stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…

HOORAY.

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(andrew’s fault)

So while I’m trying to decide whether to start posting my obscenely over-academic university research on here (and finding out if I’m even allowed – I have a feeling it might be the property of the University and thus unpublishable anywhere else), here is a very lengthy response I posted today to this post on Andrew Watts’ superb blog. His basic point is that socialists don’t have the ability to be decent people themselves and want the state to do it for them; and that’s why socialists don’t give blood. I thought I’d repost my response here because it ended up being quite a neat little autobiographical statement of political philosophy – but you should read Andrew’s blog first; as a rule it tends to be funnier than mine anyway, and that’s the important thing…


The last time I tried to give blood, they wouldn’t let me. They looked at me, weighed me, and then said I wasn’t allowed. Your BMI is too low, they said. Really, I said? Yes, they said. If we let you give blood you could have a heart seizure. You should see a doctor actually, they said.

So I went to see my GP, and my GP told me I should try eating meat and stop being such a big (well, small) vegetarian nancy. So, for the sake of my health, I learned to be harsher and not to feel so much remorse for the suffering of less fortunate creatures when it interferes with my own self-interest.

That was ten years ago. From there, it was only a small step to becoming a fan of Nietzsche, who recognised exactly how cruel humans can be if it’s in their own interest, and of course inadvertantly influenced a string of idiots like Rand and Hayek, and indirectly, Thatcher. She’d been long out of office, but I was able to recognize then that I had hated her through my childhood for the wrong reasons. I had mistakenly hated her, for the reason most people, as you say, still hate the Tories – for being cruel. But she wasn’t a bad Prime Minister because she was cruel; she was a bad Prime Minister simply because she had, if anything, much too positive a view of humans – she thought that if we were freer to be independent as entrepreneurial capitalists, then we would also be freer to be responsible and kind to each other as individuals. But what happened under Thatcher was social carnage; her liberalism was too radical and people who were suddenly able to make a lot of money didn’t bother to look after those who were less able, or those who didn’t regard the acquisition of wealth as being the telos of human existence.

For a while, I admired New Labour then; they recognised that if the wealthy were going to actually contribute anything of substance for the less advantaged, they were going to need a bit more encouragement. New Labour weren’t socialists because they didn’t want to compel the advantaged to help the disadvantaged – or at least, Blair didn’t – but they did at least try to come up with ways in which it could happen: academies, foundation hospitals, PPPs etc. But these were never going to work: when organisations with their own interests (whether that is profit or religious influence) get power over things like transport or education or healthcare, they were never going to act primarily in the interests of transport or education or healthcare as being intrinsically worthwhile; they were always going to use those things as instruments of their own interest (generally profit). So rail fares become unaffordable; academy schools get more obsessed with exam results in the short term and will lose good teachers – and possibly their buildings – in the long term.

This might not be intentional, it might not even be conscious most of the time, and it’s not that people aren’t ‘kind’; it’s that when kindness gets in the way of their own immediate goals, their own goals come first. This is because people are, at bottom, selfish.  And this is what socialists understand.

As much as it might seem to go against the Sixth-form-common-room debate of “wouldn’t socialism be nice/no it won’t work because people are selfish”, in the real world socialists are the ones who DO recognise that people are selfish. 

And so I actually do accept your premise that socialism is about outsourcing your kindness – although actually I think it’s about outsourcing responsibility for your kindness – but if it is, it’s because they recognise that otherwise the kindness won’t get done. Capitalism would never have been so successful if the rich had noticed people were starving and done something about it.  

Now personally, I’m not a socialist because, having become a flesh-eating Nietzschean, I don’t see any obligation at all in moral kindness. For the sake of basic human decency and my own safety, I’m in favour of personal responsibility – but it needs to be given gradually, not thrust upon us. And in the meantime, we need to be compelled by law to help the less fortunate, otherwise they won’t get helped and then they’ll revolt.

So, the consequences of this: a few years ago I abandoned the Labour Party, whose tribe I had, in the first place, been indoctrinated into by my mother, a high Anglican from Liverpool, who quite correctly regarded Jesus’ agape-or-hell law/compulsion as being profoundly socialist in nature. Jesus, too, thought that people are equal in the eyes of God, but basically selfish and need compelling to be kind: and socialism is the practice of positing the (empirically false) claim that all people are of equal value and then, as you say, adding that the more well-off must be compelled, by the threat of punishment (ie hell) if necessary, to be kind as a result. And hell is a pretty tough punishment for breaking the only human law Jesus set out and not loving your neighbour.

Anyway, I deserted the Labour Party but didn’t give up hope: individual people CAN be decent to each other without such compulsion;but you can’t do it by just taking all the support away and leaving them to it. It will take a long gradual time to get there, but it’s possible; the state should be dismantled very, very slowly, and give plenty of practical transitional support in the meantime. I like to call this ideology Pragmatic Gradualist Anarchism. Some people, I think, call it Liberalism.

