Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Decline of the left, part 3: Moral hazards

In the previous post in this series I argued that the modern left has lost its way: creeping insecurity is leading it to rely on false certainties and self-righteous bigotry, neither of which is healthy. So far I’ve been largely asserting my case, which rather confounds my founding premise that a good cause must be supported by a good argument. So in this post I’m going to have to work a bit harder to show that modern-left arguments are indeed badly put together, and in the process propose a better sort of argumentation that might underpin our values.

In which the Author responds to his Criticks

First, however, a response to some of the feedback I have received so far, and more importantly thanks to all who have given that feedback.

It seems fair to say that so far I have not properly identified the phenomenon of the ‘modern left’ that I am talking about. Much of what I describe represents a general incivility in political debate that is found on left and right wings, especially online. Moreover my term ‘modern left’ is misleading as it implies that I am talking about ‘the left of the modern day’, when my target is really a section of the left that has departed from the better traditions of the left and indeed of democratic political discourse (hence ‘modern’ left). I accept I need to do more to delineate this section of the left – pointing at Owen Jones and Laurie Penny won’t really cut it. My preferred term is ‘shrill left’ but it has unpleasant misogynistic overtones.

Nevertheless, I’m confident it would be quite easy to delineate and identify this section of the left. I’m confident too that people intuitively recognize the constituency of commentators and Facebook-botherers I am talking about, and regard them as forming a coherent, identifiable group. The remaining posts in the series will focus on identity politics, and perhaps I will be able to make a case for identity politics as the identifying peculiarity, or quiddity, of what I call the ‘modern left’. 

As an aside, I’d say too that the reaction of many left-wingers to the Labour defeat in GE2015 vindicates much that I have been saying.

My reasoning for picking on the badness of the left and not the right isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be. One reason is that the modern left moralizes so vociferously that its arguments attract challenge more than those of others; and the extraordinary intolerance of those preaching tolerance is a contradiction worthy of everyone’s attention (contradictions are always interesting and worth thinking about). 

Perhaps too the left shouldn’t just be measured against the standards it demands of others, but also against standards that should be intrinsic to left-wing beliefs – the modern left disappoints because, frankly, we expect more of the left wing than we do of the right, expect it to be more upright, more intellectually and morally conscientious in pursuing its lofty, society-changing goals. 

However perhaps my expectation of better things from the left is really just the tell-tale remnant of faith in someone who used to be left-wing but is now utterly jaded. In which case, this series of blog posts is really just a grumpy farewell to a political ideology that has disappointed me utterly.

That sounds about right, frankly. Label me a proud agnostic.

Some other critiques that people have pointed out, or led me to: using a quasi- (or perhaps pseudo-) philosophical form of reasoning to critique political commentary might be a category error, the wrong tool for the job entirely (as will perhaps become increasingly clear in the remaining posts in the series). I’ve bet the farm on my first premise (‘no good cause can be well served by a bad argument’) being valid, and justified it by saying that we can only find common cause with other people by convincing them through argument – the alternative is to coerce them and that would do unacceptable harm to our individual freedom of conscience. 

However maybe this places an unrealistic, fundamentalist emphasis on freedom of conscience – in creating common cause in the real world (through political parties e.g.) we inevitably have to accept certain compromises of individual conscience. For instance, if party solidarity is the way to achieve electoral and parliamentary success, and thereby to implement our values, then implementing our dearest values will probably involve sacrificing some of our other values in the name of achieving party solidarity and common cause. To insist otherwise is to be unworldly and unpragmatic – we’d never get anything done.

So perhaps I am overly harsh on the hyperbole of the modern left. Solidarity and gestures of solidarity, perhaps tribalism, are important in politics, whereas I privilege rationality above all. I would probably do well to remember that the most important political contribution we make as citizens isn’t an argument, it isn’t even linguistic, it’s simply a crude mark in a box symbolizing that we side with one party not another.

As much as I identify with the adversarial nature of British politics (and law), it could be argued that I misunderstand it: democratic politics is about representing people and their interests. Once we break that bond and put ideas before people, we soon degenerate into ideological callousness (as so many before us). The testing of political positions cannot be a process of hyper-rational analysis of ideas, as this will lead only to the rule of philosopher kings. Instead, therefore, a political idea should at some level be understood as belonging to or representing a constituency of people and their interests; as there can be no divorced arbiter holding the balance, the idea can only be tested by seeing how it weighs up against other political ideas that represent other constituencies of people and their interests.

