Monday, 19 December 2011

Why We Fight

20100652 Winter Solstice 21 Dec
This last week I've been exasperated in much the same way by both Claire Tomalin and Christopher Hitchens - the former this morning on Start the Week, the latter on The Today Programme last week as part of a tribute following his death.
The discussion this morning was sparked by Canon Giles Fraser (who as you may remember had to resign because of his support for the demonstrators outside St Paul's) talking about Christian morality and what it has to say about excessive wealth. Tomalin (author of the recent biography of Dickens) piped up with that dreary old saw about how such morals are 'impossible' because human nature is set by biology and evolution which favours competition and aggression. It is natural and therefore right, she says, to have children and to do anything to help them get ahead.
So we shouldn't even try to do good? Is that what she's saying? We shouldn't even bother. Because it's impossible to overturn this fact of evolution and human biology, morality is impossible. Give up. Forget it.

Hitchens' point was similar. He was talking about his long-running arguments with his brother Peter. Peter was described as coming from a utopian left-wing background, which Christopher took to have been utterly discredited. There's no point, he concluded, in trying to change the world because the world is not perfectible. Utopia is impossible.
So does that mean we shouldn't do anything to improve matters? No regulations, no laws, no intervening to relieve the suffering and injustice? No, because it'll never be perfect. Best to give up. It's how the world is. Life's not fair. Grow up.

My first inclination is to lunge at the patronising self-satisfied common-sense that I suspect underlies both their views. I don't suppose they had or have much to worry about in life and any intervention by do-gooder bleeding-heart lefties is only likely to disrupt their comfortable life-styles, if only in a small way, but I don't know either of them personally and I shouldn't be so quick to judge.

My second response is to wonder at how such weak and sloppy thinking passes as learning or journalism on a forum as generally serious and thoughtful as Radio 4.
The point of morality, or idealism in the second case, is not, as they seem to imagine, to set up Heaven on Earth. This would be, as Hitchens rightly says, a discredited philosophy. Did the Soviets or the Maoists ever really believe in it? Nobody really thinks that way now except the radical Free-Marketeers ('If only we could get rid of the regulation' they say, 'the government, the taxes... With currently undreamed-of technological advances there would be growth and development and prosperity for all. There is no alternative. It's the end of history...')
No - the point of idealism and morality is not to somehow build an ideal world where nothing horrible ever happens. There is no point at which we win and everything is lovely. There will always be greed and brutality and cynicism. Of course there will. But we don't fight these things because we think one day we will beat them. The fight is on-going. It never ends. We keep at it because we fear that if we don't it will get even worse.

But surely, you say, it's all a matter of opinion. Morality is all about personal interests when it comes down to it. Ok, maybe the world heating up and the oceans flooding most of the cities and cultivable land looks bad but balance it against all these people who are forced to live in rented accommodation or can't afford new trainers for their children? Don't they need jobs fracking shale and clearing forests or what have you? It's all relative. In fact surely these leftie do-gooders are just another kind of totalitarianism - imposing their moral choices on the rest of us?
Listening to the issues that get into news, deciding what should be done about the financial crisis or climate change can look like it's anyone's guess but it's different if we're talking about, for example, something like child abuse. Child abuse might even be 'natural' in an evolutionary sense but nearly everyone is against it. It's not 'all relative'. What's more, presumably there will always be child abuse but the idea that we should therefore just let it happen is unthinkable.
So what is the difference? On the one hand we have a child down the street with an appalling home life because her father can't control his temper and on the other a child dying of entirely preventable disease in Africa because other people are hogging all the resources. Both happen because of human action (or negligence). One is more complex than the other (in the sense that in the second case there's no one person you can easily lay the blame on) but both are caused by decisions we humans make, and cannot be excused as 'just the way the world is'. Perhaps I suffer from an excess of empathy but they don't actually seem very different to me at all. Could it be that in fact Hitchens' and Tomalin's view of the futility of morality and idealism is just that it's all a bit too complicated? And isn't that actually a bit weak when it comes down to it?

