It’s the economy, stupid!

James Corville, the campaign strategist for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, supposedly used the phrase “The economy, stupid!” to keep his team ‘on message’. Since then it has become a truism of political commentators at election time – that the dominant issue is always the economy. This dominance of the economy in political thinking has been around for a long while, but, like a cancer, it has grown. Now it dominates everything, and is causing all manner of problems. Two of these problems are particularly serious: imminent climate / environmental breakdown and rising social inequality. And whilst the former is potentially the more serious of the two, the latter is the cause of the anger and social discontent that gave rise to the Brexit vote and the election of popularist politicians like Donald Trump.

There is much I could say against our dominant economic model, but I will restrict myself to its most insidious feature – economic growth and the accumulation of wealth as the end goal and raison d’être of all economic activity. I say insidious because this goal appears as the saving angel of all our woes and problems, as the solution to all our ills. But this particular angel’s glittering clothing covers a malevolent devil, an evil that is not only goading us to slowly destroy the environment upon which human society depends, but is directly eroding the very structures of human society through the promotion of inequality. The pursuit of wealth has become so accepted as not just an aim, but the aim of human activity, that to question it appears to fly in the face of common sense. But question it we must. We need to replace this common sense with some good sense.

Naomi Klein has coined the phrase extractivism to describe our economic attitude to the planet Earth. Certainly since the dawn of the industrial revolution, this attitude towards our natural environment has been one of a resource to exploited. Not only has our planet been viewed as one vast store of raw material to be extracted and used for the generation of wealth, it has also been used as a vast sink into which all the waste from our economic activity can be dumped. Dumped free of cost. A cost that has been neatly bracketed out of our economic calculations as an ‘externality’, as something we can ignore. Unfortunately for us, these ‘externalities’ are now making their presence known. Out of sight can only remain out of mind for so long. Thanks to the gradual build up of these ‘externalities’, principally (but by no means exclusively) carbon in the atmosphere, we now face a climate breakdown that potentially threatens the very future of human life. Our planet is biting back.

This generation of wealth is usually defended as being necessary, as the only way to acquire the money that can be spent to alleviate poverty, provide essential public services, and to generally improve the quality of human life. Yes, the argument goes, the owners of industry and multinational corporations are the immediate recipients of this wealth, but due to the ‘trickle-down effect’ everyone benefits. The main problem with this defence is, quite simply, that it’s false. The evidence says something different. Across the world, particularly in the richer countries, inequality is rising. As national economies grow, the rich seem to get progressively and proportionally richer. And even though there is generally a slight rise in the wealth of the least well off, this has not been accompanied by an increase in happiness or wellbeing. What it has been accompanied by is an increase in mental and physical illness. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in rich countries, the levels of relative poverty, is by far the biggest cause of a whole range health issues.

But the effects of this increasing wealth gap are broader and deeper than the levels of recordable ill-health. It is also causing an incipient growth in social discontent and anger. People have been led to believe that the wealth being accumulated by the ‘elites’, by the leaders of business and industry, by the leaders of corporations and governments, will trickle down and make their lives better. But these improvements are not happening. People are feeling let down, cheated out what they believe to be theirs. Public services are being cut. Traditional jobs are disappearing. Yet rather than blame our economic system, the economic model that is actually producing this rise in inequality, people are blaming those people who the rich are setting up as scapegoats: foreign workers, immigrants, the bureaucrats of the European Union. Rather than challenge our dominant, cancerous economic model, people vote instead for Brexit and Donald Trump in the vain hope of a solution to their ills.

It is, however, too simplistic to blame the Trump-Brexit supporters for a failure to see the true cause of their discontent. And however tempting it might be, it is also too simplistic to blame the wealthy owners of business and the politicians that champion the pursuit of growth – they are, after all, only doing what they have been brought up to believe is just common sense. And simply blaming people only fans the flames of social discontent. No, what is needed, and needed as a matter of extreme urgency, is a public debate and critique of our dominant economic model. Alternative models, ones that truly meet the needs of all, ones that respect the limits imposed on them by our planet, need presenting to the public by as many politicians on the left as possible. We need to be encouraged to exercise some good sense, rather than just accept what we take to be common sense.

