Author Archives: Julian Baggini - Page 2

Dealing with abuse

What’s the right way to deal with abuse? Take the moral high ground and reply as a paragon of calm reason? Or treat people with the same disrespect they showed you? It probably depends, of course, but here’s a really striking case study, courtesy of Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre writes the Bad Science column and blog, and I’ve interviewed him for the next issue of tpm. This is a story he told which I had to leave out because of space constraints. I’m not sure whether this is brilliant, terrible, or both. What do you think?

“I once wrote something about MMR and I got this huge long hate diatribe from this guy. It was about six pages long, calling me every name under the sun, saying that I was in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry to rubbish the concerns of anti-vaccination, when, in fact, I’m probably their biggest critic in the UK at the moment, or at least their biggest non-bonkers critic. There was this huge torrent of abuse, real screaming, screeching abuse: ‘I hope that your children are deformed, and when you’re sobbing holding your vaccine-damaged child, I hope you look up at the sky and ask, Why God me? Why did you punish me for the things I said?’ Really, really vicious, horrible stuff.

“I just wrote back a very polite, three line response, saying I guess it’s unfortunate that I have to put up with this kind of anger, but if it’s any help, I say what I say because of these references and I think the evidence is pretty clear. If you’re interested in more, I can send you the book chapter – don’t buy the book, I’ll jut email it to you. Something like that.”

Goldacre then digresses to talk about how, although it can be hard to deal with abuse, it is possible to set the tone of a conversation and that “If you scream and shout, people scream and shout. If you’re polite and sensible people generally tend to respond in a polite and sensible way.” Then he picks up.

“So I wrote back this really polite, straightforward email, and he immediately replied, saying ‘God, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what came over me. In my head, it was like you weren’t even a real person. It didn’t even occur to me that you would reply, let alone that you’d reply so straightforwardly and politely. I feel ashamed and humbled and please, all I ask is that you just accept that I wouldn’t normally speak like that and I will try to write you a much more sensible email about my worries and concerns. But I’m shocked at what I wrote to you.’

“And I replied, ‘F*** off.'”

Is It Just Me?

From time to time, people who I think must be intelligent and civilised behave in such unreasonable ways I think I must be missing something. This is one example.

In order to conceal the identity of the person, all I will say is that s/he (henceforth X) is well-known and respected in certain fields of ethics. X holds a senior post.

X had been in touch about his/her new book, which is not unusual. I always explain that we are always happy to hear about new books, but authors’ requests do not affect our decisions about whether to review or otherwise feature them. In this case, I was keen to have a related article. However, X was only prepared to offer an extract, and I’m not keen on having too many such pieces, and that although I’d take a piece based on the book, I would like more than an extract. X was unwilling for various understandable reasons to write such a piece. Our exchange then reached an impasse and faded away.

Recently, X got back in touch. Here is the full, verbatim copy of our exchange. What I find extraordinary about this is that X seems to think that it is I who would look bad if our correspondence became public. In fact, not only am I happy to make it public, I feel compelled to hide X’s identity because I’m sure that X would look bad, not me.

So how can it be that two apparently intelligent people can have such different ideas about what constitutes reasonable behaviour? And what does this say about the power of a lifetime of ethical reasoning to help people behave ethically? I find it quite depressing. And please do tell me if I’m the party in the wrong here. (Update: Please do NOT speculate as to X’s identity. I won’t reveal it unless X does and speculation could be potentially libellous.)

X wrote:

I know our exchanges about an article reached a dead end. But is there any chance that TPM might publish a review of my —– book? It did receive a review copy yonks ago. I do find TPM fascinating and so one always hopes that one is going to be noticed by the things that one notices. X

I replied:

Thanks X, but I’m afraid we missed the boat. We did indeed notice your book and wanted to cover it in some way, but you couldn’t provide what we were after. It is now too late to review the book – we like to review as close to publication as possible – and it is also a policy never to allow appeals by authors to have their books reviewed to influence our decisions in any way – you will appreciate the importance of editorial independence.

