Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2013 (page 1 of 3)

Do You Deserve Your Gifts?

quis enim te discernit
quid autem habes quod non accepisti
si autem accepisti
quid glorias quasi non acceperis

Who made you special, who gave you your gifts? And if your gifts were given to you why do you behave as if you’d given them to yourself?

1 Corinthians 4:7 [Vulgate and my translation]

I have noticed that people have a very inconsistent approach to entitlements: what I get I deserve, but what you get I’m not so sure about.

For instance, at a conference in London at the RSA, I heard a professor, and senior government advisor, speaking to a room of civil servants, academics, politicians, think-tankers and public service managers:

“The welfare state is how we take care of the poor.”

I’m afraid I was unable to resist pointing out that it was a bit rich for people who were all paid indirectly or directly by the tax payer that they were somehow doing a great favour to the poor. As far as I could see they were all making a very good living from the welfare state.

It seems that we think: what I get is an entitlement; what you get is a handout.

I am sure many would argue that they deserve their salaries, expenses, pensions and perks because they are so clever. But who made them clever? Not them.

As St Paul says, we didn’t give ourselves our own gifts. We didn’t make ourselves clever; it’s an undeserved gift. And if we have such underserved gifts we should be happy to have the gift itself – it gives us no reason to expect other benefits, like money or power.

We might say cleverness should be its own reward – except that its not a reward – for you didn’t really do anything to win it.

Of course the clever may have to work hard at being clever – it’s not always easy – it takes time and effort to learn, to think and carry out complex tasks. But then lots of other people also have to work hard, for low wages, carrying out tasks they don’t like, just to earn enough to look after themselves and their family. They do not get to enjoy the perk that the clever enjoy – of working hard at work that is also intrinsically enjoyable.

Our gifts should not be the cause of self-congratulation or an excuse for greed – our gifts were given to us to share – to convert back into gifts for others.

We Fell Asleep

We fell asleep.

We forgot that they don’t take care of us, we take care of each other.
We forgot that it’s the rich who need the poor, not the poor who need the rich.
We forgot that politicians work for us, we don’t work for them.

We forgot that government doesn’t innovate, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t create wealth, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t know best, people do.

We forgot about citizenship.
We forgot about families.
We forgot about community.

We confused good with big.
We confused achievement with wealth.
We confused love with control.

We forgot that the welfare state was made by us, that it belongs to us and it needs to work for us.

It’s time to wake up.

Beyond Rights – Citizenship in the Welfare State

The [new 1834] Poor Law treated the claims of the poor, not as an integral part of the rights of the citizen, but as an alternative to them – as claims which could be met only if the claimants ceased to be citizens in any true sense of the world.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class 

Marshall, and other advocates of citizenship in the welfare state, often focus their arguments on a justification of our socio-economic rights. They are right to propose that it is very helpful to see ourselves as holding such rights; rightly they refuse to treat the welfare system as a privilege – granted by the wealthy or the powerful.

Welfare systems which are not founded on rights are easily corrupted and will not be sustainable over time.

We can see the difference this makes in practice. In the UK when socio-economic rights are treated as universal (e.g. health and pensions) they seem to gain more support and are better protected from cuts. However when socio-economic rights are poorly defined and targeted, when they are treated as privileges that apply to just a few (e.g. benefits and social care) then they are easily undermined and reduced. Hence social care in England is being cut by over 30% between 2010 and 2015 – an unprecedented cut in welfare spending – but hardly noticed by the media or by the general public.

As the welfare state becomes increasing subject to means-testing, targeting and conditionality the whole edifice will become unstable. In particular some groups will be increasingly perceived as outside the pale of citizenship. People with disabilities, the poor, people with mental health problems, recent immigrants and exiles and many other groups are becoming strangers in their own land.

T H Marshall is of course not to blame for this corruption of the welfare state. But may be it was a mistake to define citizenship too narrowly. Rights are important, but being a citizen is about much more than being a right-holder. We can identify several other dimensions to citizenship:

  1. Citizens are contributors to the public good
  2. Citizens have many rights and duties, independent of their relationship to the state
  3. Citizens are equal
  4. Citizens are not paupers
  5. Citizens are free
  6. Citizens build community together
  7. Citizens rule themselves, though genuinely democratic institutions

1. The virtue of contribution

Positive obligations, like the need to pay our taxes, are more likely to go unrecognised if there is no stress on the virtue of contribution as an aspect of citizenship.

2. The limits of public expenditure

Taxation and public expenditure are not the only means for fulfilling our obligations. It is unhelpful to focus only on the role of the state in adjusting incomes or in providing services. We have other rights and other duties.

Citizens are free and yet bound by a web of obligations to themselves, family, friends, neighbours and the institutions of civil society – as well as their obligation to the state. It is important not to treat our rights (including our socio-economic rights) as merely a function of our willingness to pay taxes. It is critical to the ecology of community to understand the proper role of public expenditure and also to understand how other forms of contribution can develop in harmony with our obligation to pay our taxes.

For example, most support for children and adults who need assistance to grow, flourish and live good lives comes from families. When a parent takes care of their own child they are doing something which is important on very many levels. It is hard to see that there is any benefit in encouraging the parent to stop taking care of their child, go to work, just to earn enough money to pay for someone else to take care of their child.

3. The need for equality

Citizenship demands equality, not absolute equality (which is in fact hostile to citizenship), but a reasonable level of income equality. The focus of utilitarian and liberal theory has been to sacrifice equality to productivity. Even those who argue for equality can fall back on broadly utilitarian arguments which, while not false, somewhat miss their target. While it may be true that inequality is costly even for the wealthy it is somewhat peculiar to appeal to plain self-interest to justify greater equality.

Plato in the Laws [V, 744] suggests that the poorest must be guaranteed a minimum and that the richest must have no more than four times that minimum. For, as all champions of citizenship, like Rousseau, note:

…by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.

Rousseau, The Social Contract.

The requirement for relative equality for citizens is based upon the justified belief that high levels of relative inequality distort human relationships and make it harder for people to see each other as equals or to treat each other as equals. It is not so much income equality in itself that is important, rather it is the risk of damaging self-esteem, while inflating pride.

