Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Truth In Conservatism

The classic conservative critique of liberal and indeed progressive thought more generally is to accuse it of abstraction, of being seduced by the perfect solvent of pure reason, and finding that, under its influence, all that is solid melts into air, including the capacity to apply the solvent in the first place. Burke, whom it is probably sensible to regard as the first proper conservative, unleashed a potent anti-rationalist rhetoric on the common sense of Tom Paine, and the idea that the diligent application of reason to all aspects of our lives might strip the world of meaning, demystify it, leave us alienated, has been a constant trope of conservative and quasi-conservative thought since. Hegel, Weber and Durkheim made use of it in some form or another, as does Arendt, and it reappears in the communitarian critique of Rawlsian liberalism, the focus of which is on the need for particular ethical practices to give shape not only to our personal but also to our political lives, rather than the allegedly universalistic foundations of liberalism. In this particular form, Blimpish responds to my comments on his (?) discussion with Jarndyce at the Sharpener, imputing to liberalism abstraction in a variety of forms, but most notably perhaps individualism and universalism.

I think the communitarian critique generally misses the point: whilst MacIntyre's ethics are convincing, the crude psychological reductionism in his attacks both on Rawls and Nozick does him no credit at all whilst, unfortunately, striking me as not being so far off typical of the tone which communitarians adopted when criticising Rawls and other liberals. However, there is a truth in the conservative critique outlined here: pure reason cannot be applied to everything, at risk of undermining itself. The problem for conservatives, politically at least, is that liberals don't actually do this - which is, perhaps, another debate - but epistemologically, they have a point. At least since the linguistic turn, and perhaps before - Kant, the archetypical abstract analytical philosopher, did write a book called the 'Critique of Pure Reason', after all -Von Neurath's metaphor of rebuilding a boat whilst at sea has been taken very seriously: to apply reason to reason itself, or indeed to any body or practice of knowledge as a whole simultaneously, would be to misunderstand how the critique based on reason proceeds. Unless we have something solid, some yardstick by which to measure our beliefs against as they undergo that critique, it does become a kind of philosopher's stone, since a critique which doubts everything can have no standard of success, and hence will judge all unworthy. It can have no standard of success because anything which aspires to become a standard of success can itself be subjected to the question, in an infinite regress of corrosive doubt. Of course, even the standard of reason itself can fall under suspicion in this way, and once it has, there is little that can be done to save it: the philosopher's stone becomes a black hole which eventually collapses into nothingness. This anti-foundationalist impulse that not everything can be put to the question at once is the truth in conservatism. I'm skeptical of there being any other truth, but open to persuasion.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Thorpe Vs. Everyone Else Apart From Pietersen

England got hammered by Australia yesterday, although all the damage had been done on Saturday really, when the last three wickets added over a hundred runs and England collapsed from 80-odd for none to 120-odd for five. About the only bright point of the match from England's perspective was the batting of Pietersen, to whom I am now converted, although Harmison did bowl well too. With this in mind, I renounce half the view I expressed here, that bringing Pietersen into the Test Side was not a good idea, since he'd get found out in Test Cricket. However given the fairly bloody woeful batting performance from the rest of the top order, I am not going to renounce the other half of the argument from that post: England would have quite obviously benefitted from Thorpe's steely-mindedness in both innings over the weekend. As Atherton said on commentary over the weekend, Pietersen should have been picked for Bell against Bangladesh, since presumably little that was not known about him from the South African series was learnt against Australia. I'm quite happy to admit that I said nothing of the sort at the time, and that it's inevitably much easier to make better decisions in hindsight, but such a decision would have avoided treating either Thorpe or Bell badly. The alternative, I suppose, would have been to drop Hoggard or Giles, and lengthen the batting line-up, which does seem a little vulnerable with Flintoff at six. Still, too late now, isn't it: England have treated a player who has not only suffered rather a lot in their cause, but also been typically been very successful against the Australians, really badly and rather stupidly.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


John Band points out, first, that shooting someone who was followed out of a flat which was under surveillance, and then ran away from five burly men chasing them, in an area not unknown from street crime, is a) not exactly how an ideal police force would operate and b) not too disimilar to the actions of the beloved Met in the past, and, second, that lots of people tell lots of lies about the level of crime, so many lies that you might be tempted to think they had some ulterior motive for doing so. Also, Chris Dillow points out some problems with utilitarianism, and we all know how much I like that.

Dialects and Languages

Pearsall links to a discussion - well, more of an argument - he had with someone about whether Ebonics - Black American English - is a language or a dialect. The criteria being - where resort to the essentially correct in terms of usage, but hardly very helpful, 'a language is a dialect with an army' is not used - seem to be periodically mutual incomprehensibility and somewhat distinct linguistic roots. Yet those criteria, applied strictly, would make Geordie a language, since it apparently has more Norse in it than is typical of Standard British English, and is periodically rather difficult to understand. But that would seem to collapse the very idea of a dialect altogether, since, by any reasonable standard, Geordie, which is to a very large degree parasitic on Standard British English, is surely only a dialect. Because I am not familiar with Ebonics, I'm in no position to judge whether it is appropriately like Geordie or not. I think, though, that if we are going accept a version of periodic mutual incomprehensibility and somewhat distinct linguistic roots as criteria for deciding on whether forms of speech count as languages or dialects, even if that version requires quite extensive levels of incomprehensibility and distinct linguistic roots, that there are rather a lot more langauges than is conventionally thought.

