Welcome

Welcome to the Salisbury Democracy Alliance Webpage.  We are a group of people and organisations dedicated to bringing deliberative democracy to the city.  We aim to provide citizens with the time, space and capacity to engage in free and equal dialogue.  We began in 2017 with the Salisbury Democracy café, which meets at the Playhouse every second Saturday in the month and has been extremely successful.  We now want to create the city’s first Citizens’ Assembly, which will involve randomly selecting a representative group of people to deliberate on an important local issue and make recommendations to our councils. 

We are supported by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)

There is no membership fee at present and we welcome new members and supporters.

Democracy Café

Democracy Café is held once a month on the second Saturday of the month. It takes place in the Playhouse here in Salisbury starting at 10 am and lasts 2 hours.

August meeting

Over 20 people attended a lively discussion at the August 2019 meeting of the Democracy Café in the Playhouse. Many familiar faces and some welcome new ones. We are delighted to see new people coming to these cafés which keeps us from becoming stale.

The topic chosen by vote for discussion was ‘has the Right commandeered the language of Brexit? How can we reframe the debate? This topic was put forward by someone who is reading George Lakeoff’s book one of which is ‘Don’t think of an elephant! know your values and frame the debate.’ Chelsea Green Publishing. Framing is crucial since it is difficult to change the course of any discussion if the agenda has been framed in a certain way. See a blog post from the Salisbury Compass site.

Recent examples were given. One was the notion that low taxes make us better off. A second is that when we leave the EU we shall be ‘free’. The right in our society have, it was claimed, commandered social media and have successfully promoted a number of soundbites. Some of the language is quite subtle, for example the change from ‘social security’ to ‘welfare’. The former was based on the notion that we all pay into a system which is there for us in time of need, whereas the second implies simple payouts. This language change was crucial in the post 2018 crash austerity period when there was a concerted attempt to cut ‘welfare’ and to (successfully) demonise those in receipt of payments as ‘scroungers and skivers’

In this context, it was noted that the £850bn (not £500bn as was said) bailout to the banks was not called ‘welfare’. It was given the name ‘quantitative easing’.

The importance of education and understanding what we read in the press was important. A book on how to read a newspaper is RW Jepson’s Clear Thinking: An Elementary Course of Preparation for Citizenship 1936. [1948 version]

As well as language – as in words – was the fact of presentation and how the politician puts it across. The example of Blair with his easy charm and broad smile was widely believed. Similarly with Boris Johnson with his blond hair and optimistic statements. These attributes were as important as the words used.

On the media, the fact that substantial parts are foreign owned is a factor it was claimed. The Daily Mail; Daily Telegraph; The Times and the Sun are among those papers owned overseas.

A big part of the debate was the fact that the Right seemed to be most successful in their use of the soundbite. They were able to encapsulate their ideas into short phrases which resonated with people. In the Brexit debate for example ‘freedom to make our own laws,’ ‘taking back control’ and ‘not being ruled by unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ are all examples of pithy and highly effective soundbites. Similar soundbites were mentioned during the post Reagan/Thatcher era in politics to sell the idea of free markets and small government. The question was raised: why has the Left failed to come up with its own short statements of what it stood for? ‘For the many, not the few’ was the only one anyone could think of. The tendency for longwinded explanations and factual rebuttals do not work. Back to Lakeoff and his argument that facts do not persuade, going for emotional appeal does. Which raised the question, how do you counter lies without lying yourself? People promoting Brexit had been much more successful in pressing emotional triggers, immigration for example.

This led to a discussion on the need for a debate which focused on nurture rather than competition.

Walter Lippmann’s ‘bewildered herd’ or ‘bewildered masses’ was mentioned and did rather sum up our debate quite well:

Bewildered herd is the masses that are tamed through propaganda and mass media in order that the machinery of democracy is kept properly oiled.

