Archives for posts with tag: ethics

Hermit_ionescoReview of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxim’s is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks out of social duty more than actual like of one another. This is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, especially their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

Yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France but still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by and satisfy himself about his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. And so our sympathies for the hermit begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but here women are replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. This descent coincides with the onset of events a bit like Paris 1968 and the unrest arising but as a fantasy of revolt and revolution akin to that kind of civil spark. Soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which to me felt like the fall of Yugoslavia happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine with revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, and makes no distinction between left and right, love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening, like the hermit we just experience the outcome, just as he experiences life in general from the outside.

Later still the revolution now perhaps just a mess of reactionary forces and then even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): but everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement.

At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and was amongst those who formed the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. This novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

‘The Hermit’ is a gloomy book and yet engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more absurd. In that absurdity it also becomes more satirical, almost a different book. Yet somehow its pace from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest. Moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and that ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is always the mark of a quality writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

 

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online

an early un-edited edition of my latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article…

Never have I have invested so much so emotionally only to have been so heavily defeated.

It is with a heavy heart that I have mulled over Labour’s loss. I have been engulfed in shame and guilt that I didn’t work harder for local people and our local candidate Steve Parry-Hearn. Often I have been driven to anger. At other times I have been simply listless.

We fought the right campaign with the right candidate and – looking now at the new pretenders – the right leader. Our campaign was flawed only in its morally correct view of modern Britain. For me it was like Iraq all over again:  marching against the war, being on the losing side of the debate only to be proven right; to be on the side of the just counts for little in defeat.

And in my anger I know that it wasn’t Mark Harper or even the Tories who beat us, but by Murdoch and the Mail Group.

For sure there were gifts to the opposition of our own making. Our argument on austerity wasn’t strong enough. Scotland is proof of that.

And we failed to win the argument on the issue of the economy and the last Labour government’s rhetoric during the worldwide economic downturn. Damn that idle, stupid joke at the Treasury stating ‘There’s no money left’ which Cameron waved about with relish. If only it said ‘There’s no money left because we spent it all on building schools and hospitals and eliminating NHS waiting times.’

As Mark Serwotka said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ 3 weeks after the election, the narrative the potential Labour leaders have seemed to swallow is a need to move to the Blairist right within the Party. Because Ed Miliband was ‘too left wing’. And yet as Serwotka makes clear under Blair and Brown from 1997 Labour lost millions of votes. With Ed Miliband that trend had been reversed, which suggests a different story. The success of the SNP and their anti-austerity and anti-Trident message also suggests a different direction of traffic.

Or to put it another way, John Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth pointed out that “The average income is £26,000 a year or thereabouts. The tax we were proposing was for those on £150,000 or more. People on £26,000 are not aspiring or expecting ever to get to £150,000. And yet we have leadership candidates arguing that it is an obstacle to winning an election.”

Steve Parry-Hearn and Forest of Dean Labour’s manifesto was a manifesto which Clarion readers would recognise as their kind of Labour candidate and programme. Anti-Trident, anti-new nuclear at Oldbury, anti-fracking, strong on the protection of our Forest, strong on apprenticeships and even stronger on anti-austerity than the national Party line. Di Martin repeatedly lamented the bedroom tax and she carried her local comrades with her. A Labour-controlled local council was set to pause the destruction of our District Council and scrap local car parking charges. Nationally Labour would scrap the bedroom tax, bring in a mansion tax, and protect the NHS from the clutches of TTIP. But we’ve lost all that. That is the sum of our loss, not our lack of electoral success. The danger to our NHS now is truly frightening.

And yet while support for Labour in other constituencies plummeted, Steve Parry-Hearn and his campaign team lead by the inexhaustible Roger Gilson slightly increased our share of the vote in the Dean, snatching thousands of Lib Dem votes only to see our working class support slip through our fingers to UKIP and the Tories.

We shared muted elation at the strong performance of our Greens, beating the Lib Dems and gaining their first District Councillor for the Dean, but we were furious that Harper survived selling off our forest by proxy alone: the Conservatives won here despite their candidate not because of him. Their successes were in the media, not at the dispatch box and nor in the TV debates, their campaign merely exploited the media’s insatiable appetite for nationalism and fear.

But what now? What’s left for Labour? Is there any Left in today’s Labour?

In these vital coming months for our movement my advice is that we swell our numbers: join Labour today and have your say in choosing a left-wing candidate for the leadership.

It could be the last chance we have to save our Party for at least a generation.

SIGN THIS NOW: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/we-want-an-anti-austerity-labour-party-leader

WATCH THIS:

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

 

The Forest of Dean Constituency Labour Party has nominated Steven Parry-Hearn as its Parliamentary candidate for the next General Election.

