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From ‘How’ to ‘What’ in Politics

Frank Armstrong writes: Even with the current “consensus” mood music, debate in Dáil Éireann is still peppered with cheap ad hominem shots; playing the man and not the ball in the argot of the political insider. This extends to criticism of a party over a party position. Thus Sinn Féin cannot comment on social exclusion without being reminded of punishment beatings, while Fine Gael is blackened as the party of austerity and Fianna Fáil as the ones who handed away our sovereignty. The public are even more bored by this than TDs themselves, who, notoriously, don’t show up for debates.

When we do take notice of Leinster House it is usually to something that has become a social media phenomenon, such as Danny Healy-Rae invoking God’s will to explain climate change, or the measured valedictory address with appropriate Shakespearian quotation.

It is even worse in the UK, where they contend with the Punch and Judy show of prime minister’s question time, where each prize cock from the two main parties is supposed to draw blood or be deemed a failure by the press corps.

This divisiveness has its origins in the hectoring training ground of student debating, and the background of many politicians in an adversarial legal system. It is problematic in numerous ways, favouring dishonesty and allowing serious questions to be dodged. Most damningly it discourages involvement in politics.

Interestingly, in the fledgling state of Scotland measures are being proposed to curb unseemly bickering. In an article for Reform Scotland, the barrister and mediator John Sturrock formulates: “A Better Environment for Policy-Making”.

Sturrock suggests that “[c]ontemporary politics is perceived by many to be polarising, positional, parochial, unnecessarily partisan, antagonistic and often unhelpfully adversarial”. This results from its being perceived as a zero-sum game between winners and losers. “Such thinking,” he says, “can be inimical to achieving maximum economic and social performance and use of scarce resources, especially in an uncertain, ambiguous and complex world.”

He alludes to an essay by Vaclav Havel entitled “Politics, Morality and Civility”, in which the playwright and former Czech president argued that commercial activity also depended on civility. This makes sense as rather than being a winner-takes-all exchange, any enterprise is ultimately grounded in a wider ecology of interdependence; although the behaviour of some large corporations would suggest otherwise.

Sturrock makes the following proposals: “show respect and courtesy towards all those who are engaged in these discussions, whatever views they hold; acknowledge that there are many differing, deeply held and valid points of view; use language carefully and avoid personal or other remarks which might cause unnecessary offence; listen carefully to all points of view and seek fully to understand what concerns and motivates those with differing views from our own; ask questions for clarification and when we may not understand what others are saying or proposing; express our own views clearly and honestly with transparency about our motives and our interests; respond to questions asked of us with clarity and openness and, whenever we can, with credible information; look for common ground and shared interests at all times.”

Most of these points seem eminently sensible. The import of the second point, however, requires appraisal. Should we really accept all points of view as “valid”? Is it possible to accept, given the accumulation of evidence and the urgency of the issue, that a changing climate is the product of God’s will independent of human agency (and free will)? And are we willing to tolerate the espousal of racial science as a “valid point of view”? Considering the urgency of the issue, and the almost complete consensus of expert opinion, we might also constrain the expression of the view that human agency has no bearing on climate change, at least via the national broadcaster, and even in the national parliament. Similarly, the espousal of “racial science” is now simply unacceptable considering the damage this ideology has caused. Thus a democracy can impose constraints on free speech based on historical experience (the legacy of Nazism), or the urgency of confronting a problem (in climate change), without being mired in fallacious and self-serving conspiracy theories.

Moreover, a constitution may also contain core injunctive precepts around what a community considers it to be necessary for politics to accomplish. So, while accepting that how debate is conducted is important for the rational pursuit of political ends, I submit the caveat that shared norms, which bind a community, are also essential. Otherwise we may encounter the kind of debate that has hobbled American politics for a generation. Broadly, this is the ideological division between the “liberal” approach of John Rawls, and the libertarianism of Robert Nozick.

Briefly, Rawls justifies redistribution of wealth by allusion to a hypothetical rational agent “situated behind a veil of ignorance”. This fictional character cannot know the place he occupies in the social structure and must decide the kind of society he would favour. Logically, in these circumstances Rawls argues that he will favour a just distribution of resources favouring the disadvantaged. But he ignores any provision for desert, and so social democracy is susceptible to the charge that malingerers – “welfare cheats” as the tabloids scream – will take advantage of the industry and ingenuity of others. Importantly, Rawls appeals to individualism rather than the idea of compassion in a community.

