Thank you Philosophy.

One of my monthly highlights is the meeting of Bridport’s Philosophy in Pubs group. We met last Wednesday to discuss the notion of identity – our personal identity and its relationship to our sense of self. I shall say nothing further about this particular discussion now (though, if interested, please feel free to track down the August of edition of Bridport Times and read my regular column), but instead comment on why I find these meetings so stimulating. Bertrand Russell expressed my love of philosophy well when he said that “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves” (The Problems of Philosophy, ch. 14). Philosophy for me is about asking good questions, questions that open up problems and disturb certainty, questions that unsettle received opinion. It’s a creative and invigorating process.

But in many ways this challenging of certainty and the ‘common sense’ view sits on the opposite side of the table to the political aspect of my weekly activities. Whilst political theory can quite easily be studied and debated at an abstract level, without ever having to get your hands dirty, in reality politics is about finding solutions to problems that affect the lives of actual people, people who are not particularly interested in abstract arguments, people who just want to get on with their lives. And in many ways they are right. Decisions need to be taken, plans need to made and implemented, actions need to be taken. The problem is, however, that people crave certainty. Uncertainty unsettles us, and is usually portrayed as a sign of weakness. And this dilemma is perfectly illustrated by the issue that is dominating my political life at the moment – how should both Dorset Council and Bridport Town Council respond to their recently declared Climate Emergencies?

Life is inherently uncertain. Science, and particularly any science involving complex and dynamic systems like climate science, is inherently uncertain. This is just a fact. But as soon as you stand up and say this it’s immediately used as evidence that the science is therefore wrong and should be ignored, that the changes you are arguing for are unnecessary, and that we should take a far more relaxed approach to the impending crisis. The problem is, I think, that we are just not very good at making sense of probability. This is perfectly illustrated by the number of people who take part in lotteries and buy scratch cards. In terms of climate breakdown, a 90% certainty (for example) of something bad happening is serious – very serious. A politician who fails to respond to a 90% chance of something bad happening is guilty of gross negligence.

I have two important meetings this coming week concerning the Councils responses to the Climate Emergency. In one in particular I am anticipating a large degree of resistance to the action I consider necessary. And this is when I’m helped by philosophy. My approach has to be to start unravelling certain common sense, taken for granted perspectives – attitudes, for example, that prioritise the need continuous economic growth over all other factors. Following Russell, I will need to focus on raising good, well thought through questions, and point out that there are no definitive answers to either these questions or the emergency we face. Thank you philosophy. In a strange way it’s you that keeps me grounded in the political arena, not the other way round.

On a week that saw my optimism rise & fall

Please don’t be alarmed, but I’m starting to feel optimistic. I’m starting to believe that it may actually be possible to change things for the better and, in the face of an imminent climate and ecological breakdown, to turn things around and secure the wellbeing of future generations. And if I’m correct, this will be largely down Extinction Rebellion – the global grass roots movement and their programme of non-violent direct action. I say this after reading on the BBC News site that climate protesters have stormed a coal mine in Germany, breaking through police lines during a weekend of protests against fossil fuel use. Whether this was organised by XR or not I don’t know. But if not it was surely inspired by their strategy, as was Greenpeace’s protest at the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech. These protests are both inspiring and effective.

This dawning optimism was given a boost earlier in the week when I attended a ‘Climate Change Adaptation Framework for Dorset’ event, jointly organised by Dorset Local Nature Partnership and the Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership. I have to admit that I was initially sceptical regarding the LEP’s involvement. I say this because I assume that their economic approach is mainstream and conservative. For example, whilst their Dorset Horizon 2038 talks of their ambition “to build a more productive, innovative, inclusive and sustainable economy” (at face value, no problem with that), it’s subtitle is ‘A Vision for Growth’. If we are serious about responding to climate breakdown we need to end our obsession with the pursuit of economic growth. Rather than this being the over-arching measure of economic success we need to adopt that of human and ecological wellbeing; we need, in the words of economist Kate Raworth, to become agnostic towards economic growth.

But whilst the LEP’s current economic model may well place economic growth centre stage, presentations at this event did not. In fact, I don’t recall ‘economic growth’ being mentioned at all. Moreover, one of the main presenters talked about the need to transform our economic system, of moving towards a circular economy. This is most encouraging. Clive Lewis MP, in XR’s recent publication This is not a Drill, argues that a shift to a circular economy will involve cuts in consumption, increased recycling, drastic improvements to our re-use efficiency, and (most importantly) the abandonment of our fetish for growth. Instead, our goals must be a decarbonised economy of full employment built upon renewables, recycling technologies, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. To slightly amend a comment made by Clive Lewis: There will be no jobs or wealth on a dead planet.

So you can see how my optimism was soaring. It was soaring even as I started writing this. But then I heard the ex-Labour MP David Miliband on the Andrew Marr show talk about a possible armed conflict between the USA and Iran. And as they described how quickly such a conflict could escalate I could feel my optimism draining away. Very quickly my imagination was constructing all kinds of disastrous scenarios, many involving nuclear weapons. And that, despite the efforts of CND, is an issue that we haven’t resolved, despite years of campaigning. So, if we really are serious about avoiding the extinction of humanity perhaps we need to bring the issue of nuclear weapons back to the centre of grass roots campaigning as well.

My imagination has calmed down now, and my optimism is returning. But it would be a far more resilient optimism if could get rid of nuclear weapons!

