Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Thinking Man's Tory

TPM have a fascinating interview with British politician and philosopher Oliver Letwin. I wish we had politicians like that here in New Zealand. Consider his remarks about social justice:
I think the main question we need to be addressing is how we can have a society in which people grow up to be the kind of people that we would all like to be. That isn't the way it's often put, but it's my view of what it means to live in a socially just society. To my mind, something has gone very wrong – so we're doing a great social injustice – if there are people growing up to be the kind of people we wouldn't like to be: people who find themselves with chaotic lifestyles which they can't control and which drive them to despair and suicide; people who are oppressed by a lack of ability to control their world and deal with it; people who are deprived of culturally rich existence: all these things seem to me profound social injustices.

Some of them have to do with material prosperity, although that's never a guarantee of getting where I want people to be able to get to; nor is its absence a guarantee of not being able to get people where I want people to be able to get to. There are relationships, but it isn't the case that they should be conceived as a sort of mechanical operation for making sure that everybody has enough money, or for making sure that nobody is attacked by a burglar. It's something much deeper than either of those.

More specifically:
I think there is at the moment a paradox that certain kinds of activity where it would be better if they were freer are more constrained; and other kinds of things where it would better if there were more social support or where social solidarity has been left to decline. For example, we live in a society where there is a huge aversion to risk. There is a colossal amount of regulation designed to minimise risk, I think to an extent which is impeding excellence, exuberance, cultural richness and so on. On the other side, people are growing up in circumstances where they are cruelly deprived of the emotional support that a human being needs in order to live the kind of life that many of us want to lead. This is a particularly intrusive state in some respects and a particularly thin society in other respects.

These are remarkably respectable ideals, especially for a conservative. (I'm used to just hearing them demand tax cuts and rail against gays.) Though he's a bit thin on details, so maybe he'd implement these ideals in a less agreeable fashion. Regardless, it's nice to hear a conservative talking about human well-being for once -- I was beginning to think it was an exclusively left-wing concern. It would be nice if these concerns would permeate the broader public discourse, focusing our attention on the crucial question of how to realise our shared values, i.e. of enabling humanity to lead flourishing lives. This is the challenge for politics, but it's so easily lost in the daily bustle and scandals of partisan politicking.

He also makes a nice point about how philosophy can be important for raising the level of political discourse:
As I see it, the biggest single problem of democracy in Britain today is the level of political discourse rather than the substance of the positions taken... I don't think this is unique to philosophy, but I think that any serious immersion in a serious academic discipline leads people to learn habits of thought that tend to raise levels of discourse. Philosophy is perhaps particularly well adapted to that because it is about thinking about matters of great complexity. That's a particularly good thing for talking about politics in a dispassionate, rational, careful fashion, which helps. It doesn't get the whole way to any answer, but it helps.


  1. Letwin's mother, Shirley, wrote some interesting works of political philosophy in her own right (and studied under both Hayeck and Oakeshott, if you care erabout such things) and I treasure my copy of her 'The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct'. It's easy to mock the American Anglophile - both Letwins settled in the UK in the late 40's - but this book is very hard to laugh at.

  2. Based on Letwin's example, one could be tempted to believe that there should be more philosophers in politics. Unfortunately, there is a counter-example: Marcello Pera, once a dialectical philosopher of science who is now President of the Italian Senate, representing the lunatic right-wing fringe and apparently a good friend of the new Pope. Writing good philosophy, it seems, does not make one immune to gay-bashing and tax-cutting.


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