this moment in time whether Suarez is being punished because the words that he used are never acceptable, or because he said them in a way that were clearly intended to be insulting. The former is clearly much more understandable and defensible as it would suggest that Suarez merely erred in his understanding of what sort of language is acceptable, rather than acting in a fundamentally inexcusable way. Liverpool’s claim that “Patrice Evra himself in his written statement in this case said: ‘I don't think that Luis Suarez is racist.’ and that “The FA in their opening remarks accepted that Luis Suarez was not racist”, if true, seem to favour the idea that all sides accept that Suarez meant no wrong.

How significant was cultural context?

It may well be that all the talk of cultural differences is a smokescreen, and that Suarez used insulting language in a plainly insulting way. But many of the reports seem to suggest that cultural questions are relevant, and that certain mitigating factors should be considered. For a start, the conversation in question appears to have taken place in Spanish. Secondly, the offensive word used has been reported to be either ‘negro’ or ‘negrito’. The latter isn’t even a word in English.

A number of people have suggested, along with Henry Winter, that “for somebody who has lived in northern Europe for four years, including three years in Holland with Ajax, the Liverpool striker should have understood the sensitivity towards the word “negro”. But Suarez used a Spanish word in the context of a Spanish conversation, that argument hardly seems to apply. Especially if the word used doesn’t even exist in English.

It is possible that the cultural question never really arose in the course of the tribunal. But if it did, there certainly seems to be a plausible defence open to Suarez.

Liverpool need to ‘calm down’

Perhaps I’m being too credulous, but I think that the ferocity with which Liverpool have reacted to the ban is evidence that they genuinely believe that Suarez has not done wrong. However, if that is the case, it would be a good idea for them to pick a line of defence and stick to it. Wide eyed conspiracy theories about how the F.A. wanted to make scapegoat of Suarez make them look paranoid and desperate, even if there is a hint of plausibility to them. Unless they are sure that Patrice Evra is lying, questioning his credibility and calling for him to be banned looks desperate.

In fact, the club’s treatment of Patrice Evra, regardless of Suarez’ guilt and innocence seems shoddy. It is clear that Evra was hurt and upset by what was said, and it would have been good to see some sort of apology for the distress caused, even if it was unintended. Moreover, it is possible that Liverpool’s vilification of Evra is sending the wrong message to fans. It would be good to see the club condemning the sickening abuse Evra has received on twitter from Liverpool supporters.

How guilty is Suarez, and what is he guilty of?

Ultimately, even if we accept the F.A.’s decision, there is a lot more we need to know before we judge Suarez and those who support him. The first key question is whether the facts of the case are in dispute. The second is whether Suarez is being punished merely for the words he used or for the suspected intent behind them. Finally, does the F.A. buy the portrait of Suarez as a confused foreigner mistaking the mores of his new country, or was his crime more serious?

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A (cautious) defence of ‘fattism’

Modern Western societies condemn the obese as monstrous, but the truly deplorable are those complicit in the bullying of the overweight. That’s the conclusion of David Haslam’s recent condemnation of contemporary attitudes to fat people. He doesn’t explicitly draw the link, but it is clear that Haslam intends his article to make us recognise discrimination against the obese alongside more commonly acknowledged forms of prejudice, like racism and sexism. The most alarming piece of evidence that he produces is the way that the overweight, like victims of sexism and racism often internalise the contempt in which they are held, coming to see themselves as sub-standard and worthless:

researchers have found that children as young as six years old, even those who are overweight themselves, use words like “lazy,” “stupid,” “cheats,” “liars,” “sloppy,” “naughty,” “mean,” and “ugly” to describe their obese peers.

Haslam doesn’t seem to be arguing directly for any legal intervention. Rather, he seems to want us to reconsider our social attitudes. However, I am not sure that a social norm of condemning the obese is necessarily a bad or a wrong one. I think it would be unquestionably a good thing if racism and sexism were to end, but I’m not so sure about ‘fattism’. This is because of two crucial ways in which being obese can differ from being black or a woman:

(1) The obese have some capacity to change the relevant feature i.e. to lose weight

(2) Being obese is almost certainly worse than not being obese.

In other words, a big part of the reason why racism is bad is because it is unproductive – a black person cannot stop being black – and arbitrary – there is no reason to single out black people for condemnation rather than white people, because black people are no worse than white people. My suggestion is that the social humiliation of the obese is neither unproductive nor arbitrary, because it exhorts fat people to take an action that they are capable of taking, and which it would be good for them to take.

Both of these premises need some argument. Premise (1) is likely to be controversial because it appears to suggest that fat people are responsible for their own plight. This is explicitly rejected by Haslam who emphasises the significance of childhood and upbringing, over which a person has little control. However, premise (1) does not depend on the assumption that a fat person must be fat out of any fault of their own. Rather, all it claims is that however they got into this position, they have the ability to do something to get out of it. For sure, it is likely to be easier for some than others. But it seems to me extremely unlikely that there are many people who are literally incapable of losing any weight.

The second premise is less obvious to me, even though Haslam appears to concede it. He lists the problems of obesity: “a dysfunctional metabolism, insulin resistance, chronic illness, and a shortened life”, as if to acknowledge how much worse off the overweight are. Yet it could be argued that obesity is a valid lifestyle choice – that there is a legitimate question over whether avoiding unhealthy food and taking regular exercise are genuinely worth the health payoffs. If we think this, then the obese have not erred or failed in any way, they just have different values or preferences to thin people. But if obesity is seen as a legitimate lifestyle choice this has radical implications – it means we can no longer treat obesity like a public health problem, that government campaigns against it are illegitimate. It means granting real license to be fat.

If we accept, however, that the obese can and ought to alter their situation, this suggests that the stigmatisation of fat people isn’t all bad. For obesity to be fully socially acceptable would mean that people lose a powerful incentive to lose weight and make their lives better. Yet even if this the case, it does not imply that the current situation, which angers Haslam so much, is justified. Even if fattism has some beneficial consequences, there are three big reasons why we might still want to oppose it.

The first is that it might be disproportionate. It is perfectly plausible and consistent to think that fat people should not be treated the same as everybody else, but that they should be treated better than they are at present, and that current practices go too far.

The second is that fattism might be counterproductive as a strategy for combatting obesity. It might increase a person’s sense of powerlessness and induce fatalism. It might cut them off from support networks which might otherwise aid them in losing weight. It could foster low self-esteem, and lead to comfort eating. Rather than incentivising weight loss, picking on fat people might make them even fatter.

Finally, there is the possibility that there are far more effective and efficient ways of getting people to lose weight. For example, it is likely to dietary norms or the relative cost of different foods contributes more to obesity than the social acceptability of being overweight. In that case, it is likely to be better to focus on those levers than the ones that depend on cruelty and hurt feelings.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Writing in other places

I've just realised I've only posted to this blog twice in the last three months, which is certainly not the sort of discipline it was meant to impose on my writing. And of course, I realise how disappointing my absence must be to my legions of fans. I've not been totally lazy, though - I've written a couple of articles for other websites which might be of interest:



The first is a piece co-written with Puneet Dhaliwal for Ceasefire in which I argue in favour of 'professional philanthropy' - seeking out high earning careers (such as, controversially, banking) in order to donate large amounts of money to charity - as a strategy for fighting poverty. Find it here.



The second is a book review for the Oxford Left Review discussing Jonathan Wolff's book Ethics and Public Policy, and more generally, whether political philosophy ought to be concerned with practical questions of policy at all. Find it here (on page 79).




Sunday, 20 November 2011

Peter Singer & the False Consciousness of Smokers

A blogpost is probably an inadequate forum for arguing for something as radical as the prohibition of cigarettes, but I’m not sure if a lack of space is sufficient excuse for the weakness of Peter Singer’s argument on Project Syndicate. It’s made even more peculiar by the fact that this week Singer also signed a letter for calling for the liberalisation of drug law, or at least of their enforcement.

There seem to me to be two obvious objections to the idea of outlawing tobacco. The first is the practical one – banning such a popular activity is counterproductive. The second is the principled one – such paternalism is illegitimate. Interestingly, Singer gives essentially the same response to both objections: most smokers don’t really want to smoke – they’ve just made a mistake somewhere along the way.

This is pretty implausible as a claim about the efficacy of banning cigarettes. Even if “many smokers would actually like to see cigarettes banned because, like Obama, they want to quit”, the remaining stubborn few are likely to constitute a problem as great as the current narcotics trade. If Singer can see that the war on drugs isn’t working, why does he want to add another front to it?

