What Does Studying Classics at Oxford Teach You about Running a Country?

An article in the Guardian declared the Oxford University degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) “the degree that rules Britain.” Here’s a snapshot of the UK political and media elite from a few years ago:

“Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.

Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukip’s two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Comments on the day’s developments were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.

On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Times statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an election column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, studied PPE at Oxford.”

The subjects of Philosophy, Politics and Economics were clearly combined into a degree that would attract those with ambitions to take leading roles in running a country.

There was a time when a degree in Classics (ancient languages, literature, history and philosophy) would have been thought to be the subject of choice for those wanting to run the country, or the Empire as it was, not just for career politicians but also for those in public administration.

A degree in Classics is the degree the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, holds. Before him you’d have to go back more than half a century for a Classicist Prime Minister to Harold Macmillan (1957-63) who also happens to have been at the same school (Eton) and the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson.

Anthony Kenny, who was Master of Balliol College when Johnson was a student there, wrote about Johnson’s time at Balliol:

On the basis of the tutors’ reports, I formed the judgement that while Boris had the necessary intelligence, he lacked the appropriate diligence to achieve the first-class degree that he clearly felt was his due. Though he sat lightly to formal academic obligations, Boris did acquire a genuine love of the classics during his undergraduate years…

This genuine love and to some extent mastery of the classics is obvious from stories like the one (told here) from Johnson’s time as a journalist in Brussels:

In the days when French was the only language authorised in the EU press operation, Johnson once asked a question in Latin. He wanted to know more about some directive supposedly intended to enforce the use of the Latin names of fish to facilitate the common fisheries policy.

Johnson also gets journalists to cover forgotten celebrities like the 5th century BC Roman legend Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus by saying things like this (when asked in 2009 whether he’d want to be party leader and Prime Minister):

“In the immortal words of Michael Heseltine, I cannot foresee the circumstances in which I would be called upon to serve [as prime minister]. If, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help out.”

This is knowledge of Roman history used as a stylistic device to present oneself in a certain light. Cincinnatus had such a reputation for competence in leadership that he was brought back into a position of great political responsibility, even as he was busy just doing work on his small agricultural holding. The words that the Roman historian Livy uses ahead of the episode Johnson alludes to are:

“It is worth those persons’ while to listen, who despise all things human in comparison with riches, and who suppose that there is no room for exalted honour, nor for virtue, unless where riches abound in great profusion. Lucius Quintius [Cincinnatus], the sole hope of the Roman people, cultivated a farm of four acres, at the other side of the Tiber, which are called the Quintian meadows…”

There are very few clearer contrasts than that between Cincinnatus  and a current-day career politician who spends all his life plotting to achieve the highest political office.

Another Classics moment in Johnson’s career is the fact that he, as Mayor of London during the 2012 London Olympic Games, commissioned a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, to write an Olympic Ode in ancient Greek and in the style of Pindar. Johnson recited it himself at an opening gala.

But besides the odd recherché reference and the occasional lapse into Greek or Latin, what else might Johnson’s time at Oxford  have taught him about running a country?

There is an episode of his life in student politics at the Oxford Union remembered by Anthony Kenny that looks like an early lesson in political self-presentation:

In 1986, he ran for the presidency of the Union. Though nothing like as rabid as the Balliol JCR, the Union was sufficiently left wing for it to be inconceivable for a Tory to be elected as president. Boris concealed his Conservative affiliation and let it be widely understood that he was a Social Democrat. So far as I know, he told no actual lies, but his strategy recalled Macaulay’s words about the difference between lying and deceiving: ‘Metternich told lies all the time, and never deceived any one; Talleyrand never told a lie and deceived the whole world.’ With Talleyrand-like skill, Boris got himself elected as President of the Oxford Union in Trinity Term.

Shortly after this I was telephoned by an SDP MP, Dick Taverne, who told me that he was looking for an intern to work for him during the vacation. He inquired whether I could suggest any candidates. ‘I’ve just the man for you’, I said, ‘bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the Union, and his name is Boris Johnson.’ When I summoned Boris to ask whether he was interested in the job, he burst out laughing: ‘Master, don’t you know I am a died-in-the-wool Tory?’