Nozick takes a divergent, but similarly individualistic tack, arguing from the proposition that “if the world were to be wholly just”, the only people entitled to anything would be those who had justly acquired what they held by some act of original acquisition. Of course this ignores how in most countries, including the United States, resources and territory were unjustly expropriated after conquests. But this has not prevented this idea from holding sway with many, if not most, ideologues of the Republican Party since the 1970s.

As an aside, Steve Bannon’s economic nationalism, which has been adopted by President Trump, represents a challenge to Republican orthodoxy. It harks back to the Eisenhower era’s development of a state-funded military industrial complex, and even Roosevelt’s New Deal. Thus the current pursuit of vendettas against the Democratic Party may be a distraction from the real blood-letting that may ensue within the Republican Party when “ordinary working Americans” are compelled to pay for state subsidies to ailing industries.

Returning to the question of what politics should endeavour to bring about, it is necessary to revisit the birth of philosophy itself in the Athens of the fourth and fifth century BC. At the beginning of that period, under the demagogue Pericles, democratic Athens sought dominance over other Greek city-states, leading to the self-immolation of the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC).

At that time Athenians measured their achievements and that of their polity against the heroes of Homer’s epics. According to Alasdair MacIntyre: “Homeric heroes and some of their later Greek heirs characteristically valued above all that form of prestige which consists in being honoured and famous in one’s lifetime and after one’s death.” This thirst for glory invites risk-taking where the individual, and by extension the state, tests his credentials in warfare. But this approach was epic and failed to confront the hubris of tragedy.

Despairing at the self-destructive will of the people expressed in a democracy, Plato idealised a Republic arrived at through rational evaluation in Socratic dialogue. This is the idea of the thesis which most successfully withstands all attempts to refute it. Importantly, this was grounded in a metaphysical understanding of the soul, approaching self-evident truths through dialectic. In his Timaeus Plato expressed it thus: “this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related”.

Rejecting the idealisation of images and narratives found in the epics, Plato developed rational enquiry. According to MacIntyre this was “not simply to advance theses and to give one’s rational allegiance to those theses which so far stand refutation; it is to understand the movement from thesis to thesis as a movement towards a kind of logos which will disclose how things are, not relative to some point of view, but as such”.

Similarly, his leading heir, Aristotle, saw a purpose to all life, analogous to a harpist progressing through stages of excellence in playing his instrument. This we call a teleology. Human error, individually and collectively, occurs in the absence of virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Aristotle’s method of political enquiry differed however from that found in Plato’s utopian Republic. In its place he made a collection of the best parts of different constitutions in order to determine a paradigm: “it is from the particulars that the universals are derived”.

Like Plato, Aristotle believed in an ultimate truth, a logos that could be divined, though never fully realised. He displayed flexibility, as according to MacIntyre “the dialectical procedures by means of which those tasks of construction are carried out never present us with a conclusion which is not open to further revision, elaboration, emendation, or refutation”.

Aristotle considered the highest individual good to be a state of what he called theoria, which MacIntyre defines as “a certain kind of contemplative understanding”. Thus: “The virtuous activities which enable someone to serve the polis will culminate and are perfected in an intellectual achievement which is internal to the activity of thinking.”

Happiness achieved in political life is purely human, whereas according to Aristotle the happiness of contemplation brings us to a higher level of the ultimate good: “divine in comparison with human life”, and any polis should strive to allow individuals to achieve this state. The appeal of theoria might seem elitist, but it is really a meditative space which allows for new departures in any field, and underpins the creative process, now imperilled by the incessant chatter of digital devices.

Aristotle believed the virtues were a prerequisite for rationality, and his ideas found favour in the medieval Catholic church. This arrived especially through its greatest philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, who synthetised Aristotle’s thought with that of St Augustine’s idea of a divine will anterior to reason and a universal justice applying to all human beings. He imported the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity into the tradition.

Following Aristotle and Plato, Aquinas identified a natural law with an expression of divine law as apprehended by human reason, and maintained that without belief in God there could be no natural law. Thus, paradoxically to modern ears, according to this tradition rationality is linked to divine truth.

Also drawing on his classical predecessors, Aquinas advocated distributive justice, maintaining that ownership should be limited by the necessities of human need. According to MacIntyre: “The standard commercial and financial practices of capitalism are incompatible with Aquinas’s conception of justice as are lawyers defending those whom they know to be guilty.”