In other words, even sensible, moderate conceptions of the democratic process must inevitably commit us to a certain degree of tribalism. I don't think this scuppers my arguments, but (as will become increasingly clear) it is clear that I need to respond in different ways to moral and political arguments.

Normal service will resume very shortly, and I’ll go back to hammering away at the Guardianistas. But first – I'm still not sure that the above negates what I am trying to do with this series of blog posts. Comforting as tribal feeling and group solidarity are, we would all resist the charge that our political ideas are unreasonable or arbitrary – a politician would find it near impossible to defend a policy that he or she had to acknowledge as tribally correct but unreasonable. Tribalism is inevitable and probably important, but probably not sufficient, and certainly no substitute for reasoning. Moreover there is no way of arriving at a clear sense of what our beliefs are, or even what our best interests are, without a process of weighing one benefit against another, testing one value against another. Tribalism won’t help us do this, only reasoning (and I will argue below that it is a form of reasoning the modern left is particularly bad at, possibly because of a preference for tribalism instead). 

If reasoning must form part of politics, but only a part, maybe I could say that this series serves the purpose of a cordoned-off testing ground, isolated from the other legitimate aspects of politics, to allow the rigorous testing-to-destruction of the ideas of the modern left. See what you think.

Test case no. 2: the presumption of discrimination

When inequality exists in our society, should we assume as a matter of course that it exists because of discrimination and bias? This seems to be the position of many, and not just those of the modern left. 

I’m talking about, for instance, ‘institutional bias’ against ethnic minorities at University of Oxford; the extraordinary brouhaha over not enough black actors getting Oscars in 2015, the so-called 'whitewash'; performance discrepancies in the civil service; discrimination in the tech sector; and the under-representation of black and ethnic minorities in backroom roles in football.

In all of these articles, it is assumed that disparities must be the result of discriminatory exclusion (though I should cite also this one, a very conscientious and reasonable article that is hard to fault). There seem to be any number of similarly plausible explanations why, for instance, so few black or ethnic minority actors won Oscars in 2015 – not all of these explanations concern exclusion, and they are sufficiently plausible and sufficiently numerous for a jump to this conclusion to be premature and unwise.

It is certainly the case that sexism, racism, homophobia exist in the UK; and almost certainly the case that these prejudices cause some of the inequalities that affect our society. But ultimately our society is a big, complex thing and we don’t know exactly why it is as it is – certainly we don’t have anything like strong enough grounds to state from the off that, as a rule, inequalities between groups must be the result of prejudicial discrimination, and therefore we don’t need to investigate further to rule out other causes. This would itself be a prejudice and, as I’ve said already, we simply do not have sufficient knowledge to afford the certainty of prejudice.

Now of all the possible explanations, it would also be wrong to explain away inequality by saying that groups occupy high or low positions in society deservedly, because of the intrinsic merits of their members. This is merely a supposition, supported by no evidence and lots of prejudice.

However, is the well-meaning prejudice, the one that automatically assumes discrimination as the cause of inequality, really any better than the jaundiced prejudice that is possibly motivated by racism or sexism?

Better the presumption of discrimination, one might think, than the bigot’s presumption that such disparities can only be the result of intrinsic differences between groups. Agreed – as long as we are happy to use kneejerk assumptions and shoddy thinking just as bigots do. But the problem with bigots isn’t just that they have bad, nasty intentions – they also use shoddy thinking, misperceive the world, and fall short of what we could call reasonable behaviour. So we have to think better than the bigots, as well as have better intentions, and that entails avoiding automatic assumptions. Belief that the goodness of one’s intentions obviates any need for good argument leads directly to the self-righteous but empty smarm of Owen Jones.

And indeed, no good cause can be well served by a bad argument.

There’s a more specific reason why the assumption of discrimination is a very bad idea: in many instances it rewards our efforts to improve society with undeserved self-recrimination.

Consider: to fight discrimination we must believe that fighting discrimination is the right thing to do, because it alleviates inequality – we must aspire to do it, and we must actually do it. If, however, we must prejudge every remaining instance of inequality as being the result of our society’s badness, of its racism and sexism, then we must also have an automatic belief in our badness, our biasedness, in our failure. Not just the failure of our well-meant attempt to do right, but our moral failure. We end up condemned to a cynically contradictory double-think: moral principle motivates us to fight the good fight against discrimination; at the same time, however, we are committed to a belief that any discrimination is proof of our intrinsic bias, and the worthlessness of our efforts to combat discrimination. If our moral worth in fighting against discrimination is instantly negatable, because of a principled assumption of our own bias and badness, then how can we motivate ourselves to do the right thing? How can it be reasonable to dedicate ourselves to a fight when we are committed to the belief we will lose it?

