Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: November 2011

Long-shot Utopias

The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future – reaching out into the far future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake. And it is a defect in such enthusiasts that they seem unwilling to leave anything to Providence, unwilling even to leave the future flexible, as one must do; and they forget that in any case, for all we know, our successors may decide to switch ideals and look for a different utopia before any of our long shots have reached their objective, or any of our long-range projects have had fulfilment. It is agreeable to all the processes of history, therefore, that each of us should rather do the good that is straight under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump, that those who are ever thinking that life is vain unless one can act though the central government, carry legislation, achieve political power and do big things.

From Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History

I came across the wonderful book in a second-hand book store in Sheffield – it is a real forgotten treasure: a great history Professor reflecting upon the relationship of history to faith and moral action.

I love this passage partly because it describes so well one of those tempting traps all dreamers can fall into. We think we know what should be done, we think we know what the future should be like, we think we should be the one to push the buttons. But this is all vain: the truths we’ve grasped are only partial, whatever we want others may not want, and there are no buttons – life is far too complex to be directed by anyone – least of all us.

These points seem true regardless of our faith or any lack of faith. However Butterfield also describes how faith in Providence – God working his purposes out over time – can help us manage our anxiety and our passion for moral change. A combination of utopian dreaming and atheism is particularly dangerous because you can have no faith that change will happen right, unless it is you who are in charge of that change (for there is no guiding Providence at work). More frighteningly still, you are free to breach all moral principles in pursuit of your dream, because nothing matters except the dream.

Social Mobility and Meritocracy

At the same time there existed in the sphere of the world a land that was called the country of wealth after the nature of its inhabitants. They saw in money alone the goal of their life and would recognise no other profit and no other perfection than possession. Thus all posts of honour and all ranks among them were regulated by this valuation. It was necessary to own a certain amount in order merely to be a man; he who did not possess this much stood lower and occupied in their esteem the rank of a manlike animal, and was called such. He owned more than that minimum amount occupied a higher position, and a very rich man stood near the stars; for he had, so they believed, the power of the stars, which cause gold to grow in the bowels of the earth. But the richest of all, who could never grasp all that was theirs or even merely survey it, these they exalted to gods above them and served them in the dust. It was ordered that each show his possessions every year so that he could maintain his station, rise, or fall, and it was then possible at times that from a man, an animal would come into being, and from an animal, a man.

From The Master of Prayer by Rabbi Nachman, as told by Martin Buber

Rabbi Nachman’s fable captures brilliantly the interwoven madness of two contemporary obsessions:

Meritocracy involves the crazy desire to equate wealth and power with merit (today often equated to academic excellence). Once we think this through we can see that there is no merit in meritocracy – in fact we might say that as those with merit are already blessed perhaps we should be happy to see those without merit get the distinct benefits of power or money. Meritocracy is greed.

But meritocracy also invites the craziness of social mobility. On one reading social mobility – if we can abandon the notion of up and down – is harmless or good. It is certainly bad if a natural footballer is forced to play cricket, a natural comedian runs a funeral parlour or a natural gardner becomes an accountant. However the idea that there is any virtue in people getting much richer than their parents and (and by logical necessity that there is virtue in seeing people become much poorer than their parents) is nonsense. It is an illusion that is only credible if we also believe in meritocracy.

The Value of Stories

It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the “day of judgement.”

Hannah Arendt from her essay on Isak Dinesen

Many academics are rather snobby about the value of stories.

But think about what a story does.

Telling a story is a way of revealing the reality of a person – not trying to fully comprehend that – but to try and see it – honestly. Any individual life is too much, too rich and too mysterious, to be captured by any limited perspective. But we can listen, we can learn and we can explore meanings – together.

On the other hand if we discard all that and say that truth must be in the numbers then first we need to create some simplistic account of what matters – one that will give ‘good maths’. We then abandon persuasion and exploration. We try to win – but often it is mere a trickery, an illusion that depends upon ignoring all the other questions you didn’t ask.