Feeling an alien in the country of my birth

This is going to sound a patronising thing for a late middle-aged white male to say, bearing in mind the relative ease and comfort of my life, bearing in mind the lack of prejudice directed against me. But a few days ago I was made to feel a potential outsider, an alien in the country of my birth. Why? Because I came across the Rural Conservative Movement. Not only did I find that what they believe in to be offensive to my sense of reason, to my philosophical attitude to life, but I felt it to be a potential threat to the very notion of who I feel myself to be.

They advertise themselves as believing in:
• A full, clean Brexit
• Immigration reduced to near zero
• The primacy of British culture and values
• The primacy of our Christian faith
• Protection of our rural heritage
• The traditional family
Whilst I can seriously question the validity of all of these beliefs, it was the “primacy of British culture and values”, and the “primacy of our Christian faith” that made me feel most ill at ease, together with the various graphics that accompany these statements. These graphics, overly romantic drawings of ‘traditional’ rural life, are reminiscent of those used by the Nazis in 1930’s Germany.

I have nothing against British culture and values, except that I have no idea what they are. Accepting the general definition of culture as “the values, ceremonies and ways of life characteristic of a given group”, the immediate problem becomes that of defining a given group of people bound together by an identifiable set of values and practices. When has there ever been such a group of people living in the geographical location of the British Isles? Our history is that of a multitude of different settlers and invaders bringing a diversity of different values and social attitudes with them. The most that can be said is that with time, different groups of people have found a way of living together. A number of generally shared or common beliefs and values, social practices and ceremonies have emerged, have become an identifiable feature of that group. But they will never have been adopted or believed in by everyone in that group. Not only that, but these values and practices will have differed across the country, and changed with time. I accept that a degree of uniformity emerged across the country, but only a degree. I totally reject that there ever has been, or ever can be, a defining set of British cultural values and practices.

But it’s worse than that. The implication is that if you do not ascribe to this defined set of values you are not part of British society, and therefore not welcome; that whatever values you happen to hold dear, they are of secondary importance to those of the mainstream. But who is going to define these mainstream, accepted British values? Who would dare to stand up and declare a definitive set of such values? And more importantly, how many of them do you need to hold? And to what degree? To be regarded as ‘British’, do you need to hold dear all these values, to the highest degree? If not, where do you draw the line? And what happens if you happen to fall on the wrong side of this line?

I have, however, much against the Christian faith. I’m not however prejudiced against Christianity. I regard all faiths with equal distain. My reason? Because they are faiths. People hold them to be true because they want them to be true or because they emotionally feel them to be true, not because there is any verifiable evidence that they are true. I will totally concede that religion has served a purpose during the course of human social evolution. In the absence of scientific knowledge, they have provided a narrative, an explanation and purpose to human life that has allowed for a degree of social cohesion and therefore supplied us with an evolutionary advantage. But as the tenets of the different religions are shown to be false or contradictory to knowledge capable of being scientifically tested, they need to be dropped. We will never be in a position to deal with the challenges humanity faces if we hold onto superstition rather than pursue scientific explanations.

But maybe it was the Nazi overtones that unsettled me most. The implication that there is some pure sense of Britishness to be found in a traditional past, in some mythical period of our history when everything was well with life, before it was contaminated by time, foreign cultures and alien religions. If such a belief can be fostered (a totally false belief for which no evidence can be found) then all manner of violent behaviour becomes ‘justified’ in fighting for its restoration. I didn’t end well the last time it was tried. And it will not end well if tried again.

Finding Common Ground

This is probably a first for me. I’m going to speak in support of some comments made by the Queen last week that have been interpreted as her commenting on the state of division, anger and chaos we find our society in as the aftershocks of the Brexit referendum continue. I want to take her comments regarding “speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view, coming together to seek out the common ground and never losing sight of the bigger picture” at face value and not try to over interpret her particular meaning.

