Daily Archives: 8 February 2008

Block reform to get reform

I want a referendum screen shotWhat annoys me most about IWantAReferendum.com is it’s completely anti-intellectual stance and the way it presents the Lisbon Treaty as the most significant EU treaty in terms of pooling sovereignty in history. Whether you are pro or anti a referendum, that is clearly nonsense.

But I’ve banged on about the nonsense of all this in the past. What tickled me today was discovering this fantastic quote from Aromatherapist Michelle:

The EU isn’t working. We need a vote for force politicians to reform it.

I don’t know what she keeps in her aromatherapy bottles, but it must be something mind altering. Because what she has added her name to is a campaign to NOT reform the EU.

There’s an interesting debate to be had over whether Lisbon is a step forward or backwards for EU democracy. One thing I’ve noticed is that aside from muttering darkly and incoherently about loss of sovereignty and “self reforming treaties”, the Euro-sceptics appear to avoid this debate like the plague. I recommend you pop over to Unlock Democracy and read their guide. Agree with it or not, at least it is an argument about the Treaty itself rather than the staid debate over a referendum.

How to give head in advertising

Car Giant ChrisOver at BAE’s favourite leftwing magazine, Richard Herring writes a blog post I’ve been meaning to do only puts it far more eloquently and humourously.

One thing he doesn’t mention is that Chris’ “giant smile” on the advert doesn’t really look like a smile at all. Smug is one way of putting it. Another is to point out it looks rather similar to the expression one has when one has a mouthful of someone one does not know whether to spit out or swallow. Nothing wrong with that of course, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t get that from his wife or girlfriend. Clearly there is another dimension to this sad squit’s life that has yet to be told.

Can science find a cure for conservativism?

Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.

Iolanthe, W. S. Gilbert

There was an interesting article in New Scientist last week about research suggesting a genetic basis for political opinion (You can’t read the full article? You mean you don’t subscribe? Tsk!).

I have to be honest and admit that beyond the most banal level of accepting that certain genes no doubt contribute to an individuals’ personality to some extent, I’m not convinced. There are several problems with this article. The most fundamental one is that it doesn’t seem to be clear about what a “liberal” and a “conservative” is. For example, they approached the American Enterprise Institute for comment from the “conservative” end of the spectrum. They came up trumps:

David Frum says that he is “flattered by the evidence that conservatives are more honest and dutiful than liberals”. But given the huge number of variables that affect the outcome of an election, it would be a foolhardy researcher who would draw generalisations from Jost’s work, he says.

The AEI supports “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate” – that sounds pretty classically liberal to me and about a million miles away from a fruitloop like Mike Huckabee. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the sort of “drawbridge up” conservativism cited in the rest of the article. Overall, it’s a bit of a mess.

But it, and another article about autism, got me thinking. It cites one piece of research purporting to have found a link between a gene which regulates serotonin levels in the brain and propensity to vote. What appears to be happening here is that people who can better regulate their brain chemistry tend to be more sociable. In principle therefore, it would be hypothetically possible to come up with a pill that would make people more pro-social, which in turn would probably do a lot to improve election turnout.

What, in essence, is the moral difference between such a pill and encouraging pro-social values at school? Since there is clearly a link between diet and behaviour, how is it fundamentally different from Jamie Oliver’s school dinners? If we can justify mass medication for things like tooth decay, can’t we justify this? We already treat depression in such a way (or at least we attempt to).

Could we cure other anti-social attitudes as well? Xenophobia? Misogyny? Violence? We’re not talking about major surgery here or anything even vaguely resembling a lobotomy, just the slight changes in the chemical balance in the brain which leads to certain basic instincts behaving differently. Wouldn’t that be better than locking people up or wasting time attempting to reason with people who science informs us cannot be reasoned with?

(These are genuine questions by the way, not rhetorical ones.)

At the same time, we have reviewed and are in the process of reviewing a whole range of things which were at one point viewed as mental disorders and are now coming to conclude are merely personality traits. Homosexuality was regarded as a disease 50 years ago. Increasingly autistics are fighting a battle which at least superficially has many similarities to the gay rights movement.

