Friday, April 28, 2017

Hally MacHallface


Near my old school there is a block of flats called Feline Court. The developers gave the flats that name because they are situated on Cat Hill. The Hill acquired its name because, as late as 1955, there was a pub called The Cat at the bottom of it. And the pub was called The Cat, not because of some association with Dick Whittington or even the Royal Navy, but because there had been a bridge called Katebrygge there in medieval ties.

From Katebrygge to Feline Court in barely half a millennium.

There was once a school teacher who, when asked by a pupil “Why is that flower called a daffodil?” always replied “Well, it had to be called something, and hippopotamus had already been used.” 

*

Edward Colston was a London based businessman. He was born in Bristol during the reign of the ill-fated Charles I and died in London during the time of George I. (He therefore lived through the English Revolution, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, and lived to see our first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.) So far as we know, he never went to sea or worked in the merchant navy; but he served and invested in a number of companies who traded in slaves, and in products like sugar which were produced by slave labour. 

You could say that any seventeenth century grocer who sold jam was implicated in the slave trade, as was any housewife or tea shop that bought a jar. Jam is made with sugar and sugar comes from Jamaica and the Jamaican plantations rely on slave labour. John Wesley told his Cornish flock to use less sugar as a protest against the slave industry, but not to stop using the stuff altogether. They stopped putting sugar in their tea (except with pasties) but still used it in their saffron buns.

Or you could say that by slave trader you mean someone who has personally put a manacle on a slave's wrist or personally wielded a whip — which Edward Colston certainly did not. Conceivably, he didn’t even quite understand the awful reality that lay behind the pounds, shillings and pence on his ledger sheets. 

What is incontestable is that Colston made a lot of money out of buying and selling black people; and what is equally incontestable is that he donated a lot of that money to charitable concerns in his home city. But it is possible to exaggerate and romanticize this. Edward Colston was not personally the founder of the girls' school which bares his name: it was founded in 1891 (170 years after he died) with money that he bequeathed to the Society Of Merchant Venturers. The statue of Colston which stands in the center of Bristol dates only from 1895.

Colston did personally set up a boys' school in 1708, using a building which had previously been a sugar warehouse. In 1867, the school was pulled down and a concert venue built in its place. The new building was given the name Colston Hall, presumably because it was on the site of Colston Boys School; not because the proprietors particularly wanted to honour the memory of Edward Colston. This theater burned to the ground in 1898, and again in 1945. The present building was put up for the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was not founded by Edward Colston himself, and not built with his money.

It is not at all uncommon for buildings to change their names. The Westminster Clock Tower is now the Queen Elizabeth Tower; Covent Garden’s Floral Hall is now known as the Paul Hamlyn Hall. This is particularly the case when a particular person falls out of favour: a number of buildings named in honour of Jimmy Savile were hastily relabeled after he was exposed as a child molester. This is not at all the same thing as expunging someone from history. It is fair to say that Adolf Hitler is still very well remembered in Germany, but I imagine that relatively few public buildings are named after him. 

It isn’t clear when it was first suggested that it would be better if Bristol’s main music venue were named after someone who didn’t make his fortune buying and selling black people. Since at least 2003 a popular pop band named Massive Attack have declined to play in Colston Hall because of its name. On the other hand, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Martyn Joseph, Reginald G Hunter and the JC4PM road show seem to have had no particular problem with it.

I used to be broadly against the scheme to rename the building. I tend to think that each generation bequeaths its memorials to the next generation and the fact that one century’s heroes are the next century’s villains is a lesson worth learning. There would be no argument for removing the statue of Charles Napier from Trafalgar square, whether he really made that joke or not. On the other hand, much of the Bristol Colston cult was not the creation of grateful townspeople in the 1700s, but of a Victorian revival dating only to the turn of the 20th century. And Colston is not a particularly important historical figure. How many other Georgian businessmen can you name? Who was the founder of your nearest private girls' school? 

