Philosopher Jonathan Glover on the best and worst of humanity

I have always thought that we are too obsessed with what makes us bad and not interested enough as to what makes us good. The news is full of violence and atrocity which gives the impression that humanity is forever at its own throat. But, in the same way that the news rarely reports on planes that land safely, only the ones that crash, the media is generally more interested in reporting we are violent and not when we are peaceful. We think that violence is somehow natural whereas morality is not. This is a mistake.

In this interview, Glover discusses the role of moral identity in restraining our worst instincts: what sort of person do I want to be? I don’t want to be the sort of person that tortures and murders. This identity keeps our destructive impulses in check. For religious believers, it’s God that implants moral identity. For secular people, like me, then it’s evolved feelings of empathy and restraint. Morality is a natural phenomenon. My feet are firmly placed in the secular camp. Glover himself takes no position on the source of our moral identity but whatever its source is, it certainly exists.

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To Kill or Not to Kill?

I don’t know anything about David Cameron’s nightmares but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was one of them.

Terrorists attack Britain. Amid the inevitable recrimination it turns out the perpetrators were British and orchestrated the attack from overseas. Furthermore, the security forces knew of the plot but bungled an opportunity to foil it by killing the men now known to have organised it. It turns out that the security services had doubts about the morality and legality of a preemptive strike against people who were not yet perpetrators but suspects. But now one thing is clear. The hesitation was fatal – the terrorists struck. The worst happened.

A beleaguered Prime Minister faces the wrath of the press, public, backbenchers and the opposition. In vain, the PM protests that it’s easy to be wise after the fact. The intelligence was not clear cut – the evidence may not have held up in a court of law. The men were British citizens and we don’t execute citizens, not even traitors. These men were suspects – we don’t kill suspects, we bring them to court.

None of it makes any difference.  No matter how reasonable the PM’s arguments are, the fact was something could have been done but it was not done.  Saturation media coverage of harrowing survivor and eyewitness accounts whip up a hurricane of public fury that threatens to bring down the entire government.  The PM’s authority is in tatters. His colleagues tell him he has to go. It’s either him or the Party. He accepts the inevitable and resigns. His Premiership is over as is his political career.

Consider another scenario that ends differently. Two British citizens have deserted the UK to fight for a foreign terrorist organisation and evidence emerges that they may be plotting an atrocity in the UK. The evidence is not clear cut and perhaps not all conceivable peaceful options have been considered. The dilemma is thus posed: to kill or not to kill? To kill is no easy decision, with all the possible consequences that might have. But to spare them carries the possibility that an opportunity to forestall a terrorist attack on UK soil is lost. At the back of the PM’s mind is just that nightmare scenario described above. It comes down to being better safe than sorry. The decision is taken to kill them.

This thought experiment is not a discussion about the rights and wrongs of drone strikes or whether it was right for Cameron to sanction the drone strike that killed two British citizens who joined the IS in Syria. It is not to say that the scenarios envisaged here actually happened in this case. It is to say that one cannot rule out that this is a possible real world dilemma that any British PM might face – indeed, that it might have happened.

I stress, I do not have possession of the relevant facts and mastery of the legal arguments to assess to what extent the strike that killed the two men was justified. But I am impatient with a certain line of thought among Cameron’s critics that is not even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that there might have been such a dilemma. To take one example, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, wrote in the Huffington Post:

‘The Prime Minister was keen to shrug this [strike] off as perfectly legal, but since the debunking of 45-minute-away-WMD claims the British parliament, and indeed public, are less inclined to take these assurances of threat at face value.’

Of course, that pretext for invading Iraq was false and questions should be asked. But because the ‘45 minutes away from destruction’ pretext to invade Iraq was false, it does not follow that the terrorist threat is false. We know that the terrorist threat is no phantom threat. There have been plenty of foiled plots. Her post shows very little appreciation of such realities.

One does not have to shed crocodile tears for the two dead terrorists in order to ask the questions that should be asked in an open society about the ethics and legality of drone strikes. Neither should we simply accept politicians’ claims that terrorism is an ‘existential threat’ and allow them a free pass to circumscribe civil liberties or deny others the power to call them to account.

But the stubborn fact is that there is a terrorist threat. If the threat is real, then the sorts of dilemmas I have discussed are real-world possibilities. Therefore the question is not if it is wrong to kill terrorists summarily but when. This cannot be a question that only the lawyers have a right to answer. It is an intensely political question. In an ideal world, we would not have to ask it. But, of course, we don’t live in such a world.

The NHS: the Cuckoo in the Nest?

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Many years ago, when I was a student in the United States, my roommate asked if it was true that  ‘bums in the UK knocked down in the street’ got free treatment. I was proud to reply yes. My room mate marvelled at our ‘communist’ system.