My third response is just a sadness that so many people do seem to agree with them, if only by default. This lazy 'realism' is published and broadcast which gives it a kind of authority, and it quickly comes to seem like there's nothing to be done.

So although I'm far from Christian myself and have no simple set of commandments to offer, can my seasonal appeal to anyone who happens to read this be that we not give up on doing good for good's sake, but at least keep on thinking about it, and discussing it, and to trying to do better than our worst?

Happy Midwinter


Vincent said...

I listened to the same programme this morning, and was similarly inspired to write about it. See Bryan’s post here and my response (14th comment, with Bryan’s reply).

It’s interesting to see our different takes on the same remark by Claire Tomalin (or Susan Hill, I don’t know which). I see the underlying issue as one which I addressed in my post on John Gray’s Straw Dogs: the faith in human progress, redemption, or Utopia. Gray says that humanists despise religion but still believe in progress to a better world. He makes the same point that Tomalin (or Hill) did, that we are constrained by our inherited nature from practising goodwill to all men, or following the teachings of Jesus, even though some of us can manage it for some of the time.

As far as I am aware, Claire Tomalin is a thoroughly decent human being. I used to know her daughter Emily quite well, and could tell you that the mother had and has her fair share of pain, sadness and the rest. The same goes for Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t know him personally but read his memoir Hitch-22 with great interest. I didn’t agree with all his views, but could accommodate him amongst those whom I’d trust as a friend and respect as someone whose heart was absolutely in the right place. I would swear in the witness box for both their characters, and that neither of them thought “we shouldn't do anything to improve matters”. Same with John Gray, though I only know him through one of his books.

I’m never far from cursing Radio 4 for multitudinous sins, but it never occurred to me that one had been committed in airing this programme.

I’ve already summed up in one way in my comment on Bryan’s post. But I’ll try another way …

I wish, as you, Tomalin, Dickens, the late Christopher Hitchens, John Gray, Bryan White and millions of others all do, that the world will become a better place, and that we can each make our own contribution to that; even though we don’t and can never agree. The issue at stake here is whether there is any simple solution to the aggregate of human behaviour. John Gray says no. Tomalin says no. Tacitly the entire Western world which celebrates the festival of Christmas says no, because it can only manage some token peace and goodwill for a limited period each year, before we fight again.

So let me ask you, Steve. Do you believe there is a solution, one which could set the world to rights?

Steve Law said...

No, now you see you've fallen into the same trap as Tomalin and Hitchens, Vincent. You think it has to be one thing or the other. Either one believes in a perfectible world or throws ones hands up and says 'That's life'. To avoid repeating what I've said in previous posts I'll precis - It's a process.

"it can only manage some token peace and goodwill for a limited period each year, before we fight again."
I think we can do better than that, and actually I think we do, on a regular basis. It just doesn't get reported with quite such glee. Good news is no news.

As for Tomalin and Hitchens, I'm sure they're perfectly decent people in real life. Tomalin's comment just seemed ill-informed rather than calculated but Hitchens' was deliberate.
I do feel though as if i want to make a distinction between the kinds of troubles we in the UK suffer (sickness, injury, bereavement etc) which will probably always be with us as human beings, and the kinds of atrocities people suffer in other parts of the world which are not only appalling but in some sense deliberate, and which are a result, in part at least, of the fact that we live so well here. It's not a clear distinction but I think it exists.
I can't imagine you'll agree.

Bryan M. White said...

I totally get what you're saying here, Steve. Morality IS an ongoing, perpetual, struggle, and just because there may never come a decisive moment when evil is defeated now and forever...that doesn't mean that the struggle itself isn't worthwhile.

