The joy of philosophical discussion and pessimism

Philosophy has always been important to me. By philosophy I do not necessarily mean a body of knowledge, though that is inevitably picked up to some degree on the way. I mean instead asking questions: questions that resist an easy answer; questions that open up problems rather than close them down; questions that make you think. But above all, and increasingly so over the years, I value asking questions and discussing ideas with a group friends. It was a joy, therefore, when the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group met, in person, this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We’ve been meeting every month virtually through this strange time, but this has been nowhere near the same experience. So, seeing as our last on-line meeting discussed ‘Joy as an act of resistance’, we started our physical meetings off with a discussion of ‘Pessimism’.

Philosophical pessimism is generally regarded as a direct challenge to what John Gray (in Straw Dogs) terms humanism – that is, the belief in progress, the belief that “by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals”. Put another way, philosophical pessimism challenges the optimistic assumption that the future will be kind to us. Such an assumption is manifest in a blind belief in market led solutions, that if we allow economic markets to work in an unrestricted manner the invisible hand will work its magic to the benefit of all. It is also manifest in a blind belief in technological solutions to our climate crisis, an area where we witness many examples of what Roger Scrutton calls the ‘best-case fallacy’. This is where people adopt an uncritical attitude towards the best case scenario of any problem and believe that it will come about.

The future of human survival, let alone human well-being, faces many challenges: global pandemics, growing and deepening inequality, economic collapse, a resurgent religious fundamentalism, post-truth. But without doubt the biggest of these is a rapidly changing climate. Following innumerable severe weather events around the world which most scientists attribute to the rise of mean global temperatures, his last week saw one report in which scientists warn that greenhouse gas levels are already too high “for a manageable future for humanity.” Yet despite these warnings sufficient numbers of politicians grasp hold of some version of the ‘best-case fallacy’. They have faith, for example, that ‘carbon capture and storage’ will provide a technological solution to the critically high levels of carbon in our atmosphere – even though the technology has not been fully developed, let alone proven to work. Others have faith that hydrogen will be able to replace fossil fuels to power our privately owned transport obsessions. And all the time we hold onto this faith we do not consider other options. These technologies may prove effective. But they may not. In other words, optimism may lead to our demise, whereas pessimism would probably lead us to the best outcomes in the long-term – providing, of course, that it doesn’t drain us of the will to live.

So why do so many of us grasp hold of an uncritical optimism? Well one way of approaching such a question is through our use of narrative and through the links between pessimism and the absurd. For proponents of existentialism the absurd represents an intrinsic paradox to human existence: that humans have a deep need for meaning and purpose to their lives, but when sufficiently examined no such meaning and purpose can be found to exist. What humans tend to do, however, is to tell themselves and others stories. These stories are a mix of adopted, often religious myths that explain the place and future of a person’s tribe, nation or religion on this planet, and a personal narrative that assigns a place for the narrator within this grand-narrative. These narratives come complete with the usual mix of heroes, villains and victims. Within the grand-narratives these roles are often abstract, often assigned to other communities, social groups or religions, though occasionally an actual person can become the embodiment of a hero or villain (I’m thinking Donald Trump). Within our personal narratives these roles are assigned to the people we know. With regards to optimism, the key point is that we all tend to prefer stories with a happy ending.

There are, though, exceptions to our liking of happy endings. I’m thinking particularly of how many people enjoy a Shakespearean Tragedy, which usually ends with the death of the hero and most other characters. And many of us enjoy ambiguous endings to a film or drama series – though usually in the hope of a sequel that will resolve all the plot lines. But with regards to both our grand-narratives and personal stories perhaps we need to take a lesson from science. Complexity science, the science of dynamic systems (which we are all examples of), has shown that there is an inherent uncertainty to life. So why not start writing this uncertainty into our narratives, why not start embracing uncertainty rather than writing it out of the script. Rather than anticipate a happy ending (optimism), rather than anticipate a tragic ending (pessimism), why not treat life as a piece of improvised theatre in which the ending is uncertain? Why not develop our character through the performance of our lives fully accepting that the closing scenes have yet to be written?

Opportunities lost

At last week’s meeting of Dorset Council I found myself in a difficult situation. One of the principle items on the agenda was the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy, which was finally ready for adoption. I didn’t want the Council to reject this strategy – it contains much to be valued, and it is surely better to have a strategy than not. But, and this is a big ‘but’, it lacks the vision, it lacks the ambition, and, most importantly, it lacks the sense of mission that I genuinely believe is necessary if we are going safeguard the wellbeing of current and future residents of Dorset.

For example, my original CEE motion to Council (which was referred to the cross-party panel that ‘advised’ on the creation of the strategy, and which has never been debated) called for the development of a Dorset wide transport strategy that discouraged car use, encouraged walking and cycling, and brought about drastically improved rail and bus services. This has not been addressed by the strategy. One way this could be achieved would be to develop an idea sketched out in the Royal Town and Planning Institute research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’, published earlier this year. This could develop Dorset into a network of eco-towns, towns with high levels of self-sufficiency that facilitate local living and the local economy, connected by a comprehensive public transport infrastructure.

Such an idea would require what the economist Marianna Mazzucato calls a mission-oriented approach, a way of thinking that “is about setting targets that are ambitious but also inspirational, [that are] able to catalyse innovation across multiple sectors and actors in the economy. It is about imagining a better future and organising public and private investments to achieve that future.” An approach like this would put the problem of achieving net zero living at the centre of a redesigned Dorset economy. That, I truly believe, is the level of vision and ambition we need to adopt. But sadly the strategy I voted with a very heavy heart to accept gets nowhere near such levels. The battle continues.