Singer’s strategy in response to the paternalism objection is more intriguing. His response to those who question the state’s legitimacy to carry out such proscriptions is unpersuasive – “For those who recognize the state’s right to ban recreational drugs like marijuana and ecstasy, a ban on cigarettes should be easy to accept”. But many of those who question the state’s right to ban cigarettes will be equally sceptical of its right to ban other recreational drugs. Nevertheless, most people do accept paternalism in one form or another, the classic case being the enforcement of seatbelt wearing.

I think the reason that some forms of paternalism are seen as relatively uncontroversial is because most accept that they are genuinely in people’s interests. I think very few people would think it is plausible that the discomfort of wearing a seatbelt is worse than the risk of death and injury it protects us from. With smoking, it is not so clear. People do claim to derive such pleasure from smoking that they would be willing to sacrifice a few extra years of health to keep the habit.

Singer appears to be denying either that people do think in such a way, or that if they did, it would be a rational way to look at things. Like all claims of false consciousness, it’s difficult to prove. Singer’s problem is that it seems like he’s denying that smoking can be enjoyable at all. He presents smokers as if they’re all addicts or dupes of peer pressure and advertising, which is clearly only part of the story.

Yet it could well be that the pleasure people enjoy from smoking is almost never enough to outweigh the harm that it causes them, and that almost everybody who smokes is therefore irrational. Of course, this brings us into the philosophically thorny area of what constitutes rationality. However, the simplest (and least contentious) way to show irrationality is to demonstrate that people who take up smoking will come to regret it. This is what Singer seems to do when he suggests “most smokers take up the habit as teenagers and later want to quit”. In the context of Singer’s argument this looks a bit ad hoc, but perhaps he is aware of the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, which found that nearly 70% of American smokers want to quit, and over half had attempted to do so in the past year.

This is quite a striking finding, and I wonder what proportion of those wish that they had never started smoking. If there is an activity that over half of people regret undertaking with hindsight, is that enough to make the probabilistic claim that it is irrational to pursue it? It certainly doesn’t address the practical issues, but if Singer can convince people that it is almost always irrational to take up smoking, he will be a lot closer to his goal of banning smoking.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Distributive Justice and Premier League TV rights

What I often do on this blog is take some big news story, and try and show how ethics or political theory can shed some light on it, or how it highlights some argument within those disciplines. I do this partly to convince myself I’m not wasting my time in studying these subjects, and partly because I am obsessed with them, and see their echoes everywhere. Either way, I’m not sure how convincing I am when I try to persuade you of the relevance of moral and political philosophy.



However, there are occasions when the argument doesn’t have to be forced, the parallels don’t have to be stretched: the issue that people are talking about is almost exactly the same as the one we discuss in our seminar rooms. Events behind the scenes of the English Premier League this week have provided me with one of those rare joyous occasions, as the administrators of England’s elite football clubs unconsciously replay an old debate between the political philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick.



The philosophical question which divided Rawls and Nozick, and which has caused the rift between the Premier League clubs is basically whether egalitarian distributive principles can be justified to the most talented or productive. Or, to put it more bluntly, how can the rich be persuaded to share with the rest of us?



While Rawls and Nozick were of course pitching their discussion at the level of society, Liverpool F.C.’s managing director, Ian Ayre, has posed a similar question to the Premier League. As things stand, the twenty clubs of the English Premier League collectively sell the rights to broadcast their matches on television, and share the money more or less equally. Ayre has argued that this is unfair on the bigger, more famous and more successful clubs like Liverpool, who he believes contribute more to the quality of the Premier League, and so should receive greater reward.



For Rawls, the question of distributive justice arises in a society because it is a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage”. Everyone in society contributes in some way, and everybody is better off in virtue of the fact that the cooperative scheme exists. The problem then is how to divide the proceeds of their cooperation.



The Premier League is a perfect example of a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. The twenty clubs each play thirty-eight games every season, and are all better off as a result of participation in the league than they would be out of it. Liverpool need the Premier League if for no other reason than to provide competitive opposition to play every week. So each club plays a role in putting together the product that is the Premier League, which is packaged and sold all over the world. But how to divide the proceeds?



Rawls’ answer is that





“since everybody’s well-being depends upon a scheme of cooperation without which no one could have a satisfactory life, the division of advantages should be such as to draw forth the willing cooperation of everyone taking part in it, including those less well situated. Yet this can be expected only if reasonable terms are proposed”



The “reasonable terms” that Rawls suggests is his ‘difference principle’: inequalities can be justified only if they benefit the worst off members of society. In the Premier League context, at least, I can’t think of any such justifications for inequality, so a Rawlsian approach to the question of TV revenues would almost certainly endorse the present arrangement, equal shares.



But as Nozick observes, though distributing the fruits of cooperation equally is certainly one way to elicit the willing participation of all, it is only one of many possible arrangements. Presumably, many Premier League clubs would be willing to play for much less than an equal share of the TV revenue. A Rawlsian principle, as he sees it, arbitrarily advantages the worst endowed. The ‘worst endowed’ in Rawlsian terminology basically means the least productive, those capable of adding the least value. Thus the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas, with their skill and glamour are well-endowed, while teams like Norwich, who draw much fewer people to the league, are badly endowed.



Nozick argues that the badly endowed gain more from cooperation than the well endowed. If Liverpool were to unilaterally resign from the Premier League, this would make it much less attractive to fans across the world, and so would harm clubs like Queens Park Rangers. If QPR were to leave the league, they could be easily replaced (as might well happen if they are relegated at the end of the season). As Nozick would doubtless insist, QPR need Liverpool more than Liverpool need QPR.



In this context, Nozick would see it as cheek for the less endowed small clubs to hold the rest of the league to ransom and demand an equal share of the Premier League spoils. The obvious alternative is to pay clubs according to their marginal product – give them the full value that they add to the league. So, for example, Liverpool would be paid as money as the league would lose by their absence.



Ian Ayre’s argument is Nozickian in tone:





"Is it right that the international rights are shared equally between all the clubs? Some people will say: 'Well you've got to all be in it to make it happen.' But isn't it really about where the revenue is coming from, which is the broadcaster, and isn't it really about who people want to watch on that channel? We know it is us. And others”.



He acknowledges that all the clubs are dependent on each other for the scheme of cooperation to work, but insists that the bigger clubs deserve more money because they contribute more to the value of the league.



So far as this argument goes, I have to say my sympathies are with Nozick. The mere fact of mutual dependence is an insufficient foundation for a persuasive argument in favour of egalitarianism. But just because they have the better of this argument does not mean we have to concede that Ayre’s behaviour is morally acceptable. There are, as T.M. Scanlon observes, a “diversity of objections to inequality”, and many of them are apt here. One objection is that inequality gives too much power to the rich, who can then buy off the power, and wield excessive influence. Another proceeds from the law of diminishing marginal utility, the observation that extra money is worth more to the poor. In the football context, the argument is that TV revenues are just a drop in the ocean for clubs with huge sponsorship deals, Champions’ League revenue and the like, but vital to clubs without these extra sources of income.


There is hardly space here to cover all the arguments made by philosophers on the subject of distributive justice, but it is a set of debates that Ayre and his colleagues may find interesting and familiar.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

On the sub-optimality of bus seating

I realise that it’s pretty far down the long list of Things That Are Wrong With The World, but I am increasingly vexed by the potential inefficiency of seat allocation on buses. It is almost certainly the economist in me bridling at the casual violation of the Pareto Criterion – itching to realise the economist’s dream of making an arrangement better, and leaving nobody any worse.

Essentially, for our purposes here, there are two types of people who take the bus. There are those with companions, who want to sit with those companions. And there are those who are alone, who would rather have the space of two seats to themselves than be pressed up against a stranger.[1] I set aside the question of why people seem to be so socially retarded and jealous of their privacy that they find the idea of approaching a stranger terrifying rather than the prelude to a new friendship. If people were more open, the problem would soon disappear. Suffice to say, this cultural foible has been discussed at length elsewhere.

If the bus is not too crowded, there is ample opportunity for both types to get their wish. People can choose to sit next to the people they want to or to opt for isolation. The trouble begins when the number of free seats dips below twice the number of people who want to sit alone. That is, when there are no longer any free pairs of seats.

Suppose there are no free pairs of seats available then, and a couple – Alice and Bob – get onto the bus. They cannot sit together, and so have to sit next to other people. Alice sits next to Craig, and Bob next to Davina. Thus not only must Alice and Bob do without the pleasure of each other’s company, but Craig and Davina have to sit next to strangers. Yet if Craig and Davina must sit next to people they don’t know anyway, wouldn’t it make sense for them to sit next to one another, and so allow Alice and Bob to sit together? Alice and Bob would be better off, Craig and Davina no worse off, and Pareto can settle down in his grave. But this doesn’t happen, and all the real-life Alice and Bobs must suffer in silence.