I add this final caveat because in calling such approaches “tried and tested recipes” and “timeless” she not only suggests that they have always existed and been practiced, but she implies that this existence and practice is somehow intrinsic to a ‘British way’ of doing things, somewhat akin to the notion of ‘British values’ that did the rounds a few years ago and always seems to be lurking under the covers of an overly nationalistic reaction to, or interpretation of, a problem situation. I suggest that the interpretation that follows has not existed to any great degree in this country, and that further, it is very, very far from being uniquely British (in fact quite the opposite).

On the positive side, I think it very obvious that unless we want the social divisions that have been exposed as a result of Brexit to fester away and become infected to such a degree that open civil strife appears on the streets, or somehow naively believe that when which ever side we happen to support finally wins out everyone opposing it will finally see the error of their ways and fall into line behind us, that somehow, from somewhere, common ground needs to be found. It will be on this common ground that our future will be build. It needs to be as firm and as uncontested as possible. The problem is that so far all candidates for this foundation, candidates like ‘British values’ or ‘the national interest’ lack any clear articulation and are open to as many different interpretations as there are opposing factions. They are also too insular and naïve.

My suggestion is that we agree to the notion of universal human rights, or some variant of it, becoming this common ground. By definition, being universal these rights are common to everyone (there can be no exception) and as basic rights they form (or should form) the very ground of society. Let me illustrate my point with an example from a project that I am personally involved in. Here in Bridport (that’s in Dorset, UK, by the way, if you’re reading this from afar) we have declared our town a ‘Rights Respecting Town’. We have drawn up a Citizen’s Charter that has been adopted by the Town Council, and which we are encouraging both individual citizens and local organisations to sign and pledge their support to. In this Charter we have adopted / adapted the UN Declaration on Human Rights to what we think relevant to the citizens of an individual town. The first of our five key principle rights and responsibilities concerns the “Freedom of belief, thought and expression”. It not only says that “We have the right to make up our own minds, think and believe what we like, express our thoughts freely and discuss our thoughts with other people” but that “We are all responsible for respecting the ideology, thoughts and feelings of other people and defending their right to express them within the limits of the law. We have the right to safe and public spaces where people can speak and share ideas freely and with respect.”

I have written previously about the need to develop our skills in public debate and critical thinking, together with the need to foster safe environments to both speak and listen. This is a relatively easy thing to do within the confines of my Philosophy in Pubs group, but doing it on the public stage is both much harder and very much more urgent. Until we both feel able to freely express our thoughts and have them listened to, and until we learn how to both understand other points of view and have our own respectfully challenged, the social wounds that are now appearing could become deeply infected – infected to such a degree that they are resistant to all conventional forms of treatment.

But the Queen’s comment about “never losing sight of the bigger picture” should be interpreted on a much larger scale than I suspect it was meant. Universal Human Rights do not only apply to all the citizens of this country, they apply to the citizens of all countries! We need, as a matter of urgency, to stop thinking about the needs of just one nation state, and about trying to make our own nation independent of the of the needs and situations faced by citizens of the world. Particularly because of modern technology, all global citizens are highly connected and very interdependent upon each other. Our individual national economies are highly connected and influenced by the global economy, and the looming disasters associated with climate change and ecological degradation, together with those of terrorism (both physical and cyber), migration (from war zones, economic collapse or rising sea levels) and global epidemics require us to think collectively. We need to consider the rights of all global citizens and how we can collectively defend ourselves against the multiple developing global threats to our existence.

Politics on the edge of chaos

As we teeter on the edge of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic weeks in politics for a generation, if not longer, I feel the urge to explore the positive aspects of the approaching storm rather than the negative. Whilst the Sunday papers are carrying stories about the Tories being on the verge of imploding, about how the very roots of our democracy are under attack, or about how parliament is plotting a near revolution by seizing power from the executive, I think it of value to note that, in terms of systems thinking, being ‘on the edge of chaos’ is being at the optimum point of health and creativity.