I hope we will be able to publish something by you in the not so distant future.

Best wishes


X wrote:

Pretty pissy, I think. I shall delete TPM from my favourites and tell others how arbitrary you are.
It is my policy to badmouth all publications that behave in a capricious way. My turn will come. You will appreciate the power of consumer reaction I’m sure.
Best wishes


I replied:


I hope when you calm down you realise how unreasonable this reaction is. It is in no way arbitrary or capricious to want to have articles which are not just extracts from books or to want to review books close to publication. It is an insult to your intelligence to believe that you can’t see this.


X wrote:

It is better that I do not reply to your email than send the reply your email deserves. X

I did not reply.

New book, new video

If you’re after a little amusement in your 2-minute coffee break, this short film I’ve made about my new book should do the trick. As I’ve become fond of saying, you’ll probably laugh, but I don’t know whether it will be with me or at me…

Dementia and identity

Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

This Friday I’m taking part in a 24-hour “squashathon” to raise money for The Alzheimer’s Society. The cause is of particular interest to me because the subject of my PhD (and a book I’m writing) is personal identity, and many writers on this subject – such as Locke, Hume and Parfit – claim memory plays a critical role in this. So, without the links of memory connecting JB in 1999 to JB in 2009, JB99 and JB09 just can’t be the same person.

When I wrote my PhD, it was very narrow and very armchair. For my book, I’m trying as far as possible to bring in some actual lived experience to this issue. It seems to me that Alzheimer’s is an interesting case in point. On the one hand, people do often describe what has happened to sufferers as a dissolution of the self. “By the end, he had long gone,” they say. But at the same time, they seem to care for and love the sufferers to that bitter end. It seems in some sense they believe the self goes, and in others it does not.

I haven’t yet read John Bayley’s biography of his wife Iris Murdoch but it seems that it challenges what one research paper calls “the predominant narrative of dementia” namely “that of a tragic loss of self”. As The New York Times review of the book put it, “The greatest anguish for someone who loves an Alzheimer’s patient is the sense that the beloved is no longer there, but Bayley uses his luminous and supple mind to prevent that anguish; he insists upon the continuity between their past and their present.”

So I’m interested to hear from anyone who has had any experience of a friend or relative who has suffered from dementia. How did the “problem of identity” seem to you in this concrete case? If you know anyone in this position who might share their experience, please ask them to come to TP and make a comment. I may use some in my book, and so I can credit people, could you put your real name, Anon, or NFB (not for book) at the end of your post?

If you’d like to sponsor me and help raise money for this worthwhile cause, please follow this link. I’m not personally playing squash for 24 hours of course, but then again, I don’t think your motivation to sponsor would or should be to make me suffer!

Update: I’ve had one private response to this, and if you are willing to share thoughts with me but don’t want them posted on the blog, please follow suit. My email is editor, followed by the squiggle that, amazingly, is still nameless for most people, philosophers dot co dot uk.

Blog competition

The website 3quarksdaily is running a competition to find the best philosophy blog post of the year. The final judging will be done by Dan Dennett. If you’d like to nominate a post from Talking Philosophy (or anywhere else for that matter) please take a look at the rules and procedures here. Bloggers can also nominate themselves.

What it is actually like to be a bat…

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, when he asked “What is it like to be a bat?” The question was intended to make clear how the nature of subjective experience could never be known by objective knowledge of how it worked.
Well, it’s not really an answer, because it comes from a human being, not a bat, but there’s a fascinating article in New Scientist this week about how some blind people actually do use echolocation. This was supposedly the bit of bat experience that would be hardest to imagine.
Of course, it does this not tell us what it is like to be bat, but it does go some way towards telling us what it is like to be a blind human who uses echolocation. Most of us can’t know exactly what it is like, of course, but then I don’t know what it is like to be you either. (I’m not sure I know what it is like to me me, for that matter, but that’s a bigger question for another time.)
Anyway, I post the link mainly because it’s just really interesting. I have no particular discussion points, other than perhaps the question of whether or not this might be (another?) example of how there is more empirical evidence that is relevant to philosophers’ hypothetical thought experiments than has traditionally been believed.
Thanks to Ronnie Somerville for sending me the link.

