Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Day: July 4, 2011 (page 1 of 2)


Imagine a man who washes up on a desert island. He has all he needs, but then new people arrive on what he thinks of as ‘his island’. We can identify at least 4 different kinds of cases that each demand a different response:

Colonists – people who come to take over. He would reject any rights they claimed absolutely if he understood that they came to take ownership away from him.

Holiday-makers – people who come, but not to stay. They would be his guests, but he would want them to behave appropriately. They can go home – they are here for their pleasure (not to build a world) their rights would be limited.

Migrants – people who want to leave their old home, and who want to live with him – to build a world with him – although they still have a home. They should be made welcome as equals (ceteris paribus) – after all, they must judge that they can build a better world here than where they used to call home.

Exiles and Refugees – a man with no home, no one to go home to, no power and no rights is automatically at home when he lands on the island. His rights are as strong as the first man’s rights – in fact the first man is under a powerful obligation to help him settle – at his own expense.

The exile is our equal – a complete stranger to the land – has no other home than our home – and so is our complete and utter equal in rights and citizenship.

Turning Wealth into a Desert

Generosity can make a little enough; but envy always turns wealth into a desert.

Equality of Opportunity

When we demand equality we are rightly demanding recognition of our fundamental equality – our essential human dignity or worth. And naturally we often want this deep equality to be reflected in our social and economic conditions. This usually implies some kind of universal right or response, for example an equal right to high quality healthcare. However each right often has to be reflected in a personalised or tailored responses to that right: a particular entitlement that reflects particular needs. For example, I want the right medication for my particular condition.

One of the rights that is broadly accepted by everyone as a good thing is the right to equal opportunities. But when we demand equal opportunities we can easily slip between two very different conceptions of equality of opportunities:

  1. We may be demand that no specific difference is to be taken into account that is not relevant to the opportunity we seek. This is the demand that there should be no prejudice in offering people opportunities. For example, my skin colour should not effect whether you offer me a particular job.
  2. However this reasonable idea may then slip into a much more worrying account of equal opportunities – wanting the ‘best’ people to achieve the ‘best’ opportunities – this is the meritocratic hazard. On this view the problem is not one of unfair prejudice but that some kind of unfair obstacle is being put in the way of the ‘brightest and the best’. In fact this vision of equal opportunities is deeply prejudicial.

In fact there are no ‘best people’ (accept in relationship to specific opportunities) and there are no ‘best opportunities’ – unless we choose to narrow the paths open to us. Rather, if we let wealth, power and influence become the only kind of ‘best’ then we are on the path to hell.

Human differences are real and good. And human differences can flourish in all their diversity so long as we let there to be many different kinds of opportunities for that diversity to flourish. We need to let there be many different things that people can and should value – many different paths that we can explore – possibly even a unique path for each of us.

We must not let the rightful demand that there should be no prejudice slip into the dangerous demand that the powerful should be allowed to sort us according to their own narrow account of human worth.

The Best Donor

The best donor gives knowing that what is given is not their own – but is God’s.

Democratic Welfare

The struggle for democracy offers us a parallel to the struggle for decent welfare reform. Without this struggle political systems tend to autocracy and elitism.

Welfare reform does not mean unfair cuts or mindless tinkering from Whitehall.

Welfare reform should mean helping everyone have more control over their own lives, within an institutional framework that creates universal rights and opportunities for redress. Democracies have always attempted to achieve this – not just by creating processes for collective decision-making, but also by protecting the rightful autonomy of the individual from state intrusion.

We must end the feudal assumption of the elite that their power gives them the necessary authority and wisdom to rule every detail of our lives. A decent welfare system would give:

  • Clear universal rights to income, education, healthcare and disability support
  • Maximum control for citizens
  • Positive incentives for earning and saving
  • Stronger families and communities

It took a long time, and a lot of political organisation from outside the existing political elites, to ensure universal suffrage for men and women. We cannot expect the existing system to deliver positive change on its own; we will need organisation, ideas and alliances that make sense to ordinary people.

The Gift of Equality

He who treat as equals those who are far below him in human strength really makes them a gift of the quality of human beings, of which fate had deprived them. As far as it is possible for a creature, he reproduces the original generosity of the Creator with regard to them.

This is the most Christian of virtues. It is also the virtue which the Egyptian Book of the Dead describes in words as sublime even as those of the Gospel. “I have never caused anyone to weep. I have never spoken with a haughty voice. I have never made anyone afraid. I have never been deaf to words of justice and truth.”

