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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Belie belief

First of all, isn't language cool? Belie belief... make a lie of what is accepted, and the words are just a letter apart. The etymology shows different roots. Belie is from Old Engligh 'be' about and 'leogan' meaning lie. Belief is also from Old English, but a completely different word - 'geleafa'.

Anyway. I wrote a fair bit about uncertainty and at the time I felt pretty certain about it. Then two things happened: 1) I realised that committed action actually does demand some kind of conviction (and, without committed action, what are we?) and 2) there is a kind of moral cowardice in the failure to take a position, a point that the American philosopher Susan Neiman has forced upon me. I listened to her talk on Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life on the very day that I started reading her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. More synchronicity.

Now, I retain scepticism about certainty for various reasons. One is nicely explained in this article on Aeon by Miriam Schoenfield. Essentially, she says that it can be well-nigh impossible to question our own beliefs because they have been constructed through our lives by enculturation and we cannot easily step outside our ideological framework. We might see that someone else feels the need for safe-spaces and de-platforming, but the inherent value we place on free speech as opposed to the protection of vulnerable individuals, due to the value structure we have absorbed and which creates the scaffolding of our moral system, means that we cannot find it in us to 'value' their arguments in the way that they do. This same inability to see into the moral framework of the right makes the left see conservatives as self-interested, while the right (may) feel they are standing up for the important values of opportunity or tradition or patriotism or freedom or small government or whatever it is. Likewise, the heavy weight that some traditions place on purity and the sacred may appear simply wrongheaded to those brought up with a secular frame of reference. Our lenses keep out certain wavelengths and have large blinkers attached. We are blinded to other views.

For this reason, I think there has to be an attitude of openness and an attempt to understand another's viewpoint not from outside but from inside, offering a more generous interpretation of their moral, political and economic world view. Certainty in our inevitably blinkered and limited vision can incline us always to see others as 'entirely wrong', which leads us to fail to appreciate the possible strengths and valuable insights of their position. For example, I might not see a religious icon as sacred, but by realising that in some sense I regard nature as sacred, I can start to place myself in the emotional locus of the other.

Another is that a claim of certainty can feel like it is self-righteous and condemnatory. This taps into my continuing problem with my concern that though finding something blameworthy feels like a valid position, blame seems to ally too closely with shaming the other and I feel that shaming is both non-normative and non-effective. So I seem to go all out to avoid shaming to the detriment of my ability to hold another blameworthy.

Further, certainty can incline us to view others as 'morally defective', when actually the disagreement is about the different weight placed on moral values. For example, the opposition may place a greater value on, say, collectivism, while we value individualism. Both positions have merit. Either may be 'better' in different circumstances. The rejection of either would be to the detriment of a moral worldview. The argument is not about immorality versus morality, but about the balancing act between different 'goods'.

Certainty can prevent us from having any meaningful communication, let alone collaboration.

However, when the rubber hits the road, it seems that one has to be able to say, 'That was a mistake.' One example, mentioned by Neiman as well as by epidemiologist Larry Brilliant and various friends of mine, was the UK Government's initial faith in 'herd immunity'* as the coronavirus became a clear and present danger in this country. Now, how do we react to that? A decision that could be leading to the loss of more lives and a more prolonged shutdown than other European nations?

My reaction was, well, not entirely an ostrich with its head in the sand, but not too far off. I was reluctant to condemn a government that I did not vote in and do not support. Why? Well, for a start, I have an inclination to want to believe that those who lead us have their conception of our best interests at heart. Neiman says this trait is attractive psychologically, but can require a series of intellectual contortions. Indeed, she sees it as a serious failing of the left which can 'shut down' all conversation and criticism with 'the eleventh commandment': Don't be judgmental. I could be utterly deluding myself. They could be Machiavellian monsters who care not a jot for human life. This would seem to be a self-destructive policy as one assumes they'd want to get voted in again and thus need to have some, albeit self-interested, concern for the populace.