4. Limiting poverty

It is not just relative income equality that is required by citizenship. Citizenship also demands an absolute ban on poverty, in the sense that poverty means a state of need which overtakes the individual’s capacity to function as a free and independent citizen.

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin, The Romance of Rose

Citizenship helps us here in two ways. First it provides another important reason for protecting socio-economic rights, but in a different way. The imperative to end poverty requires that an absolute minimum be set which guarantees the possibility for free and active contribution. Such freedom from poverty becomes the condition which frees us for practical citizenship – not slavery.

As Aristotle says: You could no more make a city out of paupers than out of slaves

Furthermore the question of what constitutes poverty and what, therefore, constitutes the level of income and support necessary to overcome poverty, becomes central to the design of the welfare state.

In the UK at least the design of the welfare state fails to address either poverty or inequality. Public policy-makers have become very relaxed about excessive wealth, and have convinced themselves that excessive wealth fuels productivity – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Moreover poverty is defined relatively, and so is treated as an absolute fact, which can only be mitigated, but not ended. This is an error.

5. The exercise of freedom

Citizens don’t just have rights and responsibilities, they also have freedoms. Citizenship should be a creative engagement with other citizens; and through this engagement new forms of community life evolve. Unfortunately this fact is not recognised in the design of most welfare systems.

While the existence of the welfare state is often defended by means of the rights of citizens it seems like the design of the welfare state is dictated by the needs and interests of the powerful. Often it seems like a new form of aristocratic rule has evolved within the welfare state itself.

The most extreme example of this can be found in the treatment of people with disabilities. Many people find that their lives are dictated by the welfare state: where people live, who people live with, what people do with their time, what people own and earn – everything is fixed by the state. Other groups may have some more freedom, but they still find their experience of the welfare state stigmatising and damaging: receiving benefit payments, negotiating confused bureaucracies and entering crisis before any assistance is received. Even more, universal services, like education, are highly centralised and standardised – not defined by a partnership of teachers and families – but by the political elite.

People with disabilities have led the way in demonstrating that this pattern of state-controlled welfare is unnecessary and inconsistent with citizenship. The battle to convert social work services into reasonable entitlements, under the control of individuals or families, has been being fought since the 1960s and has led to significant improvement in people’s life experiences.

In public policy there is still a resistance to seeing the exercise of freedom as an aspect of citizenship. These ideas are associated with neo-liberalism or the invasion of the market into the public sphere. But for those interesting in defending the welfare state this seems a risky strategy. It should be the defenders of citizenship who seek to extend freedom to citizens, even when this requires increased accountability and flexibility from the welfare state itself.

6. The role of civil society

Another curious lacuna in our thinking about welfare is the limited role given to civil society. And by civil society here I mean all the institutions and forms of community activity that exist in between the family and the state.

There has lately of course been a great focus on privatisation – an increased role being given to commercial bodies to provide welfare services – and this does involve a partial recognition of the role of civil society. But the language and focus of privatisation has again been rooted in liberal and utilitarian models of public policy.

Again advocates of citizenship can again find themselves in a confused and constrained rhetorical space. They may be critical of state welfare, but then they are also fearful of how state welfare slips into being a new partnership between the state and large commercial companies. There is a sense that the elite of state employees are now making common cause with the elite  of commerce. Often these people turn out to be friends, people who went to the same schools and universities and who also know each other socially.

It seems to me that we need to restore for ourselves greater respect for civil society as a distinct space – what some people call ‘the commons’ – the area we all own, together.

On a recent trip to Athens I was struck by the discovery that the ancient agora was marked off from private property by a series of sacred markers. The purpose of these markers was to forbid private ownership and protect the limits of the agora. Also, it was interesting to note that the place of political assembly was not in the agora, but on a hill over-looking the agora. Within the agora people did deals, taught, prayed, sold things – it was a permissive and flexible space – with plenty of commercial elements. But it was a purely public space.

Without such spaces – agoras – we cannot exercise our citizenship. It would be interesting to explore the consequences of a more spatial approach to public policy and citizenship.

7. The role of government

The other striking feature of the the citizen in the welfare state today is how undemocratic the system has become. Three things are striking:

  • The modern welfare state tends to be centralised, and – at least in the UK – has become increasingly centralised over time.
  • The welfare state is subject to bureaucratic and regulatory control – it is not accountable through democratic, market or communal processes.
  • The party political system is increasingly distorting the proper functions of the welfare state for narrow electoral reasons and to pander to key electoral groups.

In other words we are not citizens, in charge of our own government, we are consumers of welfare services designed and delivered by political elites.

This was precisely the end that G K Chesterton foresaw in his keen intellectual battles with the great Fabian George Bernard Shaw. While Shaw argued that the state, and its elites, were the inevitable guardians and managers of the welfare state Chesterton argued that this would leave ordinary citizens disempowered, without rights and property:

It is characteristic of his [G B Shaw] school, of his age. The morality he represents is above all the morality of negations. Just as it says you must not drink wine at all as the only solution to a few people drinking too much; just as it would say you must not touch meat or smoke tobacco at all.

Let us always remember, therefore, that when Mr Shaw says he can persuade all men to give up the sentiment of Private Property, it is in exactly the same hopeful spirit that he says he will get all of you to give up meat, tobacco, beer, and vast number of other things.

G K Chesterton, Do We Agree? 

Chesterton’s point is all the more powerful today, when the UK stands as the country with the greatest level of debt per head. We don’t own property, we are burdened by debt – one of the oldest routes to slavery.

Finally

Of course we may prefer slavery, debt, consumerism and passivity, instead of citizenship. Citizenship may seem like hard work. But we will find that, without citizenship, the welfare state we come to rely on will become increasingly less reliable.