Any social or political system can be understood as a complex system. Such systems are composed of a large number of social actors (you and me) who interact with a very large number of other social actors such that their totality can be talked about in terms of a whole – a whole like ‘the British political system’. Such systems are always embedded with larger complex systems, like ‘the European political system’ or ‘the world political system; interact with other political systems, like the French or American political systems; and contain many smaller systems, like individual political parties or institutions, that are embedded within it, and likewise interact with each other.

Such systems are held together by an incredibly complex system of norms, rules or laws. Each social actor within every system, at all levels, interacts with other social actors according to what each actor regards to be the norms of behaviour. These norms range from unwritten forms of behaviour that just feel like the correct way to behave in any given situation, through to having these norms written down and agreed as rules within particular parties or institutions, right up to having these norms passed as laws with legal penalties for their infringement. In terms of systems thinking, the degree to which a norm has been agreed as a rule or turned into a law can be termed its degree of codification. The greater the degree of codification, the less room for manoeuvre any individual actor has regarding how to behave in any given situation.

The important thing to grasp is that at any level, any system is always embedded with a larger system upon which it is dependent for its continuation as a system, for its survival. Even ‘the world political system’ is embedded within the global economic system and the global ecological system. However, the one and only constant in all this is that things change.

One of the main features of such systems is that because of the richness of interaction between individual actors, and because of such features as feedback loops, both positive and negative, there is an inherent and inescapable uncertainty to the whole process. The only thing that is certain is that something, somewhere will change. And it’s impossible to predict the effect this change will have on the system or systems as a whole. Some small occurrence can have a massive system changing effect, whilst some potentially devastating occurrence can be absorbed into the system with hardly a ripple.

At any level, if the environment in which a system is embedded changes, then to stay healthy that system needs to respond in some way. It may need to stay unified in the face of war or external political attack, or it may need to adapt to irreversible changes that would otherwise prevent its continuation (climate change for example). But here’s the dilemma. A system’s ability to change is largely controlled by it’s degree of codification. A system that is highly codified is very good at holding together in the face of a storm, but not good at adapting to longer terms changes affecting its environment; whereas a lightly coded system easily responds to environmental changes but can be blown away, dissolved into chaos, by a sudden storm. The optimum place for any system, the point when it is at its healthiest, is often referred to as ‘being on the edge of chaos’.

Being ‘on the edge of chaos’ is the most creative and healthy state any system can be in. It is a state when there is sufficient codification to hold the system together in the face of most storms, but not so much codification that it can not adapt to irreversible changes to its environment. The British political system, and the wider social system in which it’s embedded, needs to change, that is obvious. It needs to adapt to global economic and ecological changes, and it needs to influence change in other political systems. But at the moment the degree to which it’s norms have been codified is preventing these changes. It’s my sincere hope that the current political storm will loosen these codes and allow a more creative political and social system to emerge, one that remains perpetually ‘on the edge of chaos’.

Healing the Brexit scars

Being an atheist and a committed secularist, it’s not often that I support comments made by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But certain comments made in his New Year message were spot on. Referring to the degree of social division and anger that has been stirred up by the EU referendum and subsequent events, he noted that we not only “disagree on many things” but that “we are struggling to disagree well”. If anything, I would put it more strongly. Everyone seems to have an opinion, often a very strongly held opinion, and many are strongly dismissive of contrary opinions. This seems to be fuelling social tensions that are only likely to increase. And this is all deeply worrying. The remedy, I suggest, is that we all need to develop our ability to critically discuss important issues; we need to learn the arts of public debate and critical thinking.

These are abilities that community philosophy helps to develop. At the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we have one golden rule – that we are critical of ideas, not of the person expressing them. This may sound very simple and straightforward, but in practice it is anything but. It means that when listening to an opinion that you don’t agree with you really do need to listen to what the other person is saying, not just hear them; the quick and easy thing to do is to assign the other person to a stereotype and then attack that caricature – often with an insult. It also means that you need to think clearly about why you disagree with their opinion; you need to do this so that you are able to explain your reasons for disagreement in a way that is both logical and respectful of the other person.

