Prof. Ted Honderich spoke this in the University Tent and also to the main assembly of the St. Paul's Cathedral Occupation in London.
This little philosophy lecture is about right and wrong with respect our coalition government, and this St. Paul's Cathedral occupation, and a few other things. So I'd better start by saying what the principle of right and wrong is according to me. It's the Principle of Humanity. That's the principle of the left in politics when it is true to itself. In brief it is that we must get and keep people out of lives of deprivation and suffering -- out of what you can call bad lives.
Bad lives are lives denied or deprived of the great human goods, frustrated in the fundamental desires of our human nature. These six great goods or desires are for a decent length of conscious life, bodily well-being, kinds of freedom and power, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, and such goods of culture as literacy and religion.
The Principle of Humanity, fully stated, is as follows. The right thing -- action, practice, institution, government, society, possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information at the time is the rational one in the sense of of being effective and not self-defeating with respect to one end -- the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives.
No metaphor there, no can't about The Big Society or undefined fairness or anything else, no stuff from the Creative Department of your party ad agency. No lowering of the level of intelligence of our public discourse. The Principle of Humanity does have a policy of clear grown-up honesty in it. Also a policy of useful equalities, and more.
What is the tradition of conservatism's principle of right and wrong? And maybe liberalism, always a little namby-pamby but at the moment certainly demonstrating half its reality, the lower half. Conservatives used to say they were against change but for reform, which they never distinguished. Even their main thinker Edmund Burke didn't do it. Anyway they're not against change when it suits them, as Thatcherism and the present covert moves against the National Health Service demonstrate.
They used to say they were against too much democracy. Now they say they're for our hierarchic democracy, which is very short on equality and therefore freedom. But they're also against even hierarchic democracy when it suits them, as with the idea of the Greek prime minister the other week to let the Greek people speak. But I skip the rest of a lot of hopeless answers to what conservatism is.
I suppose the best candiate for conservatism's general principle of right and wrong is desert -- everybody to get what he deserves. Bonuses, time in jail, education, and so on. In fact, I'd say, conservatives getting the things they want and others getting the things they don't want.The bankers and corporation leaders must be paid those millions of pounds annually because they deserve it. There is also the not always hidden convention that those who are badly off really deserve their poverty, ignorance and the rest.
That talk isn't a clear general principle of desert, which is certainly needed, for consistency for a start. I'll be coming back to the matter of whether there is such a clear general principle. Right now, we may agree that any talk of desert has a lot to do with the subject of freedoms or rather mainly one freedom.
There are two general ideas of freedom. One, the idea of voluntariness, is being able to decide and do what you want. You are not compelled or constrained to decide and do what you don't want. The paradigm and traditional case of lack of this freedom of voluntariness is being in jail.
The second idea of freedom is origination, one thing meant by elevated talk of free will. What it comes to is that you were able to decide otherwise than you did at a time, no matter your entire situation including your brain at the time and in the past. Your decision and hence your action were just not caused. Still, your decision was not a random or chance event either, but one under a kind of personal control. That has control has been spoken of in terms of what is surely the nonsense of self-causation, but never ever explained.
What conservatives and others say you deserve is typically attached to what you have freely done in the sense of origination. You get more of something, say richness or poverty, on account of your originations as distinct from your voluntarinesses.
That brings up determinism. For a start, we all know an event that is an effect is one that comes from a cause, say striking a match, and also other necessary conditions of the effect. The whole set of conditions makes up a causal circumstance. The causal circumstance guarantees the effect, which means that the effect would still have happened whatever else had accompanied the whole causal circumstance. Causal circumstances and effects form causal sequences or chains for final events.
One philosophical and scientific theory of determinism is that all events of human consciousness, notably our decisions and formings of intentions, and all our actions, are effects of causal sequences, going back to before any consciousness relevant to the decision. You hear that determinism has been refuted by interpretations of the mathematics of theories in contemporary physics. But the interpretations of the theories, to speak plainly, are a mess, including self-contradiction. Physicists even admit the mess, sometimes under the guise of celebrating what they call the weirdness and mystery of nature. No doubt they'll be able to admit more now that the sacred proposition of physics, that nothing goes faster than light, seems not to be true in Switzerland and Italy.
