Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: February 2012

Thought is Like a Ladder

Thought is like a ladder, it can quickly extend to the stars. But to be of any use it must lean on something solid.

Taxing Love

You can’t redistribute love. 

Love is the most important thing in life. It is what keeps us strong, makes great children and build good citizens.

The government cannot take away someone else’s love and use it on other people. Love is bound up with real human relationships, commitments and families.

However, while the government cannot redistribute love it can tax love and often does so in ways that are highly damaging. In the UK system we find love taxed in many ways:

  • If you are in poverty and live together then you lose benefits
  • A family where one partner is working loses the tax allowances of the non-working partner
  • If you need care or support you are often deemed ineligible if you have family in your life

So we punish people for love, impose taxes on families, means-test family strength. For example, disabled people have sometimes found social workers encouraging them to get a divorce in order to be entitled to higher levels of benefits or social care.

The design of the current tax-benefit system is anti-love – it punishes and penalises people for being in relationships and it incentivises family breakdown. The answer is not to reduce benefits but to design a system that does not punish love.

Brokered by Love

Happiness and virtue are brokered by love.

In moral philosophy there is a significant divide between:

  • Those who think morality has a purpose – telos – or 
  • Those who believe moral action is just about doing the right thing – with no reference to a goal.

In my Phd thesis I have argued at length that the moral understanding cannot be reduced to either perspective, that it is ultimately founded in our experience of duty, but that duties reaches out to virtue both in its respect for rights, but also in its desire for the good.

However another way of looking at this dilemma is much easier.

Think about bringing up your child. You want your child to be happy (and this can have many meanings) and you want your child to be good (and this can have many meanings). But what is the exercise of loving your child if it is not the effort of reconciling these two objectives. The paradoxical hope of true love is that our children will live long and contented lives but that they become the kind of people who know when they must sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Only love, not empty rationality, can reconcile this paradox.

Making the Story True

“Pride” she [Isak Dinesen] once wrote in her notebook, “is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realise it.”

…she did write some tales about what must have been for her the obvious lesson of her youthful follies, namely, about the “sin” of making a story come true, of interfering with life according to a preconceived pattern, instead of waiting patiently for the story to emerge, of repeating in imagination as distinguished from creating a fiction and then trying to live up to it.

Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

Pride is the first sin and yet it seems such a natural and unavoidable part of being human and of having some notion of our own purpose, destiny or value. In the Greek tradition pride is something proper – often it almost seems to be the point of everything – think of Ajax on the beach. But in the Jewish and Christian tradition pride is always problematic.

Elie Wiesel tells this Hasidic tale:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

I love this thought. It seems to truly capture what is necessary in pride, and yet, it properly puts pride in its place.

Part of what it takes to ‘fight pride every day and at every moment’ is also to be found in the idea of ‘letting the story emerge…’. The vanity of pride is not found so much in the fact that we value ourselves but in that we pretend to know what to value in ourselves – how to define the pattern of our own life. This is real vanity. Stories are not projects – they evolve and they are changed by the world and its contingencies.

We must live our lives with imagination. We must tell and listen to the stories. We are looking for meaning. But we must not force the story to come true or feel defeated when the story takes an unexpected turn. This is why proper pride is an act of faith, not knowledge; we must have faith in our value – but not pretend to know what that value actually is.

How Euthanasia leads to Eugenics

…a [Nazi] Ministry of Justice Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Code drafted a similar law sanctioning “mercy killing” of people suffering from incurable diseases. The law read, in part: 

“Clause 1 Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to him or others, can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor. 

“Clause 2 The life of a person who because of incurable mental illness requires permanent institutionalisation and is not able to sustain an independent existence, may be prematurely terminated by medical procedures in a painless and covert manner.” 

From Forgotten Crimes by Susanne E Evans

Notice that the first clause is almost exactly what those seeking to advance euthanasia in the UK are putting forward as a reasonable legal measure. And notice the easy and natural step to by-passing the question of voluntary choice for those who might be deemed lacking mental capacity.

There is hardly a break between euthanasia and eugenics – the first creates the licence to ignore the dignity of human life, the second gives others the duty to ignore it.

The Rich need the Poor

The Scotsman reported on 3rd February 2012:

High-earning migrants and promising student entrepreneurs will find it easier to work in Britain as the coalition aims to ensure only “the right people are coming here”, the Immigration Minister has said. Damian Green, a Conservative MP, said middle managers, unskilled labourers and benefit seekers would be kept out as the coalition seeks only migrants who “add to the quality of life in Britain.”

When politicians tell us that the only immigrants that will be welcome are those who will make a positive contribution and then goes on to exclude ‘middle managers, unskilled labourers and benefit seekers’ I am left wondering:

Does Damian Green believe that the millions of existing citizens in the UK who are middle managers, manual workers (I will drop the term ‘unskilled’ as nobody is unskilled) and people who rely on benefits (and there goes another tale) don’t add to the quality of life in Britain?

Together these groups represent more than half of the UK population. So, on this basis, Damian Green believes that most people in the UK don’t add to the quality of life. I hate to think where he would put disabled people or people with poor health.

The prevalent philosophical belief – rampant in all political parties – is in meritocracy: that the best should rule. They are the best (in their own heads at least) and the rest of us should be grateful for the great efforts they make on our behalf. In their imaginings: they contribute, we take.

Of course we are left with the paradox faced by all meritocrats – they need us to rule over and they need us to do all the things they think are beneath them. At its worst such thinking leads to eugenics – and we are certainly slipping down that slope.

I am reminded of a thought by someone much wiser, Rebbe Shmelke, who said:

The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.

Sufficient unto the Day

Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Matthew 6:34

nolite ergo esse solliciti in crastinum
crastinus enim dies sollicitus edit sibi ipse
sufficit diei malitia sua


I love the phrase from the King James Bible: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ When things look really black and worries pile high it helps to remember that you only have to focus on what is in front of you now.

Two things are also worth noticing about this saying from Jesus.

First, although the King James translation talks about having ‘no thought for the morrow’ the Vulgate says ‘don’t be worried about tomorrow’ and this seems more realistic. We have to plan – in so far as is reasonable – to avoid any additional evils that the tomorrow may bring. But we don’t have to bear the burden of them as worries.

Second, there is no doubt that tomorrow may bring evil – and this is something to worry about – there and then. Jesus is not a stoic; he is not saying that bad things don’t matter or that they are only a function of our desires and aspirations. For Christians the world should be good and our best aspirations and their fulfilment are also good. Christianity is not nihilistic and it is not interested in annulling our desires.

But this also means that when evil comes then evil must be resisted and overcome – not wished away.

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