This is an unsustainable contradiction – educated, enlightened societies (if we are such) cannot force themselves to endure an irrational contradiction without something giving way. If inequality persists and this contradiction, this antinomy, continues indefinitely, then somewhere, at some point, a gasket will surely blow. Most likely, we’ll lose patience with the fight against discrimination – which would be self-defeating.

Now of course, a society that imposes on its members an unquestioning belief in their own culpability can keep on going and even thrive. The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of doing just this, and it also provides an example of how to get people to live with persistent irrationality and contradiction, The problem is, it’s a poisonous process, it requires a big stick, and the modern left believes (rightly) that we ought to aspire to better than this. 

We know too that arbitrary self-recrimination is never a good prophylactic against the sin one is trying to prevent: it creates a moral hazard in which good actions are dis-incentivized because they are never rewarded with anything but more punishment and bad feeling.

And in the midst of this fruitless self-punishment, the actual problem of inequality and what causes it goes unresolved.

Now admittedly I’m basing all of this on two assumptions – first, on the assumption that things will continue as they are, with inequality persisting and discrimination automatically held responsible. It might transpire that some day discrimination will end and with it inequality. On the other hand, however, what if, at some point in the future, we had successfully taken every reasonable step to stamp out discrimination and bias, but inequality persisted? Would this be evidence enough to justifying abandoning our a priori belief that inequality must be caused by discrimination? It would surely be grounds for holding, at the least, that our fixation on discrimination as the cause of the problem of inequality was preventing us from thinking more openly and widely about how to solve that problem. If that moment is hypothetically conceivable, we should ask if it is conceivable in the here and now – does inequality continue to blight our society because we dogmatically blind to the range of factors that might cause it?

Second, my 'unsustainable contradiction' would only come about if the people aspiring to fight discrimination blamed themselves for the failure of their fight. Maybe I am making a false assumption – it might be that the anti-racists and anti-sexists would absolve themselves for society’s continuing iniquity, and blame others. In fact, would it not be highly likely that the modern leftist would fight the good fight against discrimination and then blame others (Mail-readers, probably) when the failure of her struggle resulted in society’s persisting racism and sexism? As already noted, the modern leftist tends to be someone who celebrates what is good in himself, and tirelessly denounces what is bad in others. Even if this outcome is the greater likelihood, it’s hardly a better eventuality than the unsustainable contradiction, and there’s small choice between rotten apples.

Finally, let’s go back to the beginning – why not admit that the question of why our society is unequal is an open one, too difficult to be addressed with foregone conclusions? Why should we be so afraid of uncertainty? A defining characteristic of the modern left, it seems to me, is a discomfort with any sort of uncertainty or ambiguity concerning race and gender – to the extent that refuge in an unreasoned, unthinking sense of certainty is preferred to the unpredictable dangers of reasoning one’s way through uncertainty. This is how the bigot and the religious zealot defend their moral values, but increasingly the left too. Why? Why leave our moral foundations hopelessly vulnerable to the charge of arbitrariness?


  1. A great many points to be addressed here, and I don’t know that I can do justice to them all.

    First of all, let me present one of those tiresome “X, but Y” arguments. I agree with you that our political values should be determined by reason; BUT … it increasingly seems to me that we think primarily not with our reason, but with our emotion; that we arrive at the positions we occupy through emotion, and only then do we use reason, but use it either to justify our position, or to fine-tune it. I realise this is not a very attractive idea to those of us who (quite rightly) value the importance of reason, but I doubt that any of us could embrace ideas that we find emotionally repulsive. If someone were to suggest something truly horrendous – such as, say, the mass-murder of the severely disabled – I doubt that too many of us would consider the proposal objectively: we would feel emotionally repulsed, and then consider reasons to justify this emotional response. I realise this is an extreme example, but I think it works in less extreme instances as well. (This is something I have long been thinking about, and will try to get my thoughts in some order and, maybe some day, write a blog post on it.)

    This does not mean that we should reject rational thought: we must, I agree, try to apply rationality as objectively as we can. It is also true, I think, that our emotional responses are not immutable, and that they may, over time, be influenced by our rational thought. In short, it is not necessarily one-way traffic: our emotions can be influenced by our thought, just as our thought can be influenced by our emotion. But it does seem to me that the latter is the stronger: we are more irrational creatures than we like to think, and we might as well acknowledge it.

