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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Moral matters

The fine people running the course that I will be starting in September have given us a three book starting list.

•  McMillan, John. 2018. The Methods of Bioethics: An Essay in Meta-Bioethics. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

•  Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. 2018. Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. New York: Pelican.

•  Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics. 1993. New York: Cambridge University Press.

I've started with the Sinnott-Armstrong book - and it's fabulous. It must be pretty short as I'm almost half-way through after just a day. I have it on my Kindle - you don't get the sense of weight and size, just the speed of reading... or the glacier-like slowness.

It's about, as the title suggests, constructing and analysing arguments. And this, believe it or not, is a moral matter. We cannot communicate and definitely cannot collaborate if we can't reason through an argument in an effective way. A key part of the process is listening rather than arguing. Which brings to mind the post I wrote on that subject after an excellent online philosophy discussion last month.

Sinnot-Armstrong's concern is that the failure to communicate is leading to increased polarisation in society and politics. He says that both sides have stopped giving reasons for their statements and do not consider the reasons behind statements from the opposition. Without considering the reasons of the other side, we ca never hope to understand them and if we cannot understand them we can never build bridges.

He starts by counseling civility: listening carefully, asking questions, not interrupting, showing respect (which is done simply by these actions - it does not mean that you agree - just that you conceive of the other as a rational being with reasons for their views and beliefs) and showing humility (by being prepared to give reasons of your own, rather than just stating things that 'any fool can see is true' and by being willing to accept when your arguments are not valid or not based on good premises).

It's easy to see how all this would help improve the chances of collaboration and effective action.

Understanding seems to me to be the key point. I've read a couple of books which seek to explain the rise of national populism. One was Will Davies' Nervous States and the other, which I recently finished, was National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. This latter when through a detailed examination of the causes for people's dissatisfaction with the way their societies seemed to be changing and their increasing sense that their views were not, are still not, being heard. The authors found four main reasons - which they backed up solidly with statistics and research. They cite the feeling of distance and marginalisation, with the ruling elites not listening to or respecting their views and concerns; relative deprivation - as the super-rich get super-richer and as various minorities appear to get favourable treatment both economically and socially; the fear that the values that they hold dear will be lost in a changing society, in which the values of immigrants appear to be diluting their national identity and increasing distrust in the existing political system. Now, once one understands these fears and concerns - rather than labeling Brexiteers or Trump voters as racists, old white men or baskets of deplorables, one could then start to address their worries. Or at least have a conversation with them.

Some of the concerns would be valid to large percentages of the population - notably the relative deprivation and the increasing elitism of those in political power. The stats they gave about the wealth of US Senators and Representatives - as well as their educational and social background - certainly suggest that political elites are a long, long way away from those they are representing. Indeed, the research in the book suggests that significant proportions of the voting public in many Western democracies feel their politicians and their political institutions are failing to hear their views or respond to their needs.

National populists have been smart at addressing different needs alongside the well-known concerns about immigration. So some have stated the importance of LGBT and other minority rights and some have put forward strong social welfare programmes. These parties are not just right-wing xenophobic mouthpieces. They have taken territory from traditional leftist parties as well as from those on the right.

If a nation seeks to address the rise of national populism, it needs to offer an alternative that embraces some of the real issues that this trend brings to light - rather than just assuming that the old white men will die off and new young voters will lead to a return to the good old days. The trend is not one that began with Brexit and Trump - it's been building momentum since the turn of the Millennium. And it shows no signs of abating. Politicians need to listen to reasons, not just assume they know or shout insults.

Politicians need to think again.

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