Thursday, July 30, 2009

Welcome to the new age of patronage

You might have thought that twelve years into a Labour government we might have seen a degree of progressive social change. Yes and No. Social mobility is down, for example. This is something that it extremely bad news for universities, particularly ones which are committed simultaneously to admitting the very best and brightest students as undergraduates and also want to ensure a range and diversity of educational backgrounds for its intake. (By the way, the latter of these is something which the university wants to do anyway and it does not need government urging to take this seriously.  What it does need is a government intent on making sure that educational opportunities before 18 are such that students from various backgrounds have a fighting chance of making the necessary standards for admission.)

But now there is something new to make me shout at the telly. Channel 4 is not the most reliable of social indicators, I realise, but a new programme starting tonight, How the other half lives is perhaps the most depressing thing I have heard for some time.  An affluent middle-class family takes on a poor family and helps them out in a series of direct acts of beneficence.  What's wrong with that?  It's just like those scheme where you sponsor a child in the developing world, except now you get to drive up to their flat and see how very very grateful they are.  Aaaargh!  Wrong wrong wrong.  Who chose which family was going to be grateful and deserving enough?  What happened to the notion that poor people are entitled to state aid, free from prejudice and the contingency that it might be taken away on a whim if little Alexandra suddenly fancies horse-riding lessons instead?  The idea should be that certain people are entitled to aid and that other people are required to share some of their wealth to do so.  Making it personalised, while perhaps offering a veneer of direct effectiveness, wraps up what ought to be a matter of principle in a cloak of forelock-tugging and self-satisfied feelings of 'having done something important'.  Just take Christine and Charlie from episode one and tax them more, perhaps just a little bit.  They can keep their gardeners and so on.  They evidently have some money they do not need and are in some sense committed to social change so I don't see why they would mind.  Not much of a human interest documentary in that, I suppose, but I'd rather have blank screen for an hour than be offered this.


Steffen said...

What James said

And, by the way, I'll have to add a favourite quote from the infamous Rorty to go along with your spot on commments:

'You get convinced that the welfare state is philosophically wimpish if you’re a selfish greedhead to begin with'

Anonymous said...

I don't think you want the kind of support Rorty could give you: my beliefs aren't true, they're just the ones I like, so there -- that won't do much to help make the case for the ideas that you're putting forth here as though they were just common sense (every ideologue just believes the obvious, I realize, but you're a philosopher). As you may know, there's a great deal of very sophisticated philosophical opposition to precisely the sort of welfarism that you're espousing here (you might start with Robert Nozick, or perhaps read some of David Schmidz' work if you prefer something more recent). Even if there weren't, anyone with a good intellectual conscience should want to do more than present the idea as though it were obvious and then stick his tongue out at his opponents. If, in the end, that tongue goes on to espouse a Rortyan 'defense' of the position, then it's a very bad day for political welfarism.

JIW said...

Dear 'Anon',

Thanks. Yes, I do of course realise the view I put rather rhetorically here is not universally shared and that there are philosophical defences of alternatives. And I didn't endorse the proposed assistance from Rorty.

Steffen said...

Anon: I think you're going too far.

First, it's a favourite quote of mine exactly because it's provocative, not because it's an argument ('selfish greedhead', e.g., is of course amplificatory pleonasm, not new information about greedheads). Judging from your comment it certainly did do its job quite well.

Second, I think there are two quite separate questions here:
(1) Do you agree that we should promote and argue for a more democratic, egalitarian world?
(2) Do you agree that we cannot expect to discover universal moral principles in human nature that when discovered will somehow provide us with compelling arguments to the effect that all human kind become more democratic and egalitarian?

Rorty would, I think, answer both questions in the affirmative, and you apparently do not.
You may affirm the first but not the last. I'm sure Rorty would have appreciated your affirmative answer to the first (directly socially relevant) question much more than to the second (theoretical, and only very indirectly socially relevant) question.

Of course, Rorty did not only stick his tongue out at his opponents (which he obviously did from time to time), he argued and suggested that we argue in a more concrete fashion. Rorty did engage with the relevant ethical and political literature, argument by argument, and would, no doubt, encourage us to do the same. But he would also remind us that philosophers tend to find new, creative ways of restating Kantian ideas and that we should think very hard about whether to accept that exactly these principles reflect the ethical nature of human kind.

According to Rorty we should not claim the superiority of our views in terms of rationality (in the Kantian sense of having discovered categorical imperatives) but in terms of concrete usefulness. We will 'have to talk about the various concrete advantages of [our] society's practices over those of other societies', and, I might add, the various concrete advantages of some practices in our society over those of other practices in our society.