Pointless symbolic gestures are sometimes necessary, providing they are pointlessly gesturing in the right direction. There was in my opinion no practical purpose in granting a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing. He was already nearly universally regarded as a national hero, and it was already nearly universally acknowledged that the law under which he was convicted was a stupid law. The only thing that could have been done to rectify that stupidity had already been done: the stupid law had been repealed. However, once the question of a posthumous pardon had been raised, the debate inevitably divided along partisan lines. Those who didn’t think he should be pardoned were almost entirely of the “I’m not homophobic, but…” persuasion; moderates and liberals all thought he should be. At which point the government had no choice but to issue the pardon to indicate which side of the line they came down on. 

For the past six months, the Bristol Post has been publishing letters about the Colston Hall question; and those arguing that the name should remain unchanged have been, almost without exception, racists and lunatics. Only last week someone asserted that if Bristol Music Trust changed the name of Colston Hall it would logically follow that the Egyptian Government would have to demolish the pyramids, since they were constructed by slaves. Someone went so far as to say that we would also have to ban Alice in Wonderland because they seemed to remember reading somewhere that Charles Dodgson had once met someone who was a slave trader. A steady stream of writers, presumably entirely unfamiliar with the writing of George Orwell, have queued up to say that changing the name of the building would be exactly like Winston Smith editing history at the Ministry of Truth, or else like Stalin airbrushing enemies from Soviet-era photographs, or else Hitler, or else political correctness gone mad. More worryingly, many of the letter-writers have said that we should keep the name because slavery wasn't really all that bad, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. After all, "we" built railways and established hospitals in Africa as well. And “we” weren’t as beastly to our slaves as the Belgians were to their's. And "we" weren't the only country that did horrible things, and some Africans sometimes sold other Africans to slavers and in some parts of the world at some times in history white people have been slaves.

The most frequently made argument is that the evil men do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their bones and it should be possible to memorialize Colston as a philanthropist while deploring him as a slaver. The crime of kidnapping black people and taking them to places where they will be literally used like cattle is mitigated if you use some of your profits to set up schools and buy cottages for white people. This reminds one of the story of the man who murdered his mother and father and asked for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan. 

If the question had never been raised, I would have said “leave the name as it is”. But the question has been raised, and if Colston Hall had remained Colston Hall, we would be coming down on the side of racist lunatics and people who being sentences "slavery was horrible, but..." 

And I don’t think we want to do that.

*

So: what should the new name be? 

Clearly it should be named after some respectable Bristol Citizen. Maybe it could simply become Colstons’ Hall in memory of the apostrophizer? Perhaps it could be called Banksy Hall, on the grounds that Banksy is almost as divisive a figure as Colston himself. Realistically, it could be named after an anti-slavery campaigner with some Bristol connection: the Hannah More Hall or the Thomas Clarkson Hall, perhaps. My preferred options would be to name it after a revered, beloved and treasured local member of parliament. The Tony Benn Hall has a certain ring to it. 

It never ceases to amuse me that if you were a York based Jehovah’s Witness you would have to give your address as:

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Trinity Road…
York

There is a doubtless apocryphal tale about a place of higher education that was forced to write at the top of its correspondence:

Thames University
Polytechnic Road
London

After all this kerfuffle dies down, we are likely to end up with:  

The William Wilberforce Hall
Op Colston Tower
Colston Ave
Bristol

And so history will be well and truly expunged.

https://www.patreon.com/Rilstone


Saturday, April 22, 2017

10.1 The Pilot


The Pilot. The first proper episode in nearly 18 months. Partial reboot. New companion. Dalek

In some ways I liked it. I cheered a couple of times: the Movellans, the sonic screwdrivers, and (retrospectively) when it dawned on me what Bill’s girlfriend was called. I gurgled appreciatively at the Mary Celeste name plate; and at the two pictures on the desk; and at some of the banter, because, if there’s two things that Moffat can really do, one of them is banter; and at the Dalek. 

I went to the Doctor Who Experience a few years back with a couple of kids and we were beamed onto the bridge of a Dalek spaceship. When you went, you probably saw a very well constructed animatronic tableau but I promise you we were taken onto a real Dalek ship. I've wanted to go on a Dalek ship my whole life. So of course I loved the Dalek.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it. Daleks and sonic screwdrivers and supporting characters who appeared for one and a bit seasons half and century ago and jokes about the names of dead actors. All very frothy for us fans, but where's the, so to speak, beef?