As to what this means for humanity on a large scale...well, I don't think that a perfect world will probably ever be possible (definitely not the world that we know now and the people living here.) It may be impossible to draw a perfect circle, let alone engineer a perfect world. Still, I think we can and should continue to work towards a more peaceful world. I mean this in broad strokes, trying to eliminate, or at least diminish, war, poverty, ignorance, hunger. There will always probably be crime, misfortune, people abusing and destroying their own children, theft, murder, things of that nature. But we can still try, as the saying goes, "to make the world a better place." That may sound naive', but I believe that a certain naivete' and faith is called for in this situation if there's to be any hope at all.

Vincent said...

I’m not at all convinced that we disagree. It’s just that I don’t quite understand your position. In your view “it’s a process”. Can you be a tiny bit less concise and explain that?

I don’t understand what you mean when you say that we think it has to be one thing or the other. I don’t understand what you mean when you talk about throwing one’s hands up and saying “that’s life”.

I asked you a question before. Do you believe there is a solution, one which could set the world to rights? If your answer is "It’s a process”, is that a way of saying “Yes”?

I’m not asking you to set out that process. I don’t imagine you would give any of the simplistic solutions that have been historically given, solutions which have had their own martyrs.

Just a yes or no, as a minimum.

Steve Law said...

I'm not being difficult - I just honestly don't think it's a yes/no answer. The answer is complex but I feel like I've been approaching it over the last few postings - with my science analogy and so on, but ok, I will try and do it again.

Vincent said...

“OK, I will try and do it again” sounds like the very voice of Nature, which ceaselessly replicates itself and generally improves.

I’m getting the feeling that our discussions here do lead somewhere positive, and are certainly not a waste of time.

And also that there really is a spirit of Christmas!

Steve Law said...

A thought occurred during the night.
Perhaps your question is analogous to asking 'can science discover everything there is to know about the (material) universe?'
The answer I think, is maybe, in theory, given enough time, but in the here-and-now, science is just about asking questions, forming hypotheses, gathering evidence and developing theories, then asking more questions.
They might eventually find there are no more questions to ask but it's not something that's crucial to the process. The point of science is just to add to our knowledge.
Likewise with improving the world. I think it is possible to make improvements, and big ones (like banning slavery and votes for women), not just helping the old lady next door with her shopping (important though that is.)
Bryan - absolutely, I'm all for naivete'- it's why I'm suspicious of pragmatism - the 'doing what works' we talked about before.
I have more to say about this in the future so I'll leave it at that and go and get ready for work.

Vincent said...

Yes, you have hit it. There is an analogy, a commonality between the two questions:

A. Is there an applicable solution to the world’s problems?

B. Can science discover everything there is to know about the (material) universe?

Anyone attempting to answer either question can only be expressing a belief, even when the answer is “no”. Such a belief would be based on a rational or pseudo-rational ideology, the person’s temperament, or some combination of the two.

Vincent said...

Yes, you have hit it. There is an analogy, a commonality between the two questions:

A. Is there an applicable solution to the world’s problems?

B. Can science discover everything there is to know about the (material) universe?

Anyone attempting to answer either question can only be expressing a belief, even when the answer is “no”. Such a belief would be based on a rational or pseudo-rational ideology, the person’s temperament, or some combination of the two.

I agree with Bryan too on this. It is in human nature to feel moral imperatives, to venerate virtue, to love kindness, generosity and peace. But when we have fed the hungry and homeless at Christmas, we decide that’s enough. We don’t want to encourage their laziness, squalor and lawlessness the whole year through. If I play the Good Samaritan to every conman, what will happen to me, etc? The other day I needed a plumber in a hurry and was ripped off by a smooth operator who took money upfront and never returned. Yes, I was naïve. I didn’t expect that would happen to me. You feel sullied by the contact. It doesn’t stop you loving your neighbour but you have to balance it with self-protection.