I don't try to push down your throat what I do believe, which is the truth of determinism. I do put it to you that all of us, when we think about choices and actions, are very ready to grant something like determinism -- you can't make your past unreal, or your present. We believe what you can call near-determinism. But despite this we are ready to half-accept anyway that there is not only voluntariness but something like origination and desert, in the lives of the rich and the poor.
There can be no origination if determinism is true -- which I sure take it to be. So there can't be any of the desert that is tied to origination -- as against the credit and the useful basis for judgement and so on that attaches to voluntariness, in connection with punishment and a lot more. Why then are we ordinarily inclined to believe in origination? Half-believe in it and desert?
Why do some of us at least talk as if origination exists and so punishment is richly deserved -- more of it than for voluntariness? Maybe there is a root of these mistakes in human nature, the history of the species. But there is another fair-sized root right here in contemporary society, any way in England and America. I have the idea that maybe we imbibe or are taught the stuff because it has been and is useful to some of us. Ideas and desires kept going with an intention even if not really a plot or a conspiracy.
Come back to the question of whether there really is a clear general principle of desert for conservatism. There are an awful lot of reasons for saying no. Let me mention just one. What does it usually mean to say something is deserved? It means it's right. The principle of desert comes down to saying a thing is right because it is right.
The short story of conservatism, though, is not that it is just self-interested. We're all self-interested. The short story of conservatism is that it has no principle of right and wrong to support its self-interest, unlike the Left in politics, which has the Principle of Humanity. The shortest story of conservatism is just that it is what is properly called selfish rather than just self-interested. If I'm allowed a little traditional thinking, it's a kind of class-selfishness.
It's now being covertly defended in England by the coalition government, the new Teletubbies, new characters of kiddie television for voters. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po. There they are, making funny noises and uttering things in their baby-langauge, and getting messages from somewhere, just like the originals. They also have those other names but they're not really needed. Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Cable. But I better stop. We're serious around here. I'll try anyway.
I asked a little way back why our societies tend to believe in the funny freedom of origination as distinct from the plain freedom of voluntariness. Why is there that background social fact? One part of the plain answer is that the attitude is promoted by conservatism, in its own interest. The background social fact is partly owed to to the selfishness of the tradition of conservatism. It helps to get them what they want for themselves.
So inhumanity is what conservatism is, the very opposite of the Principle of Humanity. Take the current economic situation in Britain as an example. There is no need at all to be baffled by the economics. Our economists have done more than ever before to earn for themselves the well-known name of their calling -- the dismal science. They can't speak English. We can.
The simple fact is that we have a national deficit. The state has been spending more money than it is getting in. Therefore it has a choice. It can increase its income or reduce its spending. The government's policy is not to try to increase its income, by the means of taxation of the better-off, including stopping the evasion. Its policy is reducing its spending, by taking away from the badly-off. In my view, a government could not be more vile. It could not be more unlike the head of a decent family. This government is a few vicious members of a family.
It is humanity that this occupation of St. Paul's serves. It is inhumanity that it has the great honour to resist. Every professor in England should be here in your University Tent and in your main assembly supporting you. Do you wonder if the coalition government will maintain a respectability when it is gone, have a decent place in history? It will not. You will have such a place, as certainly as one is had now by those who have resisted inhumanity thoughout history. You're not the kiddies.You have a rank above money-grubbers, the political class, right-wing historians, the lesser press, the Teletubbies, and all that.
Your civil disobedience is what is morally necessary, as are further gestures of it. Maybe one by another English army colonel today, true to Colonel Rainborough of the Civil War? Rainborough said, you'll remember, "For really I think the poorest he hath a life to live, as the greatest he..." Maybe a tank in Parliament Square to support the big strike or the march? No shells in the colonel's tank. After the telly arrives, back to barracks in Pimlico to accept the penalty for his civil and military disobedience.
Ted Honderich's relevant books: How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem (Oxford University Press); Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited (Pluto Press); Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War (Continuum) in the U.S. titled Right and Wrong etc (Seven Stories Press); Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (Pluto Press); On Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press). Long and academic book: A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes (Oxford University Press). Papers and talks at Ted Honderich website: http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/