New podcast

Following a satisfactory short test podcast a while back, I have taken the plunge and started a new half-hour monthly podcast, in association with The Philosophers’ Magazine. It incorporates the Hobbes Festival report that comprised the pilot, and also has extracts from an interview with Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, plus a “thought for the day” and some twittering.
More about it here. You can also get it from iTunes (although it did mysteriously disappear from the listings when it was first put up. Check the 29 minute episode is indeed the one you get.) Or click the link below to listen or download. Comments welcome, of course.
Bagginis Philosophy Monthly – Episode 1

The Establishment Outsider: An Interview with Roger Scruton

scruton“There is something paradoxical in the view that the conservative should be the outsider,” admits Roger Scruton, a man who nonetheless embodies the paradox completely. Scruton has been Britain’s leading intellectual defender of conservative values in politics, art, religion, ethics and culture for nearly three decades, for which he has been rewarded by marginalisation within academia and ridicule in the left-wing press.

“That is just part of the to and fro of public life,” Scruton tells me in the study of his Wiltshire farmhouse, where he lives with his wife and two children, and tends to his hunting horses. Still, “I don’t feel bitter at all,” he insists. “I had a really interesting time being disliked.”

Scruton is often portrayed as a fox-hunting arriviste, the grammar school boy done good who is now desperate to be posher than posh. But the coherence of his philosophical work over the years belies such an easy caricature.

“There is a unifying intellectual endeavour,” he says of his work, “which is to bring philosophy and culture back together, so that the study of philosophy moves back from being the handmaiden of the sciences – as it’s tended to be in British empiricism and also modern analytical philosophy – to being a meditation on the human condition which borders on literature, art, music and the rest. That’s always been my interest, which is why I started by doing research on aesthetics.”

That primary focus is “connected to a sort of cultural conservatism of the TS Eliot type, which moved me at a certain stage in a political direction. That’s to say, I became, like many people of my generation, very disillusioned with the post-war socialist consensus and began looking for other things. It’s never been a primary interest, but I became interested in how to articulate the message about some form of intellectual conservatism for the age in which we live.”

Although his work on aesthetics has been primary, it was his third book, The Meaning of Conservatism, which kick-started his life as a public intellectual. “I only wrote it because Ted Honderich asked me to,” he explains. “Penguin thought that they should publish something on conservatism at the time, which was 1979, I think – a long time ago – and Ted looked around and racked his brains for anybody he could think of who was a conservative. He hit on me and that launched me on another career, in a way, as a spokesman for a certain position.”

Scruton’s articulation of conservative philosophy stands in great contrast to the mainstream left-liberal political philosophy of the last fifty or so years, as much in its methods and underlying assumptions as in its conclusions.

“First of all, conservatism isn’t goal-directed in the way that socialism is, and some, though not all, forms of liberalism are. Articulating it is first of all a matter of describing what it is and bringing out that in it which is loveable, acceptable, or in any case jeopardised by unthinking reform. That’s a huge labour of description and evocation. It must be conducted against a background of professional disillusion with the idea of goals in politics. We can’t know how to proceed towards some ideal in this world and it’s foolish to try, and the evidence of history is that people who have tried have ended up in situations of mass genocide. Isn’t it better to look at what we have and see the ways in which it secures equilibrium, satisfaction happiness etcetera for the people who are involved in it?

