The Scientific Age?

Density of StatesDo we live in a ‘Scientific Age’? What would that phrase mean, and how could we judge – scientifically – if it were true?

I recently read a piece in The Atlantic on free will that disappointed me. I’d already been checking up on the state of the art for this topic (see Is Free Will Too Cheap?), which has become particularly interesting in recent years. But nothing of that could be found in the piece in The Atlantic, which felt suspiciously more like a poor excuse for a Sam Harris interview. The article closed by tacitly declaring that we live in “the scientific age” – and that rather amused and annoyed me. Because if that were a fair characterisation of our time, would that not be blaming scientists for our rather dreadful global predicament? My sense of this, as a scientist by training, is that there is no empirical basis for such an attribution, and that rhetoric (rather than evidence) is what motivates such an assertion.

To properly explore this, we must first ask: what does it mean to characterise an Age? For the most part, the practice of defining Ages has entailed a historical or mythological assessment. Hence, for instance, the attribution of a Golden Age in ancient Greece, which was a mythic time before humanity messed everything up. The Age of Sail and the Age of Steam were likewise retroactive attributions, albeit in these cases based on historical rather than mythological considerations. It actually makes more sense to make these kinds of assessment after the fact, since only then can the relative competing factors be weighed carefully against each other – although even then, the choice to assign an ‘Age’ shows a bias in focus at the very least.

It is only with the twentieth century that we see attempts to characterise history in the present tense – and even these seem relatively dubious upon later reflection. The Atomic Age built upon fantasies about the future born of the New York World’s Fair of 1939, but as it happened nuclear energy did not characterise much of an Age, since it gave way within decades to the Space Age, which was equally short-lived. The frequent use of ‘space-age’ as a marketing adjective links both these science fiction tales to the flourishing capitalist production line – and indeed to their rhetorical deployment against the Soviet production line that was almost indistinguishable apart from its overriding mythology. Industry, either side of the Iron Curtain, was much more important than science, which was (and is) industry’s bitch.

This analysis is not scientific, of course, but rather historical and political. Our second line of enquiry must then ask: what do we mean by ‘scientific’? The usual invocation here is ‘the scientific method’, the cycle of observation, hypothesis, prediction, testing, and eventual theory. However, empirical observation of scientists at work has not validated this as a general method applied by researchers, and it appears to operate more as a catechism than as a practical methodology. (You would not get very far using solely this method as-stated for a research project!) A key problem is that observations are themselves theory-laden, and as the historian Thomas Kuhn observed it is never the case that observations alone determine how one theory replaces another. The wider philosophical questions here are not vital to the current discussion, however, only that ‘the scientific method’ is not a means of distinguishing what is scientific from its alternatives, regardless of its uses as an educational dogma.

Central to what is deemed ‘scientific’ is evidential reasoning, the process of taking evidence (observations, measurements) and then drawing conclusions from it. Theories form an indispensable element of such reasoning: the theoretical apparatus provided by the periodic table guides evidential reasoning in chemistry, for instance. But by itself, evidential reasoning can only exclude things that are clearly not scientific (such as divine revelation, or faith in free markets), it cannot positively identify a science. It’s notable, for instance, that evidential reasoning is core to the skills of historians, who are not often called scientists, and every branch of the humanities uses evidential reasoning in some role.

What distinguishes most things that are called ‘scientific’ from other disciplines that deploy evidential reasoning is the possibility of verifying judgements, a point discussed at length by Karl Popper. Evidential reasoning in the humanities invites a relationship between propositions and conclusions, yet the propositions themselves entail an element of judgement but not of measurement. Conversely, ethology (study of animal behaviour) entails judgements that are open to verification by further observation. This field, which does not resemble the archetypal ‘scientific method’ at all, nonetheless entails a substantial element of verifiable judgement.

Yet a grey area occurs. Some physicists insist, for instance, upon a quantum multiverse – the existence of which is essentially impossible. (Indeed, the word ‘existence’ has a questionable meaning in these kinds of context). We then might be tempted to extend ‘scientific’ to mean ‘asserted by scientists’, at which point the phrase will cease to distinguish anything useful. Many scientists will assert that George W. Bush was a fool, but that should not be mistaken for a scientific claim: that would require some means of verifying the judgment that was not merely anecdotal. We ought to be careful about this distinction if we value the work of scientists, since the credibility of the term ‘scientific’ is all too easily strained when we start deploying ‘Science says...’ as a form of prophetic persuasion.

Suppose we accept my provisional criteria for determining something as ‘scientific’. We can then ask: what would be required to scientifically judge our time as a ‘Scientific Age’? Immediately it should be clear that it will necessarily fail to qualify for this accolade; firstly because ‘scientific’ is not a criteria that could be applied on a scale beyond specific observations, methods, or practices, and secondly because the characterisation of an ‘Age’ is necessarily a historical judgement, and not one open to verification in the required sense. Of course, this doesn’t rule out the historical judgement in question – but it cannot be a scientific claim in any conventional sense of the term.

So what about the historical judgement? Here, we still have to meet the requirements of evidential reasoning and the evidence is not very convincing. We would presumably expect to see evidence of widespread evidential reasoning in culture at large – something that would be very difficult to produce. Where we do find it – in law, for instance – the trend goes back to before the aforementioned Age of Steam, indeed before the Age of Enlightenment, so using this to characterise our time seems to be extremely misleading.

Not a scientific judgement, not a historical judgement, what is the basis of claiming we live in “the scientific age”? Like the Atomic and Space Age, this appears to be a purely rhetorical move, presumably one intended to contrast our time with an ‘Age of Faith’. But characterising even the Middle Ages as an ‘Age of Faith’ would be a struggle for any honest historian, and until the late nineteenth century the development of the sciences was a quintessentially Christian endeavour (although it was also underwritten by earlier Islamic scholarship, which in turn carried on the work of the ancient Greeks).

The point of claiming that we live in a ‘Scientific Age’ appears to be to continue asserting the alleged war between ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’, and to further imply that ‘Science has won’. But this is simply bad evidential reasoning. As I explore in The Mythology of Evolution, the cultural conflicts that are being spun within this rhetoric occur both within the sciences (e.g. over different evolutionary theories) and between religion and non-religion (e.g. over the theological and atheological implications of said theories). Frankly, it is a hopeless task to treat the terms ‘Science’ or ‘Religion’ as unifying in anything beyond the sketchiest of senses, and even if these generalisations are accepted we ought to take note of Stephen Jay Gould’s objection that there cannot be a conflict between two almost entirely disjunct concepts.