For example, it would suggest that most Scots are at least bilingual, in Standard British English and their regional Scottish English derivative, and that not all of those Scots are bilingual in the same two languages, that is, that the Scottish English derivatives spoken in different parts of Scotland are not the same language. It would also suggest that not only is the speech typical of Northern Italy a different language from that typical of Southern Italy, but that the speech typical of Naples is a different language from that typical of Bari, just as the speech typical of Florence is a different language from that typical of Venice.

This may sound implausible, I grant. However, the Scots my mother speaks on the phone to her sister is not, I assure you, thick: I have no difficulty understanding it. Yet it is apparently very difficult to understand if you haven't grown up hearing various relatives speak like that all the time (I confess bemusement at this: apparently my mum also has a Scots accent when she speaks Standard British English, but I've never noticed this really). However, despite there being this not-thick version of my mum's Scots which Londoners certainly find periodically incomprehensible which I find as easy to understand as the person reading the news, there are thick versions of the Scots spoken by my mum which I really, really struggle to understand. There are also other forms of Scots I have been known to struggle with. Ergo, criteria of mutual incomprehensibility certainly fulfilled (thin version of the speech periodically incomprehensible to competent speakers of Standard British English; thick version of the speech periodically incomprehensible to some of those who understand the thin version; thick versions of different Scots speech periodically incomprehensible to some of those who understand the thin version of this Scots speech), and presumably, that mutual incomprehensibility comes from somewhere, so there, I would assume, are substantive linguistic differences. So the case for Scots seems strong.

Obviously, I can't offer such strong ancedotal evidence for the claims about Italian, since more or less all Italian is incomprehensible to me, unless it is spoken as one would to a small and particularly unintelligent toddler. However, Wikipedia list 33 langauges spoken in Italy. Whilst not all of them are, as it were, dialects of Italian, most of them are, and whilst perhaps not all of them are different enough to count as full-blown languages, some of them are. Sicilian, for example, is different enough from Standard Italian that thick Sicilian has sometimes to be dubbed or subtitled in Italy, while the three versions of the Lord's Prayer reproduced here are all significantly different. It is not an unconventional opinion amongst scholars of Italian, for example, to say 'there is no such thing as Italian', meaning, teaching someone from a manual of standard Italian and expecting them to understand everyday speech anywhere in Italy would be optimistic. This makes sense if you think that standard Italian was, until the eighteenth century, a more or less solely literary language, based on late medieval poetry, and that the peninsula was not united until the mid-nineteenth century, meaning that the speeches of different parts of it were exposed to quite different influences and had quite different pressures operating on them.

I think perhaps the most helpful way of thinking about whether it would be most helpful to think about whether a form of speech is a dialect or a language is to ask whether someone who had learnt the langauge the speech seems to be a dialect of solely from hearing canonical standard forms would usually understand the speech. In order to remain a dialect, a form of speech must, like Geordie, be generally comprehensible to someone who speaks the language it is a dialect of but is only familiar with the standard form of that language. If it is not generally comprehensible to such a person - as almost all regional dialects of Italian would be to someone with only standard Italian, and as thick Scots is to many Britons - then it is another language. Whether or not that is true of Ebonics is a question I couldn't answer, although any attempt to answer it should bear in mind that, of course, there is no empirical test for it, as there is no-one who only knows a language in its canonical standard form.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Various Things

Firstly, if this is true, I, like rather a lot of people in Britain I think, will be not very happy indeed. On the topic of SNAFU, I suppose one difference here is that the Iraqi generals aren't surviving on condensed milk and an apparently endless supply of rollies. At least we have that to be thankful for. Which is so much better than not having spectacularly screwed up an occupation or wasted vast sums of money.

In keeping with my 'the root-causers are on to something here, even if it's not what they think it is' line, Chris Bertram has a nice analogy indicating that, at least as a general rule, the claim that the full responsibility for morally disgusting acts should be passed onto the perpetrator is wrong. Governments have a duty to keep their citizens safe. Fulfilling that duty means being very careful when deciding whether to take acts which would predictably provoke others to take acts which would place citizens at risk. Just as a government, for example, has a responsibility to ensure that the dangerously criminally insane are kept from causing anyone harm, and we would criticise it were it to fail in that responsibility, it had better have fairly good reasons for doing something - a category which of course can include acts of omission - which places its citizens at a higher level of risk than not doing it, or doing something else.

Balkinization reminds us that religions other than Islam have 'inspired' terrorist attacks in the West recently, and Juan Cole points out the disparity in the treatment of the two. Juan Cole also makes some rather apposite points about what does and does not count as appeasement, asking why it is, for example, that it would be appeasement to 'give in' to Al'Qaida, but wasn't appeasement to 'give in' to the Stern Gang.

Pearsall makes some sensible points about the invoking the tolerance of various Muslim societies in the past as a defence of various intolerances in parts of contemporary Islam, but I think misses part of the point of that invoking. I think that part of the point of the invoking is to show that Islam is not monolithically intolerant, just as pointing to the levels scientific and philosophical sophistication in the medieval Middle East gives the lie to the idea of Islam as necessarily backward. The point is not to excuse present crimes by past good behaviour, but to point to the possibility of future good behaviour by virtue of similar policies in the past, as it were. Also, on the 'the end of the Ottoman Empire led to nationalist pogroms', an example of a multi-ethnic empire falling apart which didn't lead to violence would be, I suspect, rather hard to find, just as something might be gathered from the implicit comparison with Nazi Germany.