Toby Young, a contemporary of Johnson’s at Oxford, said that Johnson “had successfully courted the backing of the leftwing Limehouse Group to secure victory. He didn’t join the group but was seen at one of its parties. According to Young, Johnson also stopped describing himself, for the period of the Union election campaign as a Conservative and rebranded himself as an environmentalist.

There may be parallels between that episode and the 2019 leadership campaign during which Johnson was relatively hard to pin down on his views and avoided many opportunities to communicate them, but was seen in the presence of various fractions of his party, associating himself with both the One Nation Group and the hard Brexit plans of the European Reform Group.

When Johnson almost became Prime Minister in 2016, Anthony Kenny was reminded of the time Johnson, almost achieved a first-class degree, but had to settle for a 2:1 instead:

In 1987, Boris sat the final examinations. He was determined to get a first, and seemed confident that he could do so on the basis of six weeks of really hard work. Perhaps he might have been able to do so had he taken eight weeks: quite a few firsts have been gained on the basis of a last-minute spurt. But some weeks after the end of the examinations, Boris was summoned from France, told that his work was on the borderline between the first and second class, and instructed to appear for a viva, or oral examination. A day or two later Boris knocked on my door, and presented a very humble appearance – the only time I have ever seen him do so. ‘I am to be viva’d on Aristotle’, he said. ‘My tutor is in France – but I hear you know something about Aristotle. Would you be kind enough to give me a tutorial in preparation?’ So we sat together for the best part of a day and went over a number of likely questions. In spite of this expert assistance, however, Boris achieved only an upper second. That is something that he has never forgotten. Nor has David Cameron, who got a first – not, in [Classics] however, but in PPE, as Boris likes to remind people.

There are critics of Johnson who would claim that his unwillingness to put in the hard work over a sustained period of time still disqualifies him from the highest achievements of political office. In 2016, some of those who pulled the plug on Johnson’s bid for the party leadership cited a lack of seriousness. The media reported as emblematic the fact that Johnson took a day out to play cricket on a day that was crucial to the leadership campaign.

The attitude on display smacks of what a previous Balliol Prime Minister, Asquith, called the Balliol man’s “tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority.” That is to say, one is meant to want and acquire the top office, the best degree, a superior grasp of one’s subject, but one shouldn’t be seen to make an effort in acquiring it. One is meant to have it despite not working very hard, despite, say, occasionally just playing cricket for a day.

Anthony Kenny became disenchanted with his former student, Boris Johnson, over the fact that Johnson supported the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union. His final recorded reflections on Johnson, are these:

I reflected ruefully on the college’s part in his education. We had been privileged to be given the task of bringing up members of the nation’s political elite. But what had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No. What had we taught? Was it only how to make witty and brilliant speeches? I comforted myself with the thought that even Socrates was very doubtful whether virtue could be taught.

If we were going to stay with Kenny’s initial instinct that Johnson’s future conduct and programme of Government reflects on his college, his university and on the way Classics is taught, what should we look out for? In contrast to many of the populist politicians with which Johnson is often classed, he has enjoyed an elite education and spent four years of his life studying classical history, literature and philosophy. If that isn’t meant to have any kind of influence on his truthfulness, wisdom, morality, or at least an influence that could broadly be called civilising, then what is it meant to be doing?

One of the texts that should haunt anyone observing populist politicians, which I’m sure no one with a degree in Classics would have been able to avoid, is the beginning of Plato’s Republic, where the challenge to Socrates’ ethics is fiercely put by an aggressive sophist called Thrasymachus. Known as Thrasymachus’ challenge, or the immoralist’s challenge, the passage contains the following language. In the translation of Benjamin Jowett, another former master of Balliol College, who took the view that learning Classics at Oxford was a good preparation for men to go into the Indian Civil Service, it goes like this:

“You fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens of tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable –that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace – they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.”

In a post-truth environment, the worry must be that the populist politicians are adopting Thrasymachus’ programme of lying and stealing on a grand scale. Why should they, they might think, tell the truth, when they can get away with lying? Why should the bother with fair taxation when they can get away with enriching themselves and their friends through the tax system? It is crucial that people learn that the immoralist’s challenge doesn’t succeed.