That idea of 'their conception of our best interests' is relevant here. I take seriously the claim made by legal scholar Kingman Brewster that the presumption of innocence isn't just a legal concept - the very attitude is reliant on a generosity of spirit which sees the best, not the worst, in others, however different. I may not agree with the Tory government's values, but that does not mean that they were not operating from a framework of internally consistent moral values of their own. Like a parent who wants her daughter to be a lawyer, when it's the girl's dream to be a concert pianist, the divergence of values (security, say, versus creativity) does not mean that the parent does not care for the child nor that the child is immature. It means they have different values as to what it is to lead a good life.

Of course, our government could be veridically mistaken in their values, in the same way that we might think a view claiming that women need to be kept cooped up in houses and wear veils when outside in order to prevent men being allured by their unconstrainable sexuality is mistaken. This does not mean that in either case there is any wrongdoing intended. It means that the individuals have accepted a framework of beliefs and values that places importance on concepts that, with further open-minded investigation, can be seen to be erroneous. To get to that point, conversation surely is better than condemnation. I was thinking through some of this in the post on changing minds.

Now, it may be that the values of the government are not 'wrong' as such, but that there may be too much weight placed on certain goods and too little on others for their framework to be optimal in creating the best possible structure of a good life. To discover this, they would have to be open to listening to alternative views. Party politics may be inimical to such a conversation. That is is systemic failure. Or they could be right in some circumstances, for certain people, and unable to expand that small circle of rightness to a general population involving very different people in very different circumstances. That may well be a dismal failure of vision for a government, and one would want them to be better (more on that later), but that failing is one we all tend to share. The morality we have works best for people like us. Again, openness to alternative evidence is required. Which demands a structural system that values discussion rather than debate, dialogue rather than opposing monologues.

Crucially, it may be that their values, whatever the benefits for some in some situations, may have been the worst possible fit in this situation. This is an argument very well made, though in looking at the US rather than the UK, by economic historian Dirk Philipsen in an article on Aeon.

But let's explore not just the implications such a world view has on outcomes, but the implications it has on the decision making process itself. Let's say that if a government placed a great value on national independence, small government, autonomy, free market capitalism and economic strength as a means to maximising the happiness of the citizenry, as indexed, albeit inaccurately, by per capita GDP, while having a suspicion of existential threats that cannot be easily interpreted, predicted and categorised combined with a great resistance to authoritarian social control. They might be in a conceptual framework that led them to see unilateral shutdown as highly inimical. Recognising the necessity of action that seemed to counter to all their principles could have taken a longer time than had they had a different framework of beliefs (say, placing a high value on social welfare). The process of turning away from one course of action that 'felt' right to another that probably 'was' right would have been delayed.

This is not an excuse. What was done matters materially more than what was intended. They were, it seems, wrong. Neiman is categorical about this. But I think we have to do two things from here: work out how and why they got it wrong in terms that all parties (those who were mistaken and those who counseled otherwise) can understand^ and then create a space where governments are not blindsided by their own ideological certainties. This means questioning inherited belief systems, all inherited belief systems, and imposing all to adequate scrutiny - not just see-sawing from one position to another, which could, in other circumstances, prove equally damaging in different ways.

Of course, many, many people now are writing about what the Covid-19 pandemic should teach us as we move forward. And the recommendations, like these by Matthew Taylor of the RSA, tend to demonstrate wisdom, thought and insight. But it seems to me that often they are just plastering over cracks. It is also worth remembering that societies face a host of potential risks and working out which ones are most salient at a given time is not entirely straightforward, except in hindsight. This article does a good job of expressing that complexity.

We need to reconsider the whole foundations of the structure, rather than just make the best of a bad job. This is where Neiman's views on the role of thought, of philosophy, are, I think, inspiring. She claims that the very quality of being a human is the refusal to accept the given as given and demand instead that a better solution than has been so far imagined is possible and worth working towards. This is the role of philosophy - to expand the areas of the possible, to develop ideals.

We need to have a well-thought vision of what a good society would look like. That, in my personal view, would weigh heavily very different values from those held as sacred by our government, but it would not just be the flip-side of where we are as a default. The transition from feudal to freedom came about not as a flash in the pan but as a result of many people thinking hard about what it means to live a good life. According to Neiman, who now lives and works in Germany, Germany has got a lot of things right: as a result of soul-searching following the recognition of the evils of Nazism. Their process of transformation involved careful analysis and consideration. They have the world's fourth biggest economy and a functional welfare state.