Jarndyce and Blimpish have an interesting post up at the Sharpener about the appropriate policies to adopt towards the Muslim community in Britain in the aftermath of the London bombings - I'm not going to call them 7/7: bloody stupid Americanism - which gets quite philosophical. Blimpish makes two quasi-philosophical critiques of the liberalism which he thinks will fail to deal adequately the undoubted challenges that policy towards Britain's Muslims will have to deal with - reducing the number of imams with backgrounds in the radical Islam of Saudi Arabia, for example, and countering such teaching where it does exist - both related to liberalism's alleged excessive individualism.

The first is not so much a critique of liberalism, as a critique of the alleged historical origins of liberalism in the radical Protestantism of the Reformation, to which Blimpish attributes a kind of Manichaeanian desire to cleanse the world, a desire absent in religions which have interpretative traditions, as Catholicism does. The individualism, which Blimpish argues is shared by Islam, lies in the lack of holistic, measured and compromising interpretation of the various sacred texts, which then opens them to being taken out of context and distorted, as there is no authority to provide a check on radical re-readings. I'm suspicious of this claim, on three grounds: firstly, if you take Locke as the founder of modern liberalism - as you should - there is nothing distinctively Protestant, and indeed much from the Catholic natural law tradition, in liberalism, something Quentin Skinner has been arguing fairly persuasively for some time; secondly, many of the most infamous example of Manichaeanian indifference to the corrupt world are Catholic, most notably perhaps the order on the capture of Carcassonne during the Abligensian Crusade, 'kill them all: God will know his own' (examples could be multiplied however); thirdly, religions are, by definition, not borne with centuries of authoratitive interpretation guiding readings of their doctrines, so such interpretations must have evolved over time, indicating that their evolution, if it would be as good as Blimpish claims - something I am skeptical of, but not openly challenging - could happen again.

The second of Blimpish's challenges is more direct. He points to the communitarian critique of liberalism as unable to build the sense of community on which a political society, if it is to last, must rest, and, relatedly, to liberalism's universalism, which ignores the particularities of those who make up the society in question, and hence alienates them. I'm dubious about the empirical claim that this critique rests on, since it's not clear that a government needs to engage in deliberate attempts at community building - in ways that a liberal couldn't endorse - in order for such a sense of community to come into being, but more interested in the philosophical side of the critique. I think Blimpish, and communitarians generally, stray onto the wrong side of the distinction between the political and the ethical. Politics is about dealing with difference: if everyone was alike, there would be significantly less, and perhaps no, need for the careful balancings of competing interests and values that political action intrinsically involves. That difference, liberals recognise, can only be dealt with by taking the features which all share simply as members of a political body, a bundle of characteristics related to agency, the very same agency which results in difference. Manifestations of that agency in practice may be particular to individual societies, but the capacity for agency itself is not significantly particularistic.

To require membership of a community larger than that which accepts, at root, these sorts of claims and their consequences - freedom of speech and conscience, from arbitrary imprisonment, entitlement to enough resources to be the single most purposeful agent in your own life, and so on - would be to take the politics out of politics: the difference that makes politics necessary, the disagreement about how individuals should live their lives, is eliminated. Communitarians are fond of using the family as a metaphor for the state, and a particularly idealised version of the family too, but this is deeply misleading metaphor: ideally, a family is bound together by bonds of love and affection, but there is no need or even reason for me to have similar concern for the doings or success of other British citizens, beyond that they should not have rightful claims denied.

Less complicatedly but still philosophically, Will Wilkinson lays into Brad DeLong about Utilitarianism again. He also has a bit of a go about Layard, citing Coase, who advocates trading to equilibria in order to secure rights. This, to my mind makes him rather like a utilitarian: utilitarians think that the satisfaction of the sadistic murderer should be taken into account when considering policy, and Coase thinks that enough money should given to the sadistic murderer to offset their dissatisfaction at not being able to torture to death. Both of these positions are morally repugnant, and both should be rejected (edited for drunkeness).

On a non-philosophical note, Gideon Haigh points out what has been and hopefully is no longer, one of the most important advantages the Aussies have had over England is that they're mentally stronger, not only in the sense that they stand up to pressure better, but in that they're prepared to go that little bit further for everything. The quasi-ancedotal bit about the difference between Gough and McGrath's attitude to batting illustrates this quite well.

Finally, having seen the first film, thought it was nostaglic, class-ridden, jolly hockeysticks tripe - a kind of Enid Blyton for the vacuously spiritual age - and been told by those whose opinions I trust that the books are similar, why are apparently sensible and well-educated adults excited about Harry Potter?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Root Causes And Glass Houses

A persistent trope of debates about terrorism is the extent to which it is explained, or perhaps even excused, by various sets of social phenomena, centring on denial of putative rights. Disparagingly, those who hold this view are sometimes referred to as root causers, the sneer, it is often claimed, being justified by the way in which focussing on the underlying social conditions ignores the importance of individual agency in terrorism. It is argued that, regardless of whatever it is that motivates individuals to commit acts of terrorism, they committed them, and they ought to be unreservedly condemned for choosing to take that course. At least insofar as condemnation is involved, I think this view is probably wrong, because it ignores the way in which the propriety of condemnation can be dependent on the position one occupies in relation to the putative grievance the terrorism seeks to motivate the amelioration of. If that’s the case, the root causers are not as wrong as some think they are: they may be pointing to two ways in which many non-terrorists relate to terrorists which debar them from condemning terrorism.