Modest Reasons for Hope

Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. There is no universal principle that determines what those rights and duties shall be, but societies in which citizenship is a developing institution create an image of an ideal citizenship against which achievement can be measured and towards which aspiration can be directed. The urge forward along the path thus plotted is an urge towards a fuller measure of equality, an enrichment of the stuff of which the status is made and an increase in the number of those on whom the status is bestowed.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class

T H Marshall was one of the most important social theorists of the twentieth century. He argued powerfully that the development of the welfare state should be seen as the next logical step in the advancement of citizenship for all. After people had claimed their political rights, in the form of universal suffrage and other civil rights, it was right and inevitable that social rights would be extended to a greater number of people. Ultimately this would drive forward, develop and broaden the extent of citizenship.

Today all of this may seem a pipe dream.

Citizenship is not a resonant idea in modern politics – when it is used it is for ulterior motives – not out of any respect for the idea itself. In 1950 Marshall could look forward to further progress as “democratic socialism” demonstrated its virtues by meeting needs and extending social rights. Today “democratic socialism” seems tarnished and is unlikely to return, at least in that form.

Instead theory is dominated by various of liberalism and by practice is dominated by competing elites and powerful commercial interests. Social rights, especially in the UK, are being radically reduced and being redefined as privileges in the process. For example social care for people with disabilities will have been cut by 33% between 2010 and 2015.

So is there hope?

Progress is not inevitable. Elites can maintain their grip on power for centuries. It is foolish to simply expect a process of positive evolution to bring about a greater commitment to citizenship. In fact, if history teaches us anything both social rights and citizenship require people to demand and, if necessary, fight for them.

Citizenship cannot be gifted by the powerful to the weak.

Nevertheless there are a number of factors that might give us some encouragement.

First, it is noticeable that people don’t tend to stay passive. As the state centralises or commodifies more of its functions then it inevitably will leavs people exploring what it can do within the space that this process creates. This is not, what is called “Big Society”. Peer or community groups arise primarily out of a sense of injustice and dissatisfaction (not because they want to please the Prime Minister). They may thereby seek to create practical community-based solutions to problems; they may federate and organise and they may also put pressure on government.

For example, it is interesting to note that in the UK, while the established non-government organisations and big charities have been largely silent on the severe impact of government policy (perhaps because they themselves are so dependent on public funding or desire closer relationships with political elites) new disability groups are emerging and seeking to find new ways of working together. It is far too early to call this a success, but when leaders don’t lead, new leaders tend to emerge.

Second, there is a fundamental and growing social and economic problem which will continue to dog the political system – its inability to generate the kind of deeper solutions that foster citizenship, sustainability and broader forms of enriching productivity. Elites can promote ‘bread and circuses’ but they cannot build civilisations. Moreover, if our basic technical competence continues to grow (it takes fewer and fewer people simply to do the basic things necessary for us to live) then more and more people will become hungry for something better than consumerism and debt.

Third, there continue to be important points of moral leadership in civil society which offer a different vision of things. In the past religious leaders have often played a critical role in pushing society forward. Moreover the increasingly international nature of modern society may be helpful. It is fascinating to see what a powerful document the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is. If its principles were taken seriously then much of the current welfare settlement would look very different.

Finally there is perhaps the hope that some of our leaders themselves will begin to sense the vanity of ruling without citizenship. As Hannah Arendt often observes, to rule over others is inhuman, it puts you outside the equalising space in which you can be recognised as an equal yourself and where you can act without force. Perhaps there will arise some sense that the job of the leader is to enable citizenship, that this would not only be more productive for the whole of society, it would also be so more personally fulfilling for leaders themselves.

In the famous funeral oratory of Pericles we get the sense that leaders don’t have to apsire to tyranny or elitism. They can take pride in equality, citizenship and a community that makes that possible:

Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deepest respect.

Pericles, cited by Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

Whatever our leaders do we must become the kind of citizens who do not need the best kind of leaders in order to thrive. But may, just may be, some of our leaders will wake up to discover that deceit, manipulation and control – in the service of nothing but power and money – is hardly worth waking up for. May be some of our leaders may begin to recognise the deeper hunger – in all of us – for lives of meaning and equal respect.

Making Citizenship Real

Although we can call someone a citizen and say we wish to treat them as an equal it turns out that there are some very real things we need to do in order to make such a claim real. Stigma and pride take hold so easily, and so societies must learn how to clothe each other in citizenship.

My own account of the keys to citizenship is rooted in the practical work of supporting people with intellectual disabilities to build good lives for themselves. You can read more about these ideas and their practical consequences here:

Keys to Citizenship

There is a philosophical logic to my presentation of these elements of citizenship, but each element is distinct and can develop somewhat independently of the other elements.

In my account of citizenship we can identify seven keys to citizenship:

  1. Purpose – we live a life of meaning
  2. Freedom – we can pursue our purpose
  3. Money – we have the means to pursue our goals
  4. Home – we can belong in community, but also protect our privacy
  5. Help – we can offer others opportunity
  6. Life – we can contribute in our own way
  7. Love – we can build relationships and new life

A distinct sense of hope and purpose in life turns out to be critical to self-respect and to the respect that others give you. If we meet someone who is adrift, in a life without meaning or purpose, we struggle to respect them. If we meet someone who has a sense of purpose then it becomes easier to engage with them as a distinct equal. Notice however that uniformity of purpose is not helpful and does not stimulate respect. You have no reason to respect the purposes of people who share exactly the same goals as others or yourself. In a strange way such uniformity breeds contempt.

Beyond a sense of purpose people need to be free to realise their purposes. If someone is utterly under the control of someone else then their dreams and plans lack integrity. It is only when we see that someone is free to follow their purpose that we can respect them as a free individual. In the same way, our self-respect is diminished if we are imprisoned – even when that prison may be provided by the love and care of others.

In the modern world our active civic engagement also requires sufficient money to make our purposes meaningful. Although it is possible to imagine a world where there was no money it is uncomfortable to realise that this would mean that people would only do what you need them to do from either love or fear. Money makes possible free exchange, specialisation and a plurality of useful opportunities for contribution and employment. In passing it is also worth noticing that, from the perspective of citizenship, the right to money ceases when someone has sufficient money to be able to enter into and engage in citizenship – freed from gnawing poverty. However the super-rich are also at risk of leaving the realm of citizenship.