The bewildered masses must be subdued, tamed and injected with the popular opinion of the upper class of politicians, leaders of corporations and others belonging to the elite class of intellectuals and wealthy in order to govern a nation and circumvent any defect in democracy.

The single function of the bewildered masses is to be spectators, not participants, in the democratic nation.

Urban Dictionary

Finally, the Full Facts website was mentioned and asked for it to be linked to this discussion.

Part two was a discussion around ‘is liberalism dead?’ The debate started with someone who had heard a radio programme in which it was revealed that among the 18 – 34 age group, 20% would not vote. However, this did imply that 80% would which is higher than the current level of voter participation in most elections. Perhaps too many choices was a problem it was suggested. Climate change had generated considerable interest and activity among the younger generation and Extinction Rebellion was mentioned.

Was activism stronger in the ’60s say? It certainly seemed to be a time of protest and there was arguably a sense of utopianism. The NUS was strong. Now this seemed to be gone, perhaps a victim of the Brexit saga and people feeling drained. It was also noted that life was easier for young people then with no student fees to pay.

It was noted that social liberalism was quite strong, the acceptance of seat belts and crash helmets wa instanced so maybe there was a need for a more nuanced approach.

There did seem to be a desire for strong leaders to solve their problems. So it was not a question of being anti-liberalism, more a case of looking for competent leadership. The idea a ‘nuture’ surfaced again rather than looking always for a dominant figure. Dictators start with benign intentions but always end up by being totalitarian. Some said we should worry about any dictator claiming ‘I will save the world.’

The idea was put forward of ‘freedom under licence’ ie within the law. But this raised the question of which freedoms and who decides? It also gives the impression of freedoms being granted by the powerful rather than being more fundamental. It is surprising that no one mentioned the UN Declaration or the Human Rights Act in this connection.

The debate got onto the political system and capture by the corporate elites. Millions spent on lobbying and the revolving door corruption was mentioned.

Two interesting debates without any clear conclusions but a lot of useful points made.

 

A dialogue on Buddha

Buddha

AT a recent Salisbury Democracy Café Trevor Wells talked passionately about a book by T R V Murti looking at the central philosophy of Buddhism. I was so fascinated that I bought a copy.  I wrote the following critique and Trevor has kindly responded.  I have included that response below.  Our dialogue continues…

MANY people in the West are interested in the non-religious Buddhism exemplified by Stephen Batchelor in his book Buddhism Without Belief.  More recently writers have been exploring the ways that Buddhist thinking on how the brain forms a model of the world – rather than perceiving it unmediated – chimes with the discoveries of neuroscience.

So, it was with some trepidation that I bought a copy of T R V Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System after it was mentioned during a recent Democracy Café. This a complex book, and trying to boil it down to its essence is not easy. But, basically, Madhyamika claims that critical analysis reveals the inherent flaws and contradictions in every theory that ‘cannot be remedied by attention and adjustment’.  According to Murti, however, the rejection of every view or theory by using the logical tool reductio ad absurdum does not mean the ‘acceptance of any other view’. Indeed, the rejection of all ‘thought categories and views is the rejection of Reason to apprehend reality.  The Real is transcendent to thought’.

The essence of the Madhyamika attitude, according to Murti, is to ‘observe the nature of things without standpoints’.  Hypotheses are useful in the field of science where they can be verified (or falsified) by sense-experience but, argues Murti, the ‘procedure…carries a necessary limit with it’ and the problem with philosophical systems is that they ‘adopt this procedure, but discard the limitations’.  Philosophy is distinguished from scientific procedures because it ‘claims to give absolute certain knowledge’.

The Madhyamika method is to ‘deconstruct the mind’ which leads to the ‘purification of the intellect’ and, ultimately, Intellectual Intuition devoid of the two extremes of the Excluded Middle ‘Is’ and ‘Is not’. Criticism in Madhyamika is not a means to an end, ‘criticism itself is philosophy’. Murti lays great store by the confusion and mystery of causation, space and time, particularly the first.  He points to western philosophers, particularly David Hume, whose scepticism led to Kant being aroused from his metaphysical slumber to come up Transcendental Idealism.  Indeed, Kant receives special treatment as being quite close to Madhyamika, even though he was not ‘genuinely convinced of the possibility of Intellectual Intuition, pure knowledge without the mediation of categories’.

