Posted by J Russell
I sit typing with a temporarily broken body – the heat seems to be playing havoc with various parts of me – but I am sure I will be renewed in the morning. Meanwhile, my mind won’t quite switch off, so here’s the opposite of a screen dump: rather than taking words off the screen, I am dumping some onto it. Very therapeutic.
Nb What follows are the somewhat incoherent ramblings of someone with a fever. I’ve tried to un muddy the waters a little, but once they are stirred up, they tend to stay cloudy for some time…
Since March I have been doing an excellent e-learning course at edX. The courses are put together by some of the best university’s in the United States, are free, and are well worth checking out. They aren’t as easy as one might think free learning would be; in their own words, they are rigorous. My course, Social Justice, was delivered by filmed lectures from Harvard by the excellent and engaging Professor Sandel – sometimes heard over here on BBC Radio 4 in The Public Philosopher.
The syllabus covered moral, ethical and social thought over the ages and looked at philosophers as diverse as Aristotle and Nozick. The latter – an American libertarian – drove me slightly nuts. What has occurred to me now I’ve finished all the reading and so on is that so many philosophers come along to modify, or improve in their minds, the last lots’ ideas. The problem is with that approach is that if the original theory is flawed, the correction can amplify the flaw. Take Jeremy Bentham and his idea about utilitarianism – namely actions that create the greatest good (pleasure) for the most people is the right thing to do. When examined, this philosophy allows for all kinds of exploitative situations to exist e.g. slavery and clearly does not stand up to much scrutiny. So, John Stuart Mills came along with a dustpan and brush to tidy the theory up. He said that it was not any old pleasure per se that should be promoted – there was a test to decide which was the most worthy pleasure:the highest pleasure is the one that most people would choose if they experienced more than one. There are however all kinds of problems with that as Professor Sandel pointed out; one being that it that were so most people would stay home and play video games than go out and watch Shakespeare… Oh hold on, they do.
All this is relevant today because England seems to be in the grip of a utilitarian government, and if I didn’t like them before I did the course, I like them even less now. It’s because I can now start to better articulate their philosophy which is a lot like Bentham’s with a John Stuart Mills cherry on top – they simply work for what they believe is the greater good. And the greater good is usually interpreted through their experience of life (Gove’s grammar school anyone?) We have seen from Bentham, the greater good can turn out to be morally flawed and socially unjust. You can roll a turd in glitter, as a pop philosopher might say, but it remains a turd.
Anyway, to achieve the so-called greater good, the government use the media to manipulate the majority – you might be in it now. And they sacrifice the various minorities – you’ll probably fall into one, one day – through sickness, or age, or another circumstance that life throws at you. And that’s really the point of social justice: that our thought processes should not be harking back to Jeremy Bentham’s erroneous and self-serving thinking in the 18th century; that our society, if it is to be truly just, needs a different philosophical model. And what annoys me intensely, now I’ve come to think of it, is that the people in charge of our country are bad thinkers of other people’s thoughts – that is if they are really thinkers at all and not just spinners of tall tales. (Gove and the Mr Men anyone?)
A bad philosophy creates bad models of thought and models are basically what government and society is run on. Bad thought creates suffering for the minority – and most of us will end up in a minority at some point – if only for a while. If we only could, we should work more along the thought lines of Immanuel Kant – a German contemporary of Bentham. Kant is very complicated, but the theory that I thought would probably work the best as the basis for any just society was the philosophy that if we use pure reason, e.g. remove all personally contingent factors when trying to decide what the just thing to do is, and we respect the principle that all people are an end in themselves e.g. not for exploitation or use by another. With that sort of model for society and individuals in the mix perhaps we could create an equal and humanitarian world for the benefit of us all.
If you’ve made it this far – well done. I nearly didn’t myself.