“That’s a much more difficult thing to do, I think, than to articulate a forward-looking socialist doctrine. If you look at Marx in particular, he says almost nothing about the communist future. It’s just an abstraction. Everything is about how hateful this and this is in the present and anyway history is going to sweep it away. My view is that is morally irresponsible and that really one must begin from an understanding of the virtues and the defects of the thing that one has.”

However, it’s one thing to evoke and describe, quite another to justify. How does he do that for conservatism?

“Well, someone like Rawls is looking for an abstract unifying principle of justification, which he calls justice, and in my view completely distorts the concept of justice in order to do this. I would say your relation to the social order in which you’re brought up is comparable to your relation to your family.

It’s full of imperfections, tensions and so on but it’s not something for which an abstract justification is needed if it is to go on. It is the given, to use the Wittgensteinian mode of looking at it. The important thing is to know how to adjust it, and how, not just to dislike those things that you dislike, but how to love those things which you don’t dislike.”

This way of arguing is essentially Burkean. As Scruton put it in his memoir, Gentle Regrets, “Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss. Replacing them with the abstract rational systems of the philosophers, we may think ourselves more rational and better equipped for life in the modern world. But in fact we are less well equipped, and our new beliefs are far less justified, for the very reason that they are justified by ourselves.”

However, can’t one imagine such a way of thinking being used to refuse the franchise to women, or failing to abolish slavery? As a conservative, how does one distinguish the things that actually do need changing from Burke’s “justified prejudices”?

“I’m not saying that acceptance of the existing arrangements is the final arbiter of everything,” Scruton replies, “but it’s the thing from which you begin. If you don’t begin from that, there isn’t any possibility of political dialogue, compromise and all the things that make it possible for people to live together. Again, going back to the family example, of course we live by moral principles as well. One might discover that one’s father is after all an embezzler and that must change, and likewise one might discover that one’s society depends upon immoral ways of using people and that must change. It’s reasonable to think that without some totalising principle under which all these adjustments fall.

“You’re arguing as though it ought to be easy to argue these things, and it never is, because after all one is talking not just about moral precepts to do with justice, freedom and so on, one is also talking about competing interests. One of the great things about the conservative position – in practical politics as opposed to theoretical philosophy – is that it has always recognised that political solutions are compromises, in which as many of the contending interests as possible are reconciled with each other, so it’s essentially irenic philosophy. It’s not to do with the righteous overbearing the unrighteous and imposing upon them a doctrine which they are rejecting or anything like that.”

How does this apply to a practical example, such as Britain’s House of Lords, in which, until recently, people held political office purely because they were born into nobility?

“In a case like the House of Lords, I think that obviously there would be the Burkean arguments that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s been around for a long time, obviously it performed all sorts of functions, we didn’t know how it came into existence, it arose by the invisible hand, all the usual things. So if we’re gong to adjust it we must have a very clear conception of what is wrong with it and whether it’s producing the wrong results and the rest.

“Then a conservative with my way of thinking would also recognise that in a democratic age, people are filled with the idea that people who have gained power or authority without popular election are somehow illegitimately in that position. Even if you think that’s wrong, which I do, you’ve got to say that nevertheless they represent a vast number in the population. Their interests and view of this must be entered into the equation, and whichever compromise emerges would be the best that one could hope for. That for me is what politics is. That sort of decision making is totally unlike what socialists think politics is. For them there are first principles from which you derive your procedures of action, and then you proceed towards your goal and impose that goal on everybody regardless of whether they want it.”

Isn’t the worry that had such a view of politics had been more widespread, then a lot of the things that we now think are perfectly laudable would have been harder to bring about because there would have been a greater presumption against change?

“Sure. Some things would have been harder to bring about but some unwise changes would have been resisted. Look at the collapse of the education system. If conservatives had entered more fully into the compromises, which they didn’t, because the Labour party was determined to exclude that voice, then we wouldn’t have, I think, the breakdown in school education which we’re witnessing today.”