What can be done about it all? With my neo-Stalinist tendencies, I’m inclined towards a bureaucratic statist solution. Everybody must register for their bus trip 24 hours in advance, and inform the Central Bureau of Seat Allocation who they want to sit next to. But even I have to concede that this is a bit of an overreaction. It probably isn’t cost-effective to open a whole government department to deal with the problem. One of the great virtues of buses is their relative flexibility – how many people know 24 hours in advance exactly which bus they want to take and when? Liberty, as ever, upsets patterns.

If the state fails, the obvious response is to turn to the market for a solution. Maybe Alice and Bob can pay Craig and Davina for their seats. This idea has the merit of identifying the pair who are least bothered about relinquishing their space – if Craig and Davina put too high a premium on it, they can be undercut by others who will sell for less because they care less about being alone.

However, the seat market appears to be prone to a major market failure: its transaction costs are too high. People are unlikely to go through the effort of setting up the mechanism of the market for so little reward. In any case, by the time the deals are struck, the chances are that it will be time for one of the parties to disembark, making bargaining somewhat impractical.

The best and most obvious option is what might be called the ‘ethical libertarian’ approach[2] Here, we just rely on people to use their initiative to escape these sub-optimal arrangements. We expect Craig or Davina to offer their seats, and hope Alice and Bob are not too bashful to ask for them.

The trouble with ethical libertarianism, both here and in general, is that it expects a lot of people in terms of good sense and altruism. Perhaps I’m too much of an economist to share their faith.





[1] I assume here that seating is arranged in pairs, as on Aberdeen buses, but the idea is easily applied to other arrangements.

[2] I’ve just made up the name ‘ethical libertarianism’. I’m not sure if it’s any good. In any case, I take it to mean the position that we have extensive moral duties to other human beings, but that the government ought to execute relatively few of them

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Should we abandon moralism?

One of the most interesting aspects of philosophy is its ability to provoke a variety of responses, and to be utilised for a wide variety of functions. It can be diverting and entertaining – hence the success of hit movies based more or less explicitly on thought experiments. It can be a practical tool to help us decide what to do – this is the aim of those who do practical ethics (clue’s in the name, guys). It can be pressed into little motivational or comforting soundbites (c.f. anything by Alain de Botton)

But often (and I think this is less commonly recognised or discussed), philosophy can be terrifying. It can challenge the very foundations of our existence, undermining the values and commitments we have based our lives around. Discussing Descartes’ scepticism, Mark Steel advises his viewers not to allow the thought to linger for more than 20 seconds because otherwise “it will start to drive you mental”. The same is probably true of the claims of pessimists, nihilists and determinists.

What’s always most troubled me, though, the philosophical Pandora’s box I have been desperate to keep shut, are the challenges of meta-ethics. What is morality? What do the concepts of right and wrong even mean? Why should we care about it? In most of my moral thinking, I have been content to assume that there is an answer to this question, and to get on with the substantive questions of how we should act – firmer ground where I felt more comfortable. I don’t think this is an unusual policy – in my first graduate class in Ethics, we were advised not to worry too much about meta-ethics, and assured that it is entirely separable from practical ethics.

This attitude infuriates Joel Marks, who urged moral philosophers to out themselves as amoralists in a pair of New York Times articles last month. Appealing to luminaries such as Hume, Nietzsche, Ayer, Sartre, Mackie and Rorty, Marks argues that morality does not exist. Moreover:

“This, odd as it may sound to say so, is relatively uncontroversial in modern ethical philosophy; for what I mean by morality here is its metaphysical conception as a truth or command that comes to us from “on high.” Very few well-known philosophical moralists have believed in such a thing since a century and more.

But precisely my gripe is that you wouldn’t know it from the way they speak! And even if they can communicate clearly with one another, the lay person is left to think otherwise.

Most philosophers, according to Marks, have been doing what I have done: treating meta-ethics as though it has no bearing on practical ethics. However, Marks thinks that this common meta-ethical position has radical implications for how we think about moral problems – he calls for the abolition of moral language altogether. His point is so obvious, it seems bizarre that it should even need stating: if most philosophers do not believe that such a thing as morality exists, why should they still keep talking as though it does?

I think the meta-ethical position that Marks sets out is more or less similar to my own. Moral ‘beliefs’ are nothing more than statements of preference. So when I say that it is morally wrong that anybody should live in poverty, all I am saying is that I would really like it if poverty were eradicated. This is fundamentally no different in kind from my desire that the sun stays out, or my desire to eat cake.

Though I agree that moral claims are nothing more than preferences, I am wary of making this explicit for a couple of reasons. The first is pragmatic – to abandon moralistic argument is to lose one of the most powerful means of persuasion. Suppose it is my desire that poverty be eradicated. I am far more likely to convince people to do their bit to reduce poverty if I can couch my arguments in objective moral terms – if I can portray it as being your duty, rather than just in line with my whims. Of course, if everybody were what Marks calls a ‘desirist’, then what we once called ‘moral’ argument could be carried out in amoral terms. But for as long as moral realists exist, it is worth giving our arguments moral dressing so that they appeal to as many people as possible.

Undeniably, there is something underhanded about reasoning in this way. Should we really be using moral argument in such a manipulative way? But this thought itself shows the dangers and difficulties of trying to purge our reasoning of moral content. The idea that we shouldn’t manipulate others so that they act in accordance with our desires is itself a moral notion – it is just another preference. If we try to cleanse our language of explicitly moral terms, there is a danger that moral ideas may still sneak in through the back door.

We are so used to thinking in moral terms that we need to remind ourselves that our values are just preferences – we are liable to forget our meta-ethical commitments. Keeping our moral premises explicit ensures we compare like-for-like, and don’t mistake a preference for something more forceful, like an objective moral command. For example, a natural response to the idea that there are no objective moral values is to conclude that all moral commitments are equally valid, and so we ought to unquestioningly tolerate the views of others. Yet this, of course, ignores the fact that tolerance is a moral value itself – and so we should only care about it insofar as we have a preference for tolerance.

Peculiarly, given that he believes it to be the only novel aspect of his argument, Marks offers only a solitary paragraph towards the end of his second article to making a positive case against moralistic language. Essentially his objection is that “The most horrific acts of humanity have been done not in spite of morality but because of it”. Even putting aside the moralistic assumptions that underpin this statement, this isn’t much of an argument. The question of whether morality has been a force for good is as tiresome and irresolvable as whether religion has been beneficial or not. Some people have been motivated to do good things by morality, others have been led to commit terrible acts. And just as atheists have their fair share of atrocities on their hands, it is hardly as if no evil has come from people pursuing their own desires.

When Marks says that most philosophers do not believe in morality, what he really means is that they do not believe in an objective, transcendental set of moral truths. But this is not enough reason to abandon the language of morality altogether. Ultimately, Marks fails to make a convincing case against conceiving of morality as a special type of subjective desire.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

In defence of an episodic History education

Here is a list of topics I studied in history over the course of my primary and secondary school education, more or less in the order I studied them: Celts & Romans, Tudors & Stuarts, The Stone Age, Scottish Wars of Independence, The Industrial Revolution, the female suffrage campaign, the formation of the Welfare State, the prelude to World War I and the Weimar Republic/ Nazism/ World War II (on about three or four separate occasions).


I don’t think my experience was that unusual among British history students of my generation: a more or less random assortment of topics, linked by little more than an underlying eurocentrism, and a peculiar obsession with the Nazis. It is this pick ‘n’ mix approach, I think, which is increasingly coming under attack. Simon Jenkins decries ‘optionalism’, insisting that history must have a ‘narrative’, “starting at the beginning and running to the end”. In doing so, he allies himself with Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his history tsar, Niall Ferguson, prominent opponents of ‘tapas’ or ‘smorgasbord’ history.


But I think the loud objections to Ferguson’s view of history (most entertainingly from children’s history god Terry Deary) illustrate the problems of this approach. The story that Ferguson wants to tell is the story of how and why Europe came to dominate the world. There’s two problems with this. Firstly, there is the question of the truth or otherwise of this narrative. For example, Ferguson is a revisionist historian who tends to emphasise the positive effects of European colonialism. But it would be deeply irresponsible of him to present these views as accepted historical fact, and to fail to acknowledge the number of historians who would have profoundly object to this picture.


Even if Ferguson’s answers are valid, he may still be asking the wrong questions. Ferguson’s proposed emphasis has raised eyebrows because of its unabashed eurocentrism. But it also looks like it will be strongly focused on ’history from above’ – the big picture political, economic and military story, as opposed to the details of everyday life.


