Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'll be judgemental if I want to...

I disagree with a lot of Gracchi's response to my Labrador Conservatism piece. I've had to cut a fair bit as he had some very long paragraphs. Hopefully he'll correct me if I've lost any of the meaning:

"Matt's argument is much more non-judgemental than the traditional social conservative line."

I hope not. My argument was for separating social conservatism's moral judgement from a particular religious code. I think this is both a politically sensible move for social conservatives and is more persuasive to me because I'm not religious. However, to separate social conservatism from moral judgement altogether would be to kill it.

Take this section from Dalrymple's The Frivolity of Evil:

"The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the patient I have just described, a man aged 25 came into our ward, in need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of cocaine that he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession of them. (Had a packet burst, he would have died immediately.) As it happened, he had just left his latest girlfriend—one week after she had given birth to their child. They weren't getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he thought not for an instant.

I asked him whether he had any other children.

"Four," he replied.

"How many mothers?"


"Do you see any of your children?"

He shook his head. It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass judgment on how his patients have elected to live, but I think I may have raised my eyebrows slightly. At any rate, the patient caught a whiff of my disapproval.

"I know," he said. "I know. Don't tell me."

These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way."

If being non-judgemental is really such a virtue, as Gracchi suggests and the British left enshrines, does that extend to this man's behaviour? Is he a victim of some tragic circumstance or irresponsibly, frivolously evil?

Gracchi, with a mind trained by academia into almost fractal subtlety, is far too attracted to any doctrine which promises to be calm, understanding and non-judgemental. However, in chasing the fools gold of being 'non-judgemental' we have created a culture unwilling to condemn the barbaric.

Gracchi may respond that he is quite willing to judge someone who repeatedly abandons his children. However, I think that when he judges even a call for social conservatism like my article through the prism of how 'judgemental' it is he has become a part of the problem. A subscriber to an intellectual perspective which regards moral judgement as passé. The result is social decay as the standards which civilisation depends upon are undermined.

"Instinctively there is a lot of good in these attitudes- but there are problems too about Matt's article. He launches into what I think is an ill advised attack on Harriet Harman's recent critique of David Cameron's marriage policies in the Guardian."

Wrong Harriet Harman piece. This is what I was responding to (I'll respond to the Guardian article later as Gracchi seems to like it).

"By endeavouring to promote marriage by building up its fortifications- by say making it tax advantageous to be married or stiffening divorce law- you may make it difficult for people to escape from relationships that are harming them and harming their children (children who are brought up by parents that loathe each other are often damaged in the long term by that- their ideas of how you behave in a relationship can often be adversarial and manipulatory). Furthermore if Matt like me deems it more difficult to bring up a child on your own than with someone else- if we make it more difficult through tax breaks and like measures to do that then probably the kids who are left, through no fault of their own, with parents who may, for no fault of their own, be alone will be penalised even more than they already are."

A little perspective will make it clear that that a fiscal incentive to marriage doesn't mean trapping people in abusive relationships. You can't have it both ways and argue that "few people will marry because of an extra hundred quid of benefit" but that, for the same benefit, they will take "domestic violence of all kinds, affairs and [...] emotional abuse".

I would argue that marginal financial incentives are unlikely to either 'create' marriages or sustain them through serious abuse. It will affect those marginal cases of marriages which have gone a little stale or are going through a rocky patch. In these cases the huge social costs of divorce suggest we should want people to err on the side of staying married. At the moment, with a tax system which will often leave people better off if they divorce, we do the opposite and incentivise divorce.

Gracchi then talks about a lot of possible counselling the state could offer. I'll respond to Harman's idea for divorce support in my response to her Guardian article but all this talk of other things we could do to help marriage seems largely tangential. I'll leave it out.

"But it is upon the policies that we should judge labrador conservatism."

Actually, it isn't.

I've criticised Gracchi in another thread for treating politics as some kind of machine with policy as levers which you pull for certain effects. For neglecting the importance of the debate around values and ideals. Politics is bigger than policy and should be concerned with our collective values.

When we as a society treat criminals like victims, parents like children and moral judgement like some kind of plague the results are truly dismal. Changing the state's behaviour, new policy, matters. However, changing social attitudes is the most important function of a renewed social conservatism. Just as education board disciplinary procedures can't defend free inquiry the state can't save the family. Politics needs to embrace a broader debate over how our society should be ordered rather than treating every problem as a policy brain teaser.


Praguetory said...

There is a strand of thinking that will reject anything with a sniff or morality. If we allow ourselves to be cowed by this counter, we are endorsing a country where the government has nothing to say on morality. To exclude states from this role means leaving the ground free for other powerful, but unaccountable institutions to do it instead - media, advertisers, religion. We are reaping this.

james higham said...

I really don't like speaking against Tiberius, except on his own blog - he's a wonderful historian and friend.

However, I'm afraid, for him, that your take here is much closer to reality. Politics is more than lever pulling indeed.

Thought provoking post, Matthew.

Gracchi said...

Interesting I'm responding on my blog

Gracchi said...

