January 03, 2007

An unambiguous duty to go into politics?

Brian Jenner has written an article today on Conservative Home. Its a rather interesting article because it argues for participation in politics. Politics today is not a very tempting career- I myself would never go into it because in my view being a senior politician means inviting the press into your private life- something that I would be unwilling to subject people close to me too. But Brian raises an interesting point- there may be a moral obligation upon us to be political. Quoting Jonathan Sacks, he uses the Martin Niemoller argument that unless we stand up, then it will be the dregs of society- the thugs and the brutallisers- who seize control.

Brian is right in the sense that political engagement is encumbent upon us all. But I'm not sure that the temptations run in the same way for us all. There are sacrafices a political career entails for your intimates. The problem is weighing your obligations to the people close to you against your obligations to your community- its one of Isaiah Berlin's irreconcilable choices. What do you say to a young man who comes to you in the midst of the second world war and says on the one hand my mother is dying in Paris and I love her and want to care for her and make sure she dies with dignity, if I leave she will eke out her existance in pain and maybe even starve to death, but on the other I have a duty to my country and I know that there is a war and I want to fight in the resistance and I want to help Jews escape the Holocaust. Private good clashes with public good and the answer isn't obvious as to how one should choose.

I suppose the one error in Brian's formulation is the totality of it though. My own thought is that we can all do things for the public good- joining political parties even writing blogs. All obligations in the end are scalars- my duty to my friend includes having coffee with her, far from an onerous sacrafice, but might also include looking after her when she is drunk and abusive. Politics is the same, obligations might start with contributing a fiver a year and end with not sleeping beacuse you are waiting for a vital communique. In that sense there is a scalar on this moral good as there are on all others- its not a matter of good or evil but of levels of being good.

At some point this scalar interferes with other scalars and my choice shows my priorities. For example does x stay at home and make his daughter's supper or does he leave her sandwiches and leaflet some council estate, does y become Prime Minister or does she turn down the honour because she knows if she did her sister's drug habit would be exposed. It all depends which obligation you think trumps the other- something which is as much emotional as based on reason- where do you derive your sense of self worth from governs the way you act.

The problem is that whereas there are principles that most of us would regard as unambiguously good- look after one's family, treat others as you would wish to be treated- the way that those principles interact is not so straightforward. Much moral debate contributes heat not light to situations because people fail to realise what they are actually debating is not the principle at stake but the situation and how a principle applies to a situation. Restating the principle as in Brian Jenner's article is really not meant to persuade us of its existance but to move it up the heirarchy of principles in our minds.

Its worth always remembering the only conflicts aren't between good and evil and nor are they solely political.


Metatone said...

Interesting post. The conflict between public and private "good" is a complex ethical question. As you say, perhaps the only real answer is that our choices demonstrate our priorities and since we are but differentiating between different kinds of "good", there isn't "an answer."

At the same time, the balance of society seems to me to have broken. I'm politically interested, still quite young and reasonably competent. I can imagine getting involved with politics. But... not only would the press harass those around me, they would dig through my past.

My past has some moments I am not proud of, but if it was just me alone I wouldn't fear the exposure. But, there are those close to me who don't need or deserve to see such things on the front page of "The Sun." I can't be the only one who feels this way. In fact, one would think that if we learn by experience then this pressure from the press is simply removing from the running exactly those people who have had a chance to learn from real personal moral conundrums. I think that's not a good development.

james higham said...

Life is about priorities and time. Whether to go into politics so the thugs don't, this misses the point I made in the 'root of the trouble' series that the true thugs are already up top, dressed in beautiful suits.

This would seem to negate the point of going in for these altruistic reasons. Your choice is to knuckle under, burn out in a glorious fire or be marginalized. You don't stop the thugs.

In an analogy, this is what the Chief Whip's office is all about anyway.

CityUnslicker said...

Unlike metatone i welcome press intrusion into political life.

Without it you get all sorts of nasties involved. this cannot happen in the UK becuase no one can hide their past well enough.

As much as this puts people off getting into politics, it puts off many wrong-un's too.

Also the point about people having learned from experience is misleading. Do we want ex-murderers running the prison service because they have a good understanding of it? Or illegal immigrants advising on border control?

Gracchi said...

Cityunslicker I agree with you about criminal records but to see your sex life when you were twenty across the front pages is rather different. I think its that aspect of intrusion- for instance that you couldn't have taken drugs in your twenties and be a politician and not see it exposed or you couldn't have had an affair say ten years before you stood for Parliaemnt and not see it come up (causing perhaps real tension in your marriage). There is intrusion and intrusion if you see what I mean.

Overall I think I agree with Metatone- I've never committed a crime and never intend to but I have done things of which I'm not proud of- and know I will do in the future things of which I will feel no pride. So I wouldn't go into politics- I think there is a balance here and we have gone too far.

James I'm not sure that the thugs are in charge- in general I think many of our politicians are well intentioned and good people- I think like all people they have flaws- I'd hate to see my character under the media spotlight but I do think they are good people in general. Rather than Nick Griffin I'd take Blair or Cameron any day.

CityUnslicker said...

On your point though Gracchi, explain David Cameron to me then? He took drugs and got over it. To me this proves the system works. Even today no one cares what you did when you were twenty; unless it was very serious.

As for affairs - don't have one!

Gracchi said...

I agree with you about Cameron and drugs but I bet he would prefer that it wasn't known- to go through it can't have been a pleasant experience- would you like to go through that kind of scrutiny of your twenties.

As to affairs, yes don't have them but on the other hand I don't think its that simple for many people who do have them. I'm not going to excuse people for having affairs- but its not as simple as saying don't have them. Life is more complicated than a tabloid headline.

Not Saussure said...

As to City Unslicker's point about David Cameron and drugs, I think it's a bit more complex than 'he took drugs and he got over it'. Doesn't a great deal depend not only on what someone may or may not have done but also on how popular he (and his party) happen to be with the press at the time? Something that'll pass with little comment one year might well be used to crucify you were it to come out a year or so later.

Similarly, I think a lot depends on whether the individual MP does something that puts up the backs of either the party whips or particular tabloid editors. Remember Claire Short's treatment at the hands of The Sun in her early days when she kicked up a fuss about page 3 girls (including, as I recall, printing photos of the young Sam Fox that will now get Kelvin Mackenzie into a great deal of trouble if he's kept them)? She hadn't actually done very much, but the Sun certainly made her suffer for crossing them.