What does this mean for the left in labour?

Indeed, what does it mean for the Dean? And what about those dissatisfied with New Labour and have yet to be tempted by Ed Miliband’s brand of ‘One Nation’ Labour?

Mr. Parry-Hearn lives in the constituency with his young family and has been very active behind the scenes in the Party with various projects and posts at Executive Committee level. He’s also a member of the LP South West Regional Board and stood against Liam Fox at the last election. Then he lost (but then again who didn’t in Labour that time around? It was a national swing of historic proportions – nothing less than our greatest defeat, so we can’t blame him for that!), but Steve did gain a significantly higher vote than was expected of a Labour Party candidate there.

He’d also been active in the Aberavon CLP in Wales at the election before that – a heritage his accent reveals. So, clearly, Steve has experience and the organisational skills of a good CLP member. But where does he stand on policy?

He says ‘There are issues here, social injustices, which the current Member of Parliament has completely ignored. He has betrayed his constituents…’ [1]

Whereas Harper is an accountant by trade, Parry-Hearn works for the Shaw Trust, dealing with the fallout of failed Tory policies.

Like many of us, he vehemently opposed Harper on the sell-off of the Forests while at the same time bringing a breath of fresh air to the Forest of Dean CLP. Although not a target seat for Labour, Harper must be on the back foot precisely because of the attempted sell-off of the forests and the success of the HOOF campaign. Now we have chosen Harper’s opposition it is time to get to the nub of his beliefs and so I took advantage of the selection process to quiz him on issues I feel particularly strongly.

For starters, I asked him about the development of new Nuclear Power at Oldbury, a hot topic amongst local people living opposite in the Dean as well as environmental and anti-nuclear campaigners.

Parry-Hearn said he does not support Hitachi-Horizon’s development and that he has ‘been opposed to the development of nuclear powered generation for many years.’ [2] In fact, he goes on to state ‘I believe that there are energy generation solutions which are far more acceptable not only to ourselves, but also to our descendants.  I believe that we are merely custodians of our fragile planet, and we must use all our ingenuity to develop new, cleaner fuels and means of generating energy.  I feel that wind, sea and solar must be the way forward.’ [3]

This puts Steve at odds with the previous candidate, Bruce Hogan whose position had seen him switch over the years to a pro-nuclear power stance.

Moving to a deliberately tricky issue for some in Labour is the question of the renewal of the UK nuclear missile system (Trident). On this topic Parry-Hearn said that ‘I personally stand idealistically and morally opposed.  I feel that we are behaving rather hypocritically here. We rattle sabres at Iran, Libya and North Korea, but what right do we have to dictate terms of disarmament to those states, when we ourselves stealthily and perpetually patrol the world’s oceans with our Trident Submarines?’ [4] And he goes on to qualify this with further reasoning: ‘we should not commit public money, when we are seeing this awful, callous government cutting welfare to the most vulnerable in our society.

On those points we can agree and welcome our PPC, but that’s just two issues. It is not enough to judge him on these alone. We still don’t know whether Parry-Hearn sits as a pre-New Labourist or post’. That is, is he a believer in the One Nation line? Certainly, it seems we can – I think – rest assured Parry-Hearn is no raving Blairite.

The true test, I suppose, will be the moment our national programme is finally launched.

That document, which will at last declare our Party’s policies, will be the strongest challenge for Party-Hearn to date. Will he stay true to his own beliefs upon which he was elected as PPC locally or will he sway to the national line? I strongly suspect on both Trident and nuclear power the national policy will differ from Hearn’s. With the nuclear power development directly affecting his constituency will he have the will to act against his party? For sure, he says he is of ‘high moral courage, honesty and diligence.’ [5] And on the issue of nuclear defence, this could arguably be the most moral question of all.

But as I have said, we shouldn’t shape our support of opposition of him on those two nuclear topics alone. Does he have the red fibre Clarion readers’ lust after? For his part, Graham Morgan (County, District & Town Councillor for Labour) believes Steve is ‘a real man of the people.’ [6]

What else? Parry-Hearn states he is committed ‘to establishing a Business Task Force, promoting growth, sustainable inward investment and apprenticeship opportunities for our young generation’ [7] in the Dean. He targets housing as the way forward both locally and nationally as a tool of economic renewal and his work with the Shaw Trust would mean he also has first-hand experience of the dire need for good social housing. He is pro-European but supports a referendum.

At the 28th July hustings which resulted in his election, Steve cited Andy Burnham as one of those currently influencing his political thinking. This being the same Andy Burnham who is leading the charge against the Tory Health & Social Welfare bill, promising to repeal it at Labour’s first opportunity and re-investing instead in the NHS. That is a good place for Labour and Steve to be and thus a good influence to hold, in my book.