The decline of standards in all sorts of areas of life is, of course, another conservative theme which citics like to mock. But when it comes to matters of what is usually called high culture, and Scruton simply calls culture, the importance of maintaining the highest standards in the arts is one which Scruton defends with some thoroughness. So why does culture matter so much to him?

“I came from a background where culture wasn’t very significant. Lip service would be paid to it, but there weren’t many books around, we never went to the theatre or anything like that. Music only arrived by accident when my father inherited a piano. But when I discovered it, it made such an impact on me, I realised, here is another vision of life, this is a call, and I’ve got to follow this. This is infinitely more interesting than anything around me. I’ve always thought that and then that raises the question, how do you justify that? Not just living like that but living off it, from writing, teaching, all those ways in which one can make culture into a way of life. So I’ve always had this question, what is the benefit – not to you who are involved to it, because that is like asking what is the benefit of the person you love, that is your existential commitment – but what is the benefit to others who don’t have it and maybe don’t want it? Why should governments give money to support the arts when it’s a minority taste? Shouldn’t they be giving money to support museums of pop music or whatever, and the Arts Council has been very influenced by that.

“You have to find some way of describing the benefits that my being cultured confers on those who aren’t, and that is a hard task, but not an impossible one. It’s like asking, what is the benefit for the mass of people of the priest’s vow of chastity? They’re not going to vow chastity – he’s doing this by way of cementing his own personal relation with God. But what is the benefit for others? And we know that actually, anthropologically, there is a benefit. There is somebody who deliberately absents himself from felicity in order to set an example, to be immune to certain kinds of relationships, to stand as father and advisor to a whole community. I think that is the role that high culture has played in our society, the theatre in particular, but also concert-gong and the rest. A lot of people whom it has never directly touched it has indirectly touched, by giving moral and spiritual sustenance to the teacher in the primary school for instance, or to the person who is going to be prepared to set up a little youth orchestra in the village or an amateur theatrical group. It’s preparing an elite for a sacrificial role which benefits others, and that’s the way I look at it.”

As often happens with Scruton, one is sometimes taken aback by the high moral tone of some of his language: a sacrificial role? Surely purveyors of culture derive great benefits from their involvement in it?

“I get a tremendous benefit, but also I lead a studious life and work extremely hard at getting the right word, the right sentence and so on, which I needn’t bother with if I didn’t have that sense that this is of intrinsic value. And if I didn’t do that but just wrote sloppily I wouldn’t be able to propagate any message and maybe that would have negative impacts on others.”

The question that obviously arises here is whether this view entails a distasteful elitism. Just as Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living throws into question the value of many ordinary, unreflective lives, doesn’t Scruton’s view privilege the life of the cultural connoisseur over simpler, everyday folk?

“Culture is another name for the deepest examination of the human condition, in a way. Nobody would accuse Socrates of snobbery when he said that, although of course he was addressing upper-class youths in Athens and all the rest. I think there’s no reason why someone shouldn’t say this, because it could be true, and one wants to know how, in that case, others can enjoy the benefits of knowing something about themselves and their condition.

“I take the view that this is one of the things religion does for people. It is a channel through which that tradition of examination of the human condition can pass its wisdom down to ordinary people and illuminate their lives, and I think the loss of religion makes it more obvious just what people lose through not having any culture as well. The danger is that people will just get lost in a morass of addictive pleasures and not ask themselves the questions about the meaning of their own lives and not make the effort to make themselves interesting to others, so that human relations begin to crumble. I think we’re actually seeing that. If you look round the society in which we are, it’s not in a happy state. Although it has everything materially, people are finding it very difficult to make themselves interesting to each other.”

Scruton is well aware that many good, decent people are also uncultured, and argues that asserting the moral value of culture is not at all refuted by this.