But what is Intellectual Intuition?  Well, according to Murti, it is ‘unfathomable, immeasurable, too deep for words, too universal for distinctions to apply’.  And: “Intuition is the Absolute.”  Then we discover that the Absolute is equated with the Perfect Being or God, and Buddha is deified as such – although there is no restriction on the number and form of Perfect Beings, and every ‘being is Buddha in the making’.

What to make of all this?  Well, one could point out a number of apparent inconsistencies.  For example, much is made of demolishing all existing rational theories, but to do so Madhyamika uses a highly rational tool – reductio ad absurdum.  Again, the avowed aim is to create the concept less mind, and yet the notion of Intellectual Intuition sounds very much like, well, a concept.  And why should Intellectual Intuition fill the void?  Why not Schopenhauer’s undifferentiated and amoral force, which he calls the Will?  Achieving a state of Intellectual Intuition seems to be impossible for most of us but Murti argues that the Perfect Being is able to have one foot in the nouminal and one in the phenomenal to enlighten the rest of us – but how can he do that if, as we have seen, Intellectual Intuition is, literally, ineffable?

One might also challenge some of Murti’s claims about Western philosophy, in particular that it is all in search of the universal. That certainly isn’t true of Hume or Nietzsche, indeed the latter’s philosophy is based on criticism from which emerges the ubermensch, like the Perfect Being, beyond Good and Evil.  And his categorisation of agnosticism is, arguably, another Straw Man when he describes it as an ‘attitude of doubt and despair’.  In fact, the man who coined the word, T H Huxley, expressed it positively as ‘follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as ‘do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’.

This brings us to the heart of the matter.  There is no doubt that Murti would be able to counter all of the criticisms made in this article but perhaps this isn’t the point.  According to Batchelor Buddhism is first and foremost a method – ‘not something to believe in but something to do’.  And we might adopt another logical tool called Biting he Bullet in which one accepts the rather unpalatable consequences of principles which one is unwilling to jettison.  This is exactly what Hume does.  He argued that even if one could not establish a firm foundation of empiricism by using empirical methods without vicious circularity, we nevertheless have a strong intuition (in the everyday sense of the word) that we do live in a world bounded by causation, space and time, even though these categories seem to disappear at the sub-atomic level.  So, given this strong intuition, rather than going down the a priori route, Hume asks how we can be rescued from scepticism.  He should be seen, therefore, not as a sceptical philosopher but as a post-sceptical philosopher.

For myself, I am conflicted by something similar to the duck-rabbit illusion.  One minute I see materialism, the next transcendentalism. For most of the time, however, I try to live my life according to Huxley’s agnosticism and Bite the Bullet with regard to the limitations of reason, seeking an uncomfortable position between the two.

Dickie Bellringer

The essence of the teachings of the Buddha as they present themselves to me are intended to be understood in a non-religious sense. It is important to recognise that the Buddha considered it the height of foolishness and futility to attempt to make either a positive or negative statement with regard to reality.  He therefore disregarded all views as merely views (drsti).

The Buddha makes clear:

To hold that the world is eternal or to hold that it is not, or to agree with any other of the propositions you adduce is the jungle of theorising, the wilderness of theorising, the tangle of theorising, the bondage and shackles of theorising, attended by ill, distress, perturbation and fever; it conduces not to detachment, passionlessness, tranquillity, peace, to knowledge and wisdom of Nirvana.  This is the danger I perceive in these views which makes me discard them all.

The ultimate anti dogmatism.  Views are to be understood as like a raft used to cross the ocean of existence but to be cast away as the useless things they are once having reached the other side.  They have a purpose but are not an end in themselves.  The Buddhist rejects all views as perfunctory. 