How do you have that conversation? One where people, instead of silo-ing themselves in their enculturated and certain frame of reference with its limited potential for development, are willing to test both their values and the values of others to find something as close to an ideal as possible? While recognising, as good science does, that every stage in the journey remains falsifiable, and is inevitably imperfect? How do you create a community willing to see every belief system as just a theory which can always be improved if not overturned? A society where theories are held lightly, rather than grasped hold of with absolute certainty, and yet are widely, if not universally, agreed to be the best case so far and thus worth committed action? A situation where there is general consensus about the weight placed on different values and where, should the weighting prove faulty, reassess and recalibrate with consensus not conflict?

This is a place where I think uncertainty and certainty find their creative symbiosis - but it demands a general openness, curiosity and level of intellectual investigation. As Neiman writes, there is no greater threat to Western freedom than failing educational systems combined with the modern-day opium of the masses, advertising-driven media. Distracted and uninspired, we are blind or indifferent to the structures that determine how we live our lives. Changing this will take a re-evaluation of values. A society where all citizens have the opportunity for and encouragement to engage in a broad ranging education that prioritises critical thinking rather than box-ticking. Where people have the time to invest in considering their values and testing them against others. Where no one is disenfranchised, because their voice matters. But where they have a sense of responsibility to engage in dialogue rather than pronouncements; to listen as much as to speak; to seek to understand as much as to seek to persuade.

On a small scale, this is manifested by deliberative democracy: where small groups of a variety of people from very different walks of life are given information on major policy decisions and come to conclusions that are then put into place on the wider scale. Margaret Heffernan explains the concept clearly here.

This is a great start, but real change demands, I think, a new structure of social organisation. While capitalists value profit; libertarians free speech, free market and free trade; socialists economic equality; liberals tolerance and so on, we are missing the point. All these values have a place, but the primary value surely has to be the need to harmonise all voices and to empower people to discredit their own certainty in favour of the acceptance that they represent only a part of the whole.

Placing all value on economic flourishing at a national level leads to social injustice; but the failures of socialism suggest that focus on economic equality leads to an equally poisonous undervaluing of expression and freedom. I think that Martin Hagglund's ideas in This Life are particularly pertinent here. Flourishing requires a good level of economic security, but that doesn't meet the full requirement of what it means to be a person. To be a person isn't just a matter of survival: food, shelter, health and protection from attack. It is also about meaning, development, growth and potential. And about social relations. Only with these three legs can the stool of personhood stand.

I made the case for meaning and growth in earlier posts, and I stand by their importance. I think it is vital that everyone should have the right and the resources to follow their interests (so long as they do no harm to others). The claim that 'some people don't have the leisure to worry about whether their life is meaningful, therefore it's self indulgent to strive for it' is like telling a hungry person 'some people are dying of starvation, therefore you should not expect to have your hunger satisfied'. No. The right way, and I cannot see how this cannot be right, to look at it is to say, 'In a better world everyone would be able to find meaning. Therefore a worthwhile project is to imagine that better world and work toward it.' You do not take suffrage from some because others do not yet have it: you work toward universal suffrage. That seems self-evident when you have established that something is a good.

Susan Wolf's work on meaning in life has influenced me here. She claims that people act out of self-interest, out of duty and, this is her contribution, very often, if not most often, for objects and ends that have an intrinsic value (love, intellectual curiosity, musical or sporting accomplishment, the striving for excellence and so on). These pursuits are, she says, important for a life to have meaning. This also relates to Max Weber's ideas about re-enchantment.

If one values a possible society that could offer that freedom to find and follow one's passionate interest, one would have a sense of meaning in working toward such a society. If one had that society, one would feel a sense of both responsibility and meaning in maintaining it. In this vision, necessary jobs, that provided the essential needs of society at large (healthcare, food production, transport systems, sanitation, construction) would offer meaning and purpose, in addition to any individual interest the workers might have in their social role. And all of society would be engaged in securing these foundations, and valuing, as we do now, those engaged in essential services. But these jobs, as not based on the profit motive of a corporation, would generate sufficient income with relatively short working hours, to allow workers to follow their own pursuits. And cultural activities, sporting challenges, personal development and intellectual endeavour, as all had the opportunity and leisure to pursue them, would not be perceived as elitist, but have an intrinsic value by virtue of their role in manifesting the ways in which some find meaning - which is one of the pillars supporting the social project.