Simon Weil from Forms of the Implicit Love of God

This gift is not a form of patronage. Rather we can only share with each other the gift of equality when we realise the ultimate emptiness of the other person’s power over us. However, this is only really possible if we can identify some source of self that is not locked into the natural world – with all the differences it throws up and reinforces.

We might also say that we have chosen equality as a moral ideal – but what lies behind the power of that ideal is not an empty choice or individual preference; instead it is a reflection of the true nature of things.

Four Kinds of Designer

There are four kinds of designer or innovator, each with their own style. No style is right; each has its merits and its limitations:

Radical design – this is direct and active – it tries to identify a core functional structure – for example, making a garden from scratch. The radical designer is still constrained, but tends to treat all existing constraints as ultimately negotiable (although is clearly an impossible extreme – many constraints will continue to frame the design, even if they are in the unconscious of the designer).

Compensatory design – this is indirect and passive – it accepts the limitations of all the prevailing structures and identifies a different functionality – for example, putting a building into an existing garden. The compensatory designer is respectful of all constraints; how this is also an impossibly conservative extreme – anything new must in some way change what was already in place.

Adaptive design is direct and passive – it accepts the constraints of the prevailing structures, but tries to find new ways of building in functionality – for example, managing a garden over time. The adaptive designer is mindful of the finite nature of resources, and seeks to massage the given into something more useful.

Constructive design is indirect and active – it treats the foundations of the structure as fixed, but tries to add new or positive features – adding plants, sculpture to an existing garden. The constructive designer is highly tolerant of additions, of bells and whistles, of new features and new ideas.

For those of us involved in trying to reform the welfare system we must be mindful of these different styles of design. Often we may find that we agree about the need for redesign but that we do not share a notion of what kind of design is best. Simplifying we might say:

  • Theorists tend to be radical designers – “What we really need is…” or “The system is wrong!”
  • Bureaucrats are compensatory designers – “We can’t possibly change anything that already exists!”
  • Managers are adaptive designers – “How can we reshape what we already have?”
  • Advocates are often constructive designers – “We need something different and new” or “That change is wrong!

Each designer has their own burden to carry and we are wise to recognise that each has their proper place. Those of us who think that the welfare system is badly designed at a very deep level will need to show some patience with those who have a different temperament and we will need to explore to what extent merely adding, adapting or developing new features can still help move us towards a more just settlement. We may even need to accept that our own radical ideas will need to be reinterpreted as additions, adaptions or developments by others. For there will be some truth in such an interpretation.

Irony of Education

The irony of education is that while as a process it demands all the plurality and innovation required in any attempt to reach the most exalted outcome, there is no way that outcome can be defined accept by reference to the process of learning itself. And so it is always in danger of slipping into something beneath education.

First we may slip into assuming that we are aiming at some specific (if unstated) goal, like ‘suitable for employment by the modern state’. Second we may slip into taking the process of education, or one of its tokens, as the goal ‘a good degree’. These mistakes are both corruptions of education – turning it into the tool of an elite or into empty gestures.

But this is not education.

It may be training – and training can be very useful if you know what you ought to be doing – but it is not education.

Education is a ‘leading out’ – even if the ‘where we are going’ is not crystal clear. Hence we must see education as the development of what is already innate. Education presumes the value of learner, their passions and interest, and is informed by a strong sense of moral value.

Such a process must combine love for the learner – a love which may require discipline – along with the exercise of authority by the educator. The character of the relationship is possibly a better guide to the reality of education than anything else.

Educational Totalitarianism

Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

This all makes good sense to me – but it is not how our actual education system works.

Each time that someone tries to fix the final purpose of education then they are engaged in a kind of totalitarian determination to fix the purpose of human life. They are wilfully trying to limit the ends of others by their own definition of what it is that human beings should learn, think and do. 

Good education implies freedom – faith in the unfolding of human potential. It does not require politicians to tell us what we should learn, how we should learn nor the purpose of our learning.

When the latest edict from the Department of Education tells us what the state intends to teach our children this week we should laugh at the absurdity of it all.

When Dawn has Arrived

A rabbi asked his students how they could tell when the dawn had come and morning prayers could be said.

One student responded by saying, “When you can see the sheep on the hill.”

