Brexit and the fallacy of collective intentionality

There’s a big philosophical problem lying at the very heart of all this Brexit rhetoric. It concerns statements such as ‘The British people want / believe / have decided that…’. Such statements are at best vacuous, at worst malicious attempts to curtail serious discussion of very complex situations.

In philosophy, the term ‘intention state’ refers to the relationship between a thinking and feeling subject, a person, and the object or state of affairs that they, in some way, have a thought about or an emotional response towards. At one level this is reasonably straight forward. For example, whilst I may hold a false belief that the Earth is flat, it is at least reasonably easy for me, if challenged, to construct some argument to defend my belief, and for my challenger to point out the errors of my judgement. Both the subject (me) and my intentional object (the Earth) are sufficiently clear and capable of being discussed with the minimum of ambiguity. At the very least my challenger and me can agree that we talking about the same subject and object, about the same intentional relationship.

It is an all together different situation when it comes to ‘collective intentionality’. This term is defined by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “The idea that a collective can be the bearer of intentional states such as belief and intention”, and by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the power of minds to be jointly directed at objects, states of affairs, goals or values.” There are problems, serious problems, here regarding clarity of both subject and object. Both are collectives, yet are referred to and discussed in singular terms. Even if the entire membership of a particular collective, say the British people, had the same belief, say that membership of the EU was a bad thing, if interviewed in any depth it would soon become clear that the nature of their belief would be different in each case. It would have to be. They are all individual minds. And whilst I would resist any attempt to overstate our individualism, and believe strongly that our thinking is, to a large degree, informed and shaped by those people we interact with, I would still argue that our individual thoughts are the result of a unique process, a unique set of circumstances.

This means that even in the impossible situation described above, where a defined collective all believe that a certain state of affairs is the case, when examined closely the relationship in each particular case will be shown to be different. And coming back to the real world for a minute, no collective is ever of the same mind about the same object. Both collective subject and collective object are inevitably multiple – loose groups of different members that, at best, are held together by a common thread of description. A thread that unravels as soon as it is examined closely. So any statement with the form ‘the British people want / believe / have decided that…’ is actually devoid of any meaning other than the most simplified of generalisations. Such generalisations can be accepted as convenient terms in a general discuss, but are totally inappropriate when trying to resolve any issue with even a modicum of complexity. Such generalisations mask the complexity of the real world that gave birth to them.

A more malicious interpretation of the use of such statements is that they are used to intimidate and bully people of different opinions into believing that they are out of step with the dominant narrative and that they should therefore step into line and accept the majority view. This interpretation would suggest an attempt to deliberately curtail debate and dominate the political landscape; to deliberately hide the intrinsic complexity of social and political life under a warm cosy duvet of simplicity.

These problems also extend to such phrases as ‘a good deal for Britain’. For all the reasons stated, there can not be an objective ‘good deal for Britain’ that every rational subject, if using their power of reason correctly, can identify with. What constitutes ‘a good deal’ will, to varying degrees, be different for everyone. It will relate to an individual subject’s world view and to the meaning and purpose that they assign to life. It will be ‘a deal’ that supports or enhances that view. At best, because we all partake of a shared world view or narrative to some degree, this ‘good deal’ will relate to our differing narratives – those of the extreme nationalist, the neo-liberal business person, or the green oriented socialist for example. I strongly suspect that my notion of ‘a good deal’ will be quite different to that of Jacob Rees-Mogg. And whilst I would passionately argue for mine rather than his, these views are ultimately incommensurable; the reference points against which they are judged are different. The real issue concerns our differing world views.

An ethical epiphany

Something important happened to me last week. I realised that I was guilty of doing something in one area of my life that I have become increasingly angry about others doing regarding climate change: acknowledging at one level the ‘facts’, but at another level somehow managing to continue acting as if those facts did not exist. My particular epiphany came courtesy of a Bridport Literary Festival event and related to my practice of shopping on-line at Amazon.

I got enticed into the Amazon habit through books; over the years I have bought a large number of them. When Amazon started their on-line business they very quickly offered, for a relatively modest annual fee, free postage and packing and guaranteed next day delivery on books. Not only that, they seemed to have whatever obscure book I was after, and on the rare occasion when they didn’t (because it was out of print) they had links to second-hand dealers who nearly always did. This seemed a great service to me. Over the years, of course, this book service has greatly expanded to encompass not only just about any item you could want to purchase, but television and film streaming as well. I’ve since heard that this was a deliberate and planned strategy. Never-the-less, I became impressed by just how easy and relatively cheap shopping became. What I chose to ignore, however, was the fact that this was a cost picked up by Amazon workers. In hard economic terms, these costs are termed ‘externalities’, but in reality they are the lives of fellow human beings.

The Literary Festival event was an interview with James Bloodworth about his recently published Hired: six months undercover in low-wage Britain. As the subtitle suggests, he spent six months working in various minimum wage, zero-hours contract jobs – the first of which was a spell at Amazon’s distribution warehouse (sorry Amazon, I forgot, you instruct your workers – no, sorry again, associates, I forgot that you tell every one the are all the same no matter how much they earn – to call their place of work a ‘fulfilment centre’) in Rugeley. I will not go into all the details of disciplinary points awarded for daring to be ill or for being lazy by exceeding your overly generous half-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute drink breaks, with little or no time to go to the toilet because they are too far away, because I would urge you to read it for yourself. But to be honest there was little that I had not heard before. The difference was that I had heard it before in very abstract terms. James Bloodworth was now describing the lives of real people.

Sitting in the audience listening to a verbal description of these experiences (I have since read them) I first went through various attempts to justify my shopping habits but eventually a loud and crystal clear thought emerged: “how can you possibly claim to take ethics seriously if you continue supporting such employment practices?” What made the difference, I think, was the very real description of the effects of these practices on actual lives – in this case the author who was sitting on the stage talking about his lived experiences, in the case of the book the various characters described. When you hear descriptions of working conditions on the news they tend to be relayed in very matter of fact terms. There is little opportunity for feelings of empathy with the workers to emerge.

The thought that is taking longer to emerge, that I’m struggling to articulate, concerns how to expand what I’ve learnt here into the wider ethical arena. On the one hand my experience reiterates something that I’ve talked about quite a lot recently (particularly with regards to climate change), and that is the importance of emotion, particularly empathy, to ethics. On the other hand, it also suggests a willingness to develop a personal ethics. And here my emphasis is strongly on the active development of an internal ethical process rather than the adoption of an ‘off the shelf’ set of ethical principles. I think that what I’m trying to say is there needs to be some effort from all of us to place ourselves in situations where we receive some empathic stimulation, but also to recognise the importance of developing our receptiveness to such stimulation. Facts are important, but so to are the actual lived experiences of people affected by those facts. And these lived experiences need to be real life stories, not stereotypes or caricatures.