The other item which I was hoping to speak on was a motion from the Leader of the LibDem group calling for the Council change its model of governance. The current model is one where the main decisions are made by a cabinet of ten members selected by an elected leader. The motion called upon the Council to adopt a model where these decisions are made by a number of committees made up of members from all political groups in proportion to that group’s success at the previous election. For example: at the 2019 election 43 Conservative councillors were elected out of a total of 82 (52%); so rather than a 100% Conservative cabinet making the decisions, they would be made by committees containing only 52% Conservative councillors.

I wanted to voice my support for this motion on two grounds. First, from a philosophical perspective, because definitive answers or solutions to any problem simply do not exist. It is impossible to say, with an absolute sense of certainty, this is how things should be, and this is how we achieve it. There are no ideal models for human behaviour or relationships existing in some Platonic heaven, and due to the inherent uncertainty of all complex systems there is no guaranteed way of achieving any desired outcome. No, the only way to conduct our affairs is by listening to all perspectives. All views and opinions, reflecting the views of all the residents of Dorset, not just those of a small group of the majority party, need considering and debating. This is the only way to make important democratic decisions that affect the lives of those people living and working in Dorset.

Second, because one of the seven principles of public life (incorporated into our members Code of Conduct) is openness: “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” I see no evidence of such openness from our current Cabinet system. When I have attended cabinet the vast majority of decisions have been unanimous – with no debate, no exploration of alternatives, no transparency of decision making at the actual meeting. The members of the cabinet are not unintelligent; they must have questions to ask; they must have differences of opinion; they must feel the need to at least challenge some of the reports they are presented with. But as none of this is evident at the cabinet meeting open to the public, press and other councillors I can only assume it is taking place behind closed doors. A healthy democracy requires these doors to be opened.

Sadly I never got an opportunity to make these arguments because the ‘debate’ quickly descended into farce. In fact it hardly deserves the name ‘debate’. None of the key issues were examined, none of the main arguments were made. My interpretation of events is that the Leader of the Council, sensing the real possibility of defeat, introduced an amendment that would have effectively kicked the issue in the long grass. Fortunately a yet further amendment was introduced, and supported by a majority of councillors, that will require the Council to decide this issue before the next elections in 2024. I think it really sad, and not good for democracy, that the opportunity to discuss, examine and debate these important issues was lost.

Common sense or good sense?

Common sense has been much talked about this week, mostly in connection with the wearing of face masks. When step 4 of the government’s ‘roadmap to freedom’ starts, possibly on July 19th, wearing them will no longer be a legal requirement in most places in England. According to the Prime Minister, the decision to wear them will be a matter of “personal responsibility”, whilst the health minister, Helen Whately, said that people will be asked to “make a common sense judgement” about such issues. But what does this mean? I’ve long had a problem with the notion of common sense. People who use the term seem to imply that through its use we should be able to assess a situation and arrive a course of action which is both obvious and common to all. Whilst this may work in a few situations (though to be honest I’m struggling to think of an example) I suspect that for most, and particularly for novel situations like the current pandemic, it simply becomes an excuse to abandon reason rather than embrace it.

In The Myth Gap, Alex Evans argues that “When it comes to how we make up our minds about political issues, it turns out that evidence, facts and data matter much less than the values held by the people we hang out with.” I think that this applies to social issues generally, not just the overtly political ones. For most of us, most of the time, our personal responsibility is directed towards “the people we hang out with” rather than society as a whole, and the purpose of any “common sense judgement” is to endorse our relationship with them rather than challenge it. This process has a lot of similarity to confirmation bias – the process whereby we seek out ‘evidence’ to support what we already believe rather than throw it into doubt. So rather than challenge or strain important social, economic or political relationships through independent rational thought we tend to do the reverse, preferring to agree with whichever argument or course of action is likely strengthen these relationships. It takes a very strong independent mind to do otherwise.

Antonio Gramsci had a similar argument. In his Prison Notebooks common sense is described as that comforting set of certainties that make us feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the social world we inhabit. These ‘certainties’ are the basic realities we use to explain our world and experiences. For example, the dominant view in most western countries, the view adopted by a majority of politicians, and the view the world of business and commerce perpetuate, is one that focuses on both the individual (individual self-interest, individual rights) and the value of competition. In terms of mask wearing it is just ‘common sense’ that the needs of ‘the economy’ are of paramount importance and that the rights of the individual to be free of imposed restrictions are fundamental. But what this ‘common sense’ view of human life fails to note is that throughout human life on this planet cooperation has been of equal importance to competition, and that without human society there can be no individual. We are who we are because of our interaction with other people. As I heard one commentator on the mask debate say, social issues concern ‘we’, not ‘I’.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze made a useful comparison between common sense and good sense. Now Deleuze is not the easiest philosopher to read, but my take on him is that he largely agrees with Gramsci about common sense. Common sense objectifies the experienced diversity of our world, it produces our individualised ‘world view’, and in doing so it essentially looks backward. Good sense, on the other hand looks forward. Its purpose is to foresee, and in doing so it is far more analytical – the formula it uses is “on one hand and on the other hand”. Such a formula could be quite helpful in the coming weeks. Rather than just fall prey to the libertarian wing of their party, rather than prioritise economic growth over social wellbeing, the government should examine the evidence and listen to the experts. It would make good sense to listen to both England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and its chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who have said that they will continue to wear masks indoors (in crowded situations or when people are close together), if asked to by any competent authority, or as a common courtesy if someone else was uncomfortable. At the very least such restrictions should remain. It also makes good sense for shops and other places open to the public to have clearly defined times when masks will be worn. This will allow people who feel vulnerable to shop with some degree of ease. My fear is that leaving the decision about mask wearing to common sense will make a lot of people feel very uncomfortable and will produce a lot of social tension. I hope that good sense prevails.