The trouble with teaching history as a narrative, therefore, is that it sacrifices two different types of neutrality. In the first place, It involves favouring one narrative over another. This is particularly problematic, given the strongly ideological flavour of many of these competing accounts. Favouring one narrative over another means making a choice between using history to develop a national myth to foster patriotism, or to seek cross-cultural understanding and to mould global citizens. Methodological neutrality is sacrificed, too. To insist on teaching history as a grand narrative is to presume that history should be about big picture questions, and therefore implies that excessive focus on details is a less valid approach.


Why should we care about neutrality? Why should the people designing a history curriculum try to avoid making a stand on controversial questions? There is a ethical argument and a practical argument. The moral objection is that history should not be used as an ideological tool – children should be left to make up their own minds, and is it is illegitimate to try to ‘mould’ them in any way.


The practical point is more often missed. Children are rarely passive receptacles of education. Just because you design a course for them does not mean that they will absorb it in the way you want them to. Consequently, it is not just what children should know, but also what will engage and interest them, that must be considered when designing a curriculum.


The episodic approach to history escapes both these problems. Rather than having to choose one big, sweeping narrative, it allows students to focus on different topics in depth. An essential part of properly addressing a topic in history is to understand how it is viewed from different ideological and historical perspectives. If one topic lends itself to a given approach, the next can be used to illustrate a completely different way to do history. That way, there is a hope of finding something to suit every taste. The thing that educationalists often seem forget is that even if you spoon feed children a certain message, you cannot be sure that they will swallow it. An equally crucial task of a history education is to try and get them to develop a taste for the subject.


The objection to an episodic history education is that it leaves the student with big gaps in their knowledge, and little sense of how events fit together. But history is so vast that nobody can hope, in the limited time a child has in the history classroom, to cover even the ‘basics’. There will always be omissions, and those omissions will always be controversial.


A more plausible aim is to give the curiosity to ask their own questions, the tools to follow these interests, and the critical faculties to form their own narratives. I think the depth and pluralism of the episodic approach best serves this goal.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

False Consciousness in Food and Film

According to Mark Kermode, an important part of a film critic’s job is “explaining to people why they haven't actually enjoyed a movie even if they think they have”. In his article in The Guardian on Sunday, he suggests that people who liked Pirates of the Caribbean 3 only did so because they have been weaned on mindless blockbusters, and have forgotten or are unaware that film can be any better. In his words, they are “simply suffering from the cinematic equivalent of long-term deprivation of the basics of a civilised existence”.


Kermode’s sentiments make an interesting contrast with those of Peter Preston, writing in the same newspaper the following day. Whereas Kermode’s essay is a polemic against the state of modern Hollywood cinema, Preston offers a nostalgic reminiscence of Britain’s culinary past. Stumbling upon one of his mother’s old cookbooks, he contrasts its parochialism to the ambition (or pretentiousness) of modern food. There is a suspicion of anything too exotic, and the majority of ingredients seem to come out of cans. It’s all corned beef, baked beans, tinned soup and (for some reason) pineapple rings, assorted in ingenuity-stretching combinations.


This was not good food as we would recognise it today. Peter Preston knows that. Reading his article made me feel queasy rather than appetised (though that might have something to do with the psychological aversion to corned beef I developed working in a deli). It was just the food eaten by people living under post-war austerity who knew nothing better.


Notice the similarities between these descriptions of food in 1950s Britain, and contemporary film. In both cases, we have a group of people whose aesthetic taste has been dulled by a lack of exposure to ‘quality’ produce. Yet while Kermode sees this as a problem in need of remedy, Preston appears to think it is a cause for regret that this innocence has been lost. Just as film critics are perpetually accused of having lost the ability to see movies through the eyes of ordinary cinemagoers, so modern caterers are “a little too knowing, too sophisticated” to recreate the food of the past.


So if there is such a loss involved in ‘enlightening’ people, why bother? If people enjoyed POTC, why should Kermode be so churlish as to rob them of this pleasure? One possibility is that he sees his task as combatting something like ‘false consciousness’. On this view, to enjoy bad films is to be under a misapprehension which harms your deep interests. It is to hold a false belief which makes your life worse.


This sort of account is most plausible where there is an uncontroversial human interest at stake, for example health. So Anthony Bourdain’s culinary elitism is more defensible because its target is defensible because its target – excessively fatty, fried Southern food – is genuinely injurious to those who develop a taste for it.


But what is it that Kermode is trying to protect us from? How is he making our lives better by making certain films less enjoyable?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Does John Redwood care about inequality?

A peculiar article in The Guardian yesterday. Funny in the first instance because of the mental image it suggests – John Redwood choking on his cornflakes as it dawns on him that the left might not see him as a tireless campaigner for social justice, devoting his life to protecting the vulnerable. Peculiar because halfway through, Redwood seems to lose the thread of his argument, and begin to make the exact opposite case to the one he intended to.

The article itself is a furious reply to a throwaway remark from John Harris’ column the day before. Bemoaning David Cameron’s abandonment of his initial progressive credentials, Harris contrasts him with Redwood: “There is no point in people like me having a pop at, say, John Redwood for his failure to recognise the importance of inequality. But Cameron was meant to be slightly different.”

What’s clear from this quote is that Redwood is seen as an old-style Tory, antagonistic to the left, while Cameron is a new progressive Tory, sympathetic to many lefty causes. So there’s obviously supposed to be something that Cameron and Harris believe, but that Redwood does not. Call this ‘common ground X’.

Redwood takes common ground X to be concern for the poor, which is why he is so cross at the implication that he does not share it. Consequently, his whole article is devoted to demonstrating that the right simply have a different idea of what sort of policies most benefit the poor.

But that’s not what Harris says. Harris is quite explicit that what distinguishes Cameron and Redwood is their attitudes to inequality. Not their attitudes to the poor – their attitudes to inequality. Hence his reference to Cameron’s appreciation for the The Spirit Level, a book that argues that inequality is bad for society, regardless of how materially well-off the poor are.

Redwood’s sub-editor seems to have appreciated this, given that the title of his article is ‘It's ludicrous to say that rightwingers don't care about inequality’.

But Redwood, intent on demonstrating that rightwingers care about the poor, seems to forget that he was supposed to be arguing about inequality. In fact, his argument shows that for those on the right, caring about the poor involves embracing inequality. An excessive focus on reducing inequality, Redwood argues, risks cutting off the source of wealth that would eventually trickle down to the poor. Moreover, it involves engaging in ‘jealousy’, and undermines aspiration.

So John Redwood doesn’t care about inequality, even if he does care about the poor.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Three Questions about the riots

There seem to be broadly five different types of explanation for the rioting and looting that began in London,and swept across England last week (neatly summarised, although classified differently, by the BBC). There is what we might call the ‘hard right’ account, exemplified by Daily Mail columnist Max Hastings, which see the violence and disorder as the inevitable consequence of unchecked cultural decline. Liberalism’s erosion of the institution of the family and of discipline in schools has produced this amoral, feral youth. The ‘hard left’ narrative also sees the roots of the riots as cultural, but emphasises consumerism as the malign influence on society. Because British society links possessions so closely to status, it should be no surprise that people are willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain the things that confer high status.

By contrast, what I have dubbed the ‘soft right’ and ‘soft left’ focus on politics. The less subtle leftist accounts link the riots directly to current government policies, such as raising university fees and cutting EMA (c.f. Harriet Harman and Ken Livingstone). More nuanced versions of this argument point to the sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity felt by those on the margins of society. The soft right story is the mirror image of this argument: the government has not been too harsh, but too generous, creating an unwarranted sense of entitlement, which has led to violence now it has inevitably been frustrated.

Finally, there is apparently apolitical ‘no-nonsense’ version of events: plenty of people are opportunistic and enjoy creating disorder and getting something for nothing. The riots gave them a chance to indulge these impulses without fear of retribution, and so many took it. We should not seek any deeper explanation for these events beyond the observation that ‘rioting is fun’.

All of these accounts are plausible enough, but they must not be mistaken for anything more certain than speculation. Far too often they draw on (at best) anecdotes or (at worst) brute prejudice. This is understandable, given the obvious difficulties of discerning the facts on the ground. But over the next few weeks and months as the picture becomes clearer, there are three main questions that need answering if we are to adjudicate between these competing claims.

Who were the rioters?
A number of these arguments depend crucially upon claims about the identity of the rioters – claims which are rarely backed up by evidence. For example, Max Hastings claimed of the rioters that “Most have no jobs to go to or exams they might pass. They know no family role models, for most live in homes in which the father is unemployed, or from which he has decamped.” He just assumes that the only people capable of carrying out such acts must be from his self-designated ‘underclass’. He gets away with it because there is no way to verify whether or not a majority of rioters and looters were in fact unemployed or from single parent families.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those involved were far more diverse than Hastings imagines: people of different ages, races and backgrounds. But without harder statistics we cannot tell whether the middle class rioters like the ballerina and the organic chef are exceptional.

