Democracy Café on 12 October

THE resumption of the democracy café after a short break attracted 18 people to deliberate on two weighty subjects.

The first topic chosen by the participants firstly asked whether the pressure on personal choice in relation to climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the petrochemical industry designed to deflect attention from the fact that the real problem lay with it. The second part of the question asked how we were complicit in the unsustainability of our way of life.

At the heart of this topic was the claim that the industries were claiming the moral high ground by making us feel guilty for our actions while at the same time claiming that they were part of the solution, not the problem as such. The point was made that those who campaign for action on climate change are often accused of being hypocrites because they drive a car or fly from time-to-time. A classic example was Piers Morgan who repeatedly asked a members of Extinction Rebellion if she had a television. This, it was suggested, was part of a wider tactic often used by populists in a range of scenarios that seeks to show if you can’t prove that you are not a hypocrite then you must be one.

Not everyone was convinced by the central claim, however, arguing that incremental changes could make a difference. An example was given of a recent story about an ordinary chess player taking on a grandmaster. While the ordinary player could only think two or three moves ahead, the grandmaster could think 10 or more moves ahead, so had an obvious advantage. When asked how he could improve his game, the grandmaster said that instead of thinking tactically or strategically, think positionally. In other words a move that improved ones current position would help your overall play.

Another suggestion was that incremental changes made by individuals could help to change the momentum of change over the years. An interesting argument revolved around the idea that you needed to create the right economic, political and regulatory framework to enable individuals and the petrochemical industries to make the right choices – and as part of this thread the ideas behind nudge-theory were mentioned. There was some scepticism about creating the right political environment because, it was suggested, MPs wouldn’t be selected to stand for election in the first place unless they already held certain entrenched views, including those on climate change.

Another thread in the deliberation revolved around whether or not it was right for the UK to take unilateral action on climate change when the rest of the world didn’t, although this was countered by the examples of Germany and Scandinavian countries which were, it was claimed, already far ahead of the UK in developing sustainable energy.

After the break the café changed the subject to transhumanism, the process by which humanity can be, or maybe in the future, augmented physically and mentally by technology and genetic engineering. The question arose following two BBC Four documentaries about eugenics, which pointed out that eugenic ideology – the idea that you should ‘improve’ the gene pool by encouraging the breeding of people considered to have desirable traits and discourage breeding of those considered to have undesirable traits – actually started in Victorian Britain.

There are, or course, many problems with transhumanism, particularly with instrumental arguments relating to the undesirability of eugenics and, as far as mental improvement is concerned, the problem of defining intelligence. However, the question was couched in terms of a thought experiment in which the participants were asked to imagine that transhumanism would not be used to further eugenic ideology and that we were able to define intelligence. The aim was to find out whether transhumanism in itself and without any side issues, was a development that we should welcome. However, there was widespread scepticism about the validity of the thought experiment and whether you could indeed separate transhumanism from questions about eugenics and intelligence. It was argued that you could not separate these ideas from a sense of subjective superiority inherent Western liberal culture. And the thought experiment itself was symptomatic of that very subjective superiority.

Another argument was that even if, as suggested in the question, the technology for transhumanism was freely available to everyone, there would still be pressures on people that would impact on their personal choice. And although it was suggested that that genetic engineering could be beneficial in curing congenital diseases, it was impossible not to be concerned about the possible misuse of the technology for eugenic ends.

It was suggested that once the technology was out of the bag you couldn’t put it back in, but it was pointed out that there was a national bioethics committee that did make judgements on these sorts of questions.

Yet another strand in this deliberation related to disability, which was one of the central issues raised during the BBC documentaries with the chilling implication that physical and mental disability was in some way undesirable. No-one in the café thought this was a good idea and, indeed, it was pointed out that in many cases disabled people claimed a uniqueness and a valuable view of life that was unavailable to able-bodied people. A classic example of this is the Deaf Community, which has a distinctive and valuable culture of its own that, it argues, should be valued in its own right. Underlying this question was the more fundamental one of who decides what is good or bad, which brought us back to the point earlier about the pressures that individuals might be under to choose a particular ‘improvement’ which might in some future society no longer be seen as an improvement.

At the end of the session we decided to have a vote on who would choose to be immortal. In all 12 voted no, two yes and two don’t know. After the vote it was asked whether people might change their vote if they knew they were going to die tomorrow!

The plight of the partisan

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 Prof Lea Ypi

 

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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

 

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