This is of vital importance. If group members think that the moment they say something they are verbally attacked they either keep quiet or don’t turn up in the first place. Either way, their views are not heard. And this is of even greater importance on the national stage. A great many people feel that politicians are not listening to them, that their genuine worries and concerns are being either ignored or paid lip service to. Everyone in society needs to feel comfortable expressing an opinion, to not open themselves to a torrent of abuse for doing so, and, at the very least, to having that opinion listened to.

But there’s another side to this coin: that in expressing an opinion everyone needs to accept that their thoughts and ideas may well be challenged; that not everyone is going to agree with them, let alone praise them for a unique insight into the problem at hand. This means that we must all be prepared to be critical of our own position; that we must be able to defend this position with reasoned argument and evidence, not just make a serious of unsupported assertions; that we must learn not to take offence because somebody has the audacity to disagree with us; and most importantly, it means that we must be prepared to change our mind! We need to understand that thoughts and opinions are best formed through critical debate and discussion, not born from our minds fully formed and perfect.

It may seem like a typical reactionary opinion of someone my age, but I really do think that we have lost the skills of public debate and critical thinking – if we had them in the first place. Most of us read or listen to the same news sources that we always have done, take on board the opinions of politician or political parties we have always supported, and automatically defend our opinion if and when challenged. This does not make for a healthy society. Unless we learn the arts of effective public debate and critical thinking I fear that the Brexit scars will take a long time to heal.

Brexit: the abstract and the actual

This blog is likely to get a little, well…abstract. But bear with me, please. This is important. Its importance concerns not just philosophy, but also politics. And it’s very important in relation to the Brexit crisis we seem to have found ourselves in.

Michel Serres, the French philosopher who has been a great influence on my thinking over the years, describes, in his book The Five Senses, looking through his window at the effects of the sun twinkling “with a hundred sparkling stars through the moving branches of the wind-tossed apple tree”. He attempts, in words, to describe an actual lived experience. The point he goes on to make is that: “Deprived of all its subtlety, the body, blinded, flees towards the abstract, in painting or in geometry. It invents black and white graphics, colourless and formless concepts, consciousness or demonstration, it escapes into inner worlds.” [p249]

Humanity has always had the problem of capturing the complexity of real lived experiences in such a way that they can be discussed or otherwise communicated to others. Arguably artists, whether they be painters or poets, have faired best in this enterprise, often managing to capture something of their experience that defies explanation. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to complex concepts, the degree of abstraction from the world of actual lived experiences often becomes extreme. And whilst we may think that the concepts that we construct (and we do construct them) are complicated and obscure, they have none of the real complexity of the actual circumstances or events that they refer to.

The problem for philosophy has been that many its most influential proponents (and I’m thinking primarily here of Plato) have regarded this move away from lived experiences towards abstract concepts as a move towards the Truth, as a move towards some timeless and universal essence that is the source and true reference point of all that there is in the world. I would like to think that we have moved well passed this ancient way of thinking, not least because it is the complete opposite of the world as described by modern science, particularly complexity science. But I fear that many residues of this thinking remain.

The problem is best demonstrated by our legal system. We have laws that make certain acts illegal and subject to punishment. These laws have been made in response to the experienced unfairness that people have directly felt over the course of our social evolution when subject the behaviour of others – to theft or assault for example. Our experiences and responses have been codified, they have been turned into abstract concepts such that they can be discussed and re-applied to other, similar circumstances. This is unavoidable if we want to discuss any generalisation – any idea that is wider or more far reaching than an actual event. In fact, due the sheer complexity of even relatively straightforward events, some degree of abstraction is necessary in order to have any meaningful discussion at all. But even codified laws or complicated legal contracts have a degree of ‘actualness’ about them compared to the totally abstract idea of say ‘justice’. At least a contract can be printed, circulated and be subject to debate regarding its meaning.