This contention also necessarily implies that the criticism of views is not itself a view.  The criticism of all views is the heart of the Madhyamika approach and the basis of its philosophy.  It is recognised and understood that philosophical debate is inescapably circular by its very nature but nevertheless remains purposeful.  As TS Elliot commented:

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began but to know the place for the first time.

Reason and its dialectical mode is functional for everyday subject/object analysis but reality is a priori not subject to anything because it is not objective, it simply is.  Subject and object are one. Whatever reality is it is not subject to analysis by any means reliant on reason to reveal it.  The Buddhist masters were fully aware that language soon fails to provide a meaningful means of exploration. The purpose is to lead the pupil to discover and manifest direct intuitive understanding.  Intuition of the absolute is the absolute.

The master would enter the room of initiates take his position at the head of the class. Hours would pass without a word spoken. The master would finally exit the room turning to the class and uttering ’’Now do you understand’’.

The Excluded Middle is not the result of synthesis as an expression of the resolution of the dialectical approach.  It is not a resolution it is a transcendence of the level of the dilemma and contradiction inherent within reasons function.  The recognition of the inherent conflict in reason itself is the first step to its transcendence.

I like your description of one minute seeing materialism and the next transcendentalism.  Perhaps the momentary glimpse of the transcendent is what is required to give meaning to the material.

Trevor Wells

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

The plight of the partisan

iu

 Prof Lea Ypi

 

white

Prof Jonathan White

 

 

 

 

 

 

POLITICAL partisans have come in for some stick in recent years. Not only do we have to bear insults like being accused of being part of a dying breed or part of a crumbling political system, we often, despite ourselves, end up defending every cock-up committed by our party of choice out of a sense of loyalty to that party and our fellow members. We are told that parties are a menace, people are fed-up with party politics and should be replaced by a non-party system centred on the individual.

But here, at last, is a book that lends succour to the beleaguered party animal. And it does so in a thoroughly academic way and without trying to eliminate reason from the political landscape – as so many tiresome books have of late. As Jonathan White and Lea Ypi write in their 2016 book The Meaning of Partisanship: “One has learnt to be attentive to the travail of parties, and unlearnt how to see the inspiration behind the partisan stance.” The authors quote civil rights activist Angela Davis as saying: “I needed an anchor, a base, a mooring. I needed comrades with whom I could share a common ideology. I was tired of ephemeral ad-hoc groups that fell apart when faced with the slightest difficulty.”

The authors argue that the ‘collaborative effort to turn individual beliefs and interests into generalizable principles and aims that are defined, proclaimed, and pursued in association with others is valuable from a democratic perspective, we have suggested, as it contributes to the processes of political justification without which the exercise of political power is arbitrary’. Of course, we know that there can be problems and none of what the authors argue is a defence of a particular political configuration. In addition, much of the argument against political parties is that they encourage tribalism. All this is true, but the authors add that if the ‘price of their association is a measure of intransigence, the sacrifice of some independence of thought and action, it is a price worth paying in view of the merits of political commitment’.

Those of us who try to ensure that their party remains true to its overall aims also gains some traction in this book. The authors argue, for example, that party structure should not mask its ‘principled position irreducible to sectoral interest alone’ even though ‘there is a real possibility that the organizing process distorts the terms of the association, putting its basis in question’. The authors are at pains to point out that, while it might be necessary from time-to-time to obscure the normative basis of the party, this should be seen as a pathology and should not become the main driver of the party.

Another important aspect of the party is that its structure should give voice to its partisans ‘proportionate to their position in the ethical life of the association’. And given the time and commitment required to effect lasting change, the ‘party structure should preserve the constancy of the partisan project’. The authors also point to the profound scepticism of ‘those who see fundamental transformations in the social and economic structure of contemporary societies as ruling out the possibility of marshalling  large numbers of people to a cause, or of achieving meaningful political change’. But they add that these are ‘challenges of course to democracy and democratic theory tout court‘. And I would add that part of the aim of the partisanship to which I ascribe is to restore the sense of the individual flourishing as part of the collective, as opposed to a lone wolf whose relationship with others is purely transactional.