So this year – regrettably, now – I decided to join the Liberal Democrats, and I even campaigned for them – in a Liberal vs. Labour seat. I did that because they seemed to be pretty sensible about gradually pushing against state authoritarianism while still providing support for people to be decent to each other. (And also because, having taught Politics for a few years now, I’ve become deeply, deeply dissatisfied that the FPTP voting system is representative of what people actually want and so doesn’t provide proper legitimacy.)

So, to answer your point: the reason I’ve been bombarding facebook with annoyed messages is not because I want my kindness to need outsourcing, or because I’m opposed to the idea of personal responsibility and lower taxation and so on. I’m angry at the spending review because the party I campaigned for have done the political equivalent of promising to help us build a plane and learn to fly, and then joined up with a bunch of people who like pushing people off cliffs and pushed us all of a cliff. And we’re going do hit the ground hard, our most vulnerable parts first.

The people who hate the Tories for that aren’t wrong to point out that they are so personally wealthy that they are cutting things they will never personally have to depend on. And they aren’t wrong to point out that George Osbourne smiled a lot during and after his Spending Review speech, and seemed proud of the cuts to quality of life that he’d made on other people’s behalf.

Personally, I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to give blood. Because I’d only have done it so that I could take the credit, but it would have really hurt.

But I wonder if perhaps Osbourne wouldn’t give blood either if he could get a poor person to do it and still take personal credit…

ubermanoeuvre: proof that ayn rand was retarded

Last night I went to see the debut album launch of Loz’s band Ubermanoeuvre.

They are a remarkable group in lots of ways. They are hard to classify in terms of normal musical genres (imagine a very political rap-metal group but with lots of mad synth noises/occasional bursts of bluesy piano, and a complete disregard for traditional song structures). They also have a knack for gimmicks – no uber show is really complete without the waving of glowsticks and drinking of chodka, a dangerous cocktail of cherryade and vodka designed to get you drunk and e-number-hyperactive at the same time. Which is almost exactly the right condition to be listening to the music in.

But the thing that strikes me most about them is the complete lack of egoism in the group. Loz drew my attention to this himself in Edinburgh last summer, when he was comparing his experience of being in Ubermanoeuvre to the experience of putting together a comedy show. But he’s right – Ubermanoeuvre are a perfect example of a band who all work for each other, and each get something greater for themselves out of it as a result. Music quite frequently needs this kind of enlightened egoism (as opposed to the raw, destructive egoism that seeks to take power or credit for oneself at the expense of others); it’s a collaborative demonstration of what can be achieved when everyone crushes, or at least keeps a check on, their own ego for the sake of a bigger piece of art.

But for most people this is a huge struggle. It always was for me when I was in bands as a teenager; I always had to be in control or I’d get very frustrated. The last real band I was in, I quit because – and remember, I was very young so don’t judge me for this – I wasn’t the main singer so I wanted to write all the songs instead. There’s still a part of me that still thinks I wasn’t wrong, that my songs were brilliant and if they’d let me tell them all exactly what to do then we’d have been rock gods and not ended up trawling the Northampton pub circuit doing Oasis covers. But I hadn’t been a founder member of the band, even if I had been I’d have had no right to tell them what to do, and I had to quit. Stand-up suits me better – I might be better at writing songs than jokes but at least I have complete control over the jokes.

Anyway. Ubermanoeuvre have something I don’t have, which is the seemingly effortless ability to work together without a struggle for attention or power, and it means that they have become an incredibly tight group who all contribute to the sound of the thing. I thought the same thing the other day listening to Radiohead – a group I have no doubt have their own conflicts of egos – but in the songs, they are all so focussed on the overall product that no one instrument dominates the songs. Even Thom Yorke’s voice is…well, let’s say that if Sinatra tried to make his voice sound like a trumpet, Yorke’s voice frequently sounds more like a string section, floating above the music and adding an extra dimension to the feel of it rather than dictating its direction.

Which is not to say that egoism doesn’t work in music – of course it does, and I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – but it must be, to an extent, disciplined in order to work collaboratively with others. Even Bob Dylan prefers playing with a band. This isn’t an argument for communism, of course, or to claim that it is good that individuals be subsumed by the whole – but it is an argument that much of the great things we produce as humans require the right balance of ambition and collaboration.

My point is, Ubermanoeuvre – whatever egoistic personality issues they may have between them, and I know nothing about that – give the impression on stage that they love what they are doing so much that they find it incredibly easy to find that balance by simply letting the music smash the principium individuationis. And that is very impressive.

——

As a postscript to this, I should add that something else unusual happened at the gig, which is that someone opened a conversation with “Hello. You don’t know me but I like your blog.” Which was a little unnerving, but she was very lovely and seemed like exactly the kind of person that I hoped would be reading it. Hooray!

