Thursday, October 23, 2008

Credit crunch: atheism to blame?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
I wouldn't normally bother with the vomitings of Mad Mel Phillips, but this one has been noticed for her quite touching explanation of the current financial turmoil. Touching, that is, in an everything-is-about-my-pet-hates kinda way.

She writes:

I see this financial breakdown, moreover, as being not merely a moral crisis but the monetary expression of the broader degradation of our values – the erosion of duty and responsibility to others in favour of instant gratification, unlimited demands repackaged as ‘rights’ and the loss of self-discipline. And the root cause of that erosion is ‘militant atheism’ which, in junking religion, has destroyed our sense of anything beyond our material selves and the here and now and, through such hyper-individualism, paved the way for the onslaught on bedrock moral values expressed through such things as family breakdown and mass fatherlessness, educational collapse, widespread incivility, unprecedented levels of near psychopathic violent crime, epidemic drunkenness and drug abuse, the repudiation of all authority, the moral inversion of victim culture, the destruction of truth and objectivity and a corresponding rise in credulousness in the face of lies and propaganda -- and intimidation and bullying to drive this agenda into public policy.

Wow. Clearly, according to Mel, atheism is, more or less, a rejection of all values and virtues. I would defy anybody to see that in the work of, to pluck one out of the air, Robert Ingersoll

And Mel is wrong about unprecedented levels of violent crime. The past was much much more violent than today. See Pinker (text or video). I'm not sure what she means by the 'moral inversion of victim culture', presumably it is something to do with her desire to blame the victims of any injustices perpetrated by her in-group. The rest of the rant seems to be a complaint that people don't agree with her bile so much any more. Diddums.

Alonzo Fyfe likens this hate-speech against atheists to the hate-speech against Jews that was common in the 1930s, in the wake of another crash.

People seeking political power for themselves named Jews as the culprit, either through the corruption of their influence and their values on (otherwise) 'good' Christians, or as a part of a conspiracy to take over the world – or, at least, the global economy.

That vilification of the Jews had some very ugly consequences.

Today, blaming the Jews for economic bad news is not as popular as it used to be. Consequently, bigots need to find a new target group – one that can be effectively blamed where the people might actually believe the hate-mongering that the writers engage in.

I guess here in the UK we don't get quite as upset as this, but maybe we ought to. There is something compelling in the idea that if you have special access to knowledge of truth, beauty, and goodness, then those who disagree with you are on the side of lies, ugliness and evil. It is not just unthinking bigotry, but something that seeks to make bigotry a virtue, and the virtuous,  bigots. Yet, you can find the best and the worst of humanity in virtually every faith-related or other identity group. Liberals included. Remember this if you are tempted. Conservatives and socialists alike seek a tyranny of the good, and differ only in their notions of the good. Liberals recognise that this is an intellectual trap - that we should focus not on the virtue of a would-be tyrant, but on the tyranny.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. Some of Mel's themes are not entirely unfamiliar closer to home.  How's this:

Thus the inevitable decline in church attendance and religious belief, indicating the continued secularisation of British society, marches on. Religion, whilst clearly not the panacea for all the world's ills, at least has pretensions to a code by which it's devotees are to live and behave.

or this

such is the emerging animus towards religion, and such is the underlying utilitarianism of our political culture - that any statements about belief that are not utilitarian, including what we believe about right and wrong, are being similarly sidelined. This has brought with it something of a crisis of values inside the forces of liberalism.

These are quotes from Reinventing the State, the chapters by Lynne Featherstone and David Boyle  respectively.

Luckily what Lynne and David are doing is arguing an ideological point. Mel, on the other hand attacks an entire faith-identity group (atheists), indifferent to the actual, diverse values and practises of the members of this group. It is easy to miss the distinction. Indeed for writing this post, I went back to Reinventing the State, and failed to find the juicier, more prejudiced quotes I thought I had remembered reading.

There is still a danger - that many will not distinguish between disagreeing with secularists and attacking atheists, just as it is often hard to distinguish between disagreements with islam and attacks on muslims. But we have to live with this danger because the debate must be had.

Mad Mel, meanwhile, isn't interested in the debate. She regards people like myself, much like many regarded the Jews of the 1930s. We have corrupted society, because we apparently have no values. What is to be done about us?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How not to destroy socialism

Charlotte Gore has kindly offered to destroy socialism for us, explaining that it is wrong for the state to force us to do things that it think are good for us. Who could disagree with that? The question becomes a little muddier when it is not force but taxation, and not what is good for us, but what is good for other people.