Oh and James of course be critical- Matt is a friend as well and this is just a political discussion not a personal matter! Myself and Mr Sinclair and trying to pioneer debate which doesn't end in enmity :)

Matthew Sinclair said...

That's what you think!

I've actually had "gracchi 2.0" lined up for some time now :)

Not Saussure said...

Heaven forbid, Praguetory, that we should leave the ground free for 'unaccounatble institutions' like churches to talk about morality. Far better our politicians, like Mr Blair or Mr Prescott, tell us what we should be doing -- after all, they're accountable. Just as well, really, since unlike the media, advertisers and religion, they have the power compel obedience.

As to We are endorsing a country where the government has nothing to say on morality, that's exactly what Michael Oakeshott does. The proper business of government, he says, is a
'specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of the "natural depravity of mankind" but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness.'

Curiously, he recommends this minimal role for government in an essay entitled, On Being Conservative (he's all in favour of people being Conservative, by the way, at least as he understands the term).

My problem with all this is that when government tries to tell people how to run businesses or schools or hospitals, with perfectly laudable intentions, it usually ends up making a hash of it and achieving pretty much the opposite of what's intended. I just don't see why anyone thinks government will have much more success 'helping' us run our personal lives than it does when it 'helps' us in other spheres of activity.

edmund said...

Very good oint about judgmanetal. I also think as I keep harpn though its not as simple as relgiou vs non religous after al lthe Soviet union was not only non regious but anti-and they condemned homosexuality burtally whilst being fairly hostile to hetrosexual marriage (keen on divorce destyoin the economic incentives, attempting to collectivise childcare and elinate the family as its primary provider ect)

I think a key point is that though there are systems of value whihc can unite postions they don' have to. So to belived the high illegitmacy rate is inherenly bad you don't have to say belive homosexual sex or adultury are inherently wrong in and of themsleves.

I think with judgemenatl the key factors are a ctions vs people. I a very dubious about jduing other people ( this is harder if you're chrisitna of course) but that does not mean actions can not be condmend as wrong and punished preferably by socity though in some cases eg murder and theft it must be the state.

I think in terms of policies vs the "big picutre" I think the joral statne of polti8ics make litle more effect on behviaour than iar-what can make a difference is the actual actions of govern-when people are rewarded by being financed for children out of wedlook , abortion ect people get a general signa l in thier lives (which people mpay so so much more attention than politics-particulary towards the bottom of society) that these things are ok even good.

I would be wary of making politics too much a debate about how soci4eytt should be ordered rathe than policy driven- for a start it can make coalitions very hard to build. The sacrilization of politics is the common enemy of conservatism and classiccal liberalism alike.

Praguetory said...

NSS - I don't think the sentiments behind my first comment are left/right - they are pragmatic - and as I said on the other thread, the existing legal, benefit and tax systems are very anti-marriage so whatever stance the gov't take is being judgmental in one way or another. In a functioning democracy the government should be able to reflect democratic wishes whether or not intellectuals deem these populist/moralising or whatever disparaging epithet they can find.

Good debate, though.

edmund said...

Oakeshoot's argument is a bit diffetn than nss imagines- he holds that it is not the role of govnet to try and transof socity to some ideal. This does not mean it should not try and defend traditoia practices and insitio-which would no doubt include the church and marriage.

if you want to see the impliations of his thought for actual policy read kenneth minogue his leading disciplie his a got a lot of classical liberal tences but also a considerable degree of social conservatism.

Gracchi said...

Gracchi 2.0 I can't wait Mr Sinclair- what is going to be on it- I hate to think about pictures in particular, not to mention how long the posts would be :)

As to the debate on Oakeshott- I'd be careful Edmund about reading people through their intellectual disciples. Think of the different Socrateses you get in Xenophon, Plato etc. Oakeshott is very difficult to place ideologically- largely because he refused to be so placed.

Prague Tory I'm not arguing with pro-marriage leglislation just particular pro-marriage leglislation- this debate is actually about some very precise discussions. I think we also need to distinguish what we mean by judgemental. I don't judge that illness for example is a moral evil, but I strive to formulate policy to allow people to be as healthy as possible- similarly we might decide that marriage doesn't promote some things within society that we need- but that doesn't neccessarily mean that being unmarried is being evil, its a pragmatic judgement and we can base it on the statistics. That's what I meant by non-judgemental.

edmund said...

on Oakeshott Grachhi in some sense he is hard to define-but not politcally. far from "largley because he refused to be so placed" he was a founder of the conservative philosphy grou, a lifelong conservative, the author of a n article entied "why i am a conservative" ect ect , there's a reaons why it was not "why i am a classicla liberal" because he was not. it is very clear that the problem is radical change from outside soicety- the framework wihtin which things operate is not a simple classical libera/ libertarin but also includes respect for traditonal values even observed by the law- fuflling the same requirments of non totalitarianism and consistancy.

Minogue started implent ithe speicis of oakeshotts views to policy long before oakeshott did. He could deny him in a way Socartes couldn' plato or xenophone.