“There isn’t any direct connection between high culture and morality at the level of the individual person. That’s why in the book Culture Counts I wrestled with the thought that it is more like science than we think: there’s a collective attempt to preserve a kind of knowledge, knowledge about what to feel and the legacy of social emotion. Of course, you can acquire that and pass it on without yourself benefiting morally from it or being changed morally, just as people can do with science. Maybe that’s what it’s all about – this legacy of emotional knowledge is something of vital importance to all of us, especially to those who don’t consciously have it. That was the thought, and actually it’s quite an original thought, because nobody has tried to justify culture in that way.

“These are speculative connections and I may be wrong, but one shouldn’t be afraid of entertaining the thought that I’m right. It’s not snobbery. It’s like saying, when Christ said on the cross, ‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,’ that wasn’t snobbery, but he was expressing a massively superior vision to those around him.”

Does his view entail that good, uncultured people depend for their goodness on high culture elsewhere in society?

“It’s an interesting suggestion. All we know from our predicament as modern westerners is that there has been this huge educational inheritance which we’re somewhat throwing away at the moment, in which science, mathematics, literature, music and fine art, history, and languages have all been mixed together and have fertilised each other. We can’t say that one bit of it could be extracted and survive without the rest. But we can look at parts of the world that have had a high culture and lost it, the Middle East being a very obvious example, and see how bereft it leaves people. There isn’t in the modern Middle East and Islam that ability to compromise, to see the human condition in its totality, to abstract from one’s own immediate concerns that we have. Once, of course, all that high culture was there flourishing, especially of course in Persia in the 13th century.”

Scruton even argues that there is a moral benefit to music – not just programme music or opera, but pure music.

“I’m not the first person to say this, because Plato in the Republic raises this question: how should people sing and dance in order to produce an orderly social condition? I would say that music is something which has a tremendous power: it has a power to silence us and to take us along with it. So there’s a good question, what is it making us do?

“One answer is that the first thing it is making us do is to move in time to it, and adapt our body rhythms, and the emotional rhythms that go with it, to what we’re listening to. This is obviously a way of rehearing all kinds of things that we wouldn’t normally rehearse because we’re too busy doing other things. So it does matter what kind of music you listen to, because it will implant its movements in your soul. That’s something that Plato said in a completely different idiom, but I think it’s true, and of course the psychologists think this too, because they’ve done all this empirical research on what happens to children brought up listening to Mozart as opposed to listening to pop music and all the rest, so we know it has a hugely differential effect on their moral and intellectual development. But I would say as adults, there are great differences between those who enter into a state of frenzy through music and those who, on the contrary, enter a state of meditation. These are character-forming experiences.”

Scruton is famously, or notoriously, critical of popular music. He was even successfully sued once by the Pet Shop Boys for suggesting in An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture that “serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trade mark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable.” I put it to him that in any genre you’ll find there are always some people of great creativity and artistry. How prepared is he to overcome the initial barriers to appreciating this and give apparently raw or violent styles of music a go?

“I accept that. I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves. Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer that it’s very rare that that happens, I think. It never happens with Oasis or The Verve. It did happen much more of course with the Beatles, and in the old American songbook, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and all that. That was a popular music which was about communication of often quite gentle feelings. So I’m not as prejudiced as I seem. I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.”

I was reminded of a Guardian article last year in which intellectuals were asked for their confessions, most of which were no such thing: you’re not going to think worse of John Carey, for example, because he admits to liking a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Scruton alone admitted something that flies in the face of much of what he has stood up for: He finds Elvis irresistible. Is that right?

“I do find him irresistible, yes.”

But you feel you shouldn’t?

“Well, it is all below the belt with Elvis. I was slightly tongue in cheek.”

This sense of humour is a side of Scruton that is often missed. In his latest book, Culture Counts, Scruton devotes several pages to the importance of jokes and comedy. However, what a lot of people find almost comically impossible in Scruton is the high seriousness his approach generally takes. We have become too ironic to take ourselves as seriously as Scruton would like us to.