When libertarians equate taxation with force, it seems to be because they have a good presumption against the initiation of force, and want to use it again. And they are not their brothers' keepers.

The comments have thrown up something that I tend to take for granted when evaluating or justifying policies.

I asked Charlotte this: Do you object to socialism because it is justified in terms of the greater good? Or do you object to the idea of the greater good, because it is used to justify socialism?

and she replied

I think the point is that you can use 'The Greater Good' as a moral justification to commit almost any act. Socialism - both terrible ends and terrible means - is justified in the same way. 

So yes, I am against both the act and the moral justification that 'permits' the act. I am not against things just because they're justified by 'the Greater Good' - I just see it as a warning flag.

Now that you're asking, I think debating with people about whether or not Socialism would serve the Greater Good would, in effect, be to accept the premise of their argument - that the Greater Good can be a legitimate moral justification.

There's something in this I agree with. It is probably true that appeals to the greater good usually merit a reaction of horror.

And yet, I think a liberal society is a good one, in a way that a socialist or conservative society is not. Am I committing the same crime? So I responded along these lines:

I would agree that the "greater good" is a dangerously nebulous concept. So let's forget about the "greater". You are arguing, aren't you, that a smaller state is better than a bigger state? Some people will argue the opposite.

I say "X is good" and you disagree, do you say 

"No, X is bad"


"No, 'X is good' is not a legitimate moral justification."

Adding that I find it hard enough to work out sometimes what is good and what is bad, never mind what makes a "legitimate" moral justification.

The trouble for arch libertarians, as I see it is that they are saying that it is wrong to use certain kinds of argument as moral justifications for political action. This is itself a moral claim very much of the kind that it itself condemns.

It seems to me that libertarianism, like Marxism, is full of the kind of implicit moral claims that are also condemned. Respect property. Don't initiate force. Anything the government does is evil. If these are not moral claims, then what are they?

So what alternative do I offer?

It seems to me there are two phases to the evaluation of a policy. 1, a prediction of the policy's effects, and 2, evaluation of those effects according to our values, that is whether it has good consequences.

This does seem inescapably to rely on a notion of the good. Frankly, no other standard makes any sense to me, than that a policy should have good consequences. What else might I possibly want to care about? Good intentions? Purleeeze. The road to hell, etc. 

So it is a struggle to understand Charlotte's perspective that certain kinds of argument are dangerous and therfore cannot be used. Of course it is true they are dangerous. Prediction is never perfect (and so policy should be risk-averse) and some people have pretty warped values, and so some very bad policies could seem good after a process of prediction and evaluation.

But what is the alternative? To say that we don't care about the consequences? Yet even libertarians don't fail to claim that the libertarian society will be freer, happier, richer, and better in all sorts of ways. Do they say this just because they think it matters to us, when it really doesn't matter to them?

No. There are bad policies because there are bad predictions and bad evaluations, not because we shouldn't be trying to do either. And it is interesting how a confusion of prediction and evaluation is behind so many bad policies. Socialists are bad at prediction because of Marx. They liked his evaluation - although he couched it, like libertarians do, in apparently amoral rational terms - and so didn't subject his philosophy to the rigour that has blown it away. Greens are trying to reinvent economics - because they don't like the predictions it gives about their well-intentioned policies - by trying to add "moral" values to it, rendering it a hopeless tool of prediction.

We hone our tools for prediction with scientific skepticism, free debate and a respect for evidence over tradition. This is liberal of course, but what really defines the liberal are the values. That you know what is best for you, better than I do, and therefore I should respect your freedom. That I have no way of knowing whether my hopes and dreams are better or more important than yours are, and in this sense we are equal. That despite and because of our differences we have to get along. Liberty, equality and community. Not really fundamental values, but abstractions reflecting as best as possible the diverse inarticulable fundamental values in each of our heads.


Ok, a final thought and a slight digression if you have not had enough already. I very much liked oranjepan's comment:

If we stop thinking of liberalism as an ideology and start thinking of it as a tendency which incorporates differing ideologies in different contexts then all the problems and inconsistencies dissolve away into compatibility.

All ideologies are great if you are rich and can control the circumstances in which you apply them, but if you're not rich it's a different matter. If you're not rich ideology becomes a way to explain the world which provides excuses for your lack of material success and prevents you from taking the opportunities to rise out of your situation.

Its much better not to dispute the truth or applicability of any ideology but to dispute the universality of its truths and define the limits of its application.

