Tag Archives: philosophy

The Profound Problem with Prometheus [SPOILERS]

Sean Connery wearing an orange nappy in ZardozThere are a lot of things to like about Prometheus. The set design is very beautiful and feels real and physical for a film made in 2012 that is quite so reliant on CGI. Most of the performances are fine, some excellent. The world it creates is clearly much larger than the film itself, and it feels very much as if we’ve only seen a part of it. And while it does (sort of) serve as a prequel to Alien, it is similarly quite refreshing that it doesn’t tie itself too closely into lining itself up seemlessly to end where that film begins.

None of that is to say that there aren’t problems, but most of them would have been fixable if they’d taken the trouble to get a half-decent script editor to take a look at it. This is a real shame. A line of expositionary dialogue here, deleting a line of dialogue there (the attempt to over-egg Noomi Rapace’s “pregnancy” by revealing she was infertile was especially clunky), and most of the truly facepalm moments would have simply vanished. But the fundamental problem with the film was in the concept itself: “meeting God” films never work.

There are two problems with “meeting God” films. The first one is: they all end up resembling the Wizard of Oz. In the case of Zardoz, that is of course deliberate, but the trope runs the same way throughout. Essentially, the protagonists set themselves the task of meeting God, “God” turns out of have feet of clay, everyone gets upset and we have a stunning anti-climax. It wrecked Star Trek V. It fucked the Matrix franchise (thanks to my wife Alex for that one). Name me one film with this premise is loved and respected or has stood the test of time. They’re doomed to failure because the premise always promises more than any film can deliver, no matter how good the special effects. And if you don’t go for the cynical, God-ain’t-all-that, route, you will have to contend with the audience – who will either be profoundly sceptical themselves or, worse, declare you to be a heretic and decide you should be burnt at the stake. It is a dramatic dead end.

Architect from Matrix ReloadedBut this links to the other problem. Fundamentally, nobody wants to actually meet God. I mean, not physically, actually meet him (as opposed to some metaphysical, spiritual, vague, non-specific communion with God in this life or after). The problem, at its heart, is the cosmological argument. Once you’ve found “God”, the first question you have to ask yourself is “who created him/her/it?” At best all you’ve discovered is the latest in a long line of “creators”: it is literally turtles all the way down.

As a good Catholic, this argument should have been very, very familiar to Noomi Rapace’s character; yet it is never even touched upon in the film itself. The film makers are simply too in love with the idea to see past its inherent nonsense. Instead, what we get is a bunch of people spouting about Däniken theory as if it is holy scrit on the rather shaky basis that they “choose to believe it”. It is a caricature of a scientist with religious sensibilities (and what odd, blasphemous religious sensibilities to have?), that I doubt even Richard Dawkins actually believes really exists.

If we assume for a second that Däniken is right and that space astronauts came to earth and engineered the human race, that would throw up all sorts of philosophical issues for us as a species were we to find tangible proof. There’s a lot of potential for great drama there. But it wouldn’t disprove the existence of God; nor would it, as one character mentions in the film, disprove “300 years of Darwinism” (which, said in the year 2093, doesn’t even make sense on a basic arithmetic level, unless you’re talking about Erasmus). We have already moved on as a species in terms of the philosophical questions this film throws up; it is unlikely – more unlikely than being able to perform feats of athleticism hours after having your stomach split open and stapled together following a c-section – that we are suddenly going to forget all that and go back to asking questions that Aristotle wouldn’t have lost any sleep over.

Perhaps the biggest sin the makers of this film committed was to make a film which purports to be profound but merely going over ground already covered by AvP, with a heck of a lot more pretension in the process. And that brings us back to the Wizard of Oz; because the Dark and Terrible Scott is looking remarkably mortal right now. The only thing preventing me from feeling like I’ve been lead up the yellow brick garden path is that I had rather low expectations in the first place. That, post-Phantom Menace, so many people appear to have had such high expectations may be rather touchingly naive, but a lot of people seem quite peeved out there nonetheless.