What were their targets?
Sean Carey insists, in support of his anti-consumerism theory that “by and large the focus has been on breaking into major electrical retailers like Currys and Dixons, mobile phone chains like Carphone Warehouse, supermarkets including Tesco, jewellers, and top-of-the- range "casual" and sports clothing stores”. Carey is cannier than Hastings, acknowledging exceptions, such as the looting of an independent children’s party store, and suggesting only that this is a ‘by and large’ tendency.

But how can we be sure that this is not just coincidence? Perhaps those are the sorts of shops that happened to be close at hand in city centres. Again, how can we distinguish exception from rule?

At the very least, this analysis is limited. While it can explain why items like phones and trainers were looted, it cannot account for petty thefts and vandalism. Unless we have an idea of what proportion of thefts were of status symbol goods, we can’t appreciate how significant this limitation is.

What were their motivations?
The fundamental question that everybody is trying to get the bottom of is why this happened. The most straightforward way is to ask those involved. Many people have already decided that it cannot have been a deliberate political action, but just selfish wanton criminality. How can they know this without asking people whether they intended this as a political gesture? If these acts are a protest against government cuts, surely people will claim credit for them as such.

The trouble is that we cannot take these motivations at face value. On the one hand, people may lie or misrepresent their motivations to try and excuse or justify their actions. Political protest is a lot more heroic than random violence or greed, and most people prefer to think of themselves as heroes. Moreover, people may not understand the deep lying roots of their motivations. They might tell us that rioting seemed fun or that this was a good way of exorcising frustration, but they might not understand what it is they are so angry about.

All of the proposed explanations of the causes of the riots depend on particular perceptions of the facts of the case. Many of these facts are far from clear. Until somebody systematically collects and examines the evidence, nobody will be qualified to reach any definitive conclusions. It seems to me that a public inquiry is the necessary first step of this process. Hopefully it will go part way to answering the questions I’ve posed here.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Ian Bell incident and the 'spirit of cricket'

I’ve already written a little bit about the position of ethics in sport. About a year ago, I contrasted the football and cycling communities’ reactions to moral dilemmas faced by sportsmen in their field. While nobody raised an eyebrow at German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s refusal to admit he had seen the ball cross his goal line in the World Cup match against England, cycling was shocked by Alberto Contador’s willingness to profit from a rival’s slipped bike chain in the Tour de France.

Both incidents were similar in that they tested the limits of what kind of behaviour is acceptable in pursuit of victory. However, reflecting on the controversy at Trent Bridge yesterday, I now see that there is a significant difference between them.

Neuer’s action was worse than Contador’s because he was complicit in the misapplication of the rules of football. From a formal, legalistic perspective, England were wronged by his actions, since they were denied a legitimate goal. By contrast, in the Contador incident, no rules were broken, and nobody was disadvantaged according to the letter of the law. Rather, it was the more vague ‘spirit of the game’ that had been violated.

In this sense, Contador’s dilemma was rather like M.S. Dhoni’s yesterday. The Indian cricket captain was at the centre of a bizarre episode when his team ran out the English batsman Ian Bell as he walked off, thinking play had ended for tea. India, like Contador, had received what was perceived to be an unfair advantage within the rules of the game. However, Dhoni, unlike Contador, was willing to forfeit this advantage, withdrawing his appeal.

Most people seem to agree that there would have been something wrong about exploiting the Ian Bell incident, and I share the intuition that Dhoni was right to make the decision he made. But what exactly would have been unfair about it?

One possibility is that it is about luck. Bell suffered a freakish stroke of misfortune, and it would have been wrong to profit from it. The ‘spirit of the game’ of cricket demands that teams seek to win in ‘the right way’. That is, by virtue of their superior skill and not as a result of brute luck. Perhaps what troubles us about the Ian Bell incident is that the Indian team failed to dismiss him as a result of their own efforts, and so to get him out as the result of a fluke would have been a hollow victory.

The idea that there is something problematic about gaining a lucky advantage is common to a number of sports. Convention dictates that snooker players should apologise for flukes, and tennis players should say sorry when they benefit from deflections off the net. But of course, in neither sport would the points actually be forfeited, meaning that the apologies often look like meaningless formalities.

In any case, the eradication of luck from sport is both impossibled and undesirable. A huge part of the unpredictability of sport which makes it worth watching sport in the first place is down to the randomness of the ‘run of the ball(s)’. There are so many variables that determine the result of a sporting contest that they could never all be neutralised. Why is capitalising on the Bell incident any worse than taking advantage of winning the coin toss, or helpful weather conditions, which India also did over the course of same the match?

In any case, it is a mistake to chalk the Ian Bell incident up purely to luck. Whether or not it was right to exploit it, Bell - as he himself acknowledges - made a mistake. Young sportsmen are regularly told to ‘play to the whistle’: to maintain full intensity until there is a confirmed break in play. Bell should not have assumed that play was over until it was confirmed by the umpire: he suffered from a culpable lapse in concentration.

Perhaps the problem with the Bell dismissal was the element of deception involved. India got Bell out because they acted as though the ball was dead, and so convinced Bell that it was not in play. However, it seems unlikely that India were actually trying to mislead Bell, rather than just failing to alert him to his error. It is surely demanding too much to expect cricketers to warn their opponents before they make a mistake like Bell’s.

Then again, there is a precedent for such a system of warning in cricket. It is generally agreed that it is against the spirit of the game to ‘Mankad’ a batsman – to run them out if they back up too far – without prior warning. However, there is ample opportunity to warn someone you are about to ‘Mankad’ someone, as this occurs in the middle of a natural break in the game. The Bell incident occurred while the game was in full flow, so it is far from clear how or when it would have been appropriate to tip Bell off.

Moreover, deception is often an essential part of sporting tactics. If misleading your opponent is cheating, this renders a large number of strategies unfair. Maybe it’s that deception about tactics and mental states are legitimate, but about the state of the game are unfair?

I still have the sense that Dhoni was right to call Bell back to the crease. But the difficulty I’m having in pinning down why suggests that it is far from clear what exactly the ‘spirit of cricket’ requires and why.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

The End of Blue Labour?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blogpost about ‘Blue Labour’, the intellectual movement that then seemed perfectly poised to capture the ideological heart of the Labour party. With an apparent endorsement from party leader Ed Miliband, Blue Labour was certainly in the ascendency. Like a cartoon character running off a cliff, however, the past couple of weeks have seen this trajectory first arrested and then reversed, with the Blue Labour brand now in freefall.

It all started with a couple of imprudent remarks by Maurice Glasman, the figurehead of Blue Labour to an interviewer from the Fabian Review. Asked to clarify his stance on immigration, Glasman implied that his position is more extreme than any mainstream politician, suggesting that he would not be averse to an outright freeze. To put this in perspective, Andrew Green, a man whose job (as head of the hardly-liberal Migration Watch) is to oppose immigration, described Glasman’s views as “over the top” and “not practicable”. Rumours quickly emerged that the interview had alienated Glasman’s allies, and ended Blue Labour. And now it seems that Glasman is going into hiding, at least for the summer.

It is not clear whether Blue Labour really is dead, or just in hibernation. However, it seems unlikely that all the ideas developed over the past few months will be so swiftly ditched. So what is worth keeping, and what ought Blue Labour to change about itself? What lessons ought to be learned from the immigration debacle?

Presentation


If nothing else, hopefully this whole episode will rid the movement of its terrible name, which only encourages misunderstanding and draws undesirable connections. Indeed, the impulse which presumably gave someone the idea that ‘Blue Labour’ was a good label is the same one that got Glasman into such trouble: what we might call an overactive sense of irony. Almost everything that came out of the Blue Labour camp seemed to be infused with a self-satisfied air of contradiction, from the name to the oft-repeated slogan of ‘radical conservatism’ to the title of the Blue Labour book. More fundamentally, it fed Glasman’s desire to wind up the left by attacking their icons – from the welfare state to, fatally, immigration.

The Blue Labour message is complicated and controversial enough to have to sell without needlessly alienating people with this off-putting attitude. Use irony too often and nobody knows when you are being serious. It is always tempting to overstate the point to make it seem more urgent and important. However, wilfully antagonising people who may have been sympathetic to elements of the Blue Labour message by exaggerating their differences from them was a mis-step.

Detail

A second flaw of the Blue Labour project exposed by the controversy is the difficulty it has in fleshing out the principles it endorses. A natural response to the arguments put forward by Glasman and co. is to try and work out what exactly they means in practice, what sort of policies it lends itself to. (See, for example, Sunder Katwala’s attempts to spell out a Blue Labour manifesto). How conservative is ‘radical conservatism’? How far does it want to tighten immigration, toughen law and order, retrench gender equality?

