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January 31, 2010


Larry Teabag

No, no, no. Regards to the Iraq war, the only significant question is whether Blair, and those who supported him, meant well. Everything else is secondary, especially the footling detail of whether or not things turned out well.

Paul Sagar


It matters to me whether you really believed that stuff about sterilisation (though personally I always thought it was fairly clearly a tongue-in-cheek dig at the right), because I often enjoy what you say, identify with it, and want to make common cause with you intellectualy.

So if it turns out that you were to support, say, enforced sterilisation of the underclass, or the gassing of ethnic minorities, that would really matter to me. It would make me suspect of the motivations of your arguments, and suspicious that any arguments you later come out with reveal premises or attitudes that I want to distance myself from on political and/or ethical grounds.

Which, if you think about it, is quite normal human behaviour - not a product of capitalism.

And I don't know what you're doing citing the 18th Century as a time when personal and private persons were clearly distinct. Adam Smith and David Hume both wrote lengthy treatises about how emotional sympathising with those we perceive ourselves to share common cause with are at the heart of our ethical and political engagements, and how the only evidence we have for other people's intentions and sympathies towards us are expressed in their outward performances - which includes e.g. their political statements.

So I see it as quite healthy to be concerned, at some level, with whether you really want to do horrible things to other people or not.

Now, this is a world away from something else: the trivialising of national politics to the point where actual policy is irrelevant and all that matters is (fake, manufactured) personality projected via a spin machine.

So you can't just collapse the two together.

But notice also: at some level it seems correct to want to know whether our politicians really believe what they say - witness David Cameron; does he really believe that millionaires deserve tax breaks, or was it just a 2007-non-election ploy? The answer matters. And it matters for good reasons above "the cult of the individual"; e.g. it tells us what kind of a person Cameron is, and what kind of things he's likely to do with power.

We are not disembodied spectres, cleanly separated from our intellectual positions. And a damn good and helpful thing that is, too.


I'm not sure I agree with you about the atheism/religion debate. My impression is that it's come to prominence so much over recent years because religion has been so apparent in world affairs, with groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda who - while surely motivated by geo-political issues as well - at very least use the language and trappings of religion as justification and motivation, the neo-conservative movement in the US under Bush, in particular (promoting abstinence-only sex education, opposition to abortion and stem cell research, the teaching of Intelligent Design), and also, in Tony Blair, one of the most outwardly religious British PMs in quite some time. Secularists and athiests are obviously going to respond to such pressures.

chris c

No, the issue of Blair's honesty is paramount - largely because whatever your view of Saddam or the war, if you have to lie to get people to do what you want then your cause can't have been all that moral or 'right' in the first place.


Agree with a lot of that (Note to self: must read that book you keep referring to) but don't agree with 'culture wars' point. Isn't this a by-product of the collapse of ideology? People argue about 'family values' and shit because they don't want an economic argument? Don't agree about the religion versus secularism either. Why is this debate so lively? Because we thought the matter was settled but in recent years we've been confronted with a revival of religiously-minded people who have political ambitions. Also, aren't you making the same mistake you criticise in your post? Who cares how egotistical Hitchens and Dawkins are? What matters are the quality of their arguments.


Blair's lies matter because the war was sold (in part) on the following grounds:

"I Blair have seen super-secret intelligence. I cannot show you the reports because it would endanger the lives of our noble MI6 people to do so, but I promise you that those reports make an irrefutable case for war!"

In order to improve our democratic system to reduce the likelihood of this happening again, it is necessary to make a song and dance about the fact that Blair lied, so that we may actually get some extra safeguards on the use of intelligence reports to justify government activity.

(You can argue about how effect various proposed safeguards would be, but that's a different debate.)


So you don't distinguish between 1 and 2, and 3 and 4 in these four scenarios?:

1. Blair calls for the invasion of Iraq. And In his own private thoughts he knows it to be the right thing to do.
2. Blair calls for the invasion of Iraq. But in his own private thoughts he knows it to be the wrong thing to do.
3. Blair opposes the American invasion of Iraq. And in his own private thoughts he knows it to be the right thing to do.
4. Blair opposes the American invasion of Iraq. But in his own private thoughts he knows it to be the wrong thing to do.

Surely moral culpability has to take into account intentions?


Oh and Chris, this thought process would mean that for you, murder and manslaughter are equally wrong. Is that what you really think?


Alex - there is another possibility. Blair believes the invasion of Iraq is right, but knows he cannot convince people honestly, because they have irrational prejudices - say, the belief that foreigners' freedom counts for nothing relative to British lives - so he lies about a threat to the UK in order to achieve a greater good.
In principle - and certainly in utilitarian reasoning - this is OK. After all, we lie all the time to make life easy for ourselves and others: "You're doing a great job", "I love you", "you'll be fine."
Where this example falls down is that the war is thought not to be a greater good at all.
This example should take care of Alex's point about intent: we can lie with good intentions.


Paul - your key phrase here is that you "want to make common cause with [me] intellectually."
This, I think, is why the revelation of personality matters; we are looking for a form of community. Yes, this is a natural human desire, but it might be exacerbated by the fact that capitalism - and its bastard child social mobility - has broken down other forms of community.
It might be that this shows a flaw in the liberal/scientific ideal - that disembodied ideas separate from individuals are not so desirable after all.