Imagine if this were almost anything other than Doctor Who. The hero’s friend’s lover has become possessed by a shape shifting alien puddle and the hero pronounces that the only way to free her is with a special “remove alien puddle” ray, which one particular evil alien robot happens to have. So the hero and his new friend jump into the middle of a war and set up a situation where the alien robot zaps the alien puddle. And, so far as I can see, this doesn’t do any good whatsoever: the friend’s love isn’t freed, the puddle monster isn’t destroyed. It’s defeated a few minutes later by the power of love. 

No-one would write this kind of thing voluntarily; no-one would think that “deliberately getting caught in the cross fire of a war” was a sensible way of getting rid of an alien water demon; and (incidentally) no-one has ever remotely suggested that the Daleks gun is the hottest fire in the universe before. The scene is an exercise in shoehorning the Daleks into the wrong story; either so people like me can have a fangasm; or because nominal Whovians associate the show with Daleks and not much else, or (very probably) because if the BBC don’t use the Daleks every year they lose the rights to them. The Movellans were rubbish in 1979, part of a terrible script by a Terry Nation who had long since ceased to bother, But seeing them for 8 seconds forty years later is like, the coolest thing ever. 

This is dysfunctional television. Or else I am dysfunctional fan.

A very long time ago when the universe was black and white the Sonic Screwdriver was just a gadget. Then, in the 70s, it became the Doctor preeminent gadget. Then, in the reboot, it became the Doctor’s iconic gadget: as much a part of who he is as the TARDIS. Now, the fact that it’s the Doctor’s iconic accessory is the subject of a visual gag: it may be his magic wand, but he treats it like I treat my old biros. 

When Bill is introduced to the Doctor, she demands to know his True Name. "Doctor what?" This is funny because...well, for very obvious reasons. When she first goes inside the TARDIS she says everything apart from “It’s bigger on the inside than the outside” which is funny, because we know that is what companions normally say. When she finally does say it, the Doctor and Matt Lucas sort of high-five, because they know it, too. When the Doctor makes a weak joke and the Bill responds in kind, Matt Lucas points out that they are now bantering.

We’re not only laughing at the cliches but laughing at the fact that we’re laughing at them. 

I have completely forgotten who the Matt Lucas character is and what he is for. (Did he just pop up as a fait accompli, like Madam Vastra?) 

Every time there is a vacancy, I speculate about all the interesting things that a new Companion might be. Maybe a young boy, or a much older woman (as worked so well in the audio stories) or an alien or something historical — a Victorian governess, say, or an ancient Egyptian princess? The last six companions in the original series were, what — a delinquent biker chick with mother issues who liked exploding things; an annoying vegetarian dancer who thought she was in a panto; a shouty American; a naughty alien schoolboy who nearly betrayed the Doctor; a posh alien whose planet had been exploded by the Master; and a naughty maths nerd who can’t dance... But in the new series, it always turns out that the new companion is going to be a spunky twenty-something woman who the Doctor banters with. That’s the new definition: companions are spunky twenty-something women who the Doctor banters with. Granted, Bill is a Daily Mail baiting black lesbian spunky twenty-something woman and the first person to say “why didn’t they make her an amputee as well so they could have the set?” will be politely asked to leave the room.

If I were the sort of person who complained about this kind of thing, I would complain that race and sexuality are just being used as signifiers of difference, like a funny hat: the new companion is just like the old companion except with the twist, get this, that she fancies women. But other people complain about that kind of thing much better and at much greater length than I can. 

It would have been much more interesting if Bill’s sexuality hadn’t been trailed in advance as a selling point: look at us, we’re so clever, we’re introducing the first ever GAY companion, unless you count Captain Jack, who was probably not entirely straight, and Wonderful Clara who was strongly implied to swing both ways. It would have been much more interesting to introduce a spunky twenty something girl who dated other spunky twenty something girls and resolutely refused to mention it.

I liked the way her jacket was yellow and stripy like the chips she serves in the canteen, and that she uses “fat” as a verb. 

The Doctor has stopped traveling. Because of that bad thing which happened before. He has taken on a new role, which he quite likes, and hung about for what to us would be a life-time and sworn he would never take another companion. But then this spunky young thing with a tragic entanglement comes along, and he picks her out as special, but never intends to travel with her, but in the end he does. But then he has to part with her again, which leaves him sad, so he quits travelling again. But then...