I’m almost intrigued to see how this plays out in the sequel that they quite explicitly set up at the end of Prometheus. Let’s face it; I’m going to go and see it if it ever gets made, but I’d rather see the Guillermo del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness which, we are to understand, this film effectively blocked. H. P. Lovecraft’s story and prose are not without problems but for all that it had the potential to serve as a basis for asking some much more interesting questions than Prometheus ends up delivering (and when you meet God in a Lovecraft story, it doesn’t disappoint even if it is the last thing his protagonists intend to go looking for), and I can’t help but feel that del Toro was the right man for the job. Now we’ll presumably never know.

UPDATE: As ever, I forgot to include a couple of rather fundamental points:

Firstly, I should have pointed out that David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, more or less undermines the whole premise of the film early on by demonstrating just how absurd it is to attach such mystery and profundity to one’s maker by pointing out that he was only created because mankind could. Yet while acknowledging the mundanity of humanity’s ability to create life, the film persists in suggesting that its own creators might have some grander plan.

Secondly, I should also have pointed out that Blade Runner itself serves as an anti-Wizard of Oz plot, in which the “wizard” is known to be all-too-mortal from the beginning and that the character arc of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) focuses on his own disillusionment with “touching the creator” and eventual redemption. In doing so, Scott managed to make a film packed with far more profundity than Prometheus came anywhere near to. On that level it is startling to think the two films were made by the same person.

EDIT: As a troll has helpfully pointed out, I inadvertently changed Guillermo del Toro’s name. Now corrected.

EXCLUSIVE: Charlotte Gore is not a witch – she’s a Nutter!

Okay, it isn’t particularly exclusive, but it does happen to be true. Sort of.

Anyway, now that I have your attention, I just wanted to respond to a couple of points that came out of Charlotte’s post earlier today in response to my post about ‘airbrushing.’ More precisely, I would draw your attention to the comments which for me perfectly outline the key difference between liberalism and libertarianism. As Joe Otten points out, it seems to boil down to whether or not you are a foundationalist (in my more perjorative terminology, I describe libertarianism as ‘religion-like’ but it amounts to the same thing). Although I describe myself as a pragmatist, I don’t mean that in the strict, philosophical sense. My ‘pragmatism’ – as I outlined yesterday – is closer to critical rationalism.

The Devils Kitchen doctrine of “listen [to the evidence] and then ridicule the idiots who proposed it anyway” pretty much sums up libertarianism for me. It emerged in the 17th century and then stayed there. In that sense it is quite profoundly anti-historical. Only a libertarian could brand me a “bansturbator” and demand I get hurled out of the Lib Dems for demanding actual evidence before supporting a ban.

One thing I would take issue with is Charlotte’s claim that at least libertarianism is consistent (unlike liberalism). It isn’t that I disagree that libertaarianism isn’t consistent – it certainly is. But it is just plain wrong to argue that liberals are necessarily any less so. The comments by Joe Otten and Richard Gadsden expose how easy it is to end up in some pretty daft places if you “consistently” apply libertarian principles, no matter how much its exponents might squeal “foul” – that is hardly a strength.

The blogosphere’s obsession with libertarianism isn’t mirrored outside of it at all. It will be interesting to see if it turns out to be just a temporal fad or has some lasting impact, but either way I can’t see it ever breaking out into the mainstream. I suspect that its exponents will ultimately fall into two camps: people who ultimately decide that they can’t hold onto the strict tenets of libertarianism and evolve into liberals, and the ones who end up breaking out the Kool-Aid. I do hope Charlotte finds herself in the former category. Her admission that actual facts do matter to her, and the subsequent disapproval that she elicited suggests there’s hope for her yet.