In a way, this is an unfair demand. Blue Labour was not intended to produce a detailed set of policy commitments. Its focus is more on the big picture, trying to sketch out a new ideological direction for the party. Blue Labour would have been mistaken, certainly at this early stage of its development, to be bogged down in details. Furthermore, a major plank of the Blue Labour ideology was a fundamental objection to top-down, elite-driven policy. It would have been anathema to the spirit of Blue Labour for the wonks that devised it to hand down a complete ready-made manifesto crafted in a smoke-filled room.

But these excuses exaggerate the distance between big ideas and little ones, between ideology and policy. The reason that people clamour for detail is because it is impossible to make sense of the movement without understanding its implications. It was such a call for clarification that presumably prompted Glasman’s controversial remarks. It seems to me if there were a clearer pre-agreed Blue Labour line on immigration, which need not be too final or detailed, this crisis might have been averted. It might be an idea for Glasman to include setting out clearer definitions of Blue Labour’s policy stances among his summer holiday homework.

Conservatism

The previous two comments could be seen as friendly amendments to the Blue Labour project: this criticism is deeper and more hostile. My final suggestion is for Glasman to tone down, if not eliminate, the Conservative element of Blue Labour.

It seems to me that Blue Labour is a coalition of people with two different gripes with the direction the party has taken. On the one hand, there are those who bemoan the excessive centralisation and statism of modern Labour tactics. On the other, there are critics of its excessive liberalism, who wish Labour to learn once more to love he social conservatism of the working class. And then there’s Glasman, straddling the two.

Hopefully this furore will convince Glasman or his supporters that this right-wing line is a liability. In my previous post, I reported that one of my friends had described Blue Labour as ‘Labour, just more racist’. This was angrily rejected by Marc Stears, who pointed out that it is an absurd charge against someone who has focused so much of his energies on helping illegal immigrants. I’m sure he’s right, but the connection between Blue Labour and racism is one that I’ve heard a number of times from different sources. It doesn’t matter whether the perception is accurate or not, that it exists at all is a major problem for Blue Labour. This is partly a matter of presentation, but the fact that Blue Labour’s agenda can give rise to such misunderstandings is a major source of the disquiet around it.

Glasman’s remark that “Britain is not an outpost of the UN” sits uneasily with the internationalism of many on the left. There have been similar concerns about its apparent lack of feminist credentials. This juncture offers the more liberal of the Blue Labour sympathisers an opportunity to consider whether they really ought to be yoked to Glasman’s conservative project.

Thus the big question for Blue Labour is whether the coalition it represents can be held together, or whether both sides would be better served divorcing and starting from scratch.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Class Consciousness

Last week was results week – and within minutes of discovering my mark for the year, one of my classmates had texted me, asking how I had done. This irritated me intensely, but why should it have?

If I were certain that the enquiry were motivated entirely by a concern for my success, then I would not have been so bothered. The same question from my parents didn’t upset me. In fact, I would have been disappointed if they hadn’t asked or cared. The problem with my classmate asking was that I wasn’t sure if he was wanting me to do well or badly.

A significant portion of my annoyance was almost certainly projection. It could well be that his motives were pure, and that I did him a great disservice. But what really bothered me that I was equally curious about how everybody else had done. And while this was partly out of a genuine concern for them, it was also because I wanted to know if I had beaten them. And this was the intention I had imputed to my classmate. But even if it is true that he only wanted to know everybody else’s mark so that he could figure out his relative position, perhaps he is still better than me for being willing to admit this, rather than denying his curiosity and judging those who failed to do the same.

In any case, is it such a bad impulse, this competitive desire to know how well you have done compared to everybody else? Many would deny that there is anything wrong with it. The first thing my parents asked about after my mark was where this placed me in the class. They thought it natural that I should know this, and that I should want to know.

Katherine Birbalsingh, the ex-teacher and apologist for Conservative education policy, clearly agrees with this approach. In her book, she fumes at the politically correct teachers and administrators who try to frustrate these competitive instincts, and avoid pitting children against each other. When she put the question to her students, she claims, each and every one of them wanted to know their class rank. Even the hooligans at the back of the class apparently stopped stabbing each other for long to insist that they were desperate to know how far down the table they would be.

Obviously, I’m sceptical as to whether children would really want this competition. But the real question is whether it is good for them. Should we embrace our competitive tendencies, or row away from them?

There are a couple of motivations at play here. On the one hand, there is the zero-sum competitive game. People enjoy it when they succeed where others fail, and the failure of others is integral to this pleasure. Winning in sport would be meaningless unless there were a loser.

On the other hand, we might be interested in how others have done as a benchmark against which to measure our own achievements. If I have got x% in an exam, how great an achievement was that? The easiest way to put my mark in perspective is to work out from others what an average mark looks like.

Both of these aims may be problematic. It is almost certainly the case that education is often competitive. Coming top of your class may be necessary to get the edge over other people who want the same jobs or positions as you. But for many people, such ‘getting an edge’ is not the primary reason for education. Rather, it is to learn as much as possible. If these people instrumentalise knowledge, seeking it only to have more than other people, they have lost sight of the original reason they valued it.

If, instead, the intention is only to get a reference point, then looking at other people may mislead you. If you’re surrounded by people naturally more gifted than you, excessive comparison with them is likely to leave you demoralised and undermine your self-esteem. If you are a big fish in a small pond, you are likely to become complacent. Surely it is more fruitful if we set our own targets, and try to measure our success against more relevant benchmarks, like our own past performance.

On balance, I suspect that my wishy-washy liberal instincts are right on this one. I may not be able to eliminate the tendency try to frame my achievements against those of others. But I think I am right to suppress it, and to be embarrassed by it. I do not want to be the sort of person who exults in others’ frustration. Quite apart from the fact that I think that this is bad, it is likely to poison my relationships with others. The moment I start seeing classmates as competition, I lose the willingness to genuinely cooperate with them. Of course, cooperation between two mutually interested individuals is perfectly possible, and often rational. But do I really want to be the sort of person who helps people only grudgingly, and only insofar as it will help be, and no more? That, I fear, is the person at the bottom of the slippery slope.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Conservatism in Everyday Life

There is an argument my girlfriend and I return to from time to time, though thankfully for the moment it seems to be a purely academic one. It’s about marriage. My official line is that I don’t see the point, and that it is a farcical formality to make such a big show of commitment when people today see deep commitment as a precondition of marriage. Her view is that it’s a tastefully done wedding, professing your love in front of the people you care about, is a nice thing.

The strange thing is that the force of our opinions far outweighs the commitment our arguments would seem to suggest. Why do we care so much? I realised one day that in the subtext of our dispute was hidden the same essential disagreement that has divided radicals and conservatives for generations. Part of the reason that I feel so strongly about marriage is a mistrust of anything that is so established, and yet she sees this conventionality as a virtue.

For the conservatives, the fact that everybody is doing something, and that they continue to do it, is a consideration in its favour. If so many people feel that way, the chances are they know something we don’t. The radical mind spurts off in the other direction. We know people have a tendency to fall prey to mindless dogma, and the more deep-rooted a custom is, the less likely it is to have been subjected to critical scrutiny. If everybody is doing it, the chances are that most of them haven’t stopped long to think about whether they really ought to do it.

This argument is exactly the one that Michael Oakeshott wades into in his famous Conservative critique of ‘Rationalism in Politics’. According to Oakeshott, a major error that the Rationalist (or Radical, as I have called them) needs the Conservative to put them right on, is that “Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man”. Conservatives appreciate that excessive haste to be critical can blind us to the wisdom of past generations.

It’s not always my girlfriend that it is cast in the conservative role. She often complains that I have an irrational aversion to certain types of change. If she gets her hair cut, I complain. I never want to get new clothes. I have a definite tendency to find myself in ruts (or comfortable grooves, depending on the spin you want to out on it), with no intention of leaving them. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ isn’t just a piece of practical wisdom, it is also Conservative doctrine. Again, Oakeshott puts it best:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

All this is peculiar because one of the few people I know to be more virulently, emphatically anti-Conservative (in terms of the political party and ideology) than me is my girlfriend. Is this an anomaly, or are dispositional conservatism and ideological Conservatism entirely distinct? It would seem peculiar if the two were entirely unrelated, since the ideology seems merely to apply the dispositional to the political and social, rather than just the personal sphere.

The study of political psychology, and in particular, the characteristics of the Conservative mind is currently a fashionable area of research, but I’m not sure how thoroughly the connection between the disposition and ideology has been investigated. If nobody has asked this question yet, it would be interesting to find an answer.