The Meaning of Partisanship is an important corrective to the common view that party politics is almost entirely destructive. That does not mean that the current duopoly is good in itself or that there might be welcome changes in the fortunes of smaller parties with, say, the introduction of some form proportional representation. But it makes a powerful case for the benefits of action in association with others. The Meaning of Partisanship is published by Oxford University Press.

Dickie Bellringer

 

First Democracy Café in Bemerton Heath

SIX people – including the new Deputy Mayor of Salisbury, Cllr Caroline Corbin – joined a Salisbury Democracy Alliance facilitator for the first Bemerton Heath Democracy Café.

The topics for discussion were chosen by the participants and the first question was: Should we have an unelected leader to deal with climate change? The under-lying assumption here was that our democratic system is unable to cope with the pressing threat that climate change poses to the planet.

One of the problems was how you would choose such a dictator? And if it is true that, as the 19th century politician Lord Acton claimed ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’, how would you ensure that they would serve the country rather than themselves?

After the break the participants chose a topic relating to the extent to which social provision should be provided by the State or charity, which raised several interesting points including the possibility that what is really missing, in the West at least, was a sense of community.

The next democracy café will be held on Saturday 6 July at St Michael’s Community Centre between 10am and 12noon.

Book review

The Political Mind by George Lakoff

So, here we go again! The Political Mind: Why You can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain is yet another book in which the author uses dense reasoning to attack what he falsely believes to be the traditional view of rationality.

The Political Mind was written by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in 2008 and has been followed by a slew of similar attacks on reason that, without any sense of irony, use reason to do so. Lakoff argues that our brains use the logic of framing, prototypes and metaphors to think and if we only understood then progressive politics, would, in a ‘just so’ sort of way, win out. The weird thing about this book, however, is that one can fully accept all of his conclusions about progressive politics and the need to use metaphors etc without accepting any of his science.

For example, he relies heavily on the claim by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga that 98 per cent of what the brain does is unconscious. Even Lakoff acknowledges in a footnote that numbers like these make little sense because one cannot count thoughts. Nevertheless, he writes that the percentage ‘seems about right’. But he then goes on to repeat the figure ad infinitum throughout the book as though it is an unchallengeable fact. It is contestable, however, and not only for the reason that Lakoff provides, but also because it is a quantitative measurement not a qualitative one.

Even supposing we accept the 98-2 per cent split, it may be, as Lakoff acknowledges, that much of unconscious thought is taken up with keeping the body functioning, while the 2 per cent is usefully spent on writing books like The Political Mind and inventing the internet. An analogy might be with the 98 per cent (estimates vary but they are always close to 100 per cent) of our DNA with chimpanzees but that 2 per cent and a few switch genes makes a huge cognitive difference between homo sapiens and chimpanzees – although some might argue of course that it might be better, and less destructive, if we were more like chimps.

Another major problem with this book is that it presents a hopelessly simplified and homogenized version of what he calls ‘The Old Enlightenment’, in which its great 18th century universally privileged rationality to create an over reliance on cold reason. In fact the Enlightenment thinkers held a widely differing positions ranging from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who insisted that ‘reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions’, to Emmanuel Kant who really did privilege reason. Other thinkers like Diderot argued that although the true philosophe was guided by reason, he does seek to eliminate the emotions. Instead he ‘works at not being dominated by them, at benefitting from them, and at making reasonable use of them’. Many thinkers acknowledged that humans are often the ‘slave of the passions’ but thought we should at least try to question ancient ideas and traditions rather than blindly accepting them. In other words, Lakoff is guilty of the straw man facility in which he sets up an argument that doesn’t hold water in order to render is easier to knock down.

