Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: January 2014


There was a man of Cheng who was going to buy himself shoes. First he measured his foot; then he put the measurements away. When he got to the market he discovered that he had left them behind. After he found the shoes he wanted, he went home to fetch the measurements; but the marketplace was closed when he returned, and he never got his shoes. Someone asked him: “Why didn’t you use your own foot?” “I trusted the measurements more than my foot,” he replied.

Han Fei Tzu

This Chinese story reminds me of how often we find ourselves measuring things that don’t need to be measured. Instead of giving people choice and control we measure their satisfaction or their outcomes. So we exercise a subtle act of power – invalidating their choice and validating our own right to determine what we count as valuable.

Measuring has always been political. It was considered sacrilegious to carry out a census, precisely because such a census (which could then be used to levy taxes) was a way of giving power to the measurer – in this case the king.

Today we are more relaxed about measurement. We measure ourselves, take surveys, monitor our health and subject ourselves to a battery of bureaucratic measurements and assessments. But do we know why? Have we subjected ourselves to the measuring state in the hope that it will thereby take care of us?

As genetic controls increase such measurements will take on a new dimension – they will start to determine our credit scores, our suitability as a parent, the cost of our insurance. We may start to feel much less relaxed about giving up so much information about ourselves.

The Emptiness Within

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life… It is the actual spring of life within me.

Bertrand Russell from Selected Letters

Bertrand Russell was a celebrated atheist and one of the most important philosophers of the analytical school of philosophy that dominated the teaching of philosophy in Britain and America during the twentieth century.

This analytical approach hinges on a particular strategy for doing philosophy – identifying those truths that have certainty – and building out from there.

Hannah Arendt reflected on the problem with this strategy:

…truth is a rather difficult deity to worship because the only thing she does not allow her worshippers is certainty. Philosophy concerned with truth ever was and probably always will be kind of docta ignoratia – highly learned and therefore highly ignorant. The certainties of Thomas Aquinas afford excellent spiritual guidance and are still much superior to almost anything in the way of certainties which has been invented in more recent times. But certainty is not truth, and a system of certainties is the end of philosophy.

And Goethe made the same point rather more tartly:

To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.

This then leads us to the rather peculiar paradox – we may not be able to have certainty and truth.

To the religious this paradox is resolved through faith and an acknowledgement of the mystery of certain fundamental truths – but to the non-religious this seems like a cop-out. I see no intellectual trick which we use to harmonise these conflicting approaches to life. But I think that Russell’s honesty helps us understand something of the price paid by those who will only have truth with certainty, and so often find themselves without anything.

Diverse People Need Diverse Communities

Then he [Charles Martel] again: “Would man not be worse off
Below if he were not a social being?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and here I need no proof.”

“And how could that be so, if men on earth
Did not live diversely with diverse functions?
It cannot if your master [Aristotle] writes the truth.”

So he continued logically like this,
Then he concluded: “Now it follows that
The roots of your effects must be diverse:

So one is born a Solon, Xerxes one,
And one, Melchizedek, another he
Who, when he took to flying, lost his son.

Whirling nature, who puts her seal upon
The mortal wax, does her work well, but favours
One lodging no more than another one.

And so it comes about that Esau is
Estranged from Jacob in the womb, Quirinus, [Romulus]
Although base-born, is thought to come from Mars.

Those engendered would have to take the road
Taken by those who have engendered them,
Did not divine provision override.

Now that’s before your eyes which was behind,
And so that you may know how you delight me,
Here’s a corollary to wrap you round.

Face any nature with discordant fate,
And like a plant outside its proper climate
It cannot fail to yield a poor result.

And if the world down there only paid heed
To the foundations which are laid by nature,
And built on them, then people would be good.

But you’re perverting to religion such
As are born fitter to gird on the sword,
And fashion kings from men who ought to preach:

And so you wander off from the right road.”

Dante, Paradise VIII

I suspect Dante is not to everyone’s taste, but he is to mine, and this thought is one of his most important. At its heart is this simple but profound point – we are all made different. And this means that what we need to thrive – to make the most of natural talents and needs – is also going to vary.

However if we don’t recognise this simple truth then the dangers are great. For people will be mismatched in their work or their other roles.