And so, eventually, to Brexit. Whatever the actual lived experiences of all of us who voted in the 2016 referendum, however we voted, at least those experiences were real – even if I cannot agree with how many of those experiences have been interpreted. But the further we move away from the richness of our lived experiences, the further we move towards the world of “black and white graphics, colourless and formless concepts”, the more we escape into our inner worlds. And these inner worlds, if not repeatedly subject to repeated attempts to be re-applied to the world of lived experience, soon become rarefied utopias of impossible realisation – worlds so mystified and mysterious that even the inhabitants get lost in the fog.

The various Brexit worlds that have formed during and following the referendum often approach becoming such extreme abstract concepts. They have elements, phrases that, in isolation, can be given a degree of meaning, but when taken as whole they have no coherent meaning. They cannot have – they are far too abstract to have any real, actual meaning. As the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid said on the radio this morning (03.12.18): “the truth is that after that referendum no one really knew what type of Brexit it would be”. Nobody could know. It was far too an abstract idea. To have some degree of knowledge of it would require it to gain some degree of actualisation. At least the PM’s ‘deal on the table’ is actual to the degree it can be meaningfully discussed and debated. People can assess, to some degree, how it fits with their own, actual lived experiences. This is a big improvement on the totally abstract option of ‘Leave’ but requires being put to the electorate to approve or reject.

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.

Effective Altruism

For me, one of the joys of organising the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group is the discovery of new ideas and different ways of approaching problems. Even with a background in philosophy I’m constantly being introduced to a new way of thinking, something which I think vital to human development. The October meeting of the group discussed ‘Effective Altruism’ – an approach which I only heard of for the first time when one of the members of the group suggested it as a topic. This is how we try and run the group. Ideas are suggested by group members, and a consensus agreed at the end of each meeting for discussion at the next.

‘Effective Altruism’ is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. It encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions in order to act in a way that brings about the greatest positive impact based upon the values they already hold. A person committed to supporting disaster relief, for example, would not necessarily respond to an emotionally charged television appeal, preferring to rationally research how their money could be used to help prevent disasters in the first place.

This movement, which has almost developed into a cult status amongst certain of its advocates, has close affinities with utilitarianism, the approach to ethics that aims to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” and for which the end is more important than the means. And it shares with utilitarianism a number of problems concerning the calculus of ‘the greatest good’. Just how you quantify any good such that it can be compared to other goods is very difficult, and needs to make a lot of assumptions regarding values held. And this calculus becomes next to impossible when you start taking future generations, non-human animals, non-animals, and any number of unintended consequences into account.

But perhaps more importantly, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on the application of reason rather than emotion has led Giles Fraser to argue that its cold hearted efficiency leads it to deny love as the base of morality, and for the philosopher John Gray to suggest that its appeal to treat strangers more favourably than your own family creates feelings of guilt amongst those who succumb to their emotions and with it “a rationalist version of original sin”. For my part, whilst I think a degree of rationality needs to be applied to any ethical decision (I certainly would not advocate simply responding emotionally to all situations) I do not think that we either should or could eradicate emotion from such decisions. This would be to deny emotion, and particularly empathy, as the foundation from which ethics grows and develops.

But what do you think? How important is your use of reason when making an ethical decision? To what extent should that decision be informed or motivated by emotion? Please reply if you feel the desire to discuss, and if you want more details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group simply visit the Philosophy in Pubs website (philosophyinpubs.co.uk) and find ‘The George, Bridport’ under ‘venues’.

Towards a new common sense

The social, economic and political changes necessary to restrict the rise of mean global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels are fundamental and extensive. Yet despite the seriousness of failing to achieve this target the issue is not being addressed with anywhere near the urgency required. There are two significant reasons for this failure.

The first is the neo-liberal hegemony maintained and continuously propagated by our political and business leaders. Whilst the majority of these leaders pay lip service to the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and talk about the need to move towards a carbon neutral economy, any change must still support continuous economic growth and not hinder what they regard as the power of ‘the market’ to find solutions to all our problems. Whilst this attitude is fundamentally flawed, it is the prevailing hegemony. It is supported even by those who suffer from its effects; it forms our current common sense.