But coming back to the two questions A and B above. I think there is another commonality between them. Once knowledge has been obtained it is not easily unlearnt. A man burns himself to death as a protest in Tunisia, and the Arab Spring is launched. Every tyranny in the world is threatened, as from a tsunami, irreversible, irresistible. Science is the same. The benefits it bestows and the drawbacks too e.g. how to make nuclear weapons are not easily lost. Science could be lost, at least for a time, just as many Greek texts were, till the Renaissance; just as the knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics was lost for many hundreds of years.

Yet we must distinguish science from technology. Science is the knowledge. Technology is its practical application, and depends on infrastructure. Earthquakes, floods, the drying-up of energy sources, the loss of traditional skills passed down from father to son, man-made violence—all these can show us that technology or its needed infrastructures are fragile.

As things go, in these times of peace and tranquillity that most countries are currently enjoying (despite the impression conveyed by the media) we take for granted that progress is cumulative in most areas of life. But this is contingent on a transmission through the generations; a transmission in which the bad is as likely to replicate itself as the good (e.g. abusers are usually found to have been abused themselves as children).

Steve Law said...

I need to think about all this - I think we're at cross-purposes. Which meaning of 'belief' are you using?

Vincent said...

The simplest everyday meaning, as applied to any future event, whatever the level of certainty or uncertainty. Believing that the jury will reach a guilty verdict, or that it will rain later today, that I will live at least till my next birthday.

Steve Law said...

I love it when you just blithely assume that your personal preferred meaning is obviously "The simplest everyday (common sense?) meaning". I posted four different meanings in my previous posting you may recall ( all of them common everyday meanings but quite distinct. I'm not sure which yours is. Some sort of slippery melange of 2 and 4 I suspect.

I'll try to tackle some of your earlier points here now.
The perfectible world/that's life are the two extreme reactions to injustice and suffering in the world. Obviously very few of us react entirely in such extreme ways but I see too much of the kinds of sloppy arguments used above (especially among conservatives, indeed it might be one of the defining characteristics of the conservative mind) to convince us to give up and accept that the world is just the way it is and cannot be changed.

I didn't see the BBC broadcasting Hitchens' and Tomalins' views as a 'crime' but I would like to hear now and again someone point out the rather obvious problems with such glib fatalisms.

Science and technology are different but unfortunately a lot of science is corrupted by the fact that they have to go increasingly to business for funding (or to governments that are increasingly dominated by the interests of business) so that research has to have some fairly obvious commercial application. Pure science (done for the sake of it) is an endangered species but ecology is better than most because it tends to get in the way of profit.

I think there is a problem with your yes/no question in the use of the word 'perfectibity'. My guess is that there will always be people like your 'plumber' and there will always be 'sickness, injury, bereavement etc' (more than enough for any future novelists to write about), so my answer will have to be 'no'. Are you happy now?
However, as i said, I do think things could be radically better.
I have some more to say about good and bad being transmitted into the future and I think we pretty much agree on this.

One point though - all your arguments pertain at least as much to bringing up a child as running a world. We can never be sure if what we do will have the desired effect or its opposite. And yet we must try.

Vincent said...

I love it when you just blithely assume that your fourfold definitions of belief must be respected by anyone using the word back to you! I don’t accept them, and made my own meaning perfectly clear with examples.

I love it in a similar way when you blithely talk about “the conservative mind”. We can talk about the metre, because the international prototype metre is stored in Paris as a bar of platinum alloy. When you’ve finished listing the characteristics of the conservative mind, let me know, as I vote Conservative and respect many traditions. It would be helpful to have my mind fully explained. Perhaps I use sloppy arguments—failing to categorise what I mean by belief, and so forth—because I have the psychological curse of a conservative mind! I hope you’ll be gentle with me, because it seems I can’t help it.

Perhaps there is a problem with using the word perfectibility. Indeed I do believe (in any slippery mélange of meanings you choose to interpret) that there is such a problem. And that may be one of the reasons I haven’t used the word at all in this discussion. So I’ll leave that aspect to you and Bryan.

Steve Law said...