I can find no evidence that positivists, those whose non-religious faith is invested in the sciences, are better or worse people than religious folks. But I can provide evidence that they are alike in many ways, including the example that I have discussed here. Rhetorical tactics such as asserting that we live in “the scientific age” are essentially self-betraying; they do not uphold the evidential values that positivists justifiably venerate. We can gainfully compare this to the reprehensible tendency of some Christians to endorse torture and war against Muslims, thus betraying the moral values of Jesus’ teachings, which they are supposed to venerate, or for a small minority of Muslims to betray Mohammad’s teachings by murdering innocents. If the latter cases are notably more extreme, it’s worth remembering that some positivists have also supported this kind of horrific brutality, it’s just that they are not being overtly hypocritical in doing so, ‘just’ morally repugnant. Every tradition, alas, has its darker side.

What positivists, Christians, and Muslims all have in common is that they are all human. As Charles Taylor argues in his epic tome A Secular Age, one of the most unique characteristics of our time is the sheer range of beliefs and practices on offer, having fractured and diversified in the wake of what he calls ‘the Nova effect’, forming an (all-too-real) phenomenal multiverse. However, as the examples I have given above demonstrate, we could rhetorically dub our time an ‘Age of Confusion’, an era when faithful adherence to the values of any tradition has become increasingly hard to find, while our critical faculties are frequently numbed by the easy appeal of emotive rhetoric – especially when we get to valorise ourselves while denigrating others. If, like me, you think the practices of the sciences deserve our respect, you owe it to yourself to uphold their core values concerning evidential reasoning and not slip into the cognitive biases that flourish as much today as in any other era of human history.

The opening image is Density of States by Dr Regina Valluzzi AKA ‘the Nerdly Painter’, which I found here on her Wordpress site, Nerdly Painter (used here with permission).


The Seduction of Facts

BHJ0XPWho doesn’t love a good fact? There is an entire genre of games dedicated to our ability to recall them, aptly entitled ‘trivia contests’ in English. Setting this form up in a box led to one of the most successful boardgames of all time, Trivial Pursuit, while dramatising the agonising uncertainties in the face of such questions gave rise to one of the most successful TV game shows of all time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Clearly, we love facts. So what could be dangerous about them?

I have previously made the case that understanding facts as knowledge is misleading since all facts are the residue of the practices that produced and justified them, and further that it is better to understand knowledge as a practice, or rather, a collection of practices. Nothing in this arrangement gives us reasons to be suspicious of facts, since all I’ve done is change the context for understanding what a fact is, and cast doubt that someone who can repeat facts (who has ‘general knowledge’) is genuinely in possession of something that could be justifiably termed ‘knowledge’. Yet there is something significantly misleading about our love of facts whenever it emerges in a political context: facts are invoked as a means of ending discussion, and this is toxic to politics.

The problem is so subtle it would be easy to miss it, and rests with the way we have constructed the relationship between politics and the sciences, a topic repeatedly explored by Bruno Latour. Democratic politics, in the sense of the political practices of the ancient Greeks, was about every citizen having a chance to be heard and decisions being made in a manner that renders everyone equal. Contemporary democracy, needless to say, offers neither of these things. We vote for a representative based upon geographical criteria, and every citizen has the opportunity to speak, but only the famous or those accredited as experts have a chance to be heard, since we have largely eliminated public debate and replaced it with the circus of the abnormal we call ‘news’.

What facts offer to contemporary government is a means of circumventing politics, because where ‘the facts are known’ there is no need for discussion – or so the standing policy goes. This is a tremendously convenient state of affairs for politicians, because they do not need to engage in politics at all (at least, not with the electorate) whenever they have a convenient fact at hand to short circuit any discussions. To make matters worse, those in opposition feel compelled to act as if politics were only a matter of establishing the correct facts, and not about discussing the meaning of those facts, let alone taking into account the practices involved in producing facts in the first place.

Facts are seductive because they remove the need to think, or to talk, about anything. The policy conflicts over climate change circumvent any actual political discussion since it has been reduced to a simple ‘battle for the facts’: either human activity has tangibly affected the global climate (fact!) or climate researchers have misrepresented the data (fact!). It’s facts versus facts in the arena of public derision, and nobody seems to be quite aware how the focus on ‘which facts are true’ removes any productive discussion on the topic. We have successfully managed to turn politics into a game show, a sport – and the news, in its commitment to ignoring the familiar and reporting only the unusual, facilitates this narrowing of vision.

As someone who feels very strongly about our worrying relationship to our own world, I’ve spent a decade watching on in horror as ‘climate change’ replaces ‘global warming’ as a means of reinforcing a partisan conflict that is hugely effective at blocking any discussion of the problems of human exploitation of limited resources. To make climate change the issue is to pick out one conflict over the facts and fail to have a discussion about the interrelation of dozens of issues, such as fires in Indonesia that only Al Jazeera paid significant attention to, or the shocking rate of extinctions in our time, which doesn’t even qualify as news any more because it’s all-too-familiar.

I have suggested that part of this problem comes from continuing to think, as Plato did, about a single real world, when the vast range of knowledge-practices might better be understood as a multiverse, as many real worlds that overlap. Facts, in this understanding (the products of objective knowledge-practices), are what can be stabilised between these worlds, whether through the tremendous work of scientists to produce apparatus that resist objections, or though the deductive work of historians, forensic police, and many more practices besides.

Yet the meaning of facts is not objective knowledge, and never can be so. That ‘smoking causes cancer’ is not a reason to stop smoking in itself; you have to start bringing in moral judgements about death, or life expectancy, or perhaps economic judgements about healthcare spending before this fact acquires so specific a meaning. These meanings are not ‘mere opinions’ that the facts can simply brush aside. The vast open spaces of meaning are something we have to negotiate for ourselves, both individually and collectively, and this process is utterly separate from those practices that give rise to the facts. Part of this negotiation of meaning is what is, or should be, called politics.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I am against facts, that they don’t matter to me, or that I want to make all facts entirely relative. But I am actually intensely serious about factual knowledge, for all that I recognise that it is often, as the phrase ‘trivia’ implies, trivial. It annoys me when my son’s picture book mislabels a newt as a lizard, or his book about sea creatures has a picture of a red-eared terrapin, which only lives in fresh water. They got the facts wrong, and that bothers me. But it bothers me far more that we get politics wrong by thinking it is a solely a question of establishing the facts. The facts by themselves aren’t enough: we need to establish the meaning of the facts. And that is something that cannot be done on our behalf; we must do it ourselves.