The fourth key to citizenship is a home – a physical location where one belongs, where one can retreat to in privacy and which one can leave to enter the public realm. Over exposure to the public realm or severe communality is a threat to citizenship. The private nurtures the capacity for self-development and offers a haven to families.

The fifth key to citizenship is the need for assistance – help. This is one of the most important, but most frequently missed, aspects of citizenship. A citizen who has no need of anyone is not a citizen. They offer others no opportunity for contribution – they are a ghost amidst the living. The balanced position is to avoid undue dependence, where the need for help leaves one in servile reliance on others. We can need the help of others, and yet still maintain our independence – our freedom.

Citizens recieve, and citizens also give, and while there is no virtue in achieving some perfect balance – that would be both impossible and meaningless – contribution is vital to citizenship and the self-respect of the individual. And we contribute by living – by joining in, working, caring and taking care of each other. Life can only develop though our active contribution to community.

Finally the fruit of citizneship, and its ultimate source is love. Love is of course a greater force than citizenship – nevertheless it does relfect successful citizenship. This is all forms of love: agape, storge, philia and eros.

This account of citizenship is offered as a bridge. Political theorists rarely think about disabled people or others who can experience severe disadvantage because of the prejudices, barriers and structures imposed by the majority. Disabled people have been developing interesting accounts of social value and social justice – but often cut-off form mainstream thought. I have developed this model of citizenship to demonstrate how relevant are these experiences and theories to mainstream political thought.

If our society is not aiming to be a community of citizens what is its goal? If theorists are not advocating citizenship for all, what are they advocating?

Spending is a Poor Proxy for Justice

The welfare state needs defending – but we also need to rediscover what it is really for.

Since its creation the major focus has been on its size – should we spend more on it or less on it. But this is the wrong question.

Public expenditure is a poor proxy for public good. Public services are a poor proxy for the advance of human rights. Advancing state power is not the same as advancing citizenship. Paying one’s taxes is important, but it is only one important duty for citizens.

For example, I can increase spending on healthcare and pay the cleaners more – and so reduce inequality, or I can spend more on doctors – and increase inequality. I can spend less on healthcare, but also reduce income inequality overall, which will thereby increase health and well-being.

In other words, it’s not spending on its own that matters, it’s what you actually do with the money.

Welfare systems can promote welfare, but the relationship between welfare and the welfare state is complex. It depends on the design of the welfare system.

Sometimes welfare systems make things worse. For example, it is well known that the Western mental health systems are correlated with poorer mental health. Mental health systems either damage mental health or merely cope with mental health problems created by society. There is little evidence that mental health services really improve our mental health.

If we value the welfare state we should pay much more attention to how it really works – not naively accept the ideas promoted by policy-makers or special interest groups.

The idea of welfare reform has now been captured by those who are merely dismantling it. However our challenge is that while trying to defeat them we must still examine – what kind of welfare state we really want. If we want justice then welfare reform – not cuts and attacks on the poor – real reform is going to be essential.

How Do We Defend the Welfare State?

The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6

If we are just interested in defending an existing social institution then we do not need to limit ourselves to any one justification or line of defence. Often it is helpful to have more than one argument, particularly as you will need to find common ground with people with whom you may not agree about everything. You may believe that your justification is the best or the only true justification, but this is not helpful as a defence of the welfare state if most people can’t see the truth of your justification.

For instance, the UK welfare state was largely developed by William Beveridge. But when Beveridge was making the case for his reforms he did not rely on any narrow moral or political theory, rather he tried to outline the central problems for which the welfare state was a solution. These were the the Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

Rhetorically, evil can be much more helpful than good. For we can all quickly agree that something like the Five Giants are bad and agree that we will attack them. However we may find that we all define what is good in rather different ways. So while we may agree on the need to attack an evil we may have very different ideas about how to avoid an evil and what we should do instead.

So, from a design point of view, only knowing what you want to avoid is also something of a weakness. If we do not know what the welfare state is for – not just what it is against – then it can be rather hard to design it or defend it. We may find that we are so divided by our different conceptions of the good that we no longer agree on what it is we are fighting for.

In fact I think this is our current predicament. Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state. They still want to attack the Five Giants but they are arguing for different ways of attacking them. This does not make them right, nor does it make their arguments any less dangerous, but it means we are living at a time when it is no longer good enough to simply argue that any proposed policy change is a ‘threat to the welfare state’. Simplistic defences of the welfare state as ‘an obviously good thing’ have become far too weak.

It is no longer good enough to point – however truthfully – that a policy is an attack on the welfare state. The welfare state’s legitimacy has been weakened too much by decades of bad policy-making by Left and Right. Too many people are now convinced that the problems with the welfare state are so grave that they will allow government to fiddle with or undermine it – to their hearts content.

We will have to rethink our approach. We will have to develop a more positive account of what we are defending – one that can unite a wide range of different perspectives – but one that is specific enough to create a real challenge to the great erosion of rights we see today.

This is what the Campaign for a Fair Society is trying to do and why we have published a dynamic Manifesto for a Fair Society setting out key principles – as well as detailed proposals. It is also why we are going to invite anyone who has their own ideas to share those ideas with us. Its early days for this project – but if you think you could help I’d love to hear from you.

The Welfare State and Citizenship in Political Theory

We tend to assume that what we call the Left is broadly for the welfare state while what we call the Right is broadly against it. However the reality is more complex, in fact only a few extremist are exactly against the welfare state. Almost everyone is for the welfare state, but what they disagree about is what kind of welfare state is best.

From my perspective the kind of welfare state we want is one that supports robust and active citizenship – for all. I want to live in a society that welcomes all it’s different members into a real and vibrant community – not as cogs or components.

But do our political traditions seek a welfare state fit for citizens?