And yet, I know that there is a strand of teaching Plato at Oxford that consists of a lecturer taking a passage of Plato, treating it as an argument in analytical philosophy and showing up its deficiencies as an argument (Well… drawing the conclusion Plato does from his premises is a non-sequitur… It might work if Plato helps himself to this additional premise that he uses in such-and-such other dialogue, but then that contradicts what he does here.) It is quite possible to learn that Plato didn’t succeed in defeating the Thrasymachus’ challenge in the Republic. I’m pretty sure a tutor once told me not to read Plato for the philosophy but for the Greek prose style.

Clearly Jowett’s vision, that one could read Livy in order to be like Cincinnatus, rather than give oneself a learned – and at the same time humble – air, or that one could read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics to learn about governing an Empire have deservedly failed with the decline and fall of the British Empire and the many ways in which post-colonial analysis shows how problematic it was for the British to think that they were the successors to the Greeks and Romans in their colonialism.

But that shouldn’t mean that those teaching future elites (another problematic concept in itself), have no responsibility for teaching them about how to be good at being an elite. Anthony Kenny, Jonathan Barnes and others who would have taught Johnson are leading experts in ancient philosophy. They awarded him a good, almost a top, degree in the subject they taught. What he learned, is something we have yet to see as he starts his position at the top of Government.

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Determinism 14 – Prometheus, Determinism and the Unfree Will

Over the last 13 posts on determinism and free will (starting here), I’ve changed my mind a few times about a number of things concerning the determined nature of our existence and the free will we can exercise. Recently, a Greek myth popped into my mind as having relevance and the idea of deducing a few things by examining physical freedom as a close parallel to freedom of the will.

Looking to a Greek myth for inspiration should be uncontroversial: The Greek myths, and Greek tragedy in which they are often presented, have a good grasp on what it means to be a human being in this universe. They present pointed case studies for various aspects of the human condition. While they form part of the ancestry of our culture, they stem from a time before other important aspects of our culture emerged. And so, for example, they are untouched by things like Judaeo-Christian monotheism and the ethical framework that comes with it, the consumer society, not to mention the internet of things. And so they contain raw material without the overlay of some of the things that shape our daily experience.

Treating physical freedom as informative for freedom of the will shouldn’t be equally uncontroversial. Just because the word “freedom” is involved in both contexts doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take for granted common meanings and characteristics of the concepts. The parallel is something that needs to be investigated and argued for, rather than taken for granted.

The story of Prometheus takes place after Zeus and his family of Olympian gods overthrew the previous generation of gods, led by Zeus’ father Kronos. Prometheus was a titan who helped Zeus in this palace coup. But when Zeus wanted to wipe out mankind and populate earth with a new generation of better creatures, Prometheus helped human beings by giving them fire – a symbol for technology -, arts and sciences, as well as all sorts of practical skills.  He also, according to the tragedian Aeschylus, “caused men no longer to foresee their death” and cured their misery by planting “firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness.” (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about that cure for misery, but let’s not get sidetracked.) For this service to humanity, Zeus punished Prometheus. He was punished by being tied to a cliff at the end of the world, underneath him the Ocean, which in Greek geographical thought surrounded the earth. Aeschylus describes in detail how the divine blacksmith Hephaestus is forced to tie Prometheus’ arms to the cliff, as well as his legs, and for good measure to put a bolt through his chest into the rock. To ensure that Prometheus could never quite enjoy any kind of peace of mind, Zeus’ eagle visits him daily to chew his liver. This, we are assured by reliable sources, is a painful process.

So Prometheus stands (or hangs) pretty much for the least free person in the world. 13 generations later, the hero Hercules, frees him. Let’s assume that this was a piecemeal process. Perhaps, first of all, Hercules shooed away the eagle and told him in no uncertain terms never to come back to pester Prometheus. Prometheus already feels a bit freer. Without the daily pain and the constant threat of pain, he can focus at least for a while each day on planning for greater freedom. Let’s say Hercules then takes out the bolt from Prometheus’ chest. This is another increase in freedom. It may not sound like much if you’re not hanging from a cliff above the ocean, but for Prometheus at the time, we must imagine, it was nice just to be able to stretch his upper body a bit. Then let’s assume Hercules creates a little ledge in the cliff and unties Prometheus’ arms and legs. While Prometheus is now a man with the freedom to lie, sit, stand and walk at most a few steps in either direction on a ledge in a cliff, he still feels immeasurably freer than he felt before. But then let’s imagine Hercules lifts him up out of the cliff and puts him on firm ground, maybe gives him some clothes and a little villa – because Hercules is nice like that and wants Prometheus to be able to enjoy life after a few hundred years on that cliff. Obviously, with each step Prometheus’ freedom is increased.