Sounders of the Depths

Lead and LineWhat is the role of the philosopher? Discovering the truth? Forming theories? Conceptual plumbing? Or perhaps something more subtle, more humble. Perhaps the philosopher is the sounder of the depths.

I’m reading Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers’ Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell at the moment, about which there will be more anon, but right from the outset it presents an interesting alternative perspective on the role of philosophy. They compare what they are attempting to do in this book with the role of those who used to travel upon sailing ships with a plumb line, checking the depths of the waters and avoiding the risks of wrecking upon unseen reefs. Stengers is a philosopher with an acute sensitivity to the power of words, and uses them with care. Writing with fellow chemist, Pignarre, she offers this warning:

Sounders of the depths should not invent words that are to be understood as beyond division, as if they were authorised by a transcendence in the presence of which everyone must kneel: that is the role of the prophet, or his substitute today, the theorist. The words to be created ought rather to serve as antidotes to what transforms divergences into oppositions, what makes us dream of a homogeneous unanimity, of a judgement that will at last confer on history the power to recognise those who had seen correctly.

There is in this paragraph a rejection of the vision of philosophy offered by Plato, of the philosopher as the one who travels outside of the ordinary world to discover the truth and then return with it – and suffer the consequences of doing so. Stengers (if I may, by supposition, separate her from her co-author) is here aligning with her ally and friend Bruno Latour, in rejecting the legacy of Plato, suggesting that this makes the philosopher into prophet. Against this could be contrasted Mary Midgley’s suggestion that philosophy can be understood as a kind of ‘conceptual plumbing’, a view to which I am strongly drawn.

Intriguingly, Stengers and Pignarre also align the prophet with the theorist, and in so doing offer an additional rejection of the view of philosophy offered by Kendall Walton as ‘theorising after all the facts are in’. I have a great deal of sympathy for Walton’s view here, and it is important to recognise that the kind of philosophical theories that Walton deals in, such as the make-believe theory of representation, or the strange yet compelling idea that we ‘see through’ photographs, are not theories that result in action. There is a distinction, not often noticed, between those theories that give us new ways of seeing the worlds we live in, and those that enact or demand ways of changing those worlds. Here, we may see a distinction between philosophical theories (whether or not they are created by philosophers), technical theories (that may bankroll new kinds of technology), and political theories (which may initiate action, and all the dangers therein that Hannah Arendt warned of).

It is worth noting that a scientist can create both of the first kinds of theory – philosophical and technical – but not legitimately the third, and also that technical theories can have all of the impact and risks of political theories yet are typically treated as morally neutral. It is in this capacity that I strived, in Chaos Ethics, to offer a warning. I was, although I had not thought about in these terms, trying to be a sounder of the depths – but I fear that I fell too easily into stridency, into polemic. Although I was trying to resist offering a specific political theory, I perhaps did not sufficiently distance myself from the role of prophet. Perhaps I still managed to be a sounder of the depths… it is sometimes hard to be sure of the meaning of one’s own work.

What Stengers, Pignarre and I have in common is a sensitivity to the needs of the moment in which we are living. But where they succeed, and where I fear I have failed, is in resisting the easier rhetorics. They write:

Some people place their confidence in urgency, that of an Earth whose ravaging would force us to understand each other under pain of being destroyed. Others evoke opposition to a common enemy as sufficient to found the necessary understanding. We fear the confidence in the pedagogical power of catastrophes a great deal and the power given to the common enemy to unite us leaves us more than doubtful. That is why we feel ourselves bound to the position of ‘Sounders of the depths’, attentive to the danger of the traps that menace us: that of thinking that tolerance with regard to divergences ought to be enough; that of thinking that we can take shortcuts with regard to the practices that may tum these divergences into a force.

I find in this image of the sounder of the depths a renewed hope in the power of philosophy to make a difference in our worlds. But this capacity is a danger when it is not bound to the humility of one who must stand on the outside of the ship, and focus upon the risks, with no possibility of ever determining the course that will be set.


Gender in Feminism

Summer DaysEarlier this year, Cardiff University had to vote whether to cancel a planned lecture by Germaine Greer at the request of their woman’s officer Rachael Melhuish, who advanced a threat of ‘No Platform’ against the second-wave feminist icon. The issue at task was Greer’s view on transgender women, namely that they aren’t women at all. Melhuish takes this as transphobia, hence bigotry, and hence pushed for censorship. There’s much that could be said about this incident, but here I want to take it as an opportunity to consider one of the essential clashes of gender concepts within the feminist movements.  

For the most part, I’m reluctant to talk about gender in public. Despite all the great achievements of the feminist movements since the original fight for suffrage in the nineteenth century, we have now reached a point in time where all discussion of gender is dominated by feminist voices. This is a more important point than is usually considered. While we have certainly not reached a time where anything that could be called gender equality is the norm, we no longer live at a time when all power relations are resolutely male. If we accept ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the unfeasibly broad categories that they are, there is both male and female power at work in our world. While that has always been the case in some sense, I don’t believe it is unfair to say that ‘female power’ has never been greater than it is right now. That is certainly a cause for celebration for anyone for whom equality is an ideal to aspire to. It is also a sign that feminism – itself also a rather excessively broad term – is in dire need of reflection upon its own situations.

What I hope to present here is only a rather minor contribution to the discussion. To be frank, I could not hope to eclipse the intersectionality critique in its importance for contemporary feminism, and it is worth briefly explaining the thrust of this cluster of arguments before I develop my own. The stepping point for intersectionality is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 legal theory paper “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex” that argues that you cannot understand what it is to be a black woman solely in terms of being black and being a woman, because the intersection between these two categories has its own experience – one that Crenshaw suggests can be more significant than either of its supposedly constituent elements. This has lead to a long overdue recognition that feminism was largely a set of movements driven by middle class white women in affluent nations who were frequently imposing their ideals upon women whose situation was radically different. I do not believe the significance of intersectionality has come even close to being addressed at this time.

We come, then, to the start of my concerns. The stated objective of contemporary feminism is attain equality for women, and I shall trust that this claim is not in dispute, which of course it could be. But there are two vast problems with this mission statement that create complications for the feminist movements, namely the concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘women’. The problems of taking ‘equality’ as an ideal are discussed in my book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, and I will not pursue this point here beyond saying that any attempt to make some set of beings equal is necessarily founded upon other beings being excluded from the set. This does not make equality a non-viable ideal, but it requires more careful understanding than is usually provided. What I instead want to pick up here is the other horn of this beast, ‘women’, or more broadly ‘female’. Because feminism as it is often presented now requires this concept to be strongly construed – and that is a source of significant problems.