Jerry Cohen, in his paper ‘Casting the First Stone: Who Can, and Who Can’t, Criticise the Terrorists’, talks of his anger at hearing the Israeli ambassador to Britain appear on the radio and say

No matter what the grievance, and I’m sure that the Palestinians have some legitimate grievances, nothing can justify the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians. If they were targeting our soldiers, that would be a different matter.

Cohen’s complaint has two strands, out of which he seeks to generalise two ways in which a condemnation can be ruled out: the ‘tu quoque’ or ‘you too’ relation, or the ‘you’re involved’ relation. Both work relatively simply. One is debarred, at least in part, from condemning an act, however reasonable the condemnation of that act may be in the abstract, if either one has committed a relevantly similar act, or if one has in some way been instrumental towards that act. The first is clearer, I think: however abstractly proper condemnation of theft may be, an unrepentant thief can hardly fairly condemn someone who steals from them. It would be obviously dishonest for them to publicly take up an attitude of condemnation towards acts which are so similar to the acts which they habitually engage in – assuming that acts are relevantly similar.

The second is slightly more complicated, partly because it splits into two related but not quite identical strands. The first of these senses in which ‘you’re involved’ is that when one has created the grievance to which the condemned act is a response, while the second is that when one has created a situation in which the most attractive or even the only response to a grievance is the condemned act. The two are not identical, because I can starve someone, making it harder for me to criticise them when they steal to feed themselves, just as I can play no part in their starvation, but close down the soup kitchens would have alleviated the need to steal. Despite the two different relations in which I could stand to the starving person, in both cases I would be a hypocrite were I to criticise their theft, because I created either the grievance which it is a response to, or I closed off other avenues of alleviating it. In both cases I would be complicit in aspects of the injustice which the condemned act was a response to.

To use other examples, which show that the injunctions have a wider scope than reactions to injustices or perceived grievances inflicted on those who are to be condemned, we could think of concentration camp guards and their superiors. One concentration camp guard may not criticise another for acts intrinsic to being a concentration camp guard, just as an officer may not criticise the man he commands for following his commands. The ‘you too’ injunction applies to the first, and the ‘you’re involved’ to the second. The moral complaint at the heart of the first is, it seems, a simple hypocrisy: ‘if it’s so terrible, why are you doing it?’ is a legitimate question to ask in this situation, and until an adequate answer can be provided, the condemner should fall silent. The moral complaint at the heart of the second is marginally more complex, but is the one in the question, ‘if it’s so terrible, why did you encourage me to do it?’, a question which likewise ought to silence the condemner. In both cases, the question asks about the consistency of the attitudes which are displayed by the condemner: they are attempting to condemn something they are at best complicit in, and so their attitude cannot be honest, because if it were, they would surely work to remove their complicity rather than criticise the acts in which they are complicit.

The bearing this has for Cohen on what was said by the Israeli ambassador is that the Israeli state, of which he is a representative, engages in acts which are relevantly similar to the terrorism of the Palestinians, and has both created the grievance to which the terrorism is a response, and made that terrorism one of the most effective ways of drawing attention to, and so gaining redress for, that grievance. This is not to make any claim about the justifiability, in the abstract, of that terrorism, or of the various policies adopted by the Israeli state towards the Palestinians: the point is that one can hardly take up a public attitude of condemnation towards Palestinian terrorism when one engages in acts which bear certain similarities to it, and when one has created the situation in which it is an obvious means of gaining redress. Equally, Cohen’s claims apply just as much to Palestinian condemners of Israeli policy: their terrorism is relevantly similar to the ‘targeted’ assassinations by Israel, and it undoubtedly creates a political climate in which such policies can flourish.

The relevance the argument has here is threefold. Firstly, it shows that the root causers may be onto something when they draw attention to the social background against which acts of terrorism occur, because, insofar as we are complicit in the creation and maintenance of those conditions, there is a question of how appropriate the stance we take towards that terrorism when we condemn it is. They are almost certainly incorrect when they argue that that social background justifies that terrorism, but they are correct to point out that we must consider to what extent justified criticism of terror depends on being able to separate ourselves from acts which are similar to it, and from the creation and maintenance of situations which provoke it and make it seem attractive.