Yet another problem is Lakoff’s pathological reliance on the metaphor, which has to do some very heavy lifting. One gets the sense that we literally think in metaphors etc. all the time. “So far we have seen that we think in terms of frames, narratives, metaphors, metonyms, and prototypes.” But it is metaphors that carry the heaviest load. He sees metaphors even when there is one. Conservative attitudes are defined by the strict parent metaphor while progressives are defined by the nurturing parent and so on…and on. Truth only appears once and that is pejoratively when referring to the formal logic of philosophers like Bertrand Russell – although it never occurs to Lakoff that hi book might have benefited from a sprinkling of formal logic.

And you don’t need any of his neuroscience to agree with his final chapter which is a paean to progressive thought, but the irony is that it is written in a literal non-metaphorical way. Metaphors are useful ways of bringing ideas to life. Witness John Donne’s ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’. More prosaically this means, as Lakoff points out in his last chapter, that ‘our brains evolved for empathy, for co-operation, for connection to each other and to earth. We cannot exist alone’. Quite so! It beggars belief that either Lakoff or Donne thought of this truth metaphorically first and then pondered what its literal meaning was. Metaphors in themselves are neutral and their truth or otherwise depend on the ideas they are trying to express.

And what of his conclusion that his naturalistic account leads to what he calls Moral Accounting of which utilitarianism is its non-metaphorical expression? Or that the nurturing parent metaphor leads to non-metaphorical empathy? One of the problems with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that one can always ask whether its conclusions are right. Do altruism and empathy, both of which are said to evolved, always lead to right action? The answer must be ‘no’. One may sacrifice oneself for or have some empathy for a monstrous cause or person. And it is just too pat that his scientific account leads to utilitarianism, conveniently bypassing other normative ethical theories. And is Moral Accounting the only framework for moral decision-making – I think not.

One might agree that the use of metaphors, framing, narratives, metonyms and prototypes are important and that emotions are form an important part of our reasoning without having to give up on the notion of truth. Afterall, we surely believe that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ brilliantly expresses an important truth in a particularly vivid and memorable way – not that the metaphor replaces truth. Framing of truths is an important skill that progressives need to learn but the framing itself should not replace the truth. Shifting public opinion is important in order to re-establish the sort of progressive ideas that fuelled the post-war consensus but this work can equally well, if not better expressed within the notion of the dominant ideology or Gramsci’s idea of hegemony as it can in terms of cognitive linguistics.

There is an element of ‘just so’ about Lakoff’s book. It is all too convenient his neuroscientific just happens to coincide with his progressive politics.

Dickie Bellringer

George Lakoff

Democracy Café

Brief report of the Café which took place on 13 April 2019

Salisbury Democracy Café on Saturday 13 April was packed with new participants as well as many who come every month.

The first question posed was: Are human rights absolute or relative? That generated a fascinating deliberation that touched on the wider question of the nature of ethics in general.

Arguments ranged from those who believed that human rights had to be absolute and unchanging to participants who claimed that because ethical mores shifted over the centuries human rights had to be relative as well.

The idea that moral laws are out there waiting for us to be discovered has a long and distinguished philosophical history, but questions were raised about how they got there in the first place. Divine action was one possible answer but if that failed then one has to ask why a non-divine, materialistic world would begin with immaterial ethical codes waiting for us to discover them. Nevertheless, proponents of absolute human rights were concerned that if they were not absolute, how could they be protected from arbitrary alteration by the rich and powerful?

However, the dialogue took an interesting turn when it was suggested that the use of the words ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ did not accurately reflect the nature of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not necessarily make claim to the absolute but nor are they quite openly relative. Universal simply means that they apply to everyone and the declaration crystalizes them in a way that prevents easy manipulation while allowing justified changes. A point was made about a phenomenon known as Conquest by Declaration in the same way that Google declared, without challenge, that it had the right to plunder our experiences for its own enrichment. It was also pointed out that it was possible to define certain moral positions, like altruism, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, making them objective but neither absolute nor universal.