    Just as there is no greater enthusiast than the neophyte, there is no greater critic than the apostate. I too am a jaded Leftie, but unlike yourself, I don’t think I’m *completely* jaded: I’m only a semi-apostate. But I share fully your repugnance of the Imbecilic Left (a better term, I’d suggest, than either “Modern Left” or “Shrill Left”), and again, like yourself, I hold them to higher standards than I do the Imbecilic Right (which exists also). While I accept that the recent Conservative triumph is a democratic decision fairly arrived at, I cannot help but feel a sense of despondency. My objection to the Conservative Party is what it has always been – that their policies cause greater suffering to the weakest and the most vulnerable. To paraphrase Orwell, some things are true even if Socialist Worker says them. But then again, these political values of mine have been arrived, I think, primarily through my emotions, and what reason I have used has been merely to vindicate and to fine-tune them. And when, say, a Conservative argues that there are other matters more important than inequality, I have no doubt that these values too have been arrived primarily through emotion; and, no matter how open minded we both may be, it would be highly unlikely that either of us could radically shift the other’s position. Which leaves us at an impasse: presentation of rational arguments may lead us to modify our stance somewhat (but only if we listen carefully, and with a willingness at least to entertain ideas that we disagree with); but unless debate can shift us at an *emotional* level, it is unlikely ever to result in radical U-turns. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was not, after all, achieved through reasoned debate.

    1. Himadri, thanks as ever for such considered and well-reasoned (but also emotive!) responses – they have certainly set me thinking. I’ll try to be brief in replying as I’ve said more than enough already.

      I was very much trying to backtrack from arguing that reason is the be-all and the end-all, especially because the next posts in the series will be ever more rationalistic. As I tried to argue, my notion that common cause can only come about through staying true to our reasoning as individuals is unrealistic. Common cause is a *feeling* that binds us and motivates us to seek change, do the right thing.

      BUT, we still would not be attracted to any political argument stated thus: ‘I feel passionately that policy x is right; I commend policy x as a proudly true-blue Tory / deep-red Labour policy; I believe policy x is not reasonable.’ In some way, reasonableness must be a necessary part of political belief and policy, even if insufficient on its own and in need of supplementation by personal and tribal emotion.

      The thorny issue I am unsure about is first how antithetical to each other reasoning and emotion really are, and second whether there is always a fixed sequence of cause and effect (emotions first which are subsequently rationalized) or whether it can vary (sometimes we get emotionally attached to beliefs we have arrived at through reason).

      I don’t really know what constitutes our revulsion to the proposal to kill the disabled – whether it is reason or emotion. Given that the rational response (‘that would be a terrible injustice’) and the emotional response (‘that would be horrific’) would go hand in hand so often, I’m not sure this scenario can help us prize apart emotion and reason as distinct, possibly contrary things. The emotional response would surely be one of empathy, but what is empathy, the understanding of another person’s likely distress and feelings, but a process of abstract reasoning, a supposition (‘I imagine this is what they are feeling; what would I feel if I were in that situation’)?


      1) I think we have to resist a notion that reason is the same as cold mathematical logic;

      2) putting gut feeling in charge of our morals and policies would almost certainly have set them back many decades (gut feeling morality would surely have made acceptance of homosexuality a no-no);

      3) feelings are not communicable and shareable in the way that reasoned arguments are – they are personal (qualia, the philosopher say). If someone proposed murdering Britain’s disabled population or its Jews, I would have to do more than make a show of feeling in the hope it would become the feeling of my fellow citizens also. I would have to motivate them to say no to this unjust policy – granted, this would be done by inciting their feelings, but this itself would surely be done by an explanation of my feeling of disgust, why it is justified, and why they should feel the same. Again, a process of reasoning.

  2. On to the question of discrimination. My personal experience leads me to two very different views. That there has been, and no doubt still is, institutionalised racism I have no doubt: no-one who has grown un in Britain in the 60s and 70s with a dark skin can have be in doubt over this. I do not want to go into details here on this matter, but the experiences of my father working as a doctor during this period in the National Health Service have not always been, shall we say, ideally pleasant.

    But against this, I have to place my own experience. Although I arrived as an immigrant when still a child, I have had what I think is a fine education, right up to postgraduate level; I have enjoyed full rights of citizenship; freedom of thought and of speech and of conscience; and have – if I may be pardoned for saying so – done not too badly for myself. I am, in short, a fully fledged member of the bourgeoisie, and am an obvious target for recruitment into the Conservative Party and the Rotary Club. For me to complain about “institutionalised racism” would be risible.