This also raises a broader question about how our everyday personalities relate to our moral and political beliefs. For example, just anecdotally, my experience is that libertarians tend to be more optimistic than those who favour a big state. One obvious explanation for this is that statists fear spontaneous action is bound to result in disaster, whereas their opponents see it as promising and in need protection. Perhaps this is another area where further research is needed.



Thursday, 14 July 2011

A level playing field?

I recently came across this passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

“Some men feel threatened by women’s competition. In Hebdo-Latin the other day, a student declared: ‘Every woman student who takes a position is stealing a place from us’. That student never questioned his rights over this world. Economic interests are not the only ones in play. One of the benefits that oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior”.

These words, particularly the idea of mistaking unjust privileges for rights, put me in mind of Iain Duncan Smith’s comments a couple of weeks back. Then, Duncan Smith tried to make the case for stronger immigration controls on the basis that too many jobs that could be filled by Britons are taken by foreigners.

One argument he made was that “We have to ensure that our immigration system works in the interests of Britain”. This claim is controversial in itself. Firstly, I definitely do not think it is obvious that British immigration policy should be determined solely by the national interest. Taken literally, this would imply that Britain ought to be indifferent to the suffering of refugees, for example. Furthermore, it is debateable whether tighter immigration restrictions are in fact in the British national interest: this opens up a whole host of questions regarding migrants’ contributions in tax and economic activity.

I do not want to enter either of these moral or economic disputes here. The argument Duncan Smith made which intrigues me most is his claim that further restricting migration is necessary to create “a level playing field” for the British unemployed. This is a point which, like that of de Beauvoir’s student, crumbles into incoherence on the slightest reflection.

The metaphor of the ‘level playing field’ is a fairly straightforward and unambiguous one. It implies that there is a competition, and that one set of the competitors has an unfair advantage over the others. What IDS is implying is that migrants are better off than the British unemployed in ways that the do not deserve, just as the football team kicking downhill have done nothing to earn their fortune.

This is perverse because it seems like the exact opposite of the truth. Unemployed Britons have certain advantages many migrants could only dream of: educational support and opportunity, the security of the welfare state. Perhaps most significantly, most British workers have a linguistic and cultural advantage over foreigners. What IDS fails to ask is why British companies would want to hire foreigners when bosses and customers would almost certainly prefer to interact with people who sound, look and act like them.

Of course, all this is even before we consider the added handicap faced by those outside the EU of having to jump through the various hoops necessary to get a visa to the UK.

The only sense I can make of the claim that economic competition in the UK is skewed against Britons is perhaps in the possibility that their wage claims are ‘undercut’ by people willing to work for less money. But isn’t that exactly what economic competition is supposed to be – different providers jockeying to offer their goods and services at lower prices than their rivals? Working for lower wages than other workers is no more ‘cheating’ than a football team scoring more goals than their opponent.

To reiterate, I am not saying that economic competition should be the only thing we care about, or that workers undercutting each others’ wages is good or desirable. All I’m saying is that far from subverting competition, it is essential to it.

And all this gets to the heart of the tension in the Conservatives’ position on immigration. More than the other parties, they are supposed to be the ones with greatest faith in the virtues of the market. And yet in their strict limitations on the freedom of the labour market, they strangle the economic competition they profess to favour.

Friday, 27 May 2011

‘If the truth offends, it’s our job to offend’?

This past week there’s been a bit of a furore over the work of LSE psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. Last Monday, Kanazawa used his Psychology Today blog to speculate about the reasons why black women were ‘objectively’ less attractive than women from other races. Unsurprisingly, this sparked outrage, with the student union voting unanimously to campaign for his dismissal. The response was predictable, but what, if anything, did Kanazawa do to deserve it? Was the objection to his flawed methodology, or is it the case that some questions are off limits? If it is the latter, then how can we respond to Kanzawa’s own argument that ‘If the truth offends, it’s our job to offend’?

As it happens, there are strong reasons to think that Kanazawa was nowhere near the truth – the past week has seen his methodology savaged by his peers. Moreover, there is reason to be suspicious of Kanazawa’s motives. His past work – from linking the poor health to poor to low intelligence to asking ‘Are all women essentially prostitutes?’ – shows that Kanazawa has form when it comes to seeking out outrageous conclusions. Numerous people have accused Kanazawa of hiding behind statistics to justify his own prejudices. Indeed, the speed with which he moves from the proposition ‘black women are perceived to be less attractive than other races’ to the proposition ‘black women are objectively less attractive than other races’ is definitely grounds for suspicion.

Imagine, though, another scientist –a better one than Kanazawa – who was interested in the same subject. Suppose we can know that they harbour no racial prejudices whatsoever (the fact that this is the sort of thing we can only know in thought experiments is a bit of a problem for this argument). They are simply pursuing their academic curiosity wherever it takes them. Suppose doing a similar, but better designed experiment, they discover one race is commonly perceived to be less attractive than the others. They are not so stupid as to presume this is of any objective significance, but still see this subjective tendency as a fact worthy of explanation. Is this research still objectionable?

Some people may dogmatically resist the idea that there can be such natural differences between races. This seems to me mistaken. However implausible we find an idea, it is a betrayal of the scientific method to prevent other people investigating it. The notion that it is in our interests to allow others to try and falsify what we are certain is true is as compelling an argument today as when John Stuart Mill first made it in 1859.

However, one of the criticisms that could be levelled against Mill is that his faith that the open competition of ideas is always beneficial, because it will always tend to truth, is na├»ve. This argument is suspect on two grounds. First, it is not obvious that truth always will triumph in market place of ideas – when the rich and powerful seek to mislead, it is difficult to resist. The second problem is that certain truths may cause great harm.

If it were the truth that one race is inferior to another (which, for the record, I don’t think is the case), this might be just such a truth. In the first place this would cause great harm to the self-esteem of members of that race. This could make them less confident, and so reluctant to push themselves forward in the public sphere. It would also likely poison interracial relations. It seems likely that many people would not appreciate that just because a racial difference holds on average, nothing can be inferred about the attributes of any given member of that race. While this is of course less likely with a feature like attractiveness, where individuals can be evaluated rapidly on their own merits, it is a deeper worry for things like intelligence.

Of course, the deeper objection is that norms of beauty are socially and culturally contingent. It seems absurd, as Kanazawa comes perilously close to suggesting, that there can be such a thing as ‘objectively attractive’. It is, of course, an objective fact that some people are perceived to be more attractive by more people than others. However, it could be argued that research that takes these perceptions for given, and does not seek to challenge them, only perpetuates and legitimates these beauty norms. The scientist is supposed to be a detached observer – when their research impacts upon the things they study in such a significant way, it certainly means that there are ethical considerations in play. As soon as scientific research has these sorts of effects, I believe, we can no longer just presume that there are no questions off limits.

At the end of the day, while we should be reluctant to restrict the questions it is permissible for the scientist to ask, it does not seem unreasonable to wonder whether certain questions are worth asking. In morally and politically charged issues like these it is imperative that research is exceptionally well-designed, and conclusions drawn from exceedingly powerful evidence. It seems to me that probing racial differences involves a degree of effort and rigour that far outstrips the scientific interest of the questions.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Don't Get Any More Big Ideas

Liberated or cut loose (it all depends on your perspective) from the apron strings of Blair and Brown, the Labour party is in a period of identity crisis. Dismayed by election defeat and the prospect of five years in opposition, it has been forced to decide what and who it is for, to search for a new vision to inspire voters to return them to power.

The leading contender in this fight for the soul of the Labour party is a movement called ‘Blue Labour’. It is the product of Labour peer Maurice Glasman, ennobled by Ed Miliband, and the Oxford Political Theorist Marc Stears, an old college friend of the party leader (who also happens to be one of my tutors).

Last week saw the clearest statement of Blue Labour’s principles and ideas. An e-book, The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox, collecting papers from the set of conferences where the doctrine was developed, was released. Most significantly, Ed Miliband provided his clearest endorsement of the group to date, by contributing its preface.


Before discussing the substance of Blue Labour, a couple of points about its presentation. Firstly, the name is awful. The people behind Blue Labour clearly enjoy the idea of paradox (judging from the title of their book, and the tendency to describe their position as ‘radical conservatism’), and so seem tickled by the possibility that the future of the Labour party is to embrace (small ‘c’) conservatism. But to an electorate that thinks politicians are already too similar, and many of whom despise the Conservatives, emphasising cross-party agreement, however superficial, seems like a bad move. Moreover, the name is an allusion to the ‘Red Tory’ movement in the Conservative party. This a) makes it seem like Labour couldn’t even be bothered to come up with its own modernisation process, so it nicked the Tories’; and b) highlights the similarity of Blue Labour to an ideology that really isn’t all that different, undermining the originality of the philosophy.

