Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: February 2014

Use and Abuse of Standards

To have standards or regulations imposed upon us means we all cannot succeed; some will make it and some will fail. It is by the nature of such measures that they must divide us into sheep and goats.

The only standards that we should really accept are those we willingly accept. Only the standards that we set for ourselves can keep pace with our own learning.

Of course society does need valid tests; but these should be as objective as possible. For instance, Charles Handy compared the UK’s driving test with its exam system:

  • The first test is objective, we take it when we are ready, and it tells us something useful – you really can drive – these kinds of tests are much harder for politicians to corrupt.
  • The second is a system of ranking, which we are herded through whether we are ready or not – and it has proved very easy to corrupt.

A driving test is a standard that we can measure ourselves by. Music exams have also remained robust – you take each Grade when you are ready to pass it.

But an exam system which seeks to grade us and which is also taken as measure of the success of the school or the area or the government becomes corrupt. Perhaps systems that try to test both the person and yet which are somehow taken as a measure of the system’s own successfulness seem prone to collapse under their own inner contradiction.

The Devolution of Blame

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not blaming Devolution, what I want to talk about is the opposite problem.

Emilie Whitaker coined the term “blame devolution” to describe, I think, the way in which bureaucracies or other hierarchical systems seek to devolve blame to the point of least resistance. For example, ‘Let’s blame the social worker.’

This fact corresponds to the principle outlined by my Greek grandfather-in-law, Petros Protopapadakis: The fish always rots from the head down. In other words, in any system, the likely point of responsibility for any failure will lie with its leadership.

There is a dreadful paradox which plays out behind these two truths: The centre tends to exploit the periphery, and so we grow to mistrust the periphery and try to push power and accountability to the centre. But we can end up with the worst of all possible worlds – more centralisation, giving the centre more power to abuse its power.

A better framework for dealing with such abuses is constitutional or legal. We must have rights to protect us form the abuse of power. And any necessary powers must be located with those who are best able to meet those rights. (This sometimes means central power, sometimes local and sometimes just personal freedom).

We must be on guard against the policy soundbite – the lazy assumption that decentralisation always means better. But at the same time we must also ensure that power and control are properly devolved outwards, as far away from the centre as is possible, and in a way that is consistent with our secure rights.

What Would Aristotle Make of Modern Britain?

Aristotle famously divided the forms of government into three:

  • Monarchy – rule by one
  • Aristocracy – rule by the best
  • Polity – rule by the many

Each in turn can be corrupted into:

  • Rule by a tyrant, who is concerned only with his own interests
  • Rule by oligarchs, an elite who protect their own interests
  • Rule by the mass or the mob, who look after the interests of the majority

In other words we can distinguish the structural forms of government, from their proper concern: which in all cases is a full and balanced concern for the whole community – over time – including respect for the past, as well as concern for the future.

How would Aristotle classify the modern welfare democracy of the UK today?

Structurally it is a mixed model: (1) a constitutional monarch (2) competing elites, taking turns to control a bureaucracy which is itself an elite, or transferring power to private businesses, where similar elite groups can be found (3) accountability every five years to the population through an election.

But what is the spirit of this trifold constitution? Is it properly concerned with the welfare of all and the communities well-being and continuity over time? Or is it only interested in promoting particular interests? Is it healthy or is it corrupt?

Aristotle was no fool. He would probably recognise that no society can ever manage to avoid some degree of corruption – people will just keep seeking to look after their own interests or the interests of their friends. But he would surely worry, looking at the UK today, that the direction of travel is unhealthy. The elites who run our society begin to look more and more like each other; and less and less like the rest of us. And their conception of what is good for society sounds more and more like what is good for them.

Living Forever

The patriarch Ching of Ch’i was with his companions on Mount Ox. As he looked northward out over his capital, tears rose in his eyes. “Such a splendid land,” he said, “swarming, burgeoning; if only I didn’t have to die and leave it as the waters pass! What if from from eldest times there were no death: would I ever have to leave here?”

His companions joined him in weeping. “Even for the simple fare we eat,” they said, “for the nag and plank wagon we have to ride, we depend upon our lord’s generosity. If we have no wish to die, how much less must our lord.”

Yen Tzu was the only one smiling, somewhat apart. The patriarch wiped away his tears and looked hard at Yen Tzu. “These two who weep with me share the sadness I feel on today’s venture,” said the patriarch. “Why do you alone smile, sir?”

“What is the worthiest ruled forever?” asked Yen Tzu. “Then T’ai or Huan would be patriarch forever. What if the bravest? Then Chuang or Ling would be patriarch forever. With such as those in power, my lord, you would now be in the rice fields, wearing a straw cape and bamboo hat, careworn from digging, with no time to brood over death. And then, my lord, how could you have reached the position you now hold? It was through the succession of your predecessors, who held and vacated the throne each in his turn, that you came to be lord over this land. For you to lament this is selfish. Seeing a selfish lord and his fawning, flattering subjects, I presumed to smile.”

The patriarch was embarrassed, raised his flagon, and penalised his companions two drafts of wine apiece.

Lieh Tzu

Sometimes I hear scientists or others express great excitement at the thought that we might use science to extend our lives for many years beyond our natural span. Then I hear others express great concern that the planet is becoming too full and that human numbers must be curtailed.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Life of course (by which I also mean death) is designed to balance things out. To allow the new to replace the old. To offer us each a time under the sun and on the planet. We cannot have our cake (longer and longer lives) and eat it too (no overcrowding, no change, no rebirth); unless, like the patriarch Ching of Ch’i we suddenly become myopic and imagine that only our life matters.

Of course the reality of our limits – our mortality – an awareness of which is a moral obligation – raises fundamental theological questions. What does life or time mean in heaven? What of our life now could be ‘transplanted’ into heaven? How is the idea of heaven reconcilable with what we know of our own requirements and essential limitations? Some will say that this provides good reason to doubt the reasonableness of heaven, others will argue that this just demonstrates the limits of human rationality and imagination.

Yet the fundamental truth, which is captured in this story, is that any mortal desire for immortality is the highest form of vanity – imagining that it is we who are somehow worthy of such a state, unwilling to recognise how much we have relied on the passing away of others, and unwilling to pass on our inheritance to our children and grand-children.

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