It is vital to appreciate why I insist on talking about ‘feminist movements’ and not ‘feminists’: feminism is an umbrella under which radically different perspectives shelter, and umbrellas are objects that all too conveniently turn into weapons when wielded in rage. It therefore matters greatly which feminist movement or movements we are talking about when we make claims about feminism. A significant number of people who identify as feminists take a deconstructive view on gender, which is to say that they claim that the importance of gender is overemphasised, that male and female humans share more in common by virtue of being human than they are distinct by having different genitalia and hormonal patterns. On the deconstructive view, it is a mistake to put too much faith into the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (or any equivalent term) because to do so is to artificially endorse, empower, or (as the scholars like to say) reify terms that lead us astray from the true basis of our potential equality – that we are all human. This view has significant support from those scientists who claim to speak for gender, although this in no way closes the issue since the sciences thankfully lack this kind of authority to silence voices.

But elsewhere in the feminist movements, a vast number of people who identify as feminists take a strict view on gender, with firmly construed concepts of what it is to be ‘female’ (sometimes with the additional assumption that what is not ‘female’ is ‘male’), a position that is diametrically opposed to the deconstructive view for evident reasons. This becomes particularly clear when dealing with the questions raised by transgender people, that is, those who have lived their lives under conflicting influences of both male and female gender identities, and (in many cases) have participated in medical and surgical interventions to ‘reassign’ their gender. This word ‘reassign’ is clear evidence of a strict view on gender: it makes rather less sense to ‘reassign’ a gender on most deconstructive views. (I put this term in scare quotes because I question the unstated assumption here about the power of doctors, not to question the logic of transgender experience, an issue tied up in the usage of the term ‘cis’ that must wait for another occasion.)

Now we return to the opening point: the attempted exclusion of Germaine Greer from the people worthy of respect on purportedly feminist grounds. I am far from the only person troubled by this; Zoe Williams expresses the problem with admirable brevity. In terms of the concepts of gender, however, feminist movements who decide to ally conceptually with transgender people must use a strict view since the forms of life described by this term are ones in which such strict concepts of gender are required to make them coherent. On the deconstructive view, it simply cannot matter sufficiently that any given construal of gender is of a certain character that you would have to recognise yourself as governed by the wrong gender concept and need to identify with the other gender concept, since there are always more than two concepts of gender on this perspective. The kinds of experiences entailed in transgender identities are only available to people operating with strict gender concepts. One consequence of this is that to take on the issues of transgender people is to risk enforcing strict gender conceptions that at least some feminists would rather we did not take so strongly or uncritically.

So which strict gender concepts are we expected to adopt? It’s far from clear, and trangender people are no better positioned to answer this question than anyone else. Those on the deconstructive view recognise a panoply of different strict gender concepts and, generally speaking, deny any of them has any coherent force or authority. Where, then, does the deconstructive view leave transgender people whose existence has been transformed by experiences of specific, strict gender concepts? Germaine Greer thinks transgender women are ‘not women’, because that’s what her strict gender view means to her; Rachael Melhuish presumably thinks transgender women ‘are women’, or her attacks on Greer make no sense, and Melhuish comes from a background of recognizing and advancing the intersectionality critique. This strongly suggests to me that intersectionality is not an answer to any problem but merely a question that we have not yet become skilled at answering, and answering it in this specific context might well be about working out how the deconstructive view and the myriad strict views of genders can interrelate without being explicitly opposed to one another.

Here is where the problems of feminism cross into the problems of equality, and cease to be the exclusive purview of feminists. Indeed, issues of equality – and of gender – were never exclusive to feminism, and intersectionality is the wake up call that should have made that clearer than it still is. We are a long way from any plausible possibility of decommissioning feminism as no longer necessary, but we are always a little too close to instituting a perverse kind of Feminine Empire under a mis-wielded banner of equality. That such a metaphorical empire would not be the most powerful institution of its kind is hardly an argument in its favour. Rather, as Zoe Williams points out, any attempt to move in such a direction merely empowers the existing status quo. With every kind of movement, you have to be careful where it is that you are moving towards.

Feminist movements in general (and individual feminists like Melhuish) are not mistaken in thinking that action in support of transgender people is needed, but they are gravely mistaken if they think failing to respect other feminists, like Germaine Greer, is honourable conduct. One can disagree with the views of a person without having to target them for censorship, and one can respect a remarkable pioneer in the history of feminism for fighting a difficult political battle at a time when it was far, far, more challenging to do so without ever coming close to accepting every aspect of her worldview without question or challenge. If Greer’s views on some topic are misguided, we owe it to both her and ourselves to debate her on the topic.

If we’re all going to live together in some kind of equality, we must be open to negotiating what equality means, for it cannot be calculated in advance, much less enforced by any arbitrary faction. In this political challenge, every concept of gender, race, and identity should be perpetually open to re-negotiation. That state of affairs can only be fostered by open discourse, it can never be advanced by censorship. The moment it swings the other way, we have all lost.

The opening image is Summer Days, an acrylic painting by Julia De Sano that is for sale here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Debate and commentary is always welcome, but please try to remain polite to all participants regardless of their perspective.


Taxation as Injustice

An open letter to Matt at Curiouser and Curiouser as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Taxation is Theft Dear Matt,

Since you are ultimately responsible for my predicament, having first suggested I take up blogging, it seems only fitting that one of my first blog letters (dare I neologize to bletters?) should be addressed to you. And since our last discussion hinged around your libertarian views upon taxation I thought this would be an appropriate topic for this missive.

I do have quite considerable sympathy for libertarian politics, since I too hold rather liberal social values, and I also agree that strangling some of the power out of the State apparatus (‘smaller government’) could be a wonderful thing were it achievable. Nonetheless, I find libertarian politics to be just as troublesome as the liberal and conservative politics it dances between. One initial problem is purely pragmatic: libertarianism is only ever likely to be a minority interest in our current mythological climate, and as such it effectively risks removing intellectuals from effective political engagement more than it is likely to productively advance any of its own agendas. (I’m using ‘mythology’ here in the sense I use it in Chaos Ethics; as a marker for the various competing stories within the various social imaginaries – it do not intend it to be read as a derogatory term).