Laurence Boyce: j’accuse (UPDATE)

I had intended to respond to Laurence Boyce’s handbagging in response to me calling him a bigot a while ago. Not wanting to get dragged into the comments thread (which appears to still be getting longer and longer…), I meant to post a riposte here last week but I got knocked out by the lurgy for a few days. Not sure how of interest it is to people now and I’ll try to keep it brief, but here goes…

First, it should be pointed out that when I originally called him a bigot, I was half-joking. Indeed, for me, I was being nice. The incident occurred, m’lud, at 11.15 on the evening of Monday 7 January 2008. The fact that I called him an “equal opportunities bigot” might possibly give the reader a clue about me having my tongue in my cheek at the time. The point I was originally making was simply that while Angus Huck didn’t like Islam, Laurence Boyce didn’t like any religion. It was as simple and as prosaic as that and I’m not convinced I particularly left myself open to interpretation. It is rather ironic, to say the least, to now find my target – an outspoken critic of fundamentalist religion – has interpreted me so literally. I certainly didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

But since I’m a repeat offender, I won’t try to wriggle out of it that easily. My objection was to Laurence stating that “Islam is a vile, pernicious, and utterly false ideology (just like every other religion).” If you find the word “bigot” a bit strong I will happily substitute it with “factually wrong and inflammatory” – it amounts to the same thing.

Why would I, as a fellow atheist, think such a thing? Because one of the things I least like about organised religion is that it tends to deal in absolutes, and this description is an absolute. However much Laurence might try to wriggle out of it, anyone who practices a “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” must themselves be vile, pernicious and utterly without merit; how would they be able to withstand the power that Laurence attributes to it? If religion is truly “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” then we surely have a moral imperative not merely to establish a secular state, not merely to try and stop people from being exposed to it and to “convert” people away from it, but to ban or at least severely restrict it. That’s broadly how I feel about Nazism. If Laurence truly believes his description, then surely he feels the same way about Sufism, Bahaism and the Society of Friends?

To assert something as being an “utterly false ideology” is also to imply that there is such a thing as a “true ideology” or at least an unfalse one. Again, isn’t this the sort of language we complain that practioners of religion adopt? Is it not also to suggest that a religion could hypothetically be founded on “truth” and therefore avoid the mistakes of all the others? Isn’t that pretty much what every single religious founder has set about doing since the dawn of time?

And where does this falsehood reside? There are obvious factual assertions made by various religions which science has shown quite comprehensively to be wrong, and there are those who cling onto these facts as if their whole faith is underpinned by them. But for others, this is less crucial. Indeed, both Lambeth Palace and the Vatican have, individuals aside, had very little problem adapting to the theory of evolution. The real challenge to religion was Galileo and Copernicus. Mainstream religion is rather adept at incorporating scientific theory into its world view. Fundamentalism (which I would broadly accept as being pernicious in character) is a modern phenomenon: Christian fundamentalism is a 20th century creed while Wahhabism only dates from the 18th. They have grown in popularity, and are growing, not because of something inherent in religion but because of something inherent in modernity (future shock?). Shouldn’t we be denouncing modernity?

And while we’re on the subject of modernity, can we really excise religion from all progress in science and philosophy? These spheres didn’t just evolve despite religion but frequently under the patronage of it. If religion were “utterly vile and pernicious” why did it so happily allow Greek philosophy and Islamic mathematics to flourish? The Renaissance was a complicated period in which religion showed its ugly side more than once, but it also inspired great art, engineering and architecture (hand in hand with capitalism of course, but that’s another story). You don’t have to be Tristram Hunt to acknowledge the important role that protestantism has played in the development of liberal democracy. Only the most crass analysis (step forward Mr Hitchens) can categorise all these leaps as somehow alien to religion rather than one of its many aspects.

Laurence also objected to my comment that “religions are ultimately what you make of them. Secular ideologies are too,” and my assertion that the fact that Marxism is what you make of it is “self evident”. Here I feel he has got completely the wrong end of the stick:

Let us get one thing straight: Marxism is not simply what you might choose to make of it. While the task of nailing down the principles of Marxism might not be entirely trivial, we can nevertheless be clear in the main about what Marxism does and does not entail. For instance, it is surely uncontroversial to assert that Marxism comprises a belief in the common ownership of property and the means of production (a terrible idea by the way). Now I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody from saying, “I’m a Marxist, though I don’t believe in the common ownership of property and the means of production.” But on the whole, I prefer the simpler, “I’m not a Marxist.” It’s brief and to the point, and has the compelling advantage of not stretching the meaning of words beyond the bounds of reason.

