Philosophy and Ethics

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Thursday, 5 September 2019

Political chaos!

Despairing of politics in the UK?  Leave? Remain? Deal? No-deal? Crash out? Orderly exit? Parliament and the executive? Role of the Speaker? Political parties tearing themselves apart?
To turn on the news these days is to become re-immersed in what increasingly resembles a rather loosely-plotted soap opera, with constant flash-backs to previous episodes... Hasn't this all been argued to death months ago? ... and no satisfactory ending in sight.

The danger is that complex issues are presented as though they may be resolved by a straightforward binary choice. To resolve a problem like Brexit (if it can ever be properly resolved) we need absolute clarity of thinking, but also the ability to listen to opposing views (rather than shout them down, caricature them, or simply ignore them) and to handle the issue with the sensitivity it deserves. Sometimes, in the midst of the fray, we simply need to stand back, take a deep breath, and think.  Hopefully, the storm will pass and we can get back to taking a more measured view of how we want to live and the role of our country in the wider world.

Perhaps one way of getting that space might be to pick up an introduction to Political Philosophy and reflect on the principles that should underpin our democracy. Political ideas are potent and immediate, but they have a long history, an appreciation of which might help to get present problems into perspective. Here's an extract from my book introducing the basics of Political Philosophy...

Some see philosophy’s main task as clarifying concepts. That would imply that the task of philosophy is to look at the key ideas in political debate – freedom, rights, justice, democracy, and so on – and to examine what people really mean by them, and how they are related to one another. That is the sort of philosophy that clears the mind but does not necessarily change the world.
But there is another tradition of political philosophy. Marx famously declared that he wanted to change the world, rather than just interpret it, and many other political thinkers have impacted on the course of history. Rousseau’s writings were to influence the French Revolution and Locke’s the American Declaration of Independence. Nietzsche’s work was read by Mussolini and Hitler (and sadly misused by them), and socialist ideas lay behind the setting up of the welfare state and health service in Britain. Today, neo-conservative views in the United States have influenced, among other things, American foreign policy with respect to the Middle East and the Iraq War. Discussions about terrorism and how to resist it are not just about words, but are desperately important in terms of security and human rights. So political concepts are not just there to be clarified, they need to be examined.
Political ideas are potent; but are they valid?  The only way to establish that is by taking a two-stage look at them. First of all they need to be clarified: What exactly do we mean by fairness, or equality, or democracy? But secondly, they need to be justified: On what basis can you argue for the fairness of this or that political system? On what basis can you justify taking military action? 
Like ethics, political philosophy is therefore concerned with the practical. It addresses issues of immediate concern to everyone, and examines ideas that have – for good or evil – shaped the lives of whole generations.  When some crucial event takes place – a war, an economic crisis, a global threat, a spate of terrorist attacks – people will naturally ask fundamental questions about how we should deal with such things. Politicians are required to find answers and implement them, but they need to be guided by principles about how we should live and how society should be governed. So circumstances are always throwing up new issues for political philosophy.

There are plenty of books around on Political Philosophy, but if you would like to take a look at what mine covers, along with some other older comments - go to... Philosophy.htm

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