You think 'believe' is a simple unproblematic term? Seriously?
I posted those four meanings because I think they're valid. You don't have to accept them but there's not much point in us proceeding with a conversation when I don't know what you mean.

Ok, enough sarcasm. Conservatives are characterised by tending to accept the world as it is (rather than wanting to change it.)That doesn't seem very controversial. The clue is in the etymology as much as anything.

Perfectibility wasn't your word. Ok. I'd need to find your yes/no question to see what you actually said. Could you remind me?

Vincent said...

Yes, no problem. My original question, above, was “Do you believe there is a solution, one which could set the world to rights?”

---thus referring to an activity your blog declares itself to have been engaged on since 2010.

Clearly it’s hard to engage in discourse when the speaker has to define his words frequently. I think we would do better without trying to define them. That was the meaning of my sarcasm. In itself the word conservative is not controversial, but the moment you offer your uncontroversial definition I find myself (unsurprisingly) forced to disagree with it.

So the moment you define conservatism as accepting the world as it is, you embed your own antipathy to it. To conserve is to keep, and also has the sense of restoring something--back to its prime, one might say. The process of restoration certainly involves change.

Since you don’t know what my original question means, I’ll rephrase it.

“Is your blog’s motto of setting the world to rights meant as a serious declaration of purpose?”

Steve Law said...

No not really.
'Setting the world to rights' is how two (probably drunk) people arguing heatedly long into the night is described around here. It is usually understood that they don't really know what they're talking about.

Generally I'd avoid too many definitions but I think some terms need 'unpacking'. 'Conservative' and 'belief' are two such.

Vincent said...

Right, agreed. The term ‘unpacking’ needs a little unpacking, don’t you think? When you say unpacking, I think you mean ‘putting in a box’. Or more than one box.

Steve Law said...

Ok - I was going to try to be civil and apologetic (in particular about 'conservative mind' which was pompous and unnecessary) but now I just think you're making things up as you go along.
No. Obviously 'unpacking' means opening things up to see what's hidden inside - you know that. 'Packing' means the opposite.

I guess, as a poet you like to use words in an evocative and open-ended way, and so do I - in my novel writing, but not here.
I am aware that in the past you have told me that you reserve the right to believe whatever suits you at any given moment and that I shouldn't expect your arguments to be consistent from one posting to the next (or words to that effect).
In contrast I am actually trying to make this series of essays as coherent and consistent as possible. I'm not saying I succeed, but that's the intention.
In which case - what on earth are we doing here?

Vincent said...

Steve, I absolutely want to be civil and conciliatory. I am not making up things as I go along but I warily return your serves as any tennis player must do.

If you use ‘unpacking’ to mean opening things up so see what’s inside, I take it that you can see clearly what’s inside. But if you take the words ‘conservative’ and ‘belief’ and try to analyse something hidden within those words, it seems to me you are acting like some kind of Post Office customs officer, checking for anything within the brown paper and string that needs to be declared, not smuggled in.

So it seemed to me that once you have unpacked the hidden meaning, you want to repackage it under your own label. Or in the case of ‘belief’, into four new boxes, each with its own label.

You are free to do this. But don’t forget that words like ‘belief’ and ‘conservative’, are already labels.

In particular, ‘conservative’ is a broad church, like the C of E. I wouldn’t march under the same flag as an American conservative who is hostile to gun control and free health services. But then I won’t march under the same flag as an English conservative, as like as not. Nevertheless, the label fits.

In the spirit of reconciliation, I will accept that ‘believe’ can mean different things in different contexts, and that a scientist’s belief may have a different basis than a religious person’s. Accordingly I append a list of the main meanings given by the Oxford English Dictionary to the verb ‘believe’. (You can probably access the OED yourself, using a derivative of your library card as password.) I’ve edited out certain obsolete or rare usages.