Note that I didn’t say “Marxism is what you want it to be” but “Marxism is what you make of it” – sorry to have to resort to semantics but there is a crucial difference as the former is how Laurence has chosen to interpret it while the latter is explicitly about action, not belief.

I wasn’t claiming that you can define Marxism however you want (although for what its worth I think Laurence defines it rather poorly here: Marxism is at its heart about class struggle and historical materialism more than anything else; Laurence’s definition leaves most Marxist academics out in the cold); I was arguing that what matters is what you do with it. It is possible to believe in common ownership of property and not feel compelled to take up revolutionary struggle in order to achieve it. Indeed, most Marxists don’t. Not every Marxist is a Stalin. Not every Marxist is even a Tony Benn. And not every Wahhabi Muslim is Osama Bin Laden. It seems remarkably obvious to write it but apparently it isn’t “self evident” so clearly I need to spell it out.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re a secularist and a liberal what matters fundamentally is what people do, not what they think. That isn’t to suggest that thoughts don’t lead to action or to endorse a mushy relativism where there nothing can be said to be wrong. I’d even agree that some ideas and creeds are very vile and pernicious indeed. But to claim, as Laurence does, that religion is somehow sui generis from liberal, enlightenment and secularist thought is to dismiss its origins, ignore history and flirt with notions about thought crime. Strip those noble ideals from their context and I would suggest you have something potentially very ugly indeed.

Ultimately, I think there is a better way than religion. The theos model really ceased to have any meaning once we realised Ptolmy was wrong. The fact there is good in religion (and there is plenty of good) doesn’t get away from the fact that it requires several logical backflips (the God of the gaps and its like) to fit in which what we have clearly established using the scientific method. While science can never disprove religion’s claims to be able to explain “why” we came to be, it superceded religion’s ability to explain “how” a long time ago.

That tension has lead to a culture clash with plenty choosing to deny modernity instead of accepting the moral superiority of honest intellectual inquiry. Those individuals are currently locked in an all-too mundane political battle across the world, from the US Presidential race, through to the Anglican Church and of course the Middle East. While I don’t expect him to man the barricades, I wish that people like Nick Clegg didn’t feel they had to apologise for their lack of belief, implicitly ceding the moral ground to organised religion which I do not believe it has any claim to.

But it is plain ignorant to label religion as a whole as evil. In doing so we perversely absolve the responsibility of those individuals who do evil in its name. And I am more comfortable with theists who do those logical backflips and manage to have a liberal world view than those atheists who seem to indulge in categorising the world into black and white in the very same way that they accuse religion of doing.

UPDATE: Laurence has chosen to elongate his already overlong and impossible to follow thread over on Lib Dem Voice.

There’s no way I can even attempt to offer a line by line rebuttal in the way he seems to have infinite time to do. There is something slightly bizarre in arguing with a “secularist” who lobs his own sacred texts by Dawkins and Harris at you rather than engaging in the debate itself.

He says “polls have show that around 36% of young British Muslims think apostasy should be punishable by death. As a matter of interest, how high would that figure have to go before ‘vile’ and ‘pernicious’ becomes about right?” This is of course to completely miss the point since if Islam were so vile and pernicious, 64% of Muslims wouldn’t be able to disregard this core belief. Of that 36% I have no doubt that most of them don’t really believe in apostacy beyond paying lip service to it. Certainly none of them seem to be in any hurry to start lobbing stones about. And of course what about all those Jews and Christians? If religion is so vile and pernicious, how come they don’t all support apostacy too? After all, it is as much a part of those religions as it is in Islam. How come you’re still alive Laurence? How come I am?

Laurence links to an article by Dawkins about religion being a Virus of the Mind. What’s most interesting about this theory of Dawkins is how unscientific it is. He’s on shaky ground to start with when he redefines religion not as analogous to a biological virus, which are increasingly being found to have all sorts of useful applications in medicine (d’oh!) but a computer virus. That is to say, it is like something that has been specifically designed, by a human, to parasitise on a computer system. He talks about computer viruses being unlike computer programs because they are “not useful” – but that depends if you’re the programmer or not; the only non-useful computer virus is one that do what it was intended to do. And of course, unlike either a biological virus or a computer virus, we can’t map the code of a “virus of the mind”.