It provoked the retort

I think what you've said there sums up modern politics - especially our party. A pragmatic, managerial approach to politics

The response is that skepticism with regard to ideologies is pragmatic and therefore unprincipled. (Unprincipled? Is that like lacking an appreciation for the greater good? What a thing to suggest!)

Pragmatism is considering what works - it is calculating the actual effects of a policy. So it is consistent with - indeed essential to - a sound values-based judgement of those effects and therefore of the policy.

But I read in oranjepan's comment skepticism more than pragmatism. Don't get carried away with your ideologies. That is the sort of thing that leads to atrocities.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Greening the sprouts

Charlotte and Steph have been telling us about the greenness of their school education. Now when I was at school, while I would bore my fellow students and any teachers who would listen, senseless, with the wisdom of EF Schumacher, I certainly never got any encouragement in return. My physics teachers were pro-nuclear of course, although one also signed me up to Amnesty International. 

It never occurred to me that we might learn about something quite so intensely political as the environment, at school. Rather, I took it as my mission to bring this wisdom to my peers, along with that of any other hard-left causes I came across as a member of a poor middle class minority in a working class area.

Clearly all that changed, more or less as soon as I left school. I was shocked to see my daughter's Y3 school play about the rainforest, complete with evil loggers, noble savages and talking animals. Not that it was entirely, or even largely, wrong. Simplistic, black and white, saccharine, yes, of course it was all of those, what do you expect. But it seems that environmental values - not just environmental science - is now on the syallabus.

What should we make of this? Despite the special claims of faith schools, all schools are beacons of values, they all teach good behaviour, reponsibility, self-respect and so forth. So it makes sense to add environmental consciousness to the list. Yet there are legitimate political debating points that are necessarily brushed aside by this clarity of moral purpose.

And the more specific we get, the more problematic it becomes. Environmentalism is replete with received wisdom of variable quality, largely defined by the mass media, and therefore not a few contradictions. We wouldn't teach physics from articles in the Sunday papers, so why environmentalism? Surely the question of whether expanding nuclear power is an appropriate response to the threat of global warming, shouldn't be taught. Investigated, yes, debated, yes, but taught?!

Environmentalism also bears some of the scars of its years in the wilderness: a focus on the personal above the political, even when the personal is utterly symbolic; a tendency to blame corporations or profit for everything; a normal human tendency to evaluate evidence on the basis of where it comes from, and whether it fits the answers you are already proposing.

Still, clearly a whole generation of people has decided to teach the next the importance of doing something it wouldn't do itself. The only axe-grinders I remember teaching me were an anarchist, a Conservative and a Christian. Yet unlike those three, we have something nearing a consensus that environmentalism is the way forward. And when did that happen? Somehow, without my noticing, my views went from cranky to mainstream, without changing much.

All we need now is to do something about it. So what could be better than teaching our kids how to save the planet? (Other that doing it ourselves of course) Well how about teaching them how to crtically evaluate evidence and arguments? Include in that examining values and evaluating ethical arguments. Yet how many schools study philosophy and ethics? We need to learn to ask the right questions, not just be given what others think are the right answers.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

David Cameron blames spelling reform for social breakdown

In the context of talking about social breakdown, violence on our streets, and so on, Cameron offered three planks of policy to begin to tackle the problem: Families, Schools and Welfare.

Under schools there was the usual complaint about standards, and then this:
Listen to this. It's the President of the Spelling Society. He said, and I quote, "people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer." 

Isn't that shocking, that the Spelling Society doesn't stand up for correct spelling? Well no. The Spelling Society is a campaign for the simplification of English Spelling. They have slogans like 

Why don't 



Why do



The point being that illogical spelling makes it harder for children to learn to read, leads to lower educational achievement, and contributes, presumably, in the long run, to, er, social breakdown.

This is not a campaign of trendy educationalists to take over our schools, but a campaign aimed at us, and in particular publishers, to spell words in a sensible way.

You might not agree of course, you might find the ossified spellings of a some particular previous century - I forget which - "quaint". Fine, but by putting that first you are the agent of social breakdown, not its opponent.

Cameron has taken the opposite view - saying that only by failing to reform English spelling are we going to staunch the tide of social breakdown. Or something like that. The full speech is parodied here, at Dave, nice but knave. (Which is me, really. Plug plug)

But perhaps I am reading too much into what Dave said. Perhaps it was just a pathetic retreat into a Tory comfort zone when faced with a difficult problem.