Secondly, it revises Phil’s point about the proper response to terrorism being ethical, rather than political: sometimes, one cannot take up a non-political stance from which one could respond to a terrorist outrage, because one is inextricably bound up in the politics of that outrage. Galloway’s claim, in this light, that the London bombings were predictable blowback from Iraq, commits the exact opposite of the Israeli ambassador’s wrong, by overstating the extent to which we were complicit in the wrong in question, no doubt amongst other things. Lastly, it makes a more general point about political discourse. Although I haven’t discussed it, there is the question – which bears on what Phil had to say, because it may make an ethical stance open to an otherwise compromised, political, figure or claim – of to what extent the hypocrisy of the two ways in which one can be prevented from condemning an act can be mitigated by honest disavowals of one’s complicity or weak-willedness. If public debate is to be conducted in an ethically and morally sound manner, answers to these kinds of questions need to be found.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Greatest Philosopher...

is, according to a poll of Radio Four listeners, Karl Marx. I don't think this is true, although Marx is, at his best, a wonderfully provocative thinker, and capable of a quite impressive turn of phrase (and he is, contra Chris Dillow, at least sometimes a philosopher: The German Ideology and the Paris Manuscripts are undoubtedly philosophical). A number of people have got a bit upset about this: the spectre of the murderous regimes of the twentieth century claiming Marxist inspiration is, to steal and horribly misuse a phrase, stalking the blogs of Britain. In particular, some people are claiming that the second-placed philosopher, David Hume, never inspired anyone to take a human life. A kind of refutation of this claim has already been provided here, but I think there's a better one. Hume was an unashamed conservative, particularly about property rights, and so, if it's fair to attribute the genocidal manias of various despotic regimes with a patina of intellectual respectability to Marx, it surely must be fair to attribute the undoubted suffering caused by the upholding of putative property rights since the mid-eighteenth century to Hume. Marx supported dictatorships of the proletariat, so we can lay wrongs committed by supposed dictatorships of the proletariat at Marx's door. Likewise, Hume supported whatever established set of property rights existed in a given society at that time, so we can lay wrongs following from the established set of property rights in any given society at Hume's door. I'm guessing that's a fair few...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Two Announcements And Some Short(ish) Thoughts

First things first. The vanishingly small number of readers who are not already aware of this, be made aware.

Next, some more stuff about terrorism. Phil of Actually Existing writes an excellent piece on the ethics of responses - in the sense I meant on Monday - to terrorism, emphasising the way in which the proper response to terrorism is ethical, and not political, a distinction which nails what I was groping around for when criticising Galloway on Monday.

Easily Distracted puts a careful, considered and very strong case for the importance of agency, and hence full-blown moral critique, in acts of terrorism, on the simple basis that it would be the worst kind of ethnocentrism to assume we have the agency to alleviate the social-scientific causes of terrorism, yet the terrorists do not have the agency to stop committing acts of terror. I think there is a way of making something like the view being criticised make sense, by trying to come up with a set of moral injunctions governing, in Jerry Cohen's words, who can and who can't criticise the terrorists. Depending on how I feel, I may blog about this later.

Lenin does a fairly good job of debunking the whole Islamo-fascist thing. Fascists are blood and soil nationalists, interested in gaining control of states, in the post-French Revolution sense; the Islamists usually picked out by the Islamo-fascist label want everyone to be a Muslim, and all Muslims to live under the same ruler, but not in an entity recognisably a post-French Revolution state. The first believes in a particularist kind of modernism, and the second a universalist medievalism: they are not really alike. Also, just because I think he's quite interesting, Alistair Macintyre went in the opposite direction to Eagleton: Marxist critic to leftist Catholic (although some of Eagleton's recent stuff shows clearMacIntryian influence, interestingly).

On a totally different note, the US left blogosphere has been discussing why nice guys come last, and whether that's fair. Matt Yglesias talks about the presumption implicit in the discussion, that people deserve something for being nice, and brings up Kant's 'you've got to do something because it's your duty, not because you want to or in anticipation of the rewards', saying - oddly for a utilitarian - that it shows that the presumption must be false. Not so. Even if Kant were right about this, which I don't think he is - think of the person who is your friend because, and solely because, they have a duty to be your friend, and compare their ethical status with the person who enjoys their friendship with you - it is a separate issue whether it is legitimate to expect rewards for the fulfillment of a duty. The soldier who saves a comrade's life because they should save their comrade's life can still reasonably expect a commendation of some sort for doing so, and justly feel aggrieved at not getting one. The issues of moral motivation and the costs of behaving morally are not one and the same.

Finally, another note for a vanishingly small constituency of readers. I passed my MPhil, missing out on a distinction by a couple of marks. The gory details: Core Political Theory paper, 69; Political Theories from Machiavelli to Burke, 67; Contemporary European Political and Social Thought, 69; Contemporary Political Philosophy, aka, Jerry Cohen and his disagreements with Rawls, 77; Thesis, on State Neutrality, 72.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Public Sphere And Particularity

As I am sure most people have noticed, and is totally understandable, there has been rather a lot of discussion of the bombings in London last Thursday. Having repeatedly re-written what I said on the day, I don't really want to add anything to my initial reaction. However, this does offer an opportunity to make some, unashamedly general, reflections on the ethics of reactions to outrages like those four days ago, to consider, in the light of the various public reactions to those outrages, how we ought to react, in the immediate aftermath, to such events. I do not mean here the public policy reactions – Lord Hoffman’s remarks on detention without trial, I think, capture the proper reaction in that sense quite perfectly – but our public pronouncements, the manner in which discourse should be conducted.

This is not a subject which I have thought much about, until relatively recently, at least in this particular way, and so the remarks will be mostly meant tentatively, and in the spirit of the kind of deference which I will try and defend as central to initial reactions to such events. I should emphasise before I begin, I think, that the reactions in this sense to the events in question have been generally excellent: careful, considerate, and measured, striking quite the right tone of sympathy and bloody-minded defiance. I merely wish to point out that there is a ‘right’ tone, and that it can be characterised in quite general terms, terms which are, I hope, illuminating as to the kind of tone public discourse should take more generally, a topic I’ve had a fair bit to say about recently.