It’s sad to see Dawkins do this because his idea about memetics really was quite innovative and forces us to think about the promulgation of ideas in a different way. He’s a victim of having his metaphors deliberately misunderstood in the past, the “selfish gene” for instance, so why he went out of his way to come up with such a sloppy metaphor here is anyone’s guess.

Back to Laurence, he makes the claim that “if a religious moderate espouses a belief that we perceive to be of disturbing consequence, we just keep quiet about it.” Er, really? When did I do that? Didn’t this debate start because I decided to criticise the Bishop of Rochester, a man whose views on Islam Laurence appears to find much common cause? I seem to spend much of this blog slagging off religious “moderates”.

He goes on to include a long quote from the Book of Harris, which contains this insightful gem: “There is no telling what our world would now be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.”

Deep stuff, eh? Anyone notice the word “might” there? Because, you know, we “might” also have invented the nuclear bomb and we “might” also have destroyed civilisation before the internet even got a chance. The problem is Harris, and by extension his loyal disciple Laurence, are playing a silly game here where ideas can be shorn of their historical context. How would this “kingdom” (sic – think about it) of Reason have come about? Spacemen arriving with tablets of stone? If you can’t answer that question then resorting to counterfactuals is just pathetic.

I mentioned Aquinas in the comments below so I’ll mention him here: without wishing to over-egg it, this man is both one of the most important figures in theology but also philosophy. No Aquinas, no classical revival, no age of enlightenment. No golden age of Reason, monarchy or not. Yet the man was also a religious fanatic.

Martin Luthor, too, who Laurence chooses to quote, was a fanatic. Yet this doesn’t undermine the importance of protestantism in the Glorious Revolution whatsoever. For all its faults, the idea underpinning protestantism was intensely democratic.

I could go on, but it’s far too late. The point is that the history of thought is inextricably bound up with the development of religion. It is an incredibly rich and evocative background that we forget at our peril. Reducing this all down to “reasonable” white hats and “religious” black hats isn’t just reductionism of the worst kind, it’s downright unscientific. When Dawkins calls religion a virus, or a drug, my response is to demand hard, testable evidence. Talk of “Reason” as if it could have emerged without the hot and bloody crucible of religion, politics and economics is meaningless, frankly laughable, and smacks of mysticism.

It is notable that Laurence has avoided answering my fundamental charge, that he deals in the language of absolutes which is one of the main things that is wrong with the religion he criticises. Perhaps Sam Harris hasn’t written a chapter on it?

On Equality

Last week I got some flak for stating that I support “equality” as a guiding principle. Indeed, in Andy Mayer’s case it turned into a full scale onslaught. Church of Leftology? Where did all that come from? Never has so much been read into the use of one little word. I’ve been meaning to return to the subject all week and have struggled to fit it in with, among other things, blogging about the Huhne interview, but it looks as if I finally have a chance.

What I aim to spell out in this article is that support for the narrow ideals of “meritocracy” and “equality of outcome” at the exclusion of equality in the round is inconsistent with the Liberal Democrats’ stated goals, with liberalism more widely and is ultimately riddled with contradiction.

The first point is easy. I need only quote the Liberal Democrat Preamble:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

That’s a pretty bald statement and it’s written on every single membership card. In the almost 20 years of the party no-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever lobbied to have this statement changed. In short, if you don’t support equality, you don’t support the principles of the Liberal Democrats. The End.

But while that may well be true, it is insufficient. It could be that all this proves is that the Liberal Democrats are not a true liberal party, but rather a rough halfway house between a liberal party and a social democratic one (which in one sense of course happens to be true). Is “true” liberalism therefore incompatible with Liberal Democrat values?