“It’s true that people don’t live up to my expectations. This is one reason why we laugh. Laughter is in a great many cases a recognition of our falling short from an ideal. If we didn’t have ideals, humour would all be black. I still think that it would be a bad thing for mankind if people didn’t make the effort that I and other people make to paint ideal portraits of the human condition.”

But laughing at falling short of an ideal is still possible if you don’t hold that ideal. In the Monty Python films, for example, much of the humour is that there is this background of grand narratives – the quest for the Holy Grail, the life of Christ, and so on – but the reality of human life is nothing like as noble as these stories we tell of ourselves.

“That is true. In fairness to me it should be said that my writing, however high-toned it is, is also quite humorous at times. It’s more ironical than jokey, I guess. I certainly don’t want to look as though I’m imposing some kind of solemn sermon. But I only ever say what I think and perhaps what I think is a little bit too demanding.”

One example of this irony is a passage in Gentle Regrets where he talks about how there is something grotesque about someone adopting a conservatism which really should be a matter of inheritance. The passage gave me the slightly sad sense of a man who had rejected the liberal academic home he would have been most at home in, but who now lives among conservatives who sense he isn’t quite “one of us” either.

“That passage was written slightly with tongue in cheek. It was a chapter on why I became a conservative and was written with a sufficient irony to make the narrative plausible. Without in any way exaggerating the problems I had, it is nevertheless the case that it was damn stupid to become a conservative. Had it not been for the fact that I was convinced of the truth of the position I would certainly have dropped it straight away, because in the culture of those days – remember this was the seventies – it just isolated me from the university community and much of the way of life of people of my class, interests and outlook. So I was being a little ironical and looking at myself from the outside as a comic figure. I didn’t want to describe myself as a tragic figure.”

Scruton’s problems with academic life, however, are more than just political. He finds the whole business of most contemporary Anglo-American philosophy to be sterile and dull.

“I was properly trained in Cambridge and I would never want to dismiss the value of that training and the real achievements of people like Wittgenstein, obviously, who is very much one of my culture heroes, and the analytical method generally. I think it clarifies so much in philosophy which was unclear and in particular swept away – well it should have swept away, but alas it didn’t – the worst kind of phenomenology and Heidegerrian nonsense and all that, and put serious enquiry in the place of it.

“But the problem is it does have a relentlessly negative effect, because there is no attempt, or very rarely is there an attempt, to give a synthetic view of what the world is for us, what the world is in itself, and to fit the human being into this picture in its full complexity. That really is all that I meant by saying that you’ve got to put culture back in the picture.

“You can make a contribution in analytical philosophy without making any connections with the broader culture. The question that interests me though is whether you can use what you know from analytical philosophy to help understand the broader culture, and I think you can. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, certainly in my work in aesthetics. My book on the philosophy of music is very analytical but is totally about the nature and meaning of the music and culture. I think it benefits from being analytical. I wouldn’t ever want to repudiate that discipline.”

Interestingly, you hear many similar things being said within academic philosophy these days from people who are very far from Scruton politically. It would be ironic indeed if the profession that once pushed him away were now moving closer to his way of doing things. Rather than the prodigal son returning home, home may be moving closer to the son.

Julian Baggini’s latest book is Complaint (Profile).

Originally published in Issue 42 of TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine.

Myerson’s moral luck

I find the ideas of “moral luck” intriguing: that whether or not one does the morally right thing may sometimes depend on what the outcome is, even when that outcome is at least part down to luck. Convincing examples are hard to come by, but it seems recent days have thrown up a case that intuitively people do seem to see in terms of moral luck.

The novelist Julie Myerson recently did an interview in which she talked about how her forthcoming book was based on the experience she had with her drug-using son. He was, in her view, an addict of skunk, which is a very strong form of marijuana.

When she gave this interview, many came down hard on her, claiming that it was wrong to expose her family’s private troubles in this way. In particular, it was unfair on her son, who had apparently since given up drugs, but was still somewhat estranged from the family and trying to build a career for himself.