The Survival of Justice

The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.

Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.

Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.

From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.

The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.

Space Disabled

The use of the term ‘disabled’ is complex and disputed.

In the UK the term ‘disabled people’ is preferred to ‘people with disabilities’. Disabled people can wear it with pride. It is used as a badge of identity and, if it refers to anything, it refers to the prejudice or obstacles that confront some of us because of our impairments or our differences. Disability is not in me – disability is in the social circumstances that make life more difficult for some of us.

Other English-speaking countries take exactly the opposite approach and reject the concept of a disabled person because it seems to imply that in some way our personhood is disabled – as if we were not fully functioning as a person.

For instance, the Canadian philosopher (and woman with a disability) Judith Snow rejects the concept of a disabled person because being unable to do certain things without assistance does not make one disabled.  “I cannot get to the moon unaided – but I am not space disabled.” The fact that someone needs more than an average level of assistance in one area of life, where others require less assistance, does not mean that they are any less of a person.

Personhood does not depend on our ability to perform some set of tasks: there’s no ability test for being a person.

As she points out, any distribution of abilities follow the normal curve. For any specific ability there will be some who are very able, some who are less able, while most will be in the middle. There will be those of us who can’t run, those of us who can run very fast indeed and the rest of us who might just manage a jog.

The crucial point here is that the normal curve is normal; it is just the way that inevitable variations in the natural world get distributed. There’s nothing special about it.

But it seems that we struggle to treat these variations and differences as natural. Natural variation gets turned into a kind of weapon. Some are tempted to see themselves as superior, just because they are lucky to have an ability at one end of the curve. Some may start to feel they are inferior, just because they happen to have an ability at the other end of the curve. Some may even glory in just being normal. The normal curve becomes a weapon for oppressing and harming others or even ourselves.

Even worse, the idea of disability may be treated as if it refers to some kind of failed version of a thing. As she notes, we do not really think of a ‘disabled car’ as a particular kind of car, we see it as a failed car – a car that does not work anymore. Applying disability to humans in this way is dangerous nonsense.

Judith Snow does not reject the existence of abilities or disabilities – so long as we understand that this concept is a doubly relative term: relative to a particular human activity and relative to the distribution of that activity. There is nothing bad about these variations in the distribution of capacity – and nothing unfair. It is all just a part of our natural human diversity.

Snow rejects the notion that our human status that can be switched off, or even diminished, by our abilities. We ourselves are not disabled, we cannot be disabled.

However UK perspectives also makes perfect sense. In a world where people use the term ‘disabled’ of people then it makes good sense to say: Okay, that’s me – but if you see a problem the problem is in you – not me.

But it also makes sense to say that you can’t apply the term ‘disabled’ to people – its bad grammar.

Both agree that the adjective ‘disabled’ does not really qualify the noun ‘person’ – but each chooses to make a different moral point in their response to the fact that some people do use the term as if it does apply to people:

We are a group – we have an identity, which we control and of which we are proud.


I am a person – don’t rule me out, don’t ignore me or degrade me.  

Both perspectives are entirely valid. So let’s use them both.

The Incompetence of the Clever

Much of society is organised on the principle that we should leave decisions in the hands of those who are most competent to make them. But we often confuse competence with cleverness. However clever you are there are very real limits to your competence at making decisions on behalf of other people:

  • Understanding – you don’t really know how I think or what I value
  • Position – you can’t take the opportunities or avoid the hazards that lie before me
  • Social – you can’t replace me in relationships of love, work, friendship
  • Motivation – you can’t really avoid putting your own interests before mine

It is a special temptation for the clever to think they can act on everyone else’s behalf. It is a deep incompetence which is often masked by phoney rationality and a dismissive attitude to those they see as somehow beneath them. The clever folk who rule us do appear to have made this error – and have left the wisdom of true leadership behind.

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