The second is that for these changes to come about in the time scales required they will require mass emotional support. And at the moment there is no such support. Whilst many people agree with the assessment of climate scientists, because the current climate situation remains largely theoretical people understand but do not directly feel the need for change; they are not suffering and are not angry. As Kate Crehan argues in Gransci’s Common Sense: “…while reasoned argument is certainly crucial, it cannot on its own create persuasive political narratives. Effective political movements need more than this: they need passion.”

Whilst politicians and ‘experts’ can develop narratives that explain this need for change, and provide counter-narratives to the hegemonic narrative propagated by those who want the neo-liberal status-quo to remain, this can only be on the back of a mass movement that feels the need for change. And here we fall foul of Anthony Giddens’ Paradox: that because “the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life” most people are not motivated to act, but by the time these dangers are visible and felt, it will be too late. By the time people feel angry about what’s happening, have developed a real passion for change, it will be too late to do anything about it.

However, people are angry! They are angry that their lives are not improving, that they struggle to get decent houses to live in, that their children are not getting the education they deserve, that they can’t see a doctor when they want to, that they are working harder and longer in jobs that are becoming more and more insecure, and that their wages have not increased for many years; whilst at the same time they look on in awe at the growing wealth of the top 10%. It is from this passion that the energy and drive for social, economic and political change can arise. That is why this passion is so contested.

Politicians and people with power on the right of the political spectrum have succeeded in providing a common sense narrative that explains this anger and frustration, one that blames the EU and / or immigration, that blames ‘big government’ or the ‘nanny state’. Rather than acknowledge this anger as resulting from the failure of our current socio-economic system to deliver the promised rewards to anyone other than the top 10%, such a narrative is designed to actually maintain the current neo-liberal political hegemony. And as such, it will do next to nothing to combat climate change.

The left has always had an alternative narrative, one that blames the Capitalist system and the associated rise in inequality for these feelings of anger. Whilst their counter narrative directly challenges the existing hegemony (at least in part), it is narrow and incomplete. It looks back to a time of social democracy and strong economic growth rather than forwards to a post-growth social-economic system. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future: “…even if we could go back to social democracy, we should not. We can do better, and that social democratic adherence to jobs and growth means it will always err on the side of capitalism and at the expense of the people. Rather than modelling our future on a nostalgic past, we should aim to create a future for ourselves.”

Srnicek and Williams are part of an emerging element within the Left, one that appears to be gaining the ear of the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. This element is starting to adopt a forward looking approach rather than the traditional backwards looking one, an approach that is radically different from the ‘labour’ focus on jobs and economic growth. Srnicek and Williams, for example, argue for the full adoption of automation, the gradual reduction of the working week, the provision of a Universal Basic Income, and the diminishment of the work ethic.

They also talk about the need to de-carbonise the economy, but admit “that issues of climate change and ecological sustainability are not dealt with in anywhere near enough depth” in their text. And this admission is symptomatic of the Left in general – it does not take climate change anywhere near seriously enough. Whilst it is capable of supplying a new common sense, one that both explains the anger and frustration felt by 90% of the population and one that creates a forward looking alternative vision to replace the neo-liberal hegemony, one capable of being vitalised with a genuine passion, it is nevertheless a vision that fails to incorporate a social world respectful of its place within the natural world, a social world capable of functioning within the means and limits set by the planet. Such an omission is not only short-sighted it is ethically unacceptable.

And to make matters worse, I think it very unlikely that The Green Party is able to provide an alternative common sense narrative, one likely to be adopted by a mass movement of people demanding change – at least not before it becomes too late to bring the necessary changes about. Our best option, therefore, is to work with the emerging element within the left that is exploring post-growth and post-capitalism, an element that should be very receptive to Green political and economic theory, and to help develop a common sense narrative that both explains the anger and frustration felt by a growing number of people and works to bring about the fundamental changes necessary to mitigate the worse effects of climate change. Ultimately, the causes and remedies for both are the same. Even if The Green Party had the time to develop an alternative common sense, one that was adopted instead of that emerging from the Left, it doesn’t seem the most efficient way of achieving the desired outcome. Time is too short. Co-operation and collaboration are required.