    It is not, I think, a question of whether it exists or whether it doesn’t: it is very much a matter of degree. And yes, absolutely, there are many, many factors other than bias and prejudice that make for inequality. That correlation is not indicative of causality is a truism that any statistician, and indeed, laymen, are aware of.
    So I try not to look for racism; I try not to put down every slight or every piece of unfairness I experience to racism; I even try not to mind too much when I *do* encounter instances of indubitable racism. But what I am certain of – one of the very few things that I am, indeed, certain of – is that while racism has not gone away (that would be too much to expect), it is neither as widespread nor as deeply felt as it was a few decades ago, and I think this is a Good Thing. I also think that much of this change has come about as a consequence of anti-racist activity. And since I have naturally benefited from this change, I am reluctant to be too harsh on anti-racist activity, even when it slips – as, sadly, it so often does – into imbecility. But when it does slip into these areas, the distress it causes me is greater than any distress caused by imbecility on the other side. I have highlighted in my last comment here the various shenanigans at Goldsmith College; if only such modes of thinking as displayed in those shenanigans were isolated cases! They aren’t. So, sadly, I think I accept your diagnosis above. But only very sadly, and very reluctantly.

    1. Well that first reply wasn’t very brief, I thought. Balls. Ok, I’ll try again.

      Thanks for sharing your own experiences and those of your father – the way I tend to think easily sidelines the reality of people’s experiences. From growing up white in Britain, I probably cannot fully understand what it is to be diminished as a person because of my ethnicity.

      But all this aside, you’re clearly far too urbane for the Rotary Club. I guess the boozing might appeal though.

      Yes, I do see from what you say why we must be slow in losing our patience with the anti-racist movement. But I’d also say that their victory is not assured eternally – we will still have to make the case for anti-racism as part of our morality, still teach it to our kids. The sort of approach I was attacking (and I am glad to acknowledge it is only *one* approach among many) is dangerously self-defeating – more likely to tempt our society to eject the anti-racist cause as arbitrary, uneven-handed, and oppressive, than to encourage us to make anti-racism an ever more secure part of our moral bedrock.

      But even so, I think you are right – even if some of the arguments being made are bad ones, focusing rigidly on them will distract from us the more important thing, which is the motivating intention to make Britain fair for all regardless of race, gender, and sexuality. Once we lose that basic drive, perhaps no amount of argumentation will prompt us to bring it back.

      Unless of course the intention to create a fair society is the result of reasoning rather than emotion. Round and round we go!

    2. I shouldn’t have brought in my personal experiences into this: it means you can’t reasonably disagree without appearing uncivil. In my defence, I touched upon personal experience not to make an argument, as such, but to demonstrate why I am still attached to certain causes and movements despite their very obvious idiocies. It could, of course, be argued that my personal experiences should make me even more aware of and angry about these idiocies, as they tarnish a cause I know to be just and important.

      The interactions between reason and emotion are, I agree, highly intricate. I cannot help thinking (I may certainly be wrong: I am not insisting on this) that our emotions really underlie everything – even our reason! For instance, you cite “that would be horrific” as an emotional response, and “that would be a terrible injustice” as reasoned. And, as you rightly say, it is difficult to prise these responses apart. Even the reasoned latter response is, it seems to me, based upon our emotions. For how can we conceive of justice without emotion? To most of us who aren’t trained philosophers, the idea of justice is, I think, more or less a matter of gut feel. And even philosophers may be hard put, I fancy, to justify their definition of justice in a manner that does not touch, at least, upon the emotions. To take an example presented by Amartya Sen, suppose a man makes a bamboo flute; to whom should this flute belong? The person who made it? The person who owns the bamboo tree? The person who can play the flute skilfully? Or the poor child who has nothing else to play with? Each of these options has the claim of “justice”, and the option we may think is the most “just” seems to me to be predicated upon our individual emotional concepts of what constitutes “justice” – i.e. “qualia”.

      You make the very interesting point that our emotional response comes from our empathising with others, and this act of empathy is itself an exercise of our reason. Yes, absolutely. And the idea that it is important to empathise in the first place seems to me, once again, dictated by our emotions. So once again, the two seem too closely intertwined.

      I raise this issue because, for some time now, I have been suspicious of claims many make of basing their arguments purely on reason, and the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that our emotions are at the base of everything, our reason included. However, since this is not the thrust of your argument, let us leave this particular issue till later. I certainly accept fully your contention, and the arguments you present supporting your contention, that arguments that do not employ reason at all are utterly worthless.

      In the meantime, I am enjoying your skewering of that which fully deserves a damn good skewering!

    3. Well I'd certainly like another bite at this particularly juicy cherry, but there will be time...

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.