The kind of deference I mentioned earlier and mean here is a deference to the particularity of whatever it is that has happened. This is, I suspect, a more general injunction, connected, through a respect for persons, with the claims of tolerance of difference. The kinds of points I will be trying to make though, I hope, offer up a particularly powerful insight into the moral foundations and implications of that claim, of the importance of respect for the particularity of a purposeful agent, of their projects and their commitments, where those projects and commitments do not inexcusably threaten others or themselves. Well, maybe not all that, but hopefully something on the way to it.

The first thing to note here is, I think, that whilst expressions of sympathy, messages of support, are of course welcome, as is pointed out here, the kind of ‘Ich Bein Einen Berliner’ claims of empathy that echoed around the internet on Thursday are, however well-meant, if anything, slightly insulting. I can’t really imagine what it must have been like to awaken in New York on that day, and see some of the largest and most famous buildings in the city burning, and then crumple down and in on themselves, like a matchstick tower burning from the inside out. I can’t really imagine what kind of damage that does to the sometimes intrusive, sometimes unconscious, but always present background against which one lives one’s life, how it shifts, uncontrollably, the setting in which a life is conducted and in part premised on. Neither, I think, can those who have not lived through the quiet panic of waiting for replies to texts or emails, or hearing a phone ring unanswered, nor understand the growing horror that accompanies these actions as they are repeated with ever more urgency.

I cannot, even if I can begin to share in the sense of social space one understands and is attached to being under threat, the sense of one of the constituent parts of your way of life, for no good reason and in no remotely justifiable manner, coming under threat. Yet to claim empathy with those undergoing such an experience is to claim to be able to share in that experience, as it is undergone, a claim which foists a kind of ersatz version of the lived experience on those have had it, since it is part of their social universe, not yours, which has been attacked, which is being threatened. To claim that an as significant part of your social universe is being wrenched out of sync in the way that a successful terrorist attack does wrench such things out of sync is to undermine the significance of the social world which is being harmed by positing a false equivalence. This was Londoners’ city, full of their family, their friends, their offices, their routes to work, their bars and pubs, their streets, not anyone else’s, and to pretend that they are not theirs in a way that they cannot be those of others is to demean the hurt that harm to them properly causes to those who inhabit and know it and them.

A much more egregious sin against the particularity of the experience of these attacks is, I think, that committed by one of Fox News’s presenters and by George Galloway, the first when they said that this would drag British public opinion closer to the views of the American Right, and thus be to America’s advantage, and the second when he blamed the attack on Blair for invading Iraq. I’ve already commented on what Galloway said, and I stand by that: it was shameless self-promotion, shameless because it basically took the suffering of some people and saw it as a means to a prior end. Whether what Galloway said is true or not – in the sense of the causal link – is irrelevant, I think, and irrelevant however many people thought it, or said it in the pub that evening.

It is irrelevant firstly because of the failure to understand the facts of moral agency that it quite clearly displays, which mischaracterises the harm by identifying someone other than those who perpetrated it as the principal actor. That mischaracterisation does an injustice both to the victim of the accusation, and to those who were the victims of the attack, by denying them rectification from the proper source, and hence rectification at all. Secondly, it is irrelevant because by making a partisan political point at the expense of the victims of the attack, he tried to strip them of the suffering that attack created, to reduce an undeniable, raw piece of phenomenology to mere evidence to support an attack on public policy. That reduction, had it been successful, would have failed to acknowledge that suffering qua suffering, qua what it was: it would have not given the particularity of that suffering anything like its due, would have denied that it should be treated as suffering, suffering which needed to be given comfort.

The appropriate public – in the sense of that given by public figures – response was that given by Livingstone and, to a lesser extent, Blair, who both acknowledged the character of the attacks, the malign purpose of them, and promised, with varying degrees of success, to stand firm against them, as well as praising those who had dealt with them bravely and generally well. If Blair had mentioned ID cards, as I think he did not, he would have been straying into the territory of Galloway’s infraction, by committing the second of Galloway’s sins. However, he didn’t. Perhaps his political advisors are better than Galloway’s, perhaps he thought it would be wrong – make of it what you will. Still, in what Blair didn’t say, and what Galloway did, there are lessons, I think, for how to react to events like those of last Thursday, and more generally for the conduct of public discourse.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Some More On Today's Events

Lord Hoffman:

There may be some nations too fragile or fissiparous to withstand a serious act of violence. But that is not the case in the United Kingdom. When Milton urged the government of his day not to censor the press even in time of civil war, he said:

“Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governours”

This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. (via Crooked Timber).

Also, I'd like to thank Nosemonkey for liveblogging today.

Update: John Band has a round of reactions here. Also, George Galloway, for all that he may well be right, is a smug, self-serving, thoughtless c*nt.