Another suggested that one can tell that the dawn has come when a person is able to distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine.

“No,” said the wise one. “It is dawn when you can look into the faces of human beings and you have enough light within you to recognise them as your sisters and brothers.”

An Hasidic tale passed on by John O’Brien.

Crazy Systems

A crazy system is one that defeats the purpose it was set up to achieve:

  • When a system of income security discourages the poor from earning or saving money – this is craziness
  • When families can only get support when they have broken down – this is craziness
  • When children leave school feeling worthless – this is craziness
  • When people end up in hospital for lack of some modest support in the community – this is craziness

Often craziness is added in very subtle ways when we confuse the real goal with a false proxy: for instance we think the problem is to get people off benefits, instead of seeing the problem as one of poverty and poor incentives.

Perhaps craziness slips in when the appearance of achieving the goal becomes more important than actually achieving the goal – unfortunately this is the norm for party politics.

Giving as God has Given

Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. On the first day of the week let everyone of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whosoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality to Jerusalem. And if it be meet that I go also, they shall go with me.

 1 Corinthians 16: 1-4

This description of charity in early Church has two interesting features. Clearly Paul expects his listeners to give according to their means – or better according to how God has given to them. Paul knows that what we have is not really ours at all.

Paul also knows that care and attention must be paid to how these alms are distributed so he asks people to think carefully about who they will entrust with the important job of taking the alms to Jerusalem. This same thought is found in Maimonides and clearly reflects an important Jewish awareness of both the need to give and the hazards of giving charity thoughtlessly.

The Gift of Judgement

Arendt accepts from Kant that judgement emerges as a “peculiar talent which can be practised only and cannot be taught” because “judgement deals with particulars, and when the thinking ego moving among generalities emerges from its withdrawal and returns to the world of particular appearances, it turns out that the mind needs a new “gift” to deal with them.”

 Hannah Arendt (paraphrased by Minnich)

This may seem a very hard and complex thought, but it is important because it helps us understand both the power and limitation of thought when it comes to actually understanding the real world before us. Arendt was very aware of how theories or ideologies could go madly out of control. How one attractive thought  – like equality is good – can drive us to bloody acts of horror – if that thought was allowed to follow its own tracks.

Respect for the limitations of thoughts, theory and ideology is at the heart of her work. Instead we need perspective, communication and a kind of humility in the face of a complex reality which will always somehow escape our grasp.

Justice and Mercy

“Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha said: Once when I entered into the innermost part [of the sanctuary] to offer incense I saw Akhateriel Yah,  [trans. the crown of God] seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me, “Ishmael, My son, bless Me!” I replied, “May it be Your will that Your mercy subdue Your wrath and Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, so that You deal with Your children, according to the attribute of mercy; and may You, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!” And He nodded His head toward me. Here we learn [incidentally] that the blessing of an ordinary man is not to be regarded lightly in our eyes.”

 From the Jewish Book of Legend

In the Jewish and Christian tradition we are all too aware that we need God to stop short of the demands of strict justice and that mercy must subdue God’s proper wrath.

Why God Does Not Reveal Himself

Hadrian Caesar asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, “Does the world have a master?”Rabbi

 Joshua: “Can you possibly suppose that the world is ownerless?”

 Hadrian: “And who created heaven and earth?”

 Rabbi Joshua: “The Holy One as stated: ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’” (Genesis 1:1)

 Hadrian: “Then why does He not reveal Himself twice a year, so that mortals may see Him and the awe of Him be upon them?”

Rabbi Joshua: “Because the world cannot endure His radiance, as is said, “No man shall see Me and live’” (Exodus 33:20) 

 Hadrian: “If you do not show Him to me, I will not believe you.”

 At midday Rabbi Joshua had Hadrian stand facing the sun and said, “Look directly at the sun and you will see Him.”

 Hadrian: “Who can possibly look directly at the sun, which is but one of the thousand thousands and myriad myriads of servitors who minister before Him, all the less can a creature look at Him, at the Holy One, whose radiance fills the world.”

 Hadrian: “When will He reveal His glory?”

 Rabbi Joshua: “When idols shall have perished from the world.”

 From the Jewish Book of Legend

Hadrian thinks he wants to see God. But he cannot conceive of God as anything but the greatest of idols – something else in the world with power over us. God does not endanger our freedom like this. We are free to follow our idols. But we are also free to follow the path of faith.

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