A change of direction

Six weeks ago I was elected onto the new Dorset Council. One of the few downsides to this is that since then, in fact since the start of the election campaign several weeks prior to this, I’ve been struggling to find the time for many of my other projects – projects that are important to me personally, projects that keep my philosophical flame burning. This is requiring me to rethink how I handle these projects. The Philosophy in Pubs group I run is fairly straight forward, does not require a significant amount of time, so is at no risk whatsoever. The research that I have been doing into a narrative approach to ethics is important to me, not least because I think it important politically, but the book that was planned as an outcome will need to be put on hold. But on a positive note, I’m pleased to say that last Friday was a landmark day, in as much as I actually found the time to pick up the reading I was doing before local politics drowned all other activity.

Which brings me to this blog. My plan so far has been to write and post an essay of between 800 and a 1000 words every two weeks, an essay offering a philosophical reflection on some event or news item. But the reflection requires time, or at least some mental space where connections between disparate ideas can can tried, re-worked and finally sculptured into a coherent argument. Once this has happened, for me at least, the writing is fairly straight-forward. No, this approach requires some uncluttered thinking time – time I just haven’t got at the moment. However, I really do not want to stop writing. I enjoy writing. So I’m going to try a different approach. Instead of a reasonably substantial piece on a single subject every two weeks, I going to try a short piece (500 words at the most) every week simply reflecting on the week that has just past. A philosophical diary if you like. Hopefully I can do this by simply sitting down for a couple of hours at the weekend and writing what comes into my head. We’ll see.

For example, the topic that has dominated my thinking this last couple of weeks has been the drafting of a climate emergency motion for submission to the full Dorset Council. At the first meeting of this Council last month, due to pressure from members of Extinction Rebellion in the public area, a climate emergency was declared – but the motion passed was so bland that it makes no commitment to action at all. This needs to change. The Council at least needs to commit to developing certain strategies and policies. But in doing so many elected members will be fearful of either the consequences of certain lines of action, or will be hesitant because of having no idea how certain strategies will, or could be implemented. This must not stop us stating clearly what needs to happen. If we wait until we know the how of our response to the climate and ecological breakdown we face we will never act. We must let the necessity to act become the mother of invention. And if certain actions have outcomes we would prefer not to happen, then so be it. That is often the consequence of an emergency.

The asymmetry of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’

There’s one perspective to the ongoing and intractable Brexit debate that doesn’t seem to have been discussed. When ‘remainers’ like myself point out that those who voted to leave did not know what they were voting for, we are usually met with a wall of hostility. ‘Of course we did’ is the choral and angry response. This response is angry because it is generally taken to be insinuating that either those who voted for Brexit were too stupid to know or understand the issues, or that they were gullible and misinformed by devious politicians. But this misses the point. Whilst individual voters may well have had an idea of what they were voting for, this idea could not have been as concrete or as clear as that for which ‘remainers’ had voted. This has nothing to do with the capabilities of individual voters. It results from a fundamental asymmetry between the two concepts.

Whenever we refer to anything in language, the word we use has a referent. So, to use the standard example used by philosophers down the centuries, when I talk about a cup I will have a very clear idea of what a cup is. Whilst I may have the image of an actual cup in my mind when I speak or write, like the one on my desk now, those listening or reading do not need to have exactly the same image to understand what I mean. Cups are very common items. Whilst they all vary to some degree in size, shape and design, they all have sufficient in common that they can be identified by anyone. Such is the case for most, if not all, actual physically existing things.

But what about more abstract concepts, like say marriage or being the member of a social club? ‘Marriage’ and ‘social club’ are both nouns like ‘cup’, and work in the same way in language. They too have a referent, but this time what they refer to is far more abstract. Yes, a social club may be located in an actual building such that people passing could point and refer to it as a social club, but that club is far, far more than the building. It is a complex set of relationships between those people who are members of the club. Some of these relationships may be formalised in a written constitution that can be referred to in a similar way to a cup, but understanding and applying that constitution will involve many abstract concepts that defy being written down. Marriage is also essentially a relationship, primarily between two people, but also, in actuality, often between two families.

The key term here is ‘relationship’. Relationships are very complex sets of behaviours, only some of which are written down in constitutions, marriage agreements, and the associated state laws. They essentially describe how individual human actors behave, respond and associate with other human actors in a variety of different situations – some formal, some informal, with many grades between. We may not be able to formally describe all the relationships that exist for us in any particular situation, but we ‘know’ them intimately. To varying degrees, they form part of who we are.

But what happens if we want to leave one of these relationships? If we are a member of a social club but fall out with the committee we are at liberty to leave the club and have nothing further to do with it. We may continue to meet and have some relationship with members of the club, but we can, if we want, completely disassociate ourselves from the club. Marriages can be somewhat more difficult. If there are no children, no joint assets, and no wider family involved, it is possible, following the formal divorce, to walk away without any agreement on a future relationship. However, when children in particular are involved, some type of ongoing relationship cannot be avoided. Some type of ‘deal’ is essential.

And so to the UK’s relationship with the EU. This relationship takes complexity to a new level. In addition to the formal treaties and agreements there are a host of informal relationships that have not only developed during the course of the life of the EU, but through the course of European history. So my point regarding the asymmetry between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ is simply this. Whilst none of us is able to describe the full complexity of the UK’s relationship with the EU, for each of us this relationship, however strong or weak, however positive or negative, is real. When we say ‘remain’ we are referring to an actually existing set of relationships. However, when we say ‘leave’ we not only find it impossible to do the same, but we find it impossible to imagine what set of relationships could exist. We could only do so if a ‘clean break’ divorce was possible, and it isn’t. The term ‘leave’ does not, and cannot, refer to an actually existing referent. It is therefore impossible to know what ‘leave’ actually means.