For example, within the conservative tradition, which tends to treat the continuity of state and society as the primary goal, while the welfare state may have been unwelcome to begin with it can also be treated as an inevitable accommodation with the forces of modernity. It turns out that the forces of terror, revolution and totalitarianism that were unleashed by the economic insecurities of the modern world are somewhat tamed by creating welfare provision. For example, Bismarck introduced many social reforms in Germany that were clearly motivated by this kind of conservative thinking.

Conservatives value established social institutions and they stress the reliance of the individual on the relationships and communities within which they develop. Conservative critics of the welfare state tend to focus on the need to maintain respect for non-state institutions or the structures of civil society. They often seek a welfare state that promotes family, faith or community. They often worry that notions of equality or citizenship are dangerous to the social order and if they use the term citizen at all it is largely as just another word for ‘subject.’

It is possible to defend the welfare state from within the conservative tradition, but it is likely that any such defence will focus on a welfare state that serves to underpin, without replacing, older social traditions, or which in some way renews those traditions. Such an approach has something to recommend it, but it will seem inadequate to those individuals or groups who are currently excluded from community and active citizenship.

Interestingly the socialist tradition shares some of the same assumptions as the conservative tradition. It deprecates individualism and it values the collective. However it starts with the assumption that social justice has been failed by the status quo. It proposes radical change in society, in order to promote equality. Typically it assumes that this change must be overseen and controlled by the state.

For socialists the welfare state is their own great achievement. The commitment to solve social problems by the means of state-directed activity is socialism in action. However socialists are currently in a slightly difficult position with regard to the justification and criticism of the welfare state. They become torn between seeking to defend or grow the current system or criticising the system in the light of their ultimate vision for social justice. Socialism is not a logically inconsistent, but it is interesting to note that socialist critiques of the welfare system (while they exist) have not yet led to significant social change.

There is a similar ambiguity about the socialist view of citizenship. While conservatives tend to reject citizenship, as a radical idea that subverts respect for proper authority, socialists tend to appropriate citizenship without valuing it. Citizenship becomes just a way of dignifying our shared status as cogs in the state-run machine.

Alternatively citizenship can be seen as at the root of cooperative action, mutuality and the trade unionism that was the initial life blood of socialism. For instance, the National Coalition of Independent Action in the UK, which represents small voluntary organisations has as its sub-title:

We’re not an arm of the state (or the private sector) – we have our own arms.

This seems to me true, but unfortunately it is a theme which barely registers within modern public policy and the media dominated debates of modern life.

The theory that currently dominates modern thought is liberalism, although this is liberalism is divided between Right and Left-liberalism. Right-liberals, like Nozick (sometimes confusingly called neo-liberals) focus on the precedence of civil and political rights, and treat the right to own property as having precedence over other socio-economic rights. They seek to maximise the space for freedom.
Left-liberals, like Rawls, tend to seek to advance the cause of social rights as one part of the full set of our proper rights and they focus on ensuring people have the means to enjoy freedom equally. Simplifying the matter, all liberals are interested in advancing human freedom, but they are divided as to whether they are interested in freedom from oppression or freedom for human development.

Liberals do sometimes use the term citizen, but primarily this is just code for an individual as bearer of rights and duties and as someone who is formally equal within the system of rules, safeguards and securities. We are citizens because we can call on the state to support our rights, although we are also expected to fulfil whatever duties are necessary to the fulfilment of those rights. For a liberal freedom come first, then rights and lastly duties.

[Liberals do often value equal opportunities and they sometimes propose that society be organised so that all citizens can make the best of their abilities within the system – we should all be equally free to climb as high as possible and to achieve as much as possible. This alerts us also to the meritocratic assumptions of liberals: all should be free, but all are not (really) equal.]

Another tradition, one that is closely linked to liberalism and is very influential in social sciences, social policy and contemporary political rhetoric is utilitarianism – the idea that social systems should be organised to maximise the overall level of welfare. Utilitarians don’t need to appeal to citizenship to justify the existence of the welfare state and, at least in principle, utilitarianism may be quite happy to sacrifice individual freedoms, rights and the notion of equality if there are more beneficial social outcomes available without them. Huxley’s Brave New World was a utilitarian dystopia where different ‘grades’ of human being are integrated into one harmonious whole.

Liberalism and utilitarianism can seem like opposing philosophies. Liberalism promotes freedom not the consequences of freedom; utilitarianism is interested in consequences and may sacrifice anything to the desired end. However these traditions of political thought are also twinned.

Liberalism and utilitarianism are both aristocratic forms of thinking. Each is offering a pattern by which rulers can manipulate the complex reality of society. Right-liberals often appeal to the interests of the elites that manage commerce; Left-liberals appeal to the interests of the elites that manage the public-sector. Everyone tries to exploit the kind of utilitarian arguments that can usefully appeal to the electorate.

Arguably what unties these traditions is a shared commitment to meritocracy – that the best of us, should rule rest of us, and for our own good. And aristocracy is just the ancient name for meritocracy – the “aristos” being the best.

Within this meritocratic framework the welfare state plays two roles. First it is an instrument by which power and influence can be exercised over society to the goals of political elites. Second it is an object of dispute in the on-going conflict between powerful political elites. In fact it would not be hard to argue that for the modern political elites the welfare state is more important as an object of political discourse than as an actual instrument of social change.

Such is the unreliability of the instrument and the rapid change in political fortunes that it is a rare politician who really expects to achieve meaningful social change through their temporary control of the instruments of welfare. It is more important to have a good story about the welfare state:

“We are for it – it needs to be made bigger – trust us to make the necessary changes.” 

“We are for it – but its too big or inefficient – trust us to manage it correctly.”

There is no assumption that perhaps people themselves could make their own decisions, at the level of the citizen or community. Where would be the political advantage in that?

Citizenship, real citizenship, is absent from contemporary debates and our analysis of the welfare state – because it doesn’t serve the interests of any of the political elites (Left or Right).

The idea of citizenship does not belong to any one political theory. If taken seriously it would temper the extreme and anti-democratic nature of all the main political theories. But unfortunately it is not in the interests of the powerful to imagine a world where their own power was limited by our citizenship.