1. intr. To have confidence or faith in, and consequently to rely on or trust to, a person or (Theol.) a god or the name of a god.
2. intr. With in, To have confidence in the truth or accuracy of (a statement, doctrine, etc.). In later use also: to have confidence in the genuineness, virtue, value, or efficacy of (a principle, institution, practice, etc.).
3. trans. a. To give intellectual assent to, accept the truth or accuracy of (a statement, doctrine, etc.), give credence to.
b. To accept the reality of the impressions transmitted by (the physical senses). Chiefly in negative contexts.
4. a. trans. With that clause, or with simple object and infinitive clause or complement: to consider to be true; to have as an opinion, think.
5. To trust or accept the assertions or opinions of.
7. To have confidence in or be convinced of the actual existence or occurrence of a thing.

‘What on earth are we doing here?’ I’m here because I enjoy your company, without agenda except to respond from the heart, wherein lies the consistency. I regret it when I seem to offend you, but otherwise never consider it time wasted when I read and respond to your words. I think we are equally matched in sincerity. I never waste time corresponding with someone if I don’t hold them in highest respect.

Steve Law said...

Hello Vincent
Yes - to your last point first - absolutely. And so we continue, good-naturedly I hope, despite occasional spats.
Actually, thinking about it, I have very few words I want to unpack. Conservative i feel I dealt with as well as I can a while back in the thing about left and right wing (and you seemed to approve of my analysis) 'Belief' though is a special bugbear of mine, because people (not you in particular) do use it in ways that I think are actually dangerous. In fact i think it might be one of the most dangerous words in the world but I don't want to go into all that here. Your OED definitions are fine but hard to grasp. I think mine are more 'accessible'.
I find it useful to analyse things like this. I know it upsets people but it is important to realise that the analysis is not about denying the complexity of a word - only trying to get a handle on it. You will note that I said "I've... come up with at least four distinct meanings of the word" which does not preclude there being others, and I've also tried to make it clear that for most people, belief is a 'slippery melange' of two or more of the meanings. In other words I'm trying to get at the gradations of meaning without compartmentalising them. Does that make sense?
It's like trees and shrubs - useful categories I'd guess to most gardeners and naturalists, but what exactly is the difference? There are many shrubs that are larger than many trees (your common mock orange vs your Japanese maple for example) so it isn't just about size. Maybe it's the presence of a trunk vs lots of stems coming from the ground? but then lots of 'trees' are typically multi-stemmed and many shrubs form a substantial bole. I think we mostly know a tree when we see one, but that doesn't mean it's a simple distinction. Do you see what I mean?
I hope you liked my description of the term 'setting the world to rights' - you didn't comment. I didn't intend this blog to be a revolutionary manifesto (it's called 'Witter' for God's sake!) Does my sense of humour not come across? Never mind.
As for perfectibility - I would sincerely love for a few things about the way we run the world (you probably can guess what they are)to change radically and I'll do what I can to help that along. I have no problem at all with going back to older ways if that's what it takes, in fact I rather like the idea. In fact I see 'progress' as another very dangerous word, along with 'growth' and 'development'.
I heard this week that The Economy "ground to a halt" for a couple of months this year. What? Nobody went to work or bought anything? I didn't notice, did you?

Vincent said...

Excellent! Now the world has been set to rights and the wittering has not been in vain. The only thing missing has been the drink, but I invite you to these Chiltern Hills when spring has sprung and we could go wandering where there are rowans, field maples, blackthorns and whitethorns, arguing which are trees and which are shrubs, till we reach The Frog at Skirmett, or The Royal Standard of England at Forty Green, or The Three Horseshoes at Marlow Bottom, a horseshoe’s throw from the Rebellion brewery, where they offer you free sampling in pint glasses. Bryan, will you come too?

Merry Christmas to you and yours, dear Steve.

Steve Law said...

That sounds like an excellent idea. We must swap details. (Aren't you in the USA though Bryan? Not that that's necessarily a problem.)

Yes indeed - a fitting place to end - with the season's greetings. I hope you (and anyone else secretly ear-wigging) have an excellent time of it.
Your health!