In a sense I suspect it depends on whether you consider yourself to be a social liberal or a classical liberal. In Reinventing the State, David Howarth however makes the point that even David Laws is a social liberal, albeit a “minor” one. Let’s look at a number of policy areas and explore whether the Liberal Democrat line leans more towards equality or equality of opportunity/meritocracy.

First of all, a simple one: democracy itself. Not only does the party believe in universal suffrage, it believes in a fair voting system. These ideals are rooted in equality, not equality of opportunity. We don’t argue that everyone should have an opportunity to have a vote. We have a real concern (don’t we?) about the fact that under first-past-the-post the value of your vote varies enormously depending on where you happen to live. We don’t limit ourselves to being concerned about everyone having the opportunity to live in a marginal constituency. We want all constituencies, ideally, to be marginal.

What about another absolute: human rights. Do we argue for a meritocratic rights system, where only the “deserving” have rights? This isn’t totally absurd question: a number of people in the Labour Party, including Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, do. The Conservatives want to tear up the Human Rights Act but they are happy to remain signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights – under such a system everyone would have the opportunity to exercise their rights. Do we agree with them? I don’t think so.

Do we think the police should only answer calls of distress from people with a clean criminal record? Do we think the health service should only be available to people who don’t smoke and stick to their ideal body weight (again not a completely hypothetical question as this issue does crop up time and again)?

Education is a thornier issue. Some Conservatives support Grammar Schools; David Cameron blathers on about “Grammar streaming”. Obviously the whole point of doing exams is that you have achieved some standard of merit. But is the Pupil Premium about equality of opportunity or a system of positive discrimination? If we were a party purely concerned with opportunity and meritocracy, how would such an idea not merely be policy but manage to get through our party conference with barely a squeak of opposition?

It strikes me that not only could you not maintain a liberal position while holding to a strict philosophy of equality of opportunity, you would get stuck into a mire of contradictions. As a philosophy it doesn’t tell you where to draw the line. At what point do you give up on people? At what point do you insist on leveling the playing field? At the genetic and embryological stage? At the toddler? The teenager? It’s rooted in the idea that there is a point in everyone’s life that you can point to, make sure the inequalities are addressed there, and then leave people to go off on their merry way without having to worry about what happens next.

The problem with such an approach is that there is no internal critique. As such it is all too easy to slip into complacency. Andy Mayer for example is extremely quick to write people off:

But there are entrenched privileges that are ‘unequal’ but not ‘unfair’. Looks, brains, talent, aptitude etc.

Sure there are fundamental differences in our genetic code, but there is a huge danger in exaggerating them. We know for example that identical twins, with different upbringings can end up having extremely different “looks, brains, talent, aptitude, etc.” (notice how imprecise all these differentials are). We understand – don’t we? – the danger of drawing wild conclusions about genetic difference, following the publication of spurious books such as the Bell Curve. From my reading of the nature versus nurture debate, at best the jury it out on which is the main steer; if anything nurture and the external environment appears to be winning through. You can’t ultimately answer a scientific issue through political philosophy; if the latter is to be meaningful it must be informed by the former.

Most meritocrats within the Lib Dems have leapt onto the issue of education as his point at which everything will fall into place. They are certainly correct that this is one of the most important areas that maximise equality of opportunity, but if you think that a good secondary education alone will set people up for life, you are sadly mistaken.

For example, I work in the public policy sector. I’m very conscious of the fact that small organisations like my own use internships to help bolster what we can do. The only reason why people do internships is because it gives them valuable experience and helps get them paid work. Yet people without access to free accommodation and board within London can’t afford to do internships. Result? The public policy sector is disproportionately filled with people from stable middle class backgrounds based in London and the South East. The best state supplied education in the world won’t change that fact, and the same rule applies to a whole range of white collar professions.

Andy Mayer and others have been very keen to attack my apparent support for “equality of outcome”. In fact this is the first time I’ve written that dread phrase on this blog. Equality of outcome is just as narrow and problematic a philosophy as equality of opportunity; if you solely concern yourself with outcomes you will only ever level down. But that does not mean you shouldn’t be concerned about equality of outcome. And it is here that Andy Mayer goes a bit bonkers. In attacking Duncan Brack’s writings on equality, he says the following:

Duncan Brack’s many magnus opi on this have attempting to obfuscate that clarity by claiming inequality in itself is such a barrier, particularly in respect of non-material matters such as happiness or life-expectancy…. or ‘I can’t ever be happy because you’re better looking than me’.