Now, Prometheus has a brother, Epimetheus. While Prometheus is generally regarded as the clever one (his name means “forethought”), Epimetheus is more often seen as the dumb one of the family (his name means “afterthought”). While Prometheus was imprisoned on the rock, Epimetheus was roaming free. At one unfortunate point he caused Pandora’s box to be opened, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s imagine that the two brothers meet up shortly after Prometheus was set free. Epimetheus complains about their lack of freedom: “We’re tied to this Earth and can’t even fly up into the air like birds, let alone jump over the moon or travel to the planets. We’re limited to having this human body and can’t grow wings, or reach the size of an elephant. We can’t just decide to run on all fours at the speed of a cheetah. We really are wretchedly unfree creatures, determined to live with the limitations of our bodies and the physical constraints of this Earth.” To which we must imagine Prometheus calmly responded: “Listen, why don’t you just enjoy the freedom you do have, to move around freely, go about your business, change your environment, create things of beauty, help your fellow creatures, rather than whinge about things that are impossible. At least you’re not tied to a rock.”

What does this have to do with freedom of the will and determinism? I will take out a number of points to expand upon in future blog posts:

  1. Prometheus and Epimetheus have a different understanding of the same condition. Prometheus feels free following a long time tied to the rock, Epimetheus feels unfree because he is physically restricted by his nature and that of the world, including the laws of physics. For Prometheus, the opposite of being free is being tied to the rock. For Epimetheus, it is being restricted in what he can do. I think it is possible that there is an opposite to free will that is unfree will, as well as an opposite that is determinism.
  2. Prometheus’ fate suggests that you can be more or less free. Epimetheus’ perception suggests that you can be completely free, but that doesn’t mean are not subject to certain constraints which make up the human condition. In the same way, I think it is possible for free will to be a matter of degree, rather than a binary “either you have it or you don’t” issue. However, arguing that we have free will, does not commit one to the view that there are no constraints. (Sometimes, the fact that one cannot just will any old thing, is taken as an argument that we don’t have free will.)
  3. The things that make Prometheus unfree are the shackles on his arms and legs, the bolt through his chest, the eagle tormenting him and the lack of space in which to move. The things that make the will unfree are things like addictions, phobias, bad habits, reactivity in action, acting on unconscious motives, psychological compulsions and so on. The things that make Epimetheus unfree are his nature as a certain kind of creature, a titan, but we can pretend he’s a human being, and the nature of the universe. The things that make the will determined could similarly be about the nature of life as a conscious, rational being and the universe we’re in. It is possible though that the factors that cause unfreedom of the will can be present to different degrees in different people, or can be added or removed over time, whereas the factors that cause determinism universal constraints.
  4. This “unfreedom” is not the same as determinism though. The things that make the will unfree can be removed, even in a deterministic universe. With Prometheus and Epimetheus, where the lack of freedom of being tied to a rock shares some broad features with the lack of freedom that is a general feature of the human condition – a lack of being able to do just anything, a restriction of room for manoeuvre – the “unfreedom” stemming from the shackles is much more restrictive than the lack of absolute freedom that Epimetheus bemoans. In the same way, the “unfree” will may be much less free than is required by general determinism. How restrictive determinism really is may only become clear when the factors that make the will unfree are removed as far as possible.

Determinism 13 – The Psychological Motives for Philosophical Views and Sam Harris’ Free Will

In this great piece of philosophical polemic (it starts with “What is the silliest claim ever made?”), Galen Strawson draws attention to the psychological benefits philosophers might gain from maintaining certain positions, the weaknesses in human rationality that allow or lead them to do so, and the – possibly unintended – political consequences.