While living in Tennessee during election season, it was easy to predict the proportion of Ron Paul signs in front of houses in relation to the number of mainstream Republican placards: it was always about one-in-ten, the same as the ratio of nerds in the population. Then again, minority parties can be valuable as heralds for an issue, as happened in the late 80s here in the UK when our tiny Green Party got enough support to force all the other parties to finally adopt environmental policies and appoint Environment ministers and the like. Of course, this quickly returned the Greens to obscurity – but in so doing they had actually won a great victory for their cause. We too often equate political success with election: as the current coalition in parliament demonstrates for the Liberal Democrats, the converse is just as likely.

You seem to cleave closely to the libertarian maxim that ‘taxation is theft’, which is not a position I favour on this issue. It has the desired effect of stressing the moral horror libertarians feel about handing over money to Big Government under pain of arrest, but the counterproductive consequence of alienating everyone who views taxation as necessary for the delivery of public goods such as defence, healthcare, welfare, education, policing, and infrastructure. I’m setting aside here the slightly messy definition of ‘public good’, and also the question of art as a public good, even though I should like it to be thus. The basic point is that there are some services that are difficult to provide without resorting to a collective apparatus such as the State, and these cannot effectively be delivered through markets without creating further problems.

Now the basic problem with the ‘taxation is theft’ mythology is that it is built on a fascinatingly strange perspective on contemporary life that views everything only from the perspective of oddly atomistic individuals, whose wealth is just, and an oddly total State, whose income is unjust. Actually, both those forms of wealth become unjust under certain mythologies, and private ownership of wealth is certainly not inherently just. What’s more, as soon as we take into account the public goods the State is actually delivering, it becomes harder to see these two competing fiscal factions as unconnected. Were it not for the State-provisioned infrastructure, for instance, most commerce – individual or otherwise – would be impossible, and police enforcement is similarly required to allow for the very possibility of private wealth. Taxation on this view (which is idealised but not completely removed from actuality) is payment for provision of services rendered – to not pay taxes would be close to theft, since it would be to become a free rider, as the terminology goes.

The wider problem this reveals – and the reason I think taxation is the wrong pressure point for action – is that national politics tend towards an endless disagreement over which public goods the State should provide, and the allocation of funding therein. Republicans in the US, for instance, want lower taxes but do not desire a smaller State apparatus because they prioritize defence as a public good – both militarily, and in terms of policing. Democrats, conversely, tend to prioritize healthcare, education, and welfare – all the ‘bleeding heart’ public goods which Republicans sometimes deny are necessary, and certainly don't value like defence. The same basic pattern recurs in almost all democracies. But because the main political rivals, wherever you happen to be, all want State provision of public goods of some kind, the attack on taxation runs up against insurmountable resistance – almost everyone has something they want the State to provide, and cutting off the supply of money that bankrolls it is broadly inconceivable.

I would much prefer to see productive discussion on the problems of public goods than rhetoric targeting taxation, per se, especially since only productive dialogue on the former (were such a thing possible!) could lead to the latter. On this front, I would draw your attention to an interesting paper on public goods problems by the unlikely-named Jonathan Anomaly for a salient perspective. He suggest that “the link between public goods and public policy cannot be forged without moral reflection on the proper function and scope of government power”, and this is a view that we both agree upon. I suggest it is better to foster intelligent debate on the complexities of the specific public goods problems than to tilt at the windmill of taxation.

However, my suspicion is that unlike many who cite the ‘taxation is theft’ maxim, your primary political concerns and motivating ethical values are not centred upon wealth at all. I rather suspect this is a classic boardgamer's response to a strategic problem: you see many crises you would like resolved as hinging upon the power of the State, then calculate the strategy required for effective interdiction. Taxation on this sort of boardgamer view is the weak point to be exploited in order to gain victory over the State. On this, I agree – if everyone's values were in alignment but the State resisted change (and as one of our mutual friends attests, the civil service is always primarily a force for maintaining the status quo!), a mass refusal to pay taxes would be a dominant strategy. But this is only the case when everyone is in accord. This, of course, never happens in practice!

The other side of your objections to taxation, I believe, are a much greater cause for concern. You suggest that the injustice of taxes is epitomised in the fact that force can be used against individuals in order to demand compliance, that taxation is (if you will) extortion. Now the aforementioned counter-arguments in respect of public goods could now hypothetically be taken into account by allowing individuals a choice of institution when it comes to provision of public goods, as we discussed last time you visited. Actually, this already happens with healthcare and education in certain countries. Alas, I fear that this solution would prove nightmarishly complex in practice – especially in the context of infrastructure and defence, which cannot easily be devolved to multiple institutions on our current images of what these goods entail.

In the specific case of national defence, however, the problem becomes intractable because of the demand (which many view as justified) that the apparatus of State can conceal a great deal of its actions from public scrutiny on grounds that their effectiveness would be compromised were they public knowledge (‘national security’). This troubles me greatly, because the net result is that States feel bankrolled to pursue purely consequentialist strategies in the name of ‘defense of the realm’, even when these violate the moral values of the soldiers who have pledged their lives in service to their nation, and thus to the people the nation mythically symbolises. (I deal with this in a couple of chapters in Chaos Ethics that I don’t think you’ve had a chance to read).

It is in this – the dishonour of nations – that my political concerns are increasingly focussed, since everything I discover about the use of drones in assassinations and the murder of innocents brings grave shame upon the armed forces of the United States. I am not as quick to demonize military service as certain liberals, since quite a few of my friends and family members (including my father, who never saw action, and father-in-law, who served in Vietnam) have been part of the armed forces. Yet it is one thing to take a share of my earnings for the provision of public goods I either agree upon, or accept that I have a minority view of. It is quite another to force me contribute towards bringing shame upon those who honourably serve by betraying their values through cowardly and indiscriminate attacks upon innocent people. If defense serves to uphold the conditions for maintaining our national mythologies, it cannot plausibly do so by destroying the moral values those national mythologies depend upon for their justification. Although most of the tax taken from me goes to the British government, who are not currently involved in disgraceful robotic exterminations, even one cent is too much to pay towards these kinds of atrocities.