Citizenship as a Moral Ideal

There are different ways of understanding the idea of citizenship. One of the most important distinctions is between those who think of citizenship as a status given to the individual by a community (passport-citizenship) and those who think of citizenship as a moral ideal that exists whether or not it is recognised by the community.

We can see this distinction clearly if we consider the following problem:

A community exists on an island – all the members of this community are citizens. They acknowledge their equal status as citizens and take seriously their duties as citizens and have regard for each other’s rights. One day a man is washed ashore on the island. He is clearly a foreigner, he has lost his home and all his possessions. He cannot even speak the native tongue. Is this man a citizen?

If you think of citizenship as just a badge – as defined and limited by membership of the pre-existing community then the answer is obvious: No. This man is the very opposite of a citizen. If he is owed anything at all it is not rooted in citizenship but in some other moral obligation.

But if you think of citizenship as a moral ideal then the answer is the complete opposite: Yes, this man is a citizen and just as much a citizen as every other member of the community. He is entitled to all the benefits of citizenship and must be supported to participate and to engage as a citizen. He is a citizen – disguised as a non-citizen and our duty is to take off the disguise.

We might note in passing that the same would not be true of holiday-makers or colonists who are either passing through or who aim to take over the land. However an economic migrant who abandons his home to come to live somewhere better might also be said to be a citizen. Although this might also lead us explore our global responsibility to the welfare of other communities.

This issue reveals a significant division in the idea of citizenship.

Those who doubt that morality is real or who see morality as secondary to our political and social settlements may well prefer passport-citizenship. For it is less demanding both metaphysically and practically. However it is seriously flawed and does not provide the right basis for moral or political thinking.

I think there are three reasons we must reject passport-citizenship:

1. The precedence of morality

Morality is real and it precedes any political or social settlement. Morality enables us to judge societies from the outside, without it we are left the victim of the norms of our society – however flawed they may be. If citizenship is just passport-citizenship then we have no basis to judge the way in which the rights of Jews or people with disabilities were stripped from them during the eugenics period.

Of course this argument is controversial and is best disputed within the arenas of philosophy and theology. However there will be some who say that they owe nothing to the man who is not part of their community because the only laws or norms they recognise are the those defined by their community.

2. The nature of charity

Of course most people would accept we owe the stranger something. But it is quite common for people to feel that any such obligation will be in some sense a lesser obligation. In fact this feeling is derived from a certain appropriate feature of the moral life: we do have special duties to ourselves, to special people and to our communities. After all each of us has our own family and own community and we cannot do justice to our duties by dissolving them into one general duty.

However it is important that such proper discrimination is not corrupted into clubbishness: only my people matter.

In our story the stranger has nobody to fall back onto. He has no family or community and so our obligation to him cannot be reduced in the expectation that other’s will help. So the question is whether or not we can reduce our obligations simply because the stranger seems not to be a citizen.

Here it is worth considering here what it is to help someone. The danger in any discussions of giving is that we tend to rather focus on the cost to the giver, rather than the purpose of the giving. Often this provokes the fear that to give is to lose and to give absolutely is to potentially lose everything. However this is not what is implicit in giving properly.

The best analysis of the nature of giving that I am aware of is provided by Maimonides in his analysis of the Eight Degrees of Charity. Starting with the highest form of giving Maimonides states:

There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level, beyond which there is none, is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim: 7-14

In other words equal citizenship describes the goal and character of perfect giving, even to someone who may not at first seem a citizen. Our goal is not to just give away something that we think is ‘ours’ but instead to ensure that the person is able to ‘live amongst us’ and ideally the way in which we give assistance should also reinforce respect for the person’s innate dignity. In fact, if you follow Maimonides analysis to the end, you would find that the the quality of charity is reduced as it becomes increasingly stigmatising and disrespectful.

So, I would argue that if you recognise the true nature of your obligation to the stranger you will find that you must treat the individual with respect and as an equal. In other words the ideal of citizenship lies submerged in our basic obligation to take care of the stranger even when they do not seem a citizen.

3. The nature of community

The final reason for rejecting passport-citizenship is that it kills the very nature of community itself. A community that defines itself by its existing members and which jealously guards its boundaries will become sterile and incapable of valuing even its own members. Whereas a community that treats the stranger as a citizen is a stronger community, not just in its respect for the demands of justice, but also in its capacity to be the kind of community that is capable of nurturing all its members.

I think this is where the focus on rights and citizenship is a little misleading. Not that rights are not important, they are essential – but they are not strictly fundamental. A one-eyed focus on rights will mistake the very nature of the community that aims to respect those rights.

Rights only exist because duties exist. As Simone Weil puts it:

The notion of obligation comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation to him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much…

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Often this same point is made by those who want to limit the demand of rights. They drift from the correct observation that each effective right must be matched by some real duty, to the incorrect observation that therefore we must limit the set of rights and impose the minimal set of duties upon ourselves – in the name of freedom, private property or political necessity.

This is a very live political issues today, for example the Australian politician Joe Hockey recently wrote:

I wish to thank my friends at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the opportunity to discuss an issue that has been the source of much debate in this forum for sometime… that is, the end of an era of popular universal entitlement. There is nothing much new in the debate other than the fact that action has now been forced on governments as a result of the recent financial crisis. Years of warnings have been ignored but the reality can no longer be avoided.

Joe Hockey, The End of the Age of Entitlement.

But duties are not costs. Duties simply articulate the form of the good life.

Some duties are certainly constraints, forbidding things which will damage the negative rights of others (e.g. the right to life, the right to property). Some duties place upon us positive responsibilities, enabling other people to have positive rights (e.g. the right to assistance, income, employment). In addition, as Kant observed, some duties are perfect – in the sense that it is absolutely clear whether or not we are achieving the duty (Kant). Others imperfect – in sense that we can fulfil our duties to different degrees and with more or less discretion.

In addition our duties evolve and develop along with our form of life and our relationships with others. It is our relationships with others that place demands upon us – but those demands are not costs – they are the reciprocal connections by which the individual and the community develops.

Imagine a person free of all duties and you imagine someone who is utterly disconnected.