Paul Sagar

Bit of a straw man liberalism you have going on there. And that's coming from someone who's increasingly moving in the direction of 'left republicanism' away from liberal egalitarianism.

Liberals of any sense have never held human beings to be socially-transcendent atoms of analysis, disembodied wraiths of rational self interest, or whatever. And there's a big difference between 'liberalism' and 'capitalism', whatever those big complicated words might be taken to mean.


Paul - if it's a straw man, it's not one of my own invention: I'm lifting it straight from Michael Sandel.
And is it a straw man? The tagline to my blog (inspired by AJP Taylor's quip that he had strong views but weakly held) hints that views can separableish from our core identity, if indeed there is such a thing.
And of course capitalism and liberalism are two different things - I'd never say differently.

Paul Sagar

Yes, Sandel is generally taken to have failed pretty desperately in his attack on Rawls.

His interpretation is about 25 years out of date, and nobody really takes it seriously anymore.

There's problems with (Rawlsian) liberalism, to be sure. But they're much more compicated than Sandel's line of attach.

A good, brief overview of what's wrong with Sandel's criticisms is provided in the book "Liberals and Communitarians" by Adam Swift and Stephen Mulhall. It's only a "text book" kind of analysis, but it does a fairly good job re what's wrong with Sandel's critique of liberalism.


The mixing of propositions with personality?
It's all part of the feminisation of public life. (I'm may not actually believe that myself, you understand.)


I get the impression that we're undervaluing the imporatance of stories (or naratives) to human social and psycological life. naratives are important because they are a (the?) central mechanism through which people make sense of the world.

The proposition that 'what matters is reasoning and evidence, not what I believe' is only sensible within the context of the enlightenment narative - that we can and should rationally arrive at optimum utility outcomes. In practice, however, there are numerous alternative naratives that compete with this enlightenment narative - that it is important for people to fulfil societal expectations of behaviour like being straight about important decisions or not copping off with your best friend's girlfirend etc. We can't begin to agree on the substance of an issue until we have agreed on the hierarchy of naratives that frame that issue.

John Terry's Mum

Larry Teabag sez:
"Regards to the Iraq war, the only significant question is whether Blair, and those who supported him, meant well.

This is meaningless.
He could mean well, by wanting to make George Bush happy. for example.



"we can lie with good intentions."

Yes *we* can, as ordinary people going about our lives, but politicians should be held to a higher standard because they are more powerful.

As they are more powerful the consequences when they implement bad ideas are vastly greater.

And the fact that Blair lied is entirely relevant to the question of whether the Iraq War was a good idea or not - if it had been a good idea he wouldn't have had to lie to persuade Parliament to vote in favour of it.

"Blair believes the invasion of Iraq is right, but knows he cannot convince people honestly, because they have irrational prejudices - say, the belief that foreigners' freedom counts for nothing relative to British lives"

But this assumes that all criticisms of the idea of going to war were based on a preference for keeping British soldiers safe vs. freedom for Iraqis.

There were many before the war that said: "this war will result in the deaths of many British soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians and will not necessarily increase the freedom of the Iraqi people."

And it turns out they were right.


"we can lie with good intentions"

And we can lie with bad intentions and tell the truth with good intentions. Do you not see any moral difference?


Perhaps it's just that society has realised that experts and politicians who claim to be driven by rationalism sometimes use this as a shield for their ideas and beliefs (or, cognitive biases!). Having a strong 'sense' of distinction between public and private life didn't mean there was an actual distinction.

Plus, as well as ego stroking isn't Eagletons' criticism of Dawkins also a criticism of the narcissism of rationalism?

As for Blair lying (and to somewhat repeat the point made by Teedji) it matters because if he lied and convinced people to support the war with a lie then it may not have been a war that was in the national interest (assuming national interest is not just something to be decided by an individual leader). If it as in the shared national interest, why the need to lie about it?

Still, I don't think he lied because his beliefs about threat (largely unsupported by empirical evidence) were exactly that - beliefs.

If there is anyone that should make us place as much weight in what someone believes as much as and empirical and reasoned argument, it's a character like Tony Blair.

alanm crisps

It is a short cut. That's why we need to believe a person as much as the idea.

So I don't have to work everything out for myself.

If someone's arguments have been consistant the last nine times (whtehr I agree or not isn't relevant). I can save time by listinging to their 10th opinion with that frame of mind.

It's rational. Time saving.

Big Fez

"We think of the modern, post-Enlightenment era as being defined by liberalism and the scientific method. But these have in common the belief that propositions are separate from the individual - that the individual is a disembodied subject distinct from his beliefs. However, our public life effaces this distinction, whereas - as Sennett pointed out - people in the 17th and 18th century had a strong sense of a distinction between the public and private person."

I'm not sure our public life 'effaces this distinction' so much as highly values one side while ignoring the other. Which approach is obviously quite commensurate with liberal individualism.

Just because 'we think of our era' as being definied by those two things (and do we?) doesn't mean we have to place too much emphasis on the overlap between them. It would surely not be surprising if the tensions between the scientific method and liberalism were more interesting than what they have in common.




You are all idiots...sincerely :

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