Today's Events

All I have to say is that, although so far as I know, no-one I know has been harmed, the large number of people I know in my home city includes friends who live on Brick Lane, one of whom was in Aldgate East station at half eight this morning, twenty minutes before the bomb went off. Both my parents, my sister, friends of the family, most of the people I know at home, use the tube to travel to work: it could've been them, any of them. I used to go to work through Edgware Road: it could've been me. That hurts, and hurts in a way I suspect it can only hurt for someone to whom it is that close to.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Lenin, unsurprisingly, alleges that the coverage of the disturbances in Edinburgh yesterday in the mainstream media were rather distorted (he provides examples, but even the Guardian this morning was being fairly hardline about the whole thing). This, I think, should be taken fairly seriously, because of the second point I make here: if it is true that the security services of other G8 members collaborated in what was clearly at times the utterly abhorent behaviour of the Italian police in Genoa, then it is far from beyond the realms of possibility that what he says is broadly true.

I have a bit of a history of getting rather upset about the persistent outright lies of the right about trends in crime in Britain - and, indeed, I assume much of the rest of the civilised world: it is largely bullsh*t, and yet it is widely enough believed bullsh*t that it is rather a potent political weapon. John Band here points out a particularly egregious piece of media collaboration in the dissemination of this bullsh*t, picked up via The Law West Of Ealing Broadway, which provokes what I regard as wholly predictable yet totally mistaken - maybe that shouldn't be a 'yet', actually - responses.

To continue in the trend of holding one's head in one's hands at the spectacle the world continues, despite all our efforts, to offer us, Billmon has a pleasantly elegiac and also rather biting independence day message.

Monday, July 04, 2005


On friday afternoon last week, some of my American colleagues persuaded me to take this test. It is really f*cking stupid, so don't take it, unless you want an illustration of a really f*cking stupid test. Apparently, the point of it is to place the person taking it within this Jungian typology of personalities, which is, frankly, also fairly f*cking stupid, if it is meant to be anything like a scientific theory. For example,

[i]n the extraverted attitude the energy flow is outward, and the preferred focus is on people and things, whereas in the introverted attitude the energy flow is inward, and the preferred focus is on thoughts and ideas

is simply an abstraction from any non-sociopathic personality to a degree which makes it utterly without any meaningful reference in the empirical world. Any half-decent epistemologist knows that the idea that there is a sharp separation between focus on the external world and focus on internal world is ridiculous, as our experience of things is directed by a set of concepts which structure that experience, just as our concepts are developed as a result of interactions with the external world. So, when individuals focus on 'people and things', it's not like they don't have thoughts or ideas which are vital to that focus, just as when individuals focus on 'thoughts and ideas', it's not like there aren't people and things which we would want to consider as in some sense causal agents in that event. When faced with this kind of dichotomy, the proper response is: what do you actually mean when you say 'people and things' and 'thoughts and ideas', because at the moment you're talking nonsensical sh*t.

It gets worse, as well. The next set of oppositions is 'sensing' and 'intuition', the preference to gather information either through the five senses, or through some weird and totally unclear mental faculty. You can imagine where I'm going to go with this - the dichotomy doesn't exist in any rigorous sense, because our perceptions are bound up with, constituted by, a whole set of conscious and unconscious structures, and so the sharp separation between the empirical and the ideational implied here is just a pile of crap. I refer you to the proper response above. The third set of oppositions is 'thinking' and 'feeling', as if some people were just rational calculators and others bundles of unrestrained emotion or something, and it was possible to experience the world in the absence of desires or sympathies or of instrumentality, as if rational calculators would have anything to calculate on, and the bundles of emotion would be anything recognisable as a persisting personality. Again, I refer you to the proper response above. Finally, we have judging and perceiving, because we all know that perception does not ever, ever, involve a form of judgement, I mean, it's just impossible that I would look at something and see it as a particular kind of thing, with particular features and purposes, which I judged favourably or unfavourably: that kind of thing never happens, never.

So, basically, the conceptual framework on which this test is founded is a tissue of fairly bloody serious mistakes, which basically involve creating dichotomies where any sustained thought about the matter would result in the realisation that the dichotomies, where sharp, have about as much purchase in the actual world as fingernails on the crumbling edge of a cliff, and hence aren't much use in a psychological theory aiming at rigour. I am prepared to admit that my total and utter scorn for this theory might have been partly created by the test itself, which asks questions as totally meaningless as [y]ou are strongly touched by the stories about people's troubles and [y]ou easily understand new theoretical principles, because, after all, my understanding of all new theoretical principles is identical in exactly the same way as my level of empathy with all other people is identical. How people answer these questions might tell you something about their self-perception, and perhaps even their conceptual framework - lots of the questions involve rating, quite transparently, one side of one of the dichotomies above in comparison with the other - but the idea that they would get at any core of a personality, whatever that might be anyway, and classify it in some scientific manner: please excuse me while I beat my own head into a bloody pulp at these people's stupidity.

What I find most shocking in the whole thing is that the three Americans I work with are all graduates. What I'm saying is hardly the product of some esoteric branch of philosophy, but perfectly mainstream epistemological and quasi-metaphysical observations, which anyone who's done anything in the methodology of the social sciences, for example, ought to be familiar. I suspect it's a cultural thing: all those standardised tests, which are rigorous and objective and totally fair and not, like, biased, random, ridiculous or totally without useful purchase in the world in any way.

I remember reading some essays of Tom Wolfe's four or five years ago - everyone was young and foolish once, alright - in which he tried to defend some form of brainwave testing in lieu of IQ tests. He got all excited that it was claimed that it could predict to within slightly less than a standard deviation - which is still bloody enormous at some points in a normal distribution - but it's only a f*cking ridiculous IQ test anyway, which has about as much worth as the fluff currently collecting in my belly-button as a predictor of a category as porous and wide-ranging as intelligence.

