Ted Honderich is one of Britain’s leading philosophers. Emeritus professor at the University of London, chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and literary executor to the late A J Ayer, he has produced many publications, including “Terrorism for Humanity”, “Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?” and “On Consciousness”. He has had his books banned in Germany, been escorted to deliver lectures by riot police, gone on ban-the-bomb marches with Bertrand Russell, and was an occasional speechwriter for Neil Kinnock.
Here, in an exclusive essay for Newstatesman.com, he considers the nature of liberalism and conservatism, and finds the first “indeterminate and irresolute” and the second lacking in any “principle at all to defend its self-interest”. It is time, he argues, for us to take to the streets and demand, like the Puritan leader Thomas Rainsborough, that the coalition accept that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he”. Sholto Byrnes
Ted Honderich, “What is fair in a society?”
John Stuart Mill, proud of his logic, gave liberalism’s 1859 answer, maybe the answer of Britain’s Liberal Democrats today. He gave it in his principle of state intervention in his essay “On Liberty”. The principle was that the state is to intervene in the lives of citizens not to help them, but only to prevent them from causing harm to one another. Then Mill didn’t say what harm is, say whether bankers can do it. Nor did he say in his essay “Utilitarianism”, where vagueness about unhappiness and happiness went with an obscure paean to individualism. The vagueness and obscurity helped conceal the fact evident in clearer utilitarianisms, such as Jeremy Bentham’s, that they justify having a slave class in a society if that does in fact produce the greatest total of happiness or satisfaction for the society.
John Rawls of Harvard gave us liberalism’s 1971 answer to the question of what is fair in a society. What is fair is what is in accordance with the social contract we would make if we didn’t know where we were going to turn out to be personally in a society to come – and if we believed what are deceptively called general facts, say about the benefits of what is called liberty in a society. We, with those all-American beliefs, so innocent and so manufactured, would choose a society where a kind of liberty trumps any equality. That liberty makes of little worth the recommendation of a vaunted principle of equality to the effect that inequalities are all right so long as they can be pretended to be in the interest of the badly off. All of which stuff is oblivious of the truth that fundamental liberty is one thing with equality, oblivious of the illustrative fact that if you and I are in conflict, and unequal in that I have a gun, your liberty reduces to zero.
Liberalism, you can therefore kindly think, as I myself maybe still do, is indeterminate and irresolute. It is at best decent moral impulses, a little conscience, at odds with self-concern, the latter being visibly to the fore in a pinch, say the forming of a coalition government, and less visibly before then. Maybe that is too tolerant a view of liberalism, too kind. It looks that way in England just now.
What is the tradition of conservatism’s answer to the question of what is fair in a society? Its answers abound. Resisting change, being for so-called reforms, being against mere theory, respecting human nature, being for self-serving freedoms, less democratic government, the organic society, being against equality – and for the pretence of indubitable economics, wholly spurious necessities.
None of those ideas and no bundle of them, examined in itself or considered in terms of the history of conservatism, is in sight of being an articulable and consistent candidate for a general principle of fairness. No book on conservatism since Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France comes near to doing anything to improve on the vacuity which Burke fills only with social condescension to barbers and with pomp in support of his “natural aristocracy”.
No Conservative thinking, to take a step against the cant of this moment, and to name the actual subject in hand, has offered a general principle of what is right in society that is worth attention. There are only pieces of public relations. Mill’s verdict on conservatism as the stupid party or perhaps the stupidest party was not merely abuse but comprehensible.
Conservatism, to come to my own view of it, is not overwhelmingly more self-interested than any other political tradition. Conservatism, as one or two Americans have admitted, is unique in something else. It is the political tradition that has no general principle at all to defend its self-interest. It therefore has nothing to save it from self-interest and in particular from the self-deception in which it lives and breathes.
But there is an answer to the question of what is fair in a society. An answer exists. You believe it, I think. It is a kind of common decency. You can suppose it has been the principle of the left in politics when the left has not been confused or worse.