This classical philosophical inheritance was essentially overthrown during the Enlightenment, especially by Hume, who argued that: “the natural sentiments of humanity” and “those impressions which give rise to a sense of justice, are not natural to the mind of man, but arise from artifice and human conventions”. He envisaged no logos “as such”, or teleology, relegating reason to the fanciful ventilation of desires and appetites. Hume also equated pleasure with possessions, and the closest he arrives at a universal norm of justice is in the defence by the state of property rights.

Thus, after the Enlightenment, according to MacIntyre: “the price paid for liberation from what appeared to be the external authority of traditional morality was the loss of any authoritative content from the would-be moral utterances of the newly autonomous agent”. In place of a community of interest there were the rights of the individual; as Margaret Thatcher put it two centuries later: “There is no such thing as society.” The surviving virtue would be the work ethic, and the ultimate equation of time with money.

That is not to deny the progressive developments of the nineteenth and twentieth century, when iconoclastic thinkers overthrew faulty assumptions that once grounded philosophical ideas. Important advances included gender equality and a complete rejection of slavery; a new attention to the body – not simply the mind – as the true location of the self; and the reassertion of the importance of myth, with awareness of a collective unconscious.

But what is troubling in our modernity is the erosion of the idea that human beings are capable of apprehending moral truth, and that there are objective human goods beyond the satisfaction of desires. Physiological observation of human beings cannot reveal a moral scheme other than, perhaps, Dawkins’s dystopian vision of a Selfish Gene, and interestingly Hume’s ideas align with this.

In place of a teleology we encounter self-interested individualism, which is adopted even by socially aware thinkers such as Rawls in his argument for a fair distribution of resources. But in the virtue-based tradition fair distribution of resources is predicated on individuals living in a community and caring for one another, not on an imported fiction.

As we observed, Aristotle maintained that any moral truth was provisional and susceptible to improvement based on superior arguments in altered circumstances. Thus the compelling thesis of climate change should dictate new moral assumptions, such as reconceiving the idea of private property and perhaps adopting Earth Jurisprudence or Wild Law. We should recognise that human goods are located in a wider ecology that is under great strain, and that all living beings have inherent rights.

A polity such as Ireland can develop a consensus around what human goods politics should strive for; otherwise a cacophony of ideological voices may continue to drive the public to distraction, and the rules that John Sturrock suggests for how politic debate is conducted may fall on barren ground.

Every citizen is entitled to a basic standard of living that includes food, water and shelter, and our courts should vindicate this right. This requires resiling from the unhelpful obiter dictum of Justice Hardiman in Sinnott v Minister for Education 2001 regarding the non-justiciability of socio-economic rights.

Fortunately, in its present shape our own much-maligned Bunreacht na hÉireann may be interpreted teleologically. Thus, in an article published in 1987 entitled “Natural Law, the Constitution, and the Courts”, the former president of the High Court and eminent jurist Declan Costello argued that the scheme of the Irish Constitution suggests a theory of natural law from which fundamental rights are derived.

The burning issue of the faulty Eighth Amendment may be distracting from the progressive nature of our constitution as an instrument for vindicating fundamental socio-economic rights. Importantly, Article 45 outlines a number of broad principles that should inform social and economic policy in the Oireachtas. The most important is a pledge to safeguard: “with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged”. Unfortunately, however, currently these provisions are seen as being intended solely “for the general guidance of the Oireachtas” and are not cognisable by the courts.

Enshrining the principle of the executive, as an extension of the community, protecting, insofar as is practicable, its weakest members should be agreeable to the majority of the population. Avoiding recourse to more ephemeral Unenumerated Rights, a simple referendum could make Article 45 cognisable allowing the courts to compel the government to end homelessness for example. This would require weighing the balance of the Separation of Powers, but this obstacle is not insurmountable.

As a community if we can agree to import the principles of Article 45 into our society it could have the effect of imposing less stress on a beleaguered population, many of whom contend with the fear of eviction and not being able to provide adequate nourishment for their families. This would then give greater room for the contemplative theoria that Aristotle considered to be of the greatest of all human goods, and which is the vital space for creativity to occur.

We might also eventually enshrine a commitment to tackling climate change too, and curb the country’s emissions – including those from livestock agriculture – which remain among the highest per capita in Europe. This would insulate a sitting government from the fallout of hard political choices, but bring long-term benefits.

The opening sentence of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics reads: “Every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some good.” Our constitution recognises this too, and political debate can be more productive when, as a community, we accept certain principles around how and what politics should achieve.