Secondly, much like the Big Society, this complex intellectual trend risks being utterly lost in translation. A friend described his impression of it as being ‘Labour, just more racist’, a notion not helped by all the talk of ‘family, faith and flag’. Blue Labour, like the Red Tory movement, is critical of both the state and capitalism. However, if, as with the Red Tories, only the first part of this message is heard, they will be seen as traitors to the left. To many people politics is still just about left and right, and the inevitable inference will be that this is a straightforward move to the right. Indeed, Billy Bragg’s knee-jerk response is probably a reasonable preview of how Blue Labour will be received by the left.

My focus here, though, is not how Blue Labour will be perceived, but what it actually stands for. Stuart White helpfully draws out five core elements of the Blue Labour philosophy:

1) Decentralised ownership
2) The conservation of English identity[1]
3) Community organising
4) Hostility to moral abstraction
5) A desire to limit the welfare state

The separation of these ideas fails to reflect how interrelated they are. The argument is that Labour’s excessive abstraction and recourse to the bureaucratic state has alienated grassroots membership. An approach emphasising a common identity and decentralised ownership is offered as an alternative, to organise and galvanise the left. However, it is analytically useful to take them in turn.

Decentralised ownership seems to me the least problematic element of the Blue Labour manifesto. There is a lot to be gained from distributing the ownership of wealth, not least as a corrective to power imbalances. This is closely tied in with demands for greater workplace democracy, and a greater stake for employees in their firms. The main problem with this commitment is that it is hardly distinctive, given David Cameron’s apparent desire to spread mutualism. However, if Blue Labour can demonstrate that their dedication to this ideal is deeper than that of the Conservatives, this may well turn out to be one of their strengths.

The strident nationalism of some of the Blue Labour writers is its most eye-catching and alarming feature. Maurice Glasman has fanned these flames with his claim that the Labour party ought to do more to engage supporters of the English Defence League. Jonathan Rutherford, proclaiming that ‘The future is conservative’, has argued:

“In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no-one. It champions humanity in general but no-one in particular. It favours multiculturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values but nothing specific.”

The trouble is that there is little indication of what, behind the rhetoric, they are really after. Immigration is usually held up as the clearest example of Labour’s lack of connection with its working class support base. Yet for the past few years Labour has been leading a risible race to the bottom over which party can out-tough the on immigration. If Blue Labour want to further restrict the opportunities of those born in less favourable circumstances to better themselves and take advantage of the things we take for granted, that alone is cause for shame.

Connected to this is an emphasis on social conservatism, which seems more closely associated with Glasman than the other theorists. Again, it’s not apparent what he wants. If it is toughness on crime, Labour are already the most authoritarian of the major parties. If it is to roll back gender equality and gay rights, well, that’s deeply worrying.

Most bizarre is Glasman’s Tudor obsession which almost seems like a parody of conservative nostalgia. A man who says things like ‘Selling Dover to the French is mad. I wonder what Henry VIII would really think about that’ is beyond satire.

Blue Labour is on much surer ground with its focus on community organising. After all, it has strong links with the successful ‘London Citizens’ organisation. Marc Stears makes a persuasive case for a vibrant grassroots Labour movement. He observes that in the past the party has tended to swing between ideological purism, with total disregard for electoral consequences, and a desperate willingness to do anything to win power. Focusing exclusively on means has prevented Labour achieving its desired ends. Yet allowing these ends to justify any means has distorted the party’s character. Stears insists that means and ends can be reconciled by authoritative leadership that is willing to delegate power to the broader party, and release the political potential of the mass membership. He looks to the example of the early Labour movement when:

“Constituency parties provided meeting places for those with different opinions and different interests who nonetheless wished to discover shared interests. The broader party then brought these geographical groupings into alliance with industrial groupings through its connection with the trades unions. The socialist societies and affiliated organizations then further brought people with other differences in aspirations and outlooks into the coalition. A series of meetings, rituals, events, and struggles cemented the relationships, ranging from annual conference to festivals, picket lines, marches, galas, and demonstrations. In the early years of the party, commentators even talked of developing a ‘religion of socialism’.”

Stears argues that unleashing this potential will not just improve the party’s prospects of power, but help it to live its ideals in opposition. Through the struggle and development of this mass movement, Labour will develop the solidarity and strong relationships at the heart of its ideology.

Stears’ vision is certainly an appealing one, but I am sceptical about its achievability. Essentially what he requires is for the Labour party to inspire collective action. But as Jon Stokes realises, this involves reforming a general cultural of apathy and disenchantment: “Currently, more people seek meaning and purpose from reality television and celebrity role models than they do from politics. The explosion in life coaching and coaching in the workplace is similarly driven by the desire to make sense of things for oneself, in order to have more control and influence over one’s life and experience”. I think Stears and Stokes have succeeded in identifying a major problem in British society – excessive individualism, collective distrust, a genuine lack of meaningful relationships. Stears complains that far too many of our interactions are ‘transactional’ – we do business with one another, rather than engaging at a deeper level, and he is absolutely correct. My worry is that it is beyond the means of the Labour party to redress this issue.

Primarily, this comes from pessimism about the capacity of politics to resist these powerful social forces. However, in their rejection of abstract arguments, I think Blue Labour have only weakened their ability to inspire people into action. The theorists seem fairly unambiguous on this point: the route to grassroots revival is to engage with specific, concrete, local fights, rather than appealing to big ideas like ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, or (they really seem to hate this) ‘equality’. Stokes says, “if Labour is to have a future, it will be not so much as the meaning-maker itself, but as the facilitator or enabler of meaning-making, of the human capacity to identify problems and to create solutions from within”. And Stears cites approvingly the fact that

“Walt Whitman, once said that in a democracy citizens ‘look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, “Who are you?”’. And that is the question that Jonathan [Rutherford] urges us all to ask too. Who are you to tell us what to do? Who are you to tell us what social justice involves, or fairness, or freedom, or equality? Who are you to say what people should aspire towards and what they should seek to avoid? These are decisions that must be made by real people in the contexts of their real lives. They are not to be answered for the public by anyone else, be that by well-meaning academics or politicians or other experts”

This approach strikes me as mistaken for two reasons. Firstly, I think it will be really difficult for the Labour party to attach itself seamlessly onto such grassroots movements. Stears is seems desperate to institutionalise spontaneous action. But any effort to co-opt groups campaigning for things like saving public libraries is likely to be seen as cynical opportunist party politics and resisted. Stears’ broader point, of course, is that it is an awful thing that the Labour party should come to be viewed with such suspicion, but I don’t know how that can be changed in the short term.

My second objection is that in their haste to junk abstract slogans about justice and equality, Labour would be rejecting one of the best resources at their disposal to develop enthusiasm. I’m just not convinced that the small-scale everyday injustices that people face are really more motivational than the big picture. To really inspire people, I would have thought it would be better to offer a grand vision of how to really make things better, fairer, more just.

Notice that I called them ‘everyday injustices’. One problem with the Blue Labour war on abstraction is that it seems to rely on a false dichotomy. The concrete, specific problems that people face are instantiations of the things that people invoke these big concepts against. I would have thought that the art of a great leader would be to connect the two: to show how the small struggles we can fight together form part of a broader fight for justice, equality, whatever.

The worst example of this type of thinking come in the form of the repeated objections to Labour’s apparent obsession with the Gini coefficient. (Odd, given that the Gini coefficient increased under the Labour government). Jon Wilson complains:

“On the left, our idea of equality is based around the measurement of the average statistical attributes possessed by this or that section of the population, rather than the real experience people have of hardship in particular places at particular points in time.”

This seems to rather misunderstand the point of statistics, which are there to systematically collect and compare different ‘real experiences’. Nobody cares about the Gini coefficient per se - they care about the hardship represented by rising inequality.

The final big plank of Blue Labour is an attack on the centralised welfare state. Labour’s obsession with using bureaucrats and technocrats to achieve their goals, they say, has left people passive and disempowered. This argument is another which could have been lifted straight from David Cameron, and indeed it is the rationale behind his ‘big society’ project. The political dangers of this argument are obvious: not only does it mean agreeing with the Conservatives, but agreeing with their wildly unpopular efforts to break down the state. Like Cameron’s plans, the idea is more or less reasonable as a corrective to Labour’s obsession with the state, but needs to remember that there are certain things that the state is best equipped to do.


In fact, this seems like a good summary of the Blue Labour project in general. It has identified certain flaws in post-war Labour thinking – excessive centralisation, abstraction, and statism – and reacts against these. However, taken too seriously, Blue Labour risks throwing away hard fought and valuable achievements.


[1] There is an unfortunate tendency in the Blue Labour papers to address England, as opposed to the UK, one that the Labour party would be advised to avoid, given their dependence on the support ofthe rest of the country