Of course, as someone leaning towards libertarianism, you are probably against the national mythologies anyway. I certainly have been in the past. But with the fracturing of most of the other mythic commonalities between people, and the gradual realisation that the sciences cannot be elevated to the role of priesthood without disasterous consequences, the national myths are the last remaining point of commonality we can count upon. (Furthermore, appeals to Human Rights and so forth must be made via the national mythologies, or they devolve into natural rights appeals – Jeremy Bentham's “nonsense on stilts”). It is part of what it means to be British to admire the incredible achievements of the RAF in defending this nation from the Luftwaffe – and if we are honest about what the mythology of being British in the context of armed conflict is supposed to mean, it should also be a point of shame that we firebombed Dresden in 1945. Rather than abandoning the national mythologies, perhaps it is time we started deploying them in defence of the moral values for which they are purported to stand? War without honour is extermination – there is far greater injustice here than in taxation.

I hope this letter finds you well and that you will come and visit Adria and I in Manchester before the new baby arrives and our lives devolve into total carnage once more!

Wishing you the very best,

Chris.

Matt has not replied yet.

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Iconoclash and Racist Cartoons

iconoclash Is the iconoclast responsible for the reactions to their defiant acts? On this, as with so many contemporary issues, those who act with the greatest certainty are all too often the furthest from moral innocence.

Once again, the French press has used freedom of speech as their excuse for publishing racist cartoons. While it is true that freedom of speech allows people to promulgate bigotry, it is not the case (as sometimes seems to be presumed) that this freedom acts as an indemnity against responsibility. Nor is it true, as was claimed in the case of the reprinting of the Danish cartoons in France, that redistributing hateful material is somehow ‘defending’ freedom of speech. That particular freedom is not threatened in any way by people voicing their disgust. I’m particularly disappointed with French anti-racism group Licra who defend the magazine on the ground that the “crime of blasphemy” does not exist in France – a flippant remark that seems to suppose that images that defame Muslims are somehow excluded from consideration as racism, despite the UN’s stance on such matters.

The French government, expecting reprisals, closed a number of their embassies for fear of retaliation from those claiming to defend Islam. Attacks such as these, which certainly do occur, are themselves a great insult to the teachings of the prophet Mohammad, who expressly forbade harming innocents. Those sham Muslims who would dishonour their tradition are not far removed from the members of the French press who dishonour the tradition of free speech by using it as a cloak for their racism. The editor-in-chief of the magazine in question told the BBC: “These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I’m sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists.” His attitude is like the Zookeeper who, fired from his job, leaves the animals unfed and then releases them from their cages before handing in his keys, claiming “I did not kill anyone.” Responsibility is not a matter of pointing to the last link in a causal chain: those who knowingly act in a manner that will incite violence are not indemnified from the consequences.

This entire incident is an example of what Bruno Latour terms iconoclash – the uncertainty of what transpires when images are destroyed or subverted, coupled with repudiation of the representation involved. Latour persuasively argues that it is no longer possible to understand iconoclasm as clear cut since the meaning of each act of destruction struggles with irresolvable ambiguities. The French magazines believe their ‘attack’ on the image of Mohammad is justified by free speech – how this act is viewed by others (not necessarily Muslim others) is far from likely to endorse their moral certainty in this regard. Latour also offers insightful commentary on the narrow manner in which iconoclash manifests. Artists, believing themselves iconoclasts, defame or insult the Catholic Pope or other religious figures, but will not (Latour confirms this through his own discussions with the artists) defame other cherished icons such as Martin Luther King or Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the only icons they will ‘smash’ are those they themselves do not respect – bringing into question just what the nature of these alleged acts of iconoclasm might be. Latour identifies many forms of iconoclash, and attempts to rescue one kind from among all the others, although this is a point I shall have to pursue at another time.

From the perspective of freedom of speech, a great irony of the French cartoons is that throughout history no religion has been a greater defender of freedom of speech than Islam. Such a freedom was originally claimed not only in both Athens and Rome, but also in the early Muslim world: freedom of speech was declared by both the caliph Umar in the Rashidun period (7th century), and again in the later Abbasid Caliphate period. In Christian-dominated Europe, this right was far slower to emerge. Fast forward to contemporary France, and the situation in respect of free speech is anything but clean cut: consider the recent furore over the topless photos of a future British queen, or the fact that anyone denying that the Turkish Army committed genocide against the Armenians in the twentieth century faces a find of 45,000 euros and a year in jail. As Seyed Ibrahim commented in this regard: “Ultimate and unconditional freedom of speech does not exist in any country in the world.”

Today, in this as in so many matters concerning contemporary Islam, we are still experiencing the consequences of a failure to respect the people of the Middle East during and after the two World Wars. The overthrowing of the Ottoman empire created power vacuums that were almost inevitably filled by dictatorships – often propped up by Western powers keener to secure oil exports than to secure the freedoms of the local populace. If the French iconoclasts really care about freedom of speech – and freedom in general – they should act to support the new Islamic cultures finding their feet after the Arab spring. But apparently they do not care – they are, it seems, merely another pocket of spoiled racists whose iconoclash should expect the condemnation it receives. In the words of White House spokesperson Jay Carney: “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”


The Empty Cries of Rebellion

Rebel Without a Cause Everyone sees something that must be fought, but thus far our rebellion has been scarcely more than a shouting match. Can we find something worth fighting for, or just convenient bad guys to blame for all our mutual problems?

Although I am a lover of those who tilt at windmills, I find it tragic that today's Don Quixotes seem to be driven by a blinkered rage, rather than a noble-yet-hopeless quest. Everyone rails against something, few offer something to strive towards. This ailment was diagnosed by Hannah Arendt half a century ago, yet still we go around in circles, shaking our fists at some scapegoat so abstract that opposing it carries no significant risk of effecting any useful change.

A catalogue of demons reveals the futility of our presumed goals. The crusade against religion has become so laughably self-referential it's a wonder anyone can take it seriously. The political Right's demand to reduce the funding supplied to government and protect freedom becomes farcical when compared against the many costs of war. The political Left's campaign against racism and sexism has gradually become the locus of a more rigorous bigotry than their opponents ever managed. The risk of holding Equality and Diversity as dual ideals is that they are in conflict with one another – absolute equality flattens the particularity inherent in diversity, making everyone equally no-one.

The windmill-tilters par excellence however are the undead remnants of Marx's dream, the enemies of Capitalism. The insoluble problem they face is the uncertainty of what they oppose. Is it private ownership? Ask the rebels to give up their homes and computers, and watch the indignation. Is it money? Our medium of exchange is unlikely to be our central problem. Is it the corporate rape of the natural world? Socialist government have not show a superior record on this account. Is it the sheer unfairness of the staggering caste system wealth has imputed? This was precisely Marx's cause in the first place! So many problems, so few solutions. Capitalism is easier to hate than it is to define.