Twenty-five years later, I am no less proud; there is no doubt that a mark of a civilised society – and of civilised politics – is the provision we make for the most vulnerable. Alas, the fact is that the price of civilisation is getting steeper and steeper. According to economist Anatol Kerensky:

‘The fiscal costs of ageing to the British government—even assuming some moderation in the relentless rise of healthcare prices and no further expansions of health or pension entitlements—are calculated by the IMF as 335 per cent of GDP. That is equivalent to roughly £5 trillion, or almost £200,000 for every British household. In comparison with such figures, concerns about bank bailout costs and fiscal stimulus plans should pale into insignificance. The situation is broadly similar in the US and Japan.’

If this projection is correct, then any government, Labour or Tory, if it is to keep the NHS free at point of provision, and paid for from taxes, will have to do one of two things (or both):  it will either have to cut back entitlements or raise taxes to meet them.

The spectre of ever-rising NHS costs also raises the prospect of the NHS becoming the cuckoo in the nest, with other public services sacrificed to keep it fed.

This does not mean we should want to see the NHS privatised or uninsured ‘bums in the street’ left to die.

It means that we need to think about the correct balance between state and private provision within the NHS. Perhaps the NHS continues to provide acute and emergency services, but a mixture of state-private provision applies elsewhere and the state carries on paying medics’ salaries, to ensure that doctors will work in remote or poorer corners of the country.

It means we have to accept that any public service needs not only money but a civic culture that tempers the demand for unlimited entitlement.

It means questioning just how far we want to go in financing the NHS at the expense of other public services.  In the UK, we are a long way away from even beginning to consider these matters seriously.

Politicians treat the NHS like a political football but also like a political hot potato. That tells us one reason why politicians lie when it comes to the NHS: perhaps the public don’t want to hear the truth.

Will Corbyn crack the whip?

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn during a campaign rally at the Arts Centre Theatre in Aberdeen as Mr Corbyn takes his campaign to Scotland.

So then the supposedly impossible happened. Corbyn won and by a landslide. Now what?

I am going to try and speculate on what might happen in the next few months, to consider especially the question of whether the Labour party is going to fall to pieces over the decision its own supporters have made. I don’t think that this outcome is inevitable. Whether or not this happens depends on Corbyn. The power is his. This is going to be a tricky task for him.

First and foremost, he will need to manage the political reality that the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party did not back him. He and his supporters have given no indication as to how they will deal with this.

The easy answer is to say that the voters in the contest have endorsed it. But this leaves open the question of how to manage those who will dissent, using exactly the same justifications as he did in his backbench rebel days.

He has said that his rebellions were based on principle. This seems to imply that anyone who does not toe his line is a renegade. This will get him nowhere. Those who rebel against him will be motivated by principles of their own. Just because he does not agree with them, it does not follow that his own backbench rebels will be any less morally motivated than he was.

He also overlooks that, in his career as a rebel, he frequently defied democracy in the sense that he defied democratically elected Labour leaders and governments. He of course will claim that he was following his conscience and principles and no doubt he was. But his opponents are going to claim the same.

You cannot be all for freedom of conscience for yourself. You must be for it for others, too. That includes your opponents. Otherwise your adherence to such a principle means nothing. It is a claim for your exclusive right for your own conscience to be respected but no one else’s.

Unless Corbyn shows some sign that he is able to recognise that dissidents’ motives are morally motivated, then he has no chance of meeting them half-way and forging the necessary compromises he is going to have to make if he is going to lead.

Leadership means authority and authority means the right to make decisions and expect others to respect them. Now this can be done democratically, as a result of an exhaustive discussion and debate but in the end a decision has to be made and others expected to comply with it.

However, a democratically elected leader elected by majority vote also needs to account for the interests of the losers, those who have lost the vote, as his opponents have. If there is no effort made to accommodate them, then the Party will split.

The second task follows inextricably from the first. He will need to manage the demands of his supporters and resist the temptation of using them as a kind of ‘Red Guards’ to batter dissidents into line or rein them in if their enthusiasm runs ahead of them.

Though he has spoken much of courtesy and civility, he has spoken to these words more to his opponents and to the Tory press and less to his own supporters who hurl invective like ‘traitor’, ‘Tory’, ‘turncoat’ lavishly at his leadership rivals, with Liz Kendall especially the target of some particularly vindictive barbs.

This bodes badly – unless he is able to convince his supporters that his opponents are morally motivated and will need to be reasoned with, not barracked out of the Party, the Party will split.

There is no doubt that Corbyn himself is a decent man but this will not take him far. He will need to manage dissidents in the PLP and the enthusiasms of his own supporters. But the word ‘manage’ sticks in many of his supporters’’ throats. But manage them he is going to have to do.