Psychologically, he suspects that:

“it can seem exciting to hold views that seem preposterously contrary to common sense – there’s something Oedipally thrilling about it when the father is an old gentleman called Ordinary Opinion. Herbert Feigl adds another psychoanalytic note: ‘Scholars can cathect [or invest] certain ideas so strongly and their outlook becomes so ego involved that they erect elaborate barricades of defences, merely to protect their pet ideas from the blows (or the slower corrosive effects) of criticism.”

I assume that when we ask ourselves the questions whether we have free will, or not; whether we are entirely determined, or not; and what the consequences are if we answer these questions either way, we have to be on our guard against wanting so hard to answer them in a certain way merely in order to fulfil psychological needs that we blind ourselves against weaknesses in our thinking.

On the one hand, you’d expect us to be heavily invested in the idea that we are somehow in charge of our own lives, that our choices and decisions are ours and that we are – poetically speaking – the “captains of our souls.”

On the other hand maintaining a hard determinist position that we are entirely predetermined in our actions, can be exciting and thrilling, in that it probably goes against ordinary opinion. (I say “probably” because it’s reckless to assume that one has a firm grasp on what ordinary opinion is.)

But it also has the psychologically soothing effect of allowing us to believe that none of the things we think have gone wrong in our lives, none of the areas where we feel we have let ourselves down, and none of the extent to which we feel we have failed to live up to our promise, are in a meaningful way down to choices we made. (There is a flipside in that none of our successes would be due to anything particular merit of ours either. But I imagine that most people are happy to buy the ability to forgive themselves for the mountain of their real or perceived failings at the cost of greater modesty about the molehill of their achievements. Either that, or they just manage to supress the flipside.)

Even more than that, being able to preach that message of hard determinism to the masses, gaining excited followers who are keen to reap determinism’ self-exculpatory benefits, must be quite satisfactory in its own right. I imagine that this fuels to some extent the modern popular revival of Stoicism much embraced by bloggers and podcasters.

Looking at one of the more famous books arguing for a deterministic world view, Sam Harris’ “Free Will,” we can see some of the strange effects of really, really wanting to be able to argue that certain things are true.

According to Harris, “the popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.” He claims that both these assumptions are false.

Harris argues for determinism on the general metaphysical basis that nothing happens without causation and the more specific physical and neurophysiological claims that brain processes cause our actions, and that we’re not aware of those processes until the actions are well under way. He quotes in support of his position, among other things, the famous 1980s experiment by Benjamin Libet (which I discussed here – Spoiler alert: Libet didn’t think that his experiments support the notion that we don’t have free will). “One fact now seems indisputable:” Harris claims, “Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do.”

In Harris’ own life, his lack of free will manifests in particular ways. For example, he says:

“I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

In another episode he relates:

“For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no “unreasonable external or internal pressure.” I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self-control. However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me—and why precisely then and to that degree? And why did my interest in martial arts suddenly reemerge after decades of hibernation? I can consciously weigh the effects of certain influences—for instance, I recently read Rory Miller’s excellent book Meditations on Violence. But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part (if, indeed, it was the proximate cause of my behavior)? And why so much action? I’m now practicing two martial arts and also training with Miller and other self-defense experts. What in hell is going on here? Of course, I could tell a story about why I’m doing what I’m doing—which would amount to my telling you why I think such training is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.—but the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me.”

“It is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it,” Harris concludes. And, of course, this kind of argument holds not only true for relatively trivial matters such as our choice of morning beverage and hobbies, but also more serious actions someone might take:

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

These examples look odd to me: First of all, it’s difficult to imagine that Harris lacks the capacity for in introspection and reflection to the degree that he claims. Secondly, it is not clear to me why he thinks that the “story about why I’m doing what I’m doing” which amounts to giving good reasons for his actions, could not be the actual explanation for his behaviour, at least some of the time. Surely reflecting on why he thinks something is a good idea and why he enjoys an activity, would at least have potential to reveal something about the explanation for his behaviour, even if he wanted to go on to claim that these weren’t the motivating factors in the first place.