Look not to the political activists to solve our problems, since once on the battlefield one can only fight or lay down arms. Sun Tzu wisely saw war as something that should be considered solely when all other options had failed – political partisans today start with war because they equate diplomacy with compromise, and their enemy is so loathsome that equivocation is blasphemy. Shame on us all for this empty warrior rhetoric. The enemy – if we must speak in such bellicose terms – is human nature itself, in all its variegated beauty. The outcome of this battle is favourable to no-one.

Both Left and Right go awry by trying to elevate the local to the universal – a feat of weight-lifting that will break our back before it can ever achieve peace. The Right has it correct that our local communities are a just centre of concern, but they have it disastrously wrong in their failure to separate these from national law or global empire. The Left has it correct that equality and diversity are noble ideals, but fail whenever these beliefs obliterate concern for individuals or local communities, and betray themselves utterly when supporting empire as a propagator of liberty.

And the anti-Capitalists, those beautiful fools who know not what they fight for? Ah, we may yet find the windmill for you to tilt at, but what will you do if it involves connecting locally instead of shaking a fist at conceptual foes who are conveniently intangible? The luxury of an intellectualised rebellion is that you don't need to leave your armchair. Real and lasting change may be a great deal more inconvenient.


The Impotence of Partisans

Partisans – whether political, religious or nonreligious – are committed to their views. As such, they cannot contribute to democratic dialogue except by clarifying their ideological stance for the benefit of active citizens. Genuine democracy thus only belongs to those whose minds are open to influence by dialogue. Sadly, most such people are turned off politics by the furious rants of our ever-more diverse zealots. Partisanry is thus not only impotent, it risks paralysing democracy as a whole into impotence.

Partisans are mere signposts for the extreme positions available. This is a useful function, since they collectively represent the views on offer. However, this becomes largely irrelevant once the sole choices on offer are extremes. It is the task of those pursuing ideals of freedom not simply to adopt any one apparently correct viewpoint (since this removes a person from productive debate) but rather to find the truth between all the different partisans’ dogma and rhetoric. Only when all the stories have been truly understood can we plausibly claim to know which directions could lead to better lives for everyone.


Unmarriage

Unmarried Supposing the only people who are married are those men and women that made a public commitment to one another, what can we say about those unhusbands and unwives who do not or cannot ratify their love institutionally?

Say what you will about conservatives, on the issue of marriage they have remained remarkably consistent. Those that have a strong view on the subject would like men and women to get married before having children (or even before having sex), and they would like only men and women to get married. The liberal overreaction to this position is that such people must overtly or covertly be homophobes. It’s essentially impossible for committed liberals to understand why anyone would want to preserve the essential nature of a traditional institution that dates back millennia for the sake of the institution itself.

The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of liberally minded people don't care one jot about marriage – the only reason it has come to matter is because commitment to the liberal ideal of equality engenders outrage when anything is approached from a perspective of asymmetry. Thus despite being fairly cool on, or even openly opposed to, the institution of marriage, a great many liberals suddenly care deeply about gay marriage, because they believe everyone has a right to enter into an archaic legal and religious arrangement, even though they themselves don’t actually believe in it.

Marriage has been steadily losing popularity for some time now. A great many of my friends are in long term, committed relationships; few are married. Having children makes no difference in this respect; they continue with the now-ridiculous relationship roles of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ even though they have obviously made a long-term commitment to one another. They are, to my mind, already married in the practical sense. They have just refused to ratify it publically because, to their mind, they see no reason to elevate an entirely personal matter to the level of the community. I call friends in such situations ‘unhusband and unwife’.

Unmarriage demonstrates the hilarious nonsense in the contemporary liberal approach to marriage: as far as it applies to themselves, it is antiquated and of no importance. But tell any liberally minded person that there’s some minority who isn't allowed to do it and suddenly it’s an outrageous affront to human dignity. There’s something approaching hypocrisy in this attitude. Of course, the conservative attitude to marriage isn't a great deal more coherent, but at least in such cases there is a genuine concern about marriage as an institution. It’s something their political opponents cannot seem to fathom.

This talk of ‘institutions’ may make some liberally-minded people scoff – equality, autonomy and freedom are more important than mere traditions, it may be tempting to claim. But pause to reflect where the conception of Human Rights as freedom – upon which these values rest – has its origin. It is a product of the Enlightenment, built on the philosophy of Kant and others. (Indeed, Human Rights as freedom is something specifically developed by Kant). Freedom is also an institution, and even if this were denied, Human Rights can only be understood as institutional, as with all law.

Just as marriage is an institution, so to some extent is unmarriage, and just as there are many different kinds of marriage, there are diverse forms of unmarriage. Only one form, however, consists of a loving, committed, adult couple that are not permitted by law to be married. This situation is changing in parts of the world, but legal reform is slowed by the inevitable resistance that will always occur when traditions are revised. To enact lasting institutional change requires forging new visions of ideals. Sadly for gay marriage, it seems no-one can be bothered to do the work.

One of the most shocking aspects of this issue for me personally is the staggering arrogance of the liberal community in their steadfast refusal to understand the moral perspective of their opponents. Since the consequence of conservatives caring about the institution of marriage is a staunch reluctance to allow gay marriage (which does, after all, alter the specifics of a truly ancient tradition), liberals go straight to bitching about how Christians are homophobes. Never mind that many Christians support gay marriage, nor that the reasons many opponents of gay marriage have for their resistance are more concerned about concepts of family than sexuality, per se. Since ideals of liberal equality are denied to gay people it must be homophobia. It is the classic formula of the political knee-jerk reaction: my values are violated, your values don't count.

What is it that we call those situations where one group of people make outrageously prejudicial assumptions about some ethnic group and then despise everyone under that identity? It's on the tip of my tongue... Ah yes, I remember – racism and bigotry. Far too many liberals feel it’s okay to be a bigot about all Christians because some Christians are indeed bigots. This is no different than (say) believing all black people are lazy because there are some lazy black people. It’s as if there are good and bad kinds of racism, and the bad kind is whichever set of beliefs you yourself do not hold.

But I can't let the conservatives entirely off the hook here, since they too have their fair share of nonsense in respect of marriage and unmarriage. It makes no sense, for instance, to claim that marriage is inappropriate for gay people because of the lascivious, wanton behaviour of the gay community at large – does anyone seriously believe the heterosexual community scores any better on this front? If you investigate the incidences of casual sex in the world, you will find that the vast majority occurs between partners of different sexes – hardly surprising since heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals by perhaps as much as fifty to one.