But it’s a circular argument. Inequality matters because it matters, therefore we must redistribute for the sake of redistribution.

This is a complete travesty of what Duncan has written. Duncan’s argument in Reinventing the State and elsewhere has been to look at the international evidence, observe that for example more equal societies tend to have lower incidences of crime and higher life expectancy and ask why. At no point does Mayer suggest that this leads to wrong conclusions, merely that it shouldn’t be looked at at all. Then, by way of misdirection, he starts raising the spectre of the Soviet Union, pointing out that the crime level there was low.

But the Soviet Union, as any casual viewer would attest, was not an equal society. While it espoused equality, the reality was quite different. While large sections of society were equally poor, they didn’t have equal rights or equal status. Duncan Brack doesn’t refer to the Soviet Union at all; so how is it relevant?

Mayer’s leap is to assume that a concern about equality of outcome is the same thing as pursuing equality of outcome at the expense of everything else. Yet no-one in the party as far as I’m aware has ever argued either for a narrow interpretation of equality or even that equality should be allowed to trump liberty.

And it isn’t just me who espouses a concern about outcomes. Nick Clegg this week made it extremely clear that he takes outcomes seriously. On the issue of diversity within our parliamentary party, he declared:

I believe this is our last chance to do it the purely liberal way, without any positive discrimination written into the rules. So I will take out an “insurance policy”, so we make sure we get it right. If, in 2 elections’ time, we have not sorted this out once and for all, then we will have no choice but to consider positive discrimination.

While I welcome this statement, it goes further than I’ve ever gone. According to Mayer’s logic, this makes Nick Clegg a fully paid up member of the “Church of Leftology

Finally, I’ve been castigated for supporting the redistribution of wealth as an end in itself. Once again, I would quote you the Lib Dem preamble:

We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity.

Why has the party taken such an unequivocal line on this? For the simple fact that if wealth is left to accumulate is will always block opportunities for others. Wealth, all things being equal, creates more wealth. A millionaire can outbid a typical graduate on a house without breaking a sweat and use the rental income from it to help buy more houses. The market is not self-correcting in this respect. Redistribution then is a fundamental corrective. Support for it only as a “last resort” is to call on us to waste time trying to avoid a fundamental principle of economics that has been well understood since Adam Smith.

Redistribution of wealth is not the same thing as redistribution of income. Speaking personally, long before the Lib Dems supported cutting income taxes I was calling for us to shift the burden of income and onto wealth. Policies such as the 50p rate on incomes above £100,000 fail to differentiate between hard work, good investment and sitting on inherited wealth. We should always encourage innovation and initiative; we should always discourage people from resting on their laurels.

Ultimately, a commitment to true equality means moving outside the narrow confines of concepts like “meritocracy”, “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” and instead appreciating the bigger picture. Ideally, equality of opportunity ought to produce equality of outcome. In the real world we are never going to achieve that ideal but the creative tension between the two can lead to progress. By contrast, an opportunity-centric approach in the way that Andy Mayer espouses is like a factory owner having a machine in which he believes he can get the best products by putting the finest raw materials in one end, but who refuses point blank to look at what comes out at the other end.

Similarly, confining equality to economic terms is to deny the wide range of areas in which it can and should inform policy; ways which the headbangers for meritocracy appear to be blind to. Human rights, fair votes and universal suffrage – all classical liberal ideas – are rooted in the Enlightenment and thus a fundamental belief in equality.

Liberals take it for granted that liberty is a complex and rich concept; so why this mad rush for reductionism when it comes to equality? Ultimately the two must inform each other. I’m not convinced you can have true equality without liberty: look at how inequality in Venezuala is becoming more stark since Chavez took the reins of power. Conversely, as L.T. Hobhouse put it: “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result.”