March 11, 2008

David Willets at the LSE

The Fast show had a sketch where a character every week sitting with a group of middle class friends made a social faux pas and ended the sketch by saying 'I'll get me coat.' The Sketch illustrated a principle that David Willets's lecture at the LSE on 20th February attempted to elucidate in more academic and less amusing way. Basically Willets argued, rightly, that law is much more than just an act of government. Law embodies convention. In some sense what is written in the law is an expression of the conventions by which we operate. As Willets demonstrates for reasons to do with game theory and also evolution, such conventions are neccessary to maintain a stable functioning society. He does not really go farther than making this point- and its a sensible point and his talk is well worth reading, but I think it leads on to some important consequences particularly for us on the liberal left.

The first consequence is that leglislation is not the be all and end all. It is important to obtain leglislation in many areas- one being for instance safety at work where leglislation creates a normative equilibrium using which companies compete. But it also reminds us of the virtues of doing things which are not leglislated. Take my example from above for a moment, I think one of the most important advances in life in this country during my parent's lifetime and partly during my own is the advance of equality- sexual, racial and between sexual orientations. The evolution of attitudes on those matters has not been something only produced by government- its been produced as well by people changing their behaviour and that has often come about because they have been shamed into changing their behaviour. Campaigning works. I've been in rooms where people have argued that explicit consent isn't needed for sex or that homosexuals are worse than heterosexuals- and seen the distancing that everyone else in the room does from those people. The intake of breath, the slight contempt in the voice, all those things tend to create an unwritten but still powerful social consensus that operates to constrain what people can and cannot say. In reality this is what we mean by political correctness- its a code of convention and for the most part its a sensible code of convention.

You can see it in other ways as well- but it gives us on the liberal left a challenge. Because to have recourse to government action to repress attitudes is the easy but ultimately flawed way of doing things- it doesn't work in the end. Governments can leglislate against discrimination in the workplace, against all sorts of tangible crimes but attitudes are hard to change by the blunt instrument of leglislation. Rather it is social stigma and generational change that changes a society's mores. We can do little about the second- but we can do a lot about the first. Its why campaigning say against sexist advertising is so important because it sends out a signal that this is unacceptable. We have done a lot of good work in the past on this- but we need to keep up the fight say against perceptions of black people as physically strong mentally weak individuals. And its also why some of the right's counter attacks- from semi-racists like Mark Steyn- are so worrying because they enable people to think that this sort of language- and ultimately this attitude is a legitimate one when it isn't. Its immoral.

What we on the left have to continue to do is what American political scientists call framing. Framing means making the debate fit into our norms by using things like this website and other avenues to say that racism, sexism etc is not merely wrong but that its immoral and to be condemned. By doing that we create conventions. But we also have to be alert to other people manipulating the discourses of society- for example the religious claiming that they are discriminated against- when they actually are not. Being forced to treat others equally is not being discriminated against, it is being coerced and such coercion may be justified. Also we on the left can really get to an important dimension of citizenship and fellow feeling- equality. A society riven by class hatred is a society which cannot sustain recipricocity in its values, it cannot sustain in the long run the kind of world that David Willets wants to produce. Ultimately such a society devolves into one where the people's allegiance is bought by politicians and where class becomes such a dividing line that people feel no sympathy or empathy across it. Mr Willets's logic leads one to put a priority on equality as a means to social cohesion and to democratic stability.

One last point deserves emphasis though, because although Willets's arguments do not naturally prescribe a moral system- there are indications in there of what a moral system that would fulfill his conditions looks like. Game theory relies upon the idea of trust: I break my word with those that break their word and I keep my word with those that keep their word. We all prosper more in a society which does the latter rather than the former. And that involves of course the most important moral sentiment within our consciousness- sympathy. If you think of the moral advances of the twentieth century- from the emancipation of women to the creation of a welfare state- they have all depended upon the extension of sympathy to a class of people who previously did not receive it in the same way. Sympathy is the centre of any system of morality which prioritises the way that we behave towards others- and as Willets discusses there are good evolutionary reasons to be sympathetic. Far from suggesting that we need to embrace a Christian world view as the basis of our normative thinking or ushering in a reign of relativism, Willets's arguments lead us to a position where sympathy, in classical Scottish enlightenment terms, becomes the basis for our moral position in society. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, they all maintain sympathy as a moral value but also do much more: if we are to seek the kind of minimalistic moral concern that will satisfy everyone and make the law best reflect the way that people think, then working off the basis of sympathy gives us some clue as to how that could happen.

That also gives us clues as to how to argue and what to argue. It refocuses the debate upon the real issue between us and conservatives of every hue: that is what we do about equality. Ultimately we argue that in an unequal society the bonds between people, the productive equilbria in game theory, are disintegrated by the mutual distrust produced by massive inequalities. Ultimately should some people or classes of people have better access to law, Parliament, the instruments of power in the market etc, that delegitimates the games that we play. Either we end up with a population which quietly accepts and does not engage, or worse we end up with a situation involving rising criminality and fear. Willets is right to target the way that we see each other and the way that we behave each other as the best avenue to pursue in understanding the productive synergies that we produce in society: he is entirely right in appreciating the force of convention in changing behaviour. Where he is wrong is to underestimate and not even to mention the effects that inequality can have on all of this. Inequality is most often economic inequality- but it can also take the form of glass ceilings which may not show up as easily in statistic. However understood, inequality is corrosive to society and corrosive therefore to the productive externalities that wider cooperation between us all can produce.

Crossposted from the Liberal Conspiracy


Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Not much I can argue with there.