It was an intriguing dialogue, which got us all thinking about things and asking ourselves more questions in a way the democracy café has unique ability to do.

The second question was: Should Julian Assange by extradited to the USA following his forcible removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy? This was a much more confined deliberation, although it did raise questions about the fairness of the justice systems in the UK and the USA. Nobody challenged the justification of extradition in general but concerns were raised about whether or not Assange would get a fair trial in the USA.

Once again the participants in the democracy café proved their ability and willingness to tackle difficult questions in what has become an ‘oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization’.

Dickie Bellringer

We want to have pop-up cafés in other part of the city in order to give as many people as possible the chance to experience deliberative democracy – so if you know of an organisation that would be open to this please let us know.

The aim of the new Salisbury Democracy Alliance – which is advised by Prof Graham Smith and backed by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Wessex Community Action, deliberative democracy experts Talk Shop and Salisbury Democracy Café – is to create Salisbury’s first Citizens’ Assembly. ocked0

Altruism

WHAT is altruism and what conditions would need to be in place for it to be possible? These are the central questions that the American philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to answer in The Possibility of Altruism.

I have to concede that this is a book that and I have read and re-read many times since I bought it in the 1970s.  It’s 145 pages of densely packed arguments are difficult and there are some passages that are so opaque that I still don’t fully understand them.  Nevertheless, it has had a major impact on the way that I view the world, so, having tussled with again recently, I thought I would share it with you.

It should be said that Nagel does not rely on the argument of some evolutionists – Richard Dawkins included – that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up.  Rather, he uses pure reasoning.

So, what is altruism?  Well, I take it to mean that an act is altruistic if, and only if, it is a disinterested act intended to benefit another or others.  Note that this a weak form of altruism in that it doesn’t require one to help others at the expense of oneself, only that one does not expect to benefit from the act. But even if this is a weak form, it is still significant because it is distinct from altruism’s arch nemesis – egoism.  Nagel argues that we have a ‘direct reason to promote the interests of others – a reason which does not depend on intermediate factors such as one’s own interests or one’s antecedent sentiments of sympathy and benevolence’.

Nagel relies heavily on his two viewpoints, the personal and impersonal – the ability to see oneself as merely one among many. Put simply, he argues that if from a personal – or subjective – viewpoint one has a reason to do something, like relieve a pain in one’s neck or reduce one’s poverty, then from the impersonal – or objective – viewpoint one has a prima facie reason to relieve a pain in someone else’s neck or reduce their poverty.  “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursues an uncomplicated end which we acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue… If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”

It’s important to note that Nagel is not saying that everyone will act altruistically if they have a reason to do so, or that that there are not various situations that ‘may complicate the result when there is a conflict between reasons to help others and reasons to help oneself’.  But he adds ‘even if we allow for these possibilities, the acknowledgement of prima facie reasons to help others is a significant result’. Indeed it is!  For it destroys the egoistic position that everything one does is in one’s own interests.  And this is just as well because earlier in this remarkable little book  Nagel demonstrates how ‘peculiar egoism would be in practice; it would have to show itself not only in the lack of a direct concern for others but also an inability to regard one’s own concerns as being of interest to anyone else, except instrumentally or contingently upon the operation of some sentiment’. He provides a lively example the absurdity of the egoist’s position: “The pain which gives him a reason to remove his gouty toes from another person’s heel does not in itself give the other any reason to remove the heel, since it is not his pain.”

If Nagel’s arguments carry any weight – as I believe they do – then they are an important antidote to the self-interested individualism that runs through the neoliberal project.  As such the neglected The Possibility of Altruism and its equally neglected companion book The View from Nowhere, also by Nagel (published by Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press respectively) deserve to be revived.

Dickie Bellringer