The structure of our duties describes the framework within which the good life is lived. There are still spaces that allow for discretion, creativity, enjoyment and licence. But it is the framework of duties that makes life possible and makes life meaningful. Pure licence is emptiness.

As Kant also observed the sense of burden we associate with duty is also an illusion. For the sense of duty as a burden is only how experience what we should do when it is not what we want to do. But often our duties are exactly what we want to do and the good life is not a life without duty, but a life rich with duties – that can be fulfilled.

We have now to elucidate the concept of a will estimable in itself and good apart from any further end. This concept, which is already present in a sound natural understanding and requires not so much to be taught as merely to be clarified, always holds the highest place in estimating the total worth of our actions and constitutes the condition of all the rest. We will therefore take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. These so far from hiding a good will or disguising it, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth more brightly.

Kant I, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

From a Christian perspective we might also say that acting merely from duty is simply the form that love takes when we are not blessed with the rights feelings.

In other words to deny citizenship to the absolute stranger is to weaken community. We fail in the exercise of our duties, we fail to give the stranger the opportunity to contribute to the communities network of relationships, and we fail to strengthen the exchange of gifts of citizenship.

A decent community is awake to the ideal of citizenship. Citizenship serves to frame the obligations of the community to its members and to the welcome it gives to others. Citizenship is both a discipline and an ideal.

Citizenship is a powerful moral standard which can be applied to social and political arrangements. It is a standard, not just of rights, but more importantly a standard for duty, virtue and social purpose (telos).

If we do this we will find ourselves exploring the possibility that rather than being ruled by one, or by a few, we will be ruled by ourselves – for this is how Aristotle defines citizenship:

A citizen is one who has a share in both ruling and being ruled.

Aristotle, Politics III 1

Of course some who embrace citizenship merely do so to keep at arms length those they fear or do not want to join them in community. But just because some misuse the concept doesn’t mean the concept should be abandoned. Citizenship is the means by which we can live as equals, in all our differences. Properly understood it is a vital moral ideal by which to challenge the current social and political system.

Simply an Unfortunate Human Being

Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I’d expected to feel horror. But just imagine – I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don’t think it’s because I’m a born slave. No. No. It’s because everyone around me shares my fate now: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway life a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I’m no longer a beast deprived of rights – simply an unfortunate human being. And that is easier to bear.

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

It may be hard for us to imagine the kind of oppression that makes the camp, the barbed wire or the institution welcome. But it starts when you feel attacked and vulnerable and when being together with others, ‘like you’ creates a source of comfort.

What we so often don’t seem to realise when we see people stigmatised, slandered, and scapegoated by ordinary people and by the powerful – then those people feel deeply hurt and vulnerable. All those empty, lazy stereotypes – the skiving scrounger on the dole – the greedy immigrant stealing our jobs – the fraud pretending to have disability – they all eat away at someone’s soul.

The fact that the stereotype is a lie does not protect the person under attack – in a strange way it makes the stereotype even more toxic – because we find that the truth offers no resistance to the lies of the powerful.

So the weak end by seeking comfort in each other. Too often this ends in tragedy, herded together people are even weaker and easier to attack. But occasionally, just occasionally, people are inspired to resist, to fight back and to demand the justice that others have taken away.

The Blood Money of Charity or Why Entitlements Matter

If the present order is taken for granted or assumed to be sacrosanct, charity from the more to the less fortunate would seem virtuous and commendable; to those for whom the order itself is suspect or worse, such charity is blood-money. Why should some be in the position to dispense and others to need that kind of charity?

An infidel could ignore that challenge; for apart from faith in God there is really nothing to be said for the notion of human equality. Men do not seem to be equal in any respect, if we judge by available evidence. But if all are are children of one Father, then all are equal heirs of a status in comparison with which apparent differences of quality and capacity are unimportant; in the deepest and most important of all – their relationship to God – all are equal.

William Temple, Christianity and Social Order

This quote perhaps helps remind us that the Church has often been a powerful advocate of real social justice. Archbishop Temple does not seek to position the Church as a bestower of charity; instead he demands that society recognises the genuine rights that are created by our human needs.

He also reminds us that equality is the foundation of social justice – we simply are equal – in some profound moral sense – despite all our obvious and great differences. This fundamental equality of moral worth is central to our moral codes (whether or not you believe in God). There is also an aspiration that many of us share – to live ‘as equals’ in a community where those differences can be reconciled through our equal citizenship. The barriers to such social equality are great indeed – but the moral appeal of such equality is hard to erode – despite all the prejudice, discrimination and injustice that is such a feature of the modern world.

An example of this battle for equality is the conflict over ‘entitlements’ that rages around people with disabilities internationally. In the UK today the entitlement to social care is under a double attack: (a) funding for that entitlement is being cut by 33% (from 2010 to 2015) and (b) many local authorities are now undermining a policy position which had treated ‘personal budgets’ as the person’s money – an entitlement. Instead people find their control eroded by increasing regulations, bureaucracy and direct interference.

On the other side of the world, Australia, as it begins to implement its National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), is making a globally important commitment to secure the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the UN Declaration and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, even in this context, policy-makers struggle with the idea that disabled people are actually owed the intended budgets – that these budgets are entitlements which belong to people:

“It’s Jack’s money, not the government’s money.”

I will not rehearse here all the arguments for treating such funding as an entitlement (I have done it elsewhere and I have the feeling I will have to have another go soon). I simply want to observe the starkness of the choice:

If we give people money they are either entitled to it or they are not. If they are not entitled to it then why are we giving it? We would be giving what we ought not to give. If they are entitled to it then it is theirs – not ours.

What is at stake here – as Temple rightly observes – is whether we are giving people what they are properly due, or whether we are just giving the blood money of charity.

Dog Fox Field

These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

This poem by the Australian poet Les Murray builds on the fact that in Hitler’s Germany the test for determining whether you could avoid the first gas chambers – which were built for disabled people – was whether you could construct a sentence from the words: dog, fox & field.