But then, when Harris wants to sell us the benefits of believing that we have no free will, things get even more odd:

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can – paradoxically – allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Suddenly now, we can become sensitive to the causes of our thoughts and feelings when before we couldn’t tell why we wanted coffee or decided to spend a lot of time practising martial arts. How can we now realise that our bad mood has been caused by low blood sugar levels, when before we couldn’t even trust ourselves to identify the motivating reasons for how we spent a large chunk of our leisure time? Not only can we identify low blood sugar as the precise cause of our bad mood now, but we can also seemingly decide to counteract it with a bite of food (that is the implication of what Harris says, though he doesn’t explicitly say it). First Harris asks us to completely surrender to the idea that our actions are caused by factors we can’t be conscious of, now he tells us we can choose to take a bite of food, so that we don’t take our bad mood out on others. Not only can we suddenly make choices, but we can steer an entire intelligent course through our lives. Claiming that it is all a quaint paradox, doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

And then when he talks about the criminal justice system and moral responsibility, things continue to be a little bit self-contradictory. He wants to sell us the benefits of giving up our notion of free will, whilst persuading us that we can still keep hold of our ideas about moral responsibility and our custom of imprisoning people for crimes.

Some of the things he says about this are:

“What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm.”

“Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.”

“Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

Now, those making moral judgements about others, and the criminal justice system, somehow have access to personality, personal history, patterns of activity, and confessed motives. They can make judgements based on expressed intentions, beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.. But, according to Harris, we don’t even have access to our own intentions.

And why didn’t it occur to us earlier to look at our past actions, beliefs, desires and so on, when we were looking to work out why we suddenly found ourselves doing martial arts in our free time, or when we tried to work out why we’re drinking tea on some mornings, and coffee on others? Granted, sometimes others find it easier to analyse our patterns of activities than we do ourselves. But Harris is claiming that we have no insight into our inner life, while others can somehow systematically use their insight into us to judge us morally, or take what we say about our motives to be reliable enough to decide whether society should be protected from us.

Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation (2) – Doing More Than You Know You Can

As mentioned in the previous post, supererogation means going above and beyond. In moral philosophy it is often applied to acts that are good and praiseworthy, but not required. So anyone not doing these acts could not be criticised from a moral point of view. But when people do them, we are nonetheless pleased and think they deserve special merit.

[Previously, I discussed how it relates to the principle from moral philosophy that “ought implies can.” I wrote about the fact that the unequal distribution of what people can do, means there is also an unequal distribution of what they ought to do. This opens up some space for a discussion about whether some supererogation stems from that unequal distribution.]

In fact the principle that “ought implies can” relates to supererogation in another way as well: It is not always clearcut and obvious in advance what someone can. Two people with similar abilities may therefore take different actions, based not so much on a different assessment of what they can do, but based on differing ideas about what to do when they are not entirely sure whether they can or can’t do it. One person may take on the relevant ought on the basis that he possibly can, another may not, on the basis that maybe he cannot.

I recently read Michael Lewis’ fascinating book The Undoing Project about psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who founded the field of behaviourist economics. It contains this episode:

“By late 1956, Amos was not merely a platoon commander but a recipient of one of the Israeli army’s highest awards for bravery. During a training exercise in front of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, one of his soldiers was assigned to clear a barbed wire fence with a bangalore torpedo. From the moment he pulled the string to activate the fuse, the solider had twenty seconds to run for cover. The soldier pushed the torpedo under the fence, yanked the string, fainted, and collapsed on top of the explosive. Amos’s commanding officer shouted for everyone to stay put—and leave the unconscious soldier to die. Amos ignored him and sprinted from behind the wall that served as cover for his unit, grabbed the soldier, picked him up, hauled him ten yards, tossed him on the ground, and threw himself on top of him. The shrapnel from the explosion remained in Amos for the rest of his life. The Israeli army did not bestow honors for bravery lightly. As he handed Amos his award, Moshe Dayan, who had watched the entire episode, said, “You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won’t get away with it again.” Occasionally, people who watched Amos in action sensed that he was more afraid of being thought unmanly than he was actually brave. “He was always very gung ho,” recalled Uri Shamir. “I thought it was maybe compensation for being thin and weak and pale.” At some point it didn’t matter: He compelled himself to be brave until bravery became a habit.”

Clearly, Tversky was able to pull off this feat (even though taking some shrapnel in the process). Equally clearly, no one knew for sure in advance that it could be done. In fact, people must have thought that it couldn’t. The commanding officer would not have given the order to stay put if he had thought that it was possible to rescue the collapsed soldier. The act in question, was called, even after its successful conclusion, “stupid” and “gung ho.” It was also praised as “brave” and given the highest award for bravery. If it had been only foolish and suicidal, it could not have been called brave. But if it had been just brave and good, it could not have been called stupid.