These first accusatory articles tended to focus on whether Myerson was right or wrong, irrespective of the merits of the book. When it was rush-released, however, several reviewers applauded it, suggesting that the question of the morality of the case was settled by its quality. In other words, the fact that it was so good justified her trampling over the privacy of her son. As Mark Lawson said in his Guardian review, “many of those who have read or written about The Lost Child will be surprised – and perhaps chastened – by its contents.”

The interesting thing from a moral luck point of view is that Myerson herself could not have known whether the book would have succeeded sufficiently. Had it not been as good, the same reviewers may well have condemned her.

Of course, the reviewers and commentators probably haven’t thought this luck element through fully, and many probably don’t realise that the logical conclusion of the vindication of Myerson on account of her book’s qualities is that they accept the reality of moral luck.

In this case, I’m not convinced that Myerson was right, and nor am I sure that it being a good book would justify the intrusion in this case. But in principle, I think it is possible that such a similar scenario is possible: that the final judgement on the morality of publishing such a book must rest in part on a judgement of its quality, and that the author cannot know whether or not he or she would pass that test. So Myerson points towards the reality of moral luck, even if she doesn’t exemplify it.

Questions of Truth

My review in the FT of Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale went through several drafts. The paper found the first two versions had too much of my own views on the subject; was not sufficiently even-handed; didn’t describe the actual contents enough; and was also a bit technical in places. Apart from that, they were perfect!

So I thought I’d share here some of the bits that got away, which I have reassembled into a hopefully coherent whole. (Read the published review to get a better sense of the book as a whole.)

I argued that the authors followed the time-honoured strategy to identify the spaces which science leaves behind and get their God of the gaps to plug them.

This works most effectively with “anthropic fine-tuning”, covered in one of three lengthy appendices, the others being on evolution and the relationship between mind and brain. The laws of physics contain six key numbers, and life could not have evolved anywhere in the universe if they were just slightly different. Currently, the most popular scientific explanation of this “fine-tuning” is that there are an infinite number of universes, and so the variables were bound to be right in one of them. In comparison, the alternative hypothesis that some divine being fixed them deliberately looks simpler and more plausible.

Many find this argument persuasive, including some very good physicists. The problem is that such divine gap-filling just isn’t science. To argue that God typed in the right numbers to allow life to evolve doesn’t even begin to solve the problem, since the mechanism by which this is supposed to have happened is utterly mysterious and can never be known scientifically. The God hypothesis may not contradict science, but the science can never lead you to it.

A truly scientific approach accepts gaps in our knowledge and keeps looking for testable answers. Beale, however, dismisses such intellectual humility, saying “there is a long tradition in atheist philosophy … of saying ‘There is no answer to this question’ when what you mean is ‘There is an answer to this question, but I don’t like it.’” It would be more accurate to say “There is an answer to this question, but it’s not scientific.” Ironically, it is the religious, who criticise “materialists” for lacking a proper sense of mystery, who seem least able to actually live with a real one when they find it.

Questions of Truth vividly illustrates how, if you are sufficiently committed to a belief, it is always possible to interpret other facts to fit in with it. It all depends on which of your beliefs you take to be non-negotiable. “The materialist takes as basic fact the existence of matter,” they say, somewhat caricaturing the atheist position. “The theist takes as basic fact the existence of a divine creator,” they add, accurately describing their own. From this starting point, it is clear there is nothing which could persuade the theist otherwise.

Polkinghorne and Beale’s exercise in apologetics shows how naïve it is to think that reason can lead all rational people inexorably to the same conclusion. Reason is not dispassionate, it is motivated by our prior commitments, and few are as strong as those of Bible believing Christians.

This does not mean that we should become entirely sceptical of reason and truth, however, simply that we must not overestimate the power of the former to illuminate the latter. Even when the truth is staring us right in the eyes, it often does so from the back of a crowd, the front row of which is filled with more seductive faces.