Given that there are gay people in unmarriage – in loving, stable, long-term relationships – wouldn't it be better for the institute of marriage if we all said: ‘we want to help you publically ratify your relationship in the spirit of what marriage has come to mean: a celebration of love’? What good does it do the institution of marriage if we force people who wish to be married to remain in a state of unmarriage?

Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.

As I suggested before in Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage, liberal voices have failed to decisively win the argument in favour of gay marriage precisely because they have not made the story about the deep love that exists between committed (gay) partners. Instead, they try to make it about equality, because that’s their sacred value, and that way the argument seems pre-empted: no further discussion required. Real democracy, however, requires discussion. Those who claim to value freedom must be willing to grant that freedom to those who disagree with them.


Politics vs Ethics

ethical When did it happen that politics drove a spear into the side of ethics, slaying any concern for the good in favour of a monomaniacal campaign against what is obviously evil – namely, beliefs different from our own?

We live in a time when concern for politics has all but obliterated concern for ethics. It is not, however, that there is no role for moral thinking – on the contrary, a large part of the political battlefield is focussed on morality. Rather, ethics has become a gigantic stick with which people beat those who believe differently from themselves, while apparently prescribing absolutely nothing in respect of the individuals themselves. The positive aspect of ethics – the search for ‘the good life’ has – been replaced by myriad crusades against evil, and the surest judgement people make is that it is certainly others, and not themselves, who represent the evil worth fighting against.

There is, and must be, a connection between ethics and politics. Our moral judgement guides our political support, or at least it could and should. Yet the twentieth century – and even more the twenty first – has seen ethics eclipsed by politics. Political thinking often draws terribly straight lines: this activity (say, nuclear power) is clearly wrong, this activity (say, renewable energy) is clearly right, therefore anyone supporting the former must be a tool of some lobby group and can be ignored. As if this basic situation wasn’t problematic enough, the media is always circling like vultures, looking for the next outbreak of outrage so it can feast on the corpse of some political victim in the never ending quest for sensation and spectacle.

The entrenchment of political camps is the biggest barrier to political progress, and it will take some improvement in ethics to overcome it. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the United States, a nation whose actions have severe consequences for the entire world but whose electorate are embattled against one another. As a young liberal living on the other side of the Atlantic, I could never understand why so many poor rural people would vote for Republicans who seem to do nothing to help them. This was a perspective born of ignorance. I’ve now had many opportunities to speak to Republican supporters in the US, and I can finally see the many other sides of this coin. For instance: why should poor rural people vote for Democrats who will take more money in taxes in order to fund largely ineffective programmes that support underprivileged people living solely in cities?

We live with an atrophied sense of moral perspective – and this is true whichever political camp we choose to examine. Scarcely a day passes when we don’t express our horror at something reported on the news, but how many of us can say that we daily do something positive for our neighbours or our communities? No, we aren’t interested in making life better, alas, not like we were interested in finding the people who are clearly evil and mounting some attempt to destroy them. The only kind of good life that is pursued is the imagined promised land that will purportedly come to be when all the evil people have been blocked, stopped and eliminated. People erroneously assign this impulse to religion; it belongs to humanity.

Perhaps worst of all is our unshakeable belief that we can see these situations better than others. Intellectuals who move confidently in one domain of knowledge gain confidence to pronounce their judgement against those whom they can clearly see are inferior, both mentally and morally – even without ever taking the time to watch, talk or listen to that which they condemn. They do not need to, after all, since they can clearly see the truth, and whatever is not true must be evil. For all the retrospective scorn that is poured upon the impiety of various Christian churches throughout history, the contemporary impulse to wage cultural war because ‘we’ clearly have it right is just as morally repugnant as what has gone before – even if the consequences of opposition have thankfully become far less serious.

Morality begins with care for those around us, but as politics has enslaved ethics our sense of compassion has become corrupted by an imaginative projection of the world in which our own ideals are the only things that can be trusted. Clearly, everyone would be better off if they adopted and supported ‘our’ ideals, hence ‘your’ way of life must be inferior because it does not measure up to ‘my’ standards. This ‘us and them’ attitude is not the problem, though - ‘they’ actually are very different from ‘you’, and this needs to be recognised and accepted. But the nature of this difference is not that ‘you’ are good and ‘they’ are evil – it is that ‘you’ pronounce them ‘evil’ because you think yourself ‘good’. Yet if ‘you’ truly are good, you must prove it by something other than taking offense at alternative ideals.

For all that political conservatives are condemned for their hostility to difference, political liberals have exactly the same failing – it is only the standard of sameness that changes between these camps. Whether condemning homosexuality or condemning homophobia, the important thing is condemnation. The other side doesn’t need to be reasoned with, engaged in its own terms, because the other side is wrong: ‘they’ cannot be convinced because ‘they’ already do not see wisdom and perfection of our own ideals and thus must be inferior. This is politics-as-usual, but it’s a far cry from ethics as the search for the good life. If liberals really wanted to help the gay community, they could start by engaging conservatives from within their view of the world – but this would be hard. It is much easier, and indeed much more viscerally entertaining on the news, to oppose bigotry by becoming a bigot.

If we truly and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, we would begin in our own neighbourhoods by being better people to one another. But we prefer pointing fingers and decrying the horrible situation in other countries – it’s more entertaining, and requires far less of us.

I watch the people walk down the street and grumble as they pass some broken bottle or piece of litter left by someone else. They do not pick it up, and so more people come and have the same negative experience, perhaps clucking their tongues about the youth of the day or the decline of values. If asked, they will say that the person who dropped it should have disposed of it properly. Maybe so, but they didn’t. And now you have the choice to do the same, but you don’t because ‘it’s not your responsibility’. Anyone could pick that litter up with an investment of less time than it takes to sit through a commercial break on television, thus making everyone’s day a little better. But no-one does.

No-one wants to be good, they just want to feel good by being opposed to evil – and everyone is evil who disagrees with you. Thus politics murders ethics, and our response is to tune into the news every day to ensure that the bad people are still out there so that we can feel better about ourselves for knowing that we did not do such terrible things. There are many good people in the world – flawed, no doubt, as we all are – but they remain invisible because we no longer care about the good, we only care about fighting evil. The simplest things – a smile, a helping hand, a friendly hello – can make a difference in a way that politics never can. Until we rediscover an ethics of the good, we are condemned to the politics of evil.