What is in play, perhaps, is Tversky’s perhaps unusual decision that he ought to rescue the soldier, even though he couldn’t be sure that he could.

This example also sheds some light on the vagueness of the principle “ought implies can.” It is not entirely clear, for example, what constitutes “can.” Most people would probably not think that doing something while losing one’s life, would constitute the kind of “can” that would be implied by an “ought.” What about doing something that carried the risk of losing one’s life? Or doing something that meant having shrapnel in one’s body for life?

None of the other soldiers could be criticised for obeying their commanding officers instruction. And yet, had everyone acted on it, a life would have been lost unnecessarily. The difference between Tversky and his fellow soldiers was unlikely to be that Tversky was the only one who had the ability to rescue the collapsed soldier. It’s more likely that he was more prepared to think “I ought to do this,” without knowing whether he would be able to do so unscathed. Or that he was more prepared to take on the risk of damage to himself in shouldering an “ought.”

[Let’s leave aside for now the fact that it was Tversky’s life work to show that human beings are ill equipped to make rational assessments of costs and benefits to ourselves. And let’s leave aside also the separate debate in ethics about how many thoughts one ought to have in this kind of situation.]

Supererogatory acts are not necessarily reliant on physical ability alone. They may, for example, also include finding forgiveness for someone who has wronged us grievously. In that case too, forgiveness may be a process that someone enters into without knowing whether they can do it. They may not know whether ultimately they will truly be able not only to say that they have forgiven, but also feel it for themselves. Or they may not be sure in advance that forgiving wouldn’t mean trading off too much of their own personality or what is important to them. Nonetheless, some people might set off on the journey of forgiveness under those circumstances. Others may not. The latter shouldn’t come in for criticism. The former are making a supererogatory effort.

Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation -Going Beyond the Call of Duty

“Supererogation” has long been one of my favourite words and concepts. (In saying that, I’m not claiming to live up to it much…) It stems from the Latin words “super” meaning “over” or “above” and “erogare” meaning to “expend / pay out.” So it’s about expending above what might be expected, also known as going beyond the call of duty, or going the extra mile.

In ethics, the concept describes ways of acting that are morally good and praiseworthy, but acts that are not necessarily required. Supererogatory acts are those that are good and such that we definitely would want people to perform them, but at the same time such that we couldn’t criticise people for not performing them. Heroic acts spring to mind, like running into a burning building to rescue others. Or saintly acts such as giving up all and any comforts in order to devote oneself to caring for the poorest, sickest people.

Some people, let’s call the supererogation enthusiasts, see the concept of supererogation as a good criterion for whether a given moral theory looks plausible. Any reasonable conception of morality, they argue, should allow a place for supererogatory acts. If a theory has no such place, say because it too stringently requires human beings to do whatever achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in such a way that for every good act there might have been an other better act, and even for the best possible act a human being could have done, it was just what he should have done, then that is a reason to be suspicious of that theory. We would want there to be a category of good acts, or ways of acting, that deserve special merit, rather than just a shrug and the acknowledgement that “he just did what he had to.”

Others, let’s call the supererogation deniers, argue exactly the opposite: That there is no place for supererogation in any plausible moral theory. In the history of theological uses of the concept, supererogatory acts, such as making large donations to a church, were initially seen as being able to wipe out sin for the supererogatory agent and those around him or her. Against that, a view was taken that human beings were so flawed, so unable to live up to the expectations and requirements of God, that there was no possibility of supererogation. In that view of the world, whatever anyone managed to do, would fall short of what was required. Human beings are so dependent on God’s mercy and grace, that there is no point in talking about going above and beyond.

The denial of supererogation doesn’t need to make any theological assumptions about the relationship between person and God. It could simply be argued, for example, that human beings are such weak and stupid animals, so incapable of ensuring their own flourishing or supporting that of others, that our societies are so unhealthy and corrupt and the world such a sub-optimal, inhospitable and degraded environment, that even incredible, super-human acts could not do good at the level required. In such a context, it might then be unrealistic and unhelpful to acknowledge and applaud a category of specially good acts. It would be better simply to require of each and every agent to do his or her utmost. There would almost be a duty to go beyond the call of duty.