Of course we cannot know, just by looking, what someones’s nature demands. The process of living is the process of finding out what does and does not work for us. But if we care about our own development, or the development of those we love, or the development of our fellow citizens, then we must care profoundly about the opportunities that society creates that allow people to explore for themselves what is the role for themselves.

But this requires two things – freedom and diverse communities.

I think this is a much healthier way of thinking about that rather dubious good – ‘social mobility’. Too often social mobility is defined in a class-bound and hierarchical way: how do we help people go upwards? (although defined in this silly way it must also logically mean: how do we help people go down?).

Dante offers us a different challenge: how do we build a society where everyone’s talents are recognised where there’s a positive role for everyone?

The First Welfare State

Moreover, philanthropy was an obligation too, since the word ‘zedakah’ meant both charity and righteousness. The Jewish welfare state in antiquity, the prototype of all others, was not voluntary; a man had to contribute to the common fund in proportion to his means, and this duty could be enforced by the courts. Maimonides even ruled that a Jew who evaded contributing according to wealth should be regarded as a rebel and punished accordingly. Other communal obligations included respect for privacy, the need to be neighbourly (i.e. to give neighbours first refusal of adjoining land put up for sale), and strict injunctions against noise, smells, vandalism and pollution.

Communal obligations need to be understood within the assumptions of Jewish theology. The sages taught that a Jew should not regard these social duties as burdens but as yet more ways in which men showed their love for God and righteousness.

Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews (1987)

Paul Johnson’s description of the Jewish Diaspora’s welfare system as the first welfare state may seem unwarranted. All societies are welfare societies – in the sense that all societies involve some kinds of interaction which benefit the welfare of some – if not all. In fact Herodotus describes a wide range of welfare system in his The Histories and The Bible also describes welfare systems that are at least 3,000 years old.

However, while I think that his claim may be hard to prove, it is certainly plausible, because it is based on two essential features of a welfare state – in its full and proper sense – both of which exceed earlier welfare systems.

First a proper welfare state must be built into the fabric of the community’s laws and must distinguish both rights and duties for all citizens. It must not be merely a system of state philanthropy or a system of mutual assistance. It must be underpinned by Law.

Second a proper welfare system must be inspired by Justice. By this I do not mean merely to repeat the first point. Justice excludes eugenic, elitist or discriminatory goals. Justice recognises the innate worth of each individual, in all their diversity. Justice demands deep respect for each individual. This is why the nineteenth century Poor Laws, and the eugenic welfare measures of Hitler do not qualify as welfare states, at least in the sense I am using the term here. In a sense they are anti-welfare states, because they deny the value of each human life. Instead they seek to promote the interests of an elite, a class, a race or some other group.

This explains why the Jewish Diaspora could well have created the first welfare state. For it was a society built, not on power, but only on the Torah – a combination of law and moral vision – united in one religion. Respect for the individual flowed naturally from the worship of God and the acknowledgement of God’s creation of Man ‘in his image’. And paradoxically, as the Diaspora lacked ‘a state’ it could only institute its measures through legally defined and prescribed communal practices – not through mere state coercion.

What can we learn from this?

If we see the ideal welfare state as a communal effort to ensure that each member of the community is bound together in their commitment to safeguard each other’s welfare and to respect each individuals’ worth and potential, then the Jewish example is inspiring. But its challenge is twofold:

If people do not believe that each human being is sacred then the kind of welfare we may seek to advance may not be respectful of human diversity, but may be eugenic, promoting some class, race or other utopian category of conformity. Can secular categories defend what is valuable in human diversity?

If we live with in a society dominated by a powerful state, one where the Law is seen to flow from the state – rather than fixing and limiting the state’s role – then we may find ourselves in a welfare system where those who run the state shape and determine what counts as welfare. Can we run a welfare state without a proper respect for Law?

Arguably this is what we do have: not a welfare state governed by a respect for human rights and Justice; not a welfare state organised to respect those rights and protect the interests of all. Instead we have a welfare state that is too often the tool of a state that doesn’t recognise rights and which pursues its own elitist, and often eugenic, dreamings.

This is not a counsel of despair. People of many religious views and none are capable of respecting human diversity. Societies are capable of respecting Law and protecting themselves from the abuses that flow form the concentration of political power. But we should not be naive. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the welfare state – and if we want the right kind of welfare state we will need to work hard at protecting both the values that underpin it and the institutions that make it possible.

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