In short, work would have value in addition to the self-interested need to support oneself and one's family: it would be work to sustain a living community of people, rather than a soul-dead community of wage-labourers and profiteers. Work could in addition have extra intrinsic meaning for those involved in education, medicine, construction or anything, really, given their own personal value structure. And those jobs seen to be undesirable by many would be shared out as part of each citizen's responsibility in keeping the society functional.

There is another ethical claim to be made here: it is only by people recognising their freedom to think for themselves, through having a broad education and the leisure time to invest in deliberation, that they can attain what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom. This is a skill, developed over time, derived from learning and evidence of practical things which leads to breakthrough thinking and creativity. It is practical wisdom that enables the individual to discern and make good judgements about what is the right thing to do in a situation. Through this acquired skill members of a society can question accepted mores and come up with new solutions to ethical dilemmas. This is a generally achievable 'superpower', not an elitist intellectualisation, granting individuals moral autonomy and responsibility. Its what Neiman describes as 'growing up'. For an excellent account of that, watch this lecture. She's a good speaker.

But, of course, as I said, this requires a society that places real value on its citizens' views, to such an extent that it seriously invests in their education, beyond vocational skills and the ability to pass tests. It must teach people how to think, rather than what to think. That is a brave society, for the citizens may choose to reform and reframe it.

Sound idealistic? Maybe, but political enfranchisement for (the majority of) women, for African-Americans, for black South Africans, all at one stage looked idealistic. Now they are realities. Are we really certain that a better future isn't possible?

The ideas, the dreams, come first. Next is the job of making it happen. Harder, sure, but without ideas there is nowhere to go but the status quo.

Right now, though, if the economic consequences - there are already, for example, millions more unemployed world-wide, vast numbers without health insurance in the US and businesses closing - are so severe that we are in survival-mode post-pandemic, it seems that the opportunities to invest time and thought into a social change will be limited if not eradicated. Bear in mind that those who suffer from economic collapse will not be the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and the like but those already the victims of social injustice, as well as the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable. Poverty increases the incidences of suicide, heart attack and other chronic health conditions. It increases the chances of social breakdown and authoritarian responses. Environmental policies may be shelved for quick-fixes. Austerity policies put into effect. Young people unable to fulfil their potential because their future has been ransomed to fund the present. We run the risk of a worse social structure if we are not thinking, now, about how best to respond the collateral damage of the pandemic, which could be exponentially greater than the devastation wreaked by the virus itself.

We might get a marginally fairer society - in that we all, aside from the very rich, will be left with only the ability to survive without the opportunity to flourish. A reduction in envy, perhaps, but a general increase in misery.

A truly fairer society, instead of reducing us all to deprivation needs, would lift us all to a place where human dignity was viable. That would take vision - the kind of vision that the Enlightenment philosophers offered. It was they who were largely responsible for developing and disseminating the concepts of toleration, equality, democracy, republicanism, individual freedom, and liberty of expression in the press. Without which modernity would be worse than it is.

It's time, well over time, for the next wave.

It's time to think before we act. A time for all stake-holders to be considered - and that means all aspects of our global society. It is a time to be certain about what we do not what to happen, and to open ourselves up to the possibilities of what we do want for the planet's future.


*It's worth noting that Sweden, a nation previously held up for good governance, opted for this 'herd immunity' strategy and stuck with it. Although their death rate has been higher than many European nations in the initial wave, there are concerns that over time, every nation will ultimately suffer the same death rate - just over a prolonged period, due to lockdown; while Sweden may attain 'herd immunity' and thus be better placed. This is a big gamble the Swedes have taken - yet there is some evidence it may work for them. That remains unknown, uncertain - and yet so is everything else.

^If you want to get a real insight into why people voted for Brexit and Trump, a great start is William Davies' superb book Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World. This helped me to understand the feelings that motivated many of these voters (as well as how well the Russian-manipulated campaigns tapped into their dissatisfaction) and to feel great sympathy for them. They deserve far, far better from their countries. Now, we all do.

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