It is that we should take all rational means to a certain end – means that actually serve the end and will not be self-defeating. The end is the clearly definable one of getting and keeping people out of bad lives. Those are lives of deprivation with respect to the great human goods, the great desires of human nature. They are, in my list, longer lives, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, relationships, and the goods of culture. There is none of the tripe of metaphor here. Nothing of the spuriousness and smell of Cameron’s “big society”. Note, too, that the aim is not equality but good lives, whatever goes with them.
This fairness, which can have the name the “Principle of Humanity”, is more arguable than anything else going. It is in operation whenever our lower or vicious selves are not in an ascendancy. It is what we have most confident recourse to in defending our own self-interest in our own lives. It flows from our great desires and the rationality of our natures that is our having reasons, these necessarily being general.
The principle’s commitment to means-end rationality with respect to its end issues in, among other things, an abhorrence of the revolution and terrorism, whose irrationality is not reduced by taking into account that that irrationality is owed mainly to the anticipation of culpable resistance to it. If the principle’s consequences, what follows from it in terms of policy and action, are more difficult to judge than the greatness of the principle itself, they are entirely clearer than whatever passes for a summation of the mere ideologies of liberalism and conservatism.
Think now of the Conservative and Liberal coalition government which governs Britain now. It happens to be a three-part coalition, made up of conservatism, liberalism, and the petty careerism and the level of moral intelligence that has since 1979 or 1997 defined our entire political class, certainly its membership in the New Labour Party. Perhaps Ed Miliband will lead our politics back towards a clarity and decency, by way of the Labour Party as distinct from the New Labour Party. Perhaps he can do something with our merely hierarchic democracy.
The coalition government is true to its inherited natures, the natures of liberalism and conservativism. To these it adds the spirits of dim and pushy boys and of an economist, an economist from Shell still holding up his head, all led by a public relations man. The coalition says and says again and again that it is fair. Its policies are fair, fair, fair. Repetition is truth.
It is already committed to, and will produce despite tactical qualifications anticipated from the beginning, one thing. It will produce a farce of fairness.
The inanity of thinking or hoping that what is in prospect is not a farce of fairness, of contemplating that possibility for half a minute, should not survive the reading any day of what has a right to the name of being a newspaper of intelligence, one of the two or three in England. What you have from the Guardian today is a confirmation of any clear thinking on the traditions of conservatism and liberalism.
We hear, in this time of economic emergency, of still increasing executive pay. Some boss of something called Reckitt-Benckiser, “a global force in household, health and personal care”, notably air-fresheners and hair-removers, is now paid £92,596,160 a year. There is more information in the newspaper on the victimised end of English society, too – of the “social cleansing” of London by reducing the welfare benefits of the poor and disabled, excused by way of vicious redescriptions of them and mindless comparisons.
The Principle of Humanity calls right now for the most effective forms of speech and argument against this farce of fairness. That question of expression, a question for me and for you, is not easy. It arises, of course, well before there is any question of incitement. What is rational with respect to the place and use of feeling in speech and argument, of condemnation, against what is vile from the point of view of the Principle of Humanity, from the point of view of a humanity? Other things are clearer.
It is clearer that the Principle of Humanity now calls for strikes. It calls for strikes in defence of homes. It calls for strikes in defence of schools and universities. It calls for strikes in defence of local government. It calls, even, for strikes in defence of what institution of justice we have. It calls, no doubt, for a general strike.
It calls, too, for a political economics worth the name. That would tell us what is certainly possible, the extent to which the political power and influence of the top decile in terms of wealth and income is more than a thousand times that of the bottom decile. This economics, too, so far from the economics of Shell, would bring public and private income, public and private expenditure, public and private waste, into sharp definition. It would be one that measures who benefits from all the institutions of society, say the institution of justice, for a start.
It calls, too, as importantly, for civil disobedience, and mass civil disobedience. It calls, in particular, for gestures of civil disobedience, of course non-violent and including what Rawls was keen on, acceptance of the penalty for the disobedience. Maybe a gesture in Parliament Square now by a British army colonel who remembers the holy words of a predecessor, Colonel Rainsborough, in the English civil ear.
Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.
Our colonel could park his tank there in Parliament Square for a while, until the television cameras turn up, before going back to barracks to accept the penalty for his civil and other disobedience.
Among Ted Honderich’s books are “On Political Means and Social Ends” (Edinburgh University Press) and “Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?” (Pluto Press)