Again, that hasn’t really helped me with my own egoism, though…

on liberalism

On Saturday evening, I was walking through Soho with a friend on our way to see Marcus Brigstocke‘s Edinburgh Preview. I was quite chirpy about this because I’ve been a big Brigstocke fan for some years now, and with his show clashing with ours in Edinburgh I had been worried I wouldn’t get to see it.

Anyway, to get to the show we had to navigate our way through Soho Square at about 7.30pm, where the Gay Pride festival was fully underway. It wasn’t just gays there to party – it seemed like every non-homophobe in London had turned up to get drunk, and dance, and snog in the street under brightly-coloured banners. It was a sunny evening, everyone was smiling, and the only people looking uncomfortable were the pair of policemen sent to patrol Greek Street. It was brilliant.

As we weaved through the crowd sharing a burrito, my friend turned to me and said how cool it all was, and then added something like, “Strange to use the word ‘pride’ about sexuality, though. I wouldn’t say I’m ‘proud to be heterosexual’. Though maybe that’s because being heterosexual’s dull.”

I smiled, but she’d made a good point (though she now says she wasn’t intending to make it) – it is odd to talk about being ‘proud’ of something you had no choice over. I’ve always been baffled when people say they are ‘proud’ to be from the family or ethnic group they were born into, even though these things are purely arbitrary and nobody has made any decision or action to be proud of.

I thought for a moment, and then – probably thinking of all the heterosexual couples I’d noticed around the place – I said, “perhaps it’s not pride in being gay, but pride in taking part in a tolerant society. I can be proud to be part of that.”

“No,” she said, “It’s not ‘tolerance’, because being gay doesn’t involve doing anything wrong which needs to be tolerated.”

“Ok,” I said, adopting her implied definition of ‘tolerance’ in order to accept another good point. “Not ‘tolerant’, then. How about ‘liberal’?”

“No,” she said, “I don’t really like that either.”

I tried to push her for an argument as to why she didn’t like the word ‘liberal’, but then we got separated by a big dancing crowd surrounding some almost-naked men with conga drums.

She didn’t need to explain it, anyway. The word ‘liberal’ has been dragged into confusion and disrepute, partly because of the horrible things that have happened to it in the US (despite the brilliant attempt by Bruno Gianelli in The West Wing to clear things up). When you use it, as she pointed out later, nobody knows what you mean; they put their own meaning on it, and assume something they either like or don’t like based on the way they’ve been socialised to respond to the term. It swings between meaning something like ‘we should allow individual freedom within certain parameters’ (which is both wussy and horribly vacuous), and meaning something like ‘moral decline that will send us all to hell’.

In short, it’s a problematic word.

But it’s a word that needs reclaiming. Firstly, because it’s classy: it’s the best, most elegant word that the Spanish ever gave us (the first people to call themselves ‘Liberales’ were the Spanish supporters of the 1791 French Constitution, which led to the signing of the first explicitly ‘liberal’ constitution – the 1812 Cadiz constitution, which is arguably Spain’s greatest contribution to practical political philosophy.

Secondly, because it’s the best word for the best combination of the other ideologies we have: Liberalism encompasses the wide-eyed utopianism of anarchism, the common decency of socialism, and the maturity and good sense of conservatism. It does what conservatism tries and fails to do in valuing us as we are and how we want ourselves to be, not as we ‘should be’ according to any unjustifiable position of moral superiority. It allows us to change when we become different, but allows it gradually (again, taking the most mature and rational element of conservatism, its gradualism, while actually allowing that gradual change to happen).

Good liberalism, of course, has anarchy as its ultimate goal, its telos, but it knows you can’t get straight there from here. It’s a gradualist ideology that chips away at irrational and corrupt authority slowly, carefully, delicately, reasonably, conservatively. In the meantime, its immensely pragmatic and reasonable myth of ‘human equality’ implores us to at least pretend we are equal for just long enough not to cause dangerous problems for ourselves. While all the time giving us the power to say what we want, to laugh at what we want, to dance and kiss in the streets if we want.

At bottom, liberalism isn’t built on any absolute truth, but it’s practical, it is brave, and it works. It’s a good ideology, and I am proud that I choose to live in a city that is proud of its liberalism.

Brigstocke’s new show is awesome, by the way. It’s about religion. On Saturday, though, his opening line was, “Good evening. Aren’t gays messy?” There was a short pause – nobody was quite sure if what he’s said was intolerant or not – then, as he shook his head and smiled and said, “so very messy!“, we realised there was something in the subtlety of his voice, something that the best of us humans are bright enough to understand, had told that it was all okay – that he’s just as proud to be a liberal as the rest of us.

And we laughed, because we bloody well can.