Some people know that disabled people were killed during the Holocaust. Few seem to know that they were the first and leading victims of the Holocaust. The technologies of death were developed on them and only later extended to Jews and many others.

I explore some of these ideas in my book The Unmaking of Man and I explore the parallels between our time and the years that led up to the Holocaust where the intentional scapegoating of disabled people, Jews and others flowed from economic anxieties, state and professional power and the abandonment of core moral values.

Disabled people, especially people with severe learning difficulties, are our moral guardians – they “show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.”

Securing the Good

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.

Jane Addams

Thanks to Henry Iles for sharing this lovely quote with me. Jane Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House, a place for low-income women to find social and educational opportunities. Addams also researched poverty and worked to win the vote for women. She was born in Illinois, 153 years ago.

What I like about this quote is its good common sense. We each are tempted to grasp what we can – to behave as if there is only so much good to go around – dive in and get our hands on a piece of the action. But much of what is valuable in life can only be achieved by a collective willingness to ensure that everyone gets what they need. In this way we can properly secure our needs – not because we’ve grabbed our little piece – but because we can all look out for each other and ensure that each has what they need, without fuss or nonsense “incorporated into our common life.”

The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke: 10: 25-37

One way of bring this story up to date is to replace Samaritan with Palestinian.

Does the Jew have the right to be assisted by the Samaritan? Does the Samaritan have a Duty to assist the Jew? Although we might want to say assistance is a ‘good thing’ it might seem initially implausible to treat it as a matter of Rights or Duties. [Or we might want to say its a different kind of Right or Duty – I think some people call this a ‘duty from beneficence’ – but I’m not sure if this is what they really mean.]

First of all here is what we can say to support this feeling of implausibility:

  1. Rights and Duties imply Law, and Law means politics, policing, and prisons – in other words the only point to reference to these heavy-weight concepts is to bring in the weight of the law – enforcement. But our moral life must not be too closely connected to the Law (a) different things are important to different people and so cannot be legislated for (b) and many important things, like love, involve morality but would still be damaged by heavy-handed interference by the Law.
  2. We want to value the act of assistance but we don’t want to start demanding too much of people. How would we get anything done if people’s right to assistance trumped all the other valuable things we wanted to do? Duties are burdens and we don’t want to let them grow too big and we certainly don’t want then to adhere to us just because we happened to be passing by.
  3. Why should the Samaritan have to help the Jew who despise him. We might accept that the Jew has the right to assistance from other Jews – but there can be no right to assistance from Samaritans.

Despite this feeling of implausibility the truth is that the Jew has a right to assistance and the Samaritan has the duty.

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil, Waiting on God, p. 97

So let us see if we can deal with the counter-arguments:

1. Disconnecting Law and Morals

On the view of Weil, which I support, Duty and Right precede the Law. The Law is informed by our Rights and Duties, but it is not going to exactly mirror our Rights and Duties. Of course this means distinguishing a Legal Duty or Right and a Moral Duty or Right. But this is as it should be. The Law can be unjust and I can therefore, sometimes, reject the Law. If we make the Law primary we would not be able to evaluate the Law – this would mean that Law could never be Just because it could never be evaluated – morally – by Justice itself.

This view can also reconcile the worries we have about the limitations of the Law. Moral Duties and Rights don’t mirror the Legal but they do extend into other areas of the Moral Life:

a) Many of my Duties are highly personal to me, they may be linked to my choices, vocation, self-development or much else. The Law may or may not offer a helpful discipline to the fulfilment of my Duties. Freedom is not a moral-free zone.

b) Many Duties flow from features of relationships that are outside the reach of Law. Some of the Duties of a husband cannot be legislated for. In other areas relationships do give rise to contractual Rights and Duties.

This raises an interesting question. If the Law is not Justice then what role is there for the Law? If Justice is primary and precedes the Law then there is no reason to expect that Law will merely try to enforce Just behaviour. It may be wiser to ask the Law to do less work. It is not plausible that the Law is always the best means to promote the development of the virtuous person, to encourage self-development or good relationships. The Law may undermine virtue by either intruding where it has no place or in over-specifying human behaviour. The Law is necessary, but clumsy.

2. The Ending of Charity

Weil’s concern is that by trying to separate out moral Duties from some other weaker category of good deeds we are simply letting ourselves off the hook and misrepresenting our relationship with the Right-holder.

There is also the risk – as Weil also notices – of giving too much and this is also an important part of her argument. In human relationships doing good is a fine balance where we can do too much as well as do too little. The challenge is to do what is right – not just to do good.

3. The Universality of Love

It is certainly easier to assist those to whom we are joined in community and our communal relationships may also create very specific Duties – like paying taxes. But it is of the very nature of Justice that it is universal; we must face our Duties despite their costs and difficulties. Duties are, on this reading, simply an aspect of Love.

And here is Dorothy L Sayers on duty and love:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

So, in summary, we should not expect to see all our Rights and Duties mirrored in legal Duties and Rights. Nor should we seek some kind of softer and less demanding form of moral obligation – kindness or charity. It is morality itself that must underpin and interrogate the Law. Morality is experienced though love and, when we are not feeling so loving, through Duty.

The Right to be Different

Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! the only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.

Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate

I like this thought. Political philosophers rarely assert the value of this right – the right to be different.

Some, like Hobbes, see society as developing out of our basic needs for protection. Others, like Locke, see it as the rational requirement of our fundamental rights. Burke and other’s might see society as having a value in itself, as the transmitter of values through the generations. But rarely do philosophers proclaim the value of difference itself.

Grossman’s point is useful because he sees that the individual’s proper commitment to the group must be a reflection of the needs of individuality itself – it is my unique place in community that I expect society to respect and sustain. If society cannot respect and support that very individuality why must I support it? If I must become not I in order to be valued and protected then I have no reason to commit myself to society.

It is curious how careless we are of diversity and true individuality in our thinking about society. All too quickly some rationale becomes the new god for society – and we must sacrifice ourselves for that artificial idol. I think that part of the reason that Judaism was so opposed to idols was precisely to protect the individual from this kind of mad social coercion.

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