I was just baffled by this: these tests have about as much predictive value as the 'Does Your Man Cheat On You?' ones in women's magazines. When I made stumbling gestures of incredulity that Americans take this stuff remotely seriously - apparently, every American child takes one of these Myers-Briggs tests in high school, and human resources departments rely on them (actually, that explains rather a lot about what one hears about human resources departments) - one of the Americans said that the tests have been empirically verified as having significant results. This is, so far as I can see, impossible, because the categories are so vague, so utterly without proper scientific referrent, as to be totally unfalsifiable. God, or more likely some sophisticated cultural anthropologist, only knows why anyone takes this steaming pile of crap with any of the seriousness with which it is apparently invested.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Some Criticisms And Some Thoughts About Criticism

The Virtua Stoa has linked to a piece in this fortnight's LRB, by Ed Harriman, which is an excellent, but not quite as shocking as perhaps it should be, account of the spectacular levels of graft going on in Iraq. Drawing on investigations by a variety of official bodies - the URLs of which are in the article - the piece catalogues corruption on a gigantic scale across a variety of Coalition activities in Iraq. Doubtless I'm stirring a hornet's nest here, but it seems to me that under the kind of sustained assault which Harriman provides the idea that democracy promotion - or indeed any serious concern with the welfare of Iraqis - motivates or guides the occupation forces simply collapses, is exposed as the fig-leaf it appears it always was. It could be put another way: when the question, [h]ow can one be neutral in a struggle which pits an alliance of Jihadist fanatics and Ba'athist dead-enders against the eight million Iraqis who braved the bombers to vote for a constitutional democracy? is asked, the proper, temperate, reply is - one that the philosophically-inclined may perhaps be too fond of - you are asking the wrong question. Alternatively, less temperately, the proper question is, how can one be neutral in a struggle which pits an alliance of crazed ideologues and profiteering warmongers against anyone who is not blind, stupid, borderline sociopathic, or some combination of the three (just in case you were wondering, Fafblog demonstrates the relevance of this question with its customary ease).

On the subject of temperate replies, Brian Leiter mounts a defence of his tendency to not suffer fools gladly. I think he is too disparaging of the possibilities of reasoned public discourse, and too comfortable with the idea of remaining in his enclave of scathing liberal superiority. I also think there is a rather strong anti-democratic strand in what he says - which he may not, being a Nietzsche scholar, and so both given to vitirol and contempt for democracy, be particularly concerned by, and, given those things, is perhaps not so surprising - because by denigrating reasoned public discourse, he undermines the idea that a people could come to some sort of reasoned consensus about the forms of coercion they live under. This is of course separate from the anti-democratic impulse implicit in the claim that it is unobjectionable to remain within the epistemological and moral elite which he feels he inhabits. Such a position might well have further philosophical consequences in terms of how one understands human freedom, for if, as he alleges, reasoned debate is not really possible in the public sphere, it becomes difficult to understand, especially if one holds, as Leiter seems to, that un-reason is a form of un-freedom, how people could be free.

The kind of problems with Leiter's position can, in a way, be seen in my response to the 'decent' left above: although for polemical purposes, the question I pose is useful, it is hardly the most accurate, perhaps more importantly, or the most publicly compelling way to pose the question of how to think about the occupation. To put it another way, if we believe that people are at least potentially reasonable agents, they are owed treatment in line with that status, which implies taking their statements at least initially at face value, because we assume they have reasons for their claims, and if they do not, are capable of grasping that they do not. It also, as I half-implied above, makes it more difficult - not necessarily impossible, but more difficult, I think - to explain what is wrong with the actions of those to whom Leiter objects: the question, pertitent to Foucault for example, of why we should care about the ideological distortions of power, if those distortions are endemic, becomes one Leiter really should have an answer to. This does not mean giving up on satire, or on polemics - it is an assumption of reasonableness, an assumption that can be shown to be false in individual cases - but it does mean that criticism should be conducted with a basic level of civility, a civility which is far from incompatible with ridicule, as Eliot Weinberger demonstrates in this LRB article, which is calm, collected and measured in tone, yet also like a stilleto sliding beneath the ribs of the Bush administration. Leiter himself, I think, also allows for the potentiality of public reason when he republishes pieces like this one, which begins its critique from a common standpoint - the importance of Christian teaching - and thus admits, at least partially, that some explanation which is comprehensible to those to whom it is addressed is owed.

To continue on the topic of public reason, Actually Existing responds to a hopefully provocative question, which I at least take to be about the boundaries of public reason, with a provocative essay, which I would recommend reading, because, amongst other virtues, it gets past the chosen/unchosen dichotomy which characterises far too much of the discussion of the issue it examines. The issue, I tend to think, and I think Phil also does, should basically be structured by the idea of public reason, a public life in which all can, in principle at least, potentially participate: just as racist discourses can, when used in certain ways, effectively debar some from participating in our common life, certain discourses about religion and secularism can do the same to those with particular sets of metaphysical beliefs, and that stands significantly in favour of restricting those discourses. As Phil points out, the legislation is currently far from satisfactory, because of both its failure to include that saving stipulation that the language used should be 'threatening, abusive or insulting', and its failure to offer the same protection to the non-religious, but it is at least an open question to me whether such discourses should be in some way restrained.