The reason I’m pondering all this is not because I want to create a “cure for conservativism” but because I’m becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that science and our notions about free will are increasingly coming into conflict. On one level that tension does not, and never will be particularly meaningful. Science is unlikely to ever become so adept at understanding our genes, brains, bodies and environment to such an extent that it can predict exactly what anyone is likely to do at any given moment. But on another level, it is likely to throw up all sorts of inconvenient truths such as levels of intelligence and modes of behaviour which have fundamentally chemical bases and can thus be altered in a similar way. We’ve created distinctions between “disorders” and personality traits which are looking increasingly unsustainable. Surely there needs to be some kind of distinction between a negative thing that we should seek to cure or otherwise discourage, and a neutral thing that we should tolerate in a pluralistic society? But that line seems to be becoming increasingly blurred and just as we are having to seriously consider reclassifying some things from the former to the latter, so we may have to consider others going the other way. Or is it to be anything goes?

I wonder to what extent we are ready for this debate. There is a real reason why we need to be. If we aren’t, the interests of pharmaceutical companies are likely to dominate it, at least in the short term.

Or is this all merely paranoid delusional fantasy?

Does Rowan Williams have any more idea of what he’s going on about than I do?

It isn’t every day that a single line blog post elicits quite so many responses – clearly Rowan Williams has touched on a raw nerve.

I’ve listened to his WATO interview and I’ve skimmed through his speech (pdf). I’m still struggling to get my head around what exactly he’s going on about.

On the one hand, much of what he’s saying seems to be what we have already. Civil law is a fairly flexible beast and contains within it the scope for individuals dealing with it however they might like. Where there are restrictions to that, there is certainly a scope for reviewing it. Personally I’m delighted that we have regulated for Islamic mortgages for example – extending choice is a fundamental good thing.

There is no particular conflict between religion and a secular society in this narrow context, but what applies to religions must also apply to the rest of us. You cannot simultaneously say what Williams appears to be saying here on the one hand while taking a moral position on what the UK law on marriage, civil partnership or adoption should be. So long as people of faith are not being required to get married to people of the same sex, it should be none of their business at all what anyone else gets up to. The claim that same sex partnerships “undermine the institution of marriage” should, under Williams’ argument here, be utterly irrelevant.

Sadly though it appears that he must have it both ways, appearing to not only argue for exceptionalism, but refuting the value of the enlightenment project itself. He seems only interested in religious people having this flexibility and appears to attack the notion that it should be a universal right on the grounds that that would be a “legal monopoly” – the right is reserved only to people with their own quasi-legal (religious) framework. Any attempt to talk about universalism in the context of a single rule of law for all is denounced as positivism.

Yet he seems to lack the courage of his own convictions, waffling on about apostacy to the point of absurdity and essentially accepting that you couldn’t have sharia apply here. He seems to want Muslims to have the flexibility to pick and choose between sharia and the country’s legal system; my reading of that is that they wouldn’t be bound by either.

What I find completely baffling is this strange switching between on the one hand rejecting out of hand of us having a set of universal legal principles on the basis that it can get in the way of what he regards as the “good” aspects of sharia while on the other hand wanting to avoid a situation where all the “bad” caricature of sharia – stoning, limb removal, denial of basic rights to women – can be wafted away. How can we judge what’s good or bad without a set of universal principles? The conflict, some would say straw man, he subsequently creates he then declares can only apparently be resolved through theology. Oh, how convenient!

For the most part though, I’m just confused, which you can probably tell. I think its going to take me quite some time before I’ve got my head properly around what he’s talking about at all.

As I’ve said before I think there is some capacity in a liberal, secular society for allowing individuals to resolve private issues between them using whatever process they feel appropriate. But that only reinforces the need for a set of fundamental rights that everyone is entitled to in order to prevent abuse. Putting all this emphasis on an essential withdrawal from the public sphere also renders the Church of England’s current constitutional position untenable: we cannot have Bishops sitting in our legislature setting our laws while simultaneously demanding their right to pick and choose them whenever it suits.

UPDATE: I can’t really improve on Andrew Brown:

Dr Williams, characteristically, is interested in the arguments over what sharia law actually says. The rest of the country is more interested in whether and how it might be enforced. Only if Islamic law can be reduced to a game played between consenting adults can it be acceptably enforced in this country; and that’s not, I think, how it is understood by its practitioners.