So, while Parry-Hearn might not be the Forest’s answer to Tony Benn we can hold some comfort by the fact that he probably wouldn’t be entirely offended by the idea either.

In fact, I would go so far to say that I think that our constituency has the strongest candidate for many elections past. I hope you will canvass his opinion yourself by directly engaging with him while supporting our party and his campaign with all your vigor.

We MUST get rid of the ConDems, keep the Tories and UKIP out. We must save our NHS. We must be united in our support of the only realistic chance for Parliamentary power across the left. And in doing so we will keep our values alive in Labour, locally and nationally. Support Steve and we support that aim.

[1] Personal letter to all FoD CLP members 1st July 2013

[2] Personal correspondence with the author 22nd July 2013.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Steve Parry-Hearn FoD PPC campaign leaflet  July 2013.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

Someone offered the phrase that we see moral thought ‘through a glass darkly’ and this was certainly true of those of us listening to Prof. Billington talk on ‘Absolutism vs Relativism’ under the influence of Thwaites’ dark and silky Crafty Devil beer.

Although I agreed with his position favouring relativism over absolutism, I felt cheated by the quality of the argument. X vs Y presupposes equal weight will be given to both sides. But it wasn’t. In fact I couldn’t recognise any difference in the presentation of absolutism from authoritarianism, but there was plenty of favour for relativism through the denigration of absolutism, particular in reference to the examples cited which were all based on a fundamentalist view of religious thought.

As an atheistic agnostic I have no time for supporting such views, but it wasn’t right to characterise all absolutism with that single brush.

Moreover, I felt – as is often the case I am finding – that the binary presentation of things was in itself at fault. And here’s why.

It is my opinion that we – as civil society – intuitively need the absolute rule of law just to get by. This is why we are, on the whole, happy to consent to it. That doesn’t mean all laws are right all of the time, but they offer a framework that applies to all fairly (putting the financial aspects of the role of lawyers aside). We want to live in a world where there’s some order which prevents others from stealing from our homes or endangering our loved ones etc.

So I contest some absolutes are accepted, not entirely and not always in all circumstances, but mostly. Another example would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You might feel they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. Perhaps, but with an ideal of what is shared as acceptable behaviour for individuals and states, then the building blocks of civil society is built on potentially immoral quick-sand. With the UDHR there’d probably be no Amnesty International and without Amnesty or Human Rights Watch more abusers might well get away with an awful lot more. Today’s moral ideals could shape tomorrow’s laws.

Of course, an absolute right might be the status quo the next one day, enshrined by law as with the suffragette moving or gay rights. These weren’t universally accepted as absolute rights and in some places still aren’t. But social and cultural advance sees the ideals of a few become the absolute rights of potentially all.

Having argued that some absolutes work well, I think ALL the rest is relative.

We can see this is many religious texts which have their commandments. These happen to coincide with many of the base ideals of what civil society should be based on – but don’t themselves mean all religous texts ought to form the abolutes themselves.

These absolutes are not absolute for all time, but they‘re also not entirely relative either. As Macke said ‘There are no objective values.’ I agree. A plurality of moral dilemmas and outcomes and circumstances (place, time, cultural heritage, education, moral intelligence and experience) all add up to one’s decision. Some of these decisions will be framed by ‘almost’ absolutes (let’s call them absolute-lite) such as the rule of law or the UDHR. But all others require that we consider the issue at hand ourselves based on our relative standing – the accumulation of our consciousness experiences.

Thinking along this line, I tried to trap Prof. Billington, asking in which camp would he place utilitarianism. Categorically he replied relativist. Regrettably we moved on to another question before I could counter whether he thought the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number was a good absolute.

Frankly, I don’t care because the answer IMO, if there is one, is that it is a bit of both – the plural.

I think it was wrong to give absolutism a reputation of purely being irrational authoritarianism, even if I believe that the vast majority of moral choices are relative. We ran out time before I could posit the thought experiment that if ‘one day we woke up and found all views on moral issues were good (not only of intent but outcome) but absolute – would he still favour relativism?’

On the face of it absolutism in its rawest form doesn’t make any sense. But absolutism-lite does. The two are different and the latter is not relativism.

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ happens also to be one of my favourite Ingmar Bergman movies. Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

The next pub philosophy meet will be on November 15th (usual time 7.30pm at the Rose & Crown in Tintern). Tim Cross is offering an ‘All you can eat’ buffet of modern philosophical thought, focusing mostly on his special areas of interest (conceptual philosophy and linguistics).