“Ought Implies Can”

There is a principle in ethics that “ought implies can.” It is often taken as axiomatic without further argument. To some extent hat makes sense. It would be strange for a moral theory to require something from someone who is unable to do that. I think the principle “ought implies can” sheds an interesting light on the possibility of supererogation.

First of all “ought implies can” creates an inequality in terms of what can be required from individuals. Some people can achieve more than others and therefore ought to try harder than others. Say person A is a strong swimmer while person B is physically weak and has never learned to swim. They stand at the seashore and suddenly spot someone out there in the sea frantically waving his arms and shouting for help. The weather has suddenly turned stormy and the waves are high in the strong wind. Let’s say in this scenario there happens to be no alternative means of rescuing the drowning man, than for person A or person B to jump in and rescue him themselves: no coastguard to be alerted, no rescue boats or helicopters, and no other devices at all. Person A could very likely rescue the drowning man without any great detriment to herself, but person B would equally likely fall victim to the elements before getting to the drowning man. “Ought implies can” means that the requirement to jump in and rescue the drowning man falls asymmetrically on A and B. While A could be criticised if she didn’t make the attempt to rescue the drowning man, B could probably escape criticism even if he didn’t make the attempt.

Supererogation enthusiasts and deniers may place a different emphasis on the analysis of the situation but may find they’re not as far apart as it originally seemed.

“Person A just did what was required of her,” says a supererogation denier.

“But because of her superior skills, so much more could be required of her, and the drowning man got rescued. Now isn’t that worth celebrating?” replies the supererogation enthusiast.

“It’s worth celebrating perhaps that the outcome was a happy one and that person A had this great ability to swim and rescue drowning people. But if she hadn’t made the attempt, she would have been open to severe criticism, so she really just did what could have been expected,” responds the supererogation denier.

The supererogation enthusiast then has at least one further point to make: Let’s assume that person A’s ability to rescue the drowning man was down to more than just inborn physical ability. Let’s say she trained her swimming abilities a lot and spent some time doing a course in rescue swimming. Let’s say she did that while person B was playing video games and eating pizzas. Couldn’t the supererogation enthusiast point out that person A never had a duty to lead that lifestyle and person B can’t be criticised on moral grounds for choosing his way of life? She wouldn’t have been in the situation where she could rescue someone from drowning, and therefore ought to have done so, if she hadn’t set out on a certain path, that of honing her abilities long ago. Wouldn’t the acts of supererogation have started with the lifestyle chosen and the skills developed, rather than just with the act of jumping into the water to rescue someone?

The supererogation sceptic could try one counter to that. He could refuse to accept that person B cannot be criticised on moral grounds. Or at least he could say that narrow moral grounds aren’t the only consideration here, and that broader ethical issues arise. He could say that we could call B’s lifestyle lazy, self-indulgent and selfish and that this are precisely words of criticism. He could also say that we would call A’s lifestyle industrious, committed to self-improvement and altruism.

But at the same time, person A could have trained in rescue swimming, a non-moral skill, all her life, but never got into a situation where she could perform the morally valuable task of rescuing someone. It would be merely bad luck that she never had the opportunity to perform that good act. In the same way as it is bad luck for agent B to be stuck in a situation where rescue swimming abilities would have carried moral weight, rather than video-gaming skills. And at the same time person A could have been quite useless in a situation where a different kind of skill might have been required, say rock climbing, in which we assume she had no ability. No human could possibly train to be able to perform excellently in every situation, he or she could get into. That would take us to the realm of superheroes. Nonetheless, the situations where someone happens to be able to perform morally excellently due to work they have done to prepare themselves, are those where supererogatory action is relevant. (Of course, some people train themselves and seek out such situations, e. g. by choosing careers where they might be first responders in critical situations.)

The other way in which “ought implies can” creates a space for supererogation comes from the fact that it is not always clear-cut what a person can achieve. This might only become clear in the attempt. The opportunity for supererogation would then arise from where someone takes an optimistic view of what he or she can, and is therefore taking on a higher burden of what he or she ought. But I’ll write about that in the next post.