That’s not the plot of this story or this season. That’s the plot of every story and every season.

There is nothing particularly wrong with formulas. A sonnet always has 14 lines and a haiku always as 17 syllables; Captain Kirk always falls in love with a pretty lady solves a moral dilemma which demonstrates why communism is wrong. But formula is the hook on which you hang the content. And what is now the content of Doctor Who? What are we watching for? Self-referential banter; references to old stories; and an endlessly recycled stream of autolacrymose sentiment?

What we have this week is one more possession-and-exorcism story, based around a Mills-and-Boon notion that you can be in LOVE with someone you don’t really know and have never really had a conversation with. Bill has a crush on Heather but Heather has a crush on a mysterious pool of water. Heather looks into the pool for too long, and the kelpie drags her inside. So from now on, whenever Bill looks into puddle of water, she will always see her lover’s reflection looking back at her from it.

No: that isn’t quite right. What actually happens is that Heather looks into the mysterious puddle of water for too long and the water somehow makes an exact copy of her. It, the puddle, can now follow Bill around, flowing under doors, through taps and shower fixtures, and then take on Heather’s form. A sort of wet, leaking Heather, a bit like the zombies in Waters of Mars. Liquid Heather is heavily coded as scary, although never does anything particularly frightening. 

But this isn’t quite right either. When the TARDIS travels instantaneously to Australia the puddle travels equally instantaneously after it, and when it travel instantaneously to a planet millions of years in the past, there seems to be a puddle waiting for it, and when it materializes in the middle of Destiny of the Daleks, there’s a Heather shaped pool of water waiting there as well. So all the flowing and dripping was just for show. It hardly flowed through a crack and along a pipe until it ended up on an alien planet eighty six million years in the past. It can just be wherever it wants to be. Which makes it far more powerful than the TARDIS. 

Clearly, we are engaged with what Freud would call primary and secondary dreamwork — an image, and an after-the-fact rationalizing of that image. Heather can spring up out of a pool on an alien planet because the primary idea is that Heather has been subsumed by a water elemental — wherever there is water, there she is too. The sciencey hand wave is that one little pool of water is somehow outrunning the TARDIS through time and space. 

Because the Puddle is actually a pool of super-intelligent oil from an alien space ship, and when Heather remarks that she would like to go run away, this somehow imprints on the Space Oil, so she gets whisked away through time and space, except that Bill told Heather “don’t ever leave me”, and that imprints on the space oil as well, so wherever Bill goes Heather goeth too. The Doctor’s first idea of getting Heather zapped with a Dalek death-ray doesn’t have any noticeable affect. Bill has to cast a spell of banishing: when Bill releases Heather, that is to say the replica Heather, from her promise, she goes away.

I get that the title, Pilot, is a double entendre, and I get that this episode is sort of kind of reintroducing Doctor Who after a long break, reselling the formula to people who may have forgotten what it is. So I get that it is in one way consciously revisiting Rose — note the alarm clock, the exaggerated rush through the day at work, and the fact that the new companion is called Billie. The episode coyly pretends that we might not have any more idea about who the Doctor is than Bill does, and has quite a fun time unravelling it. The best kinds of mysteries are the ones to which you already know the solution: they make you feel clever. Moffat makes us do some of the work ourselves. Bill says that she doesn’t have any pictures of her real Mum, and then finds a box of old photos in her wardrobe, and then notices that the Doctor’s reflection can be seen in one of them, and then realizes that the Police Box in the Doctor’s room has moved… But when we get to the big reveal — Capaldi standing in an exaggeratedly large TARDIS interior, looking positively regal, making his speech about “the gateway to everything which ever was or ever could be” Moffat feels the need to immediately under-cut it with some unfunny toilet humour. 

Pearl Mackie delivers the line about “You mean it can go anywhere…anywhere in the university?” as if she doesn’t quite get it. 

I also get that if you are reintroducing the Doctor, you might want to sell the idea of the show by having as much time and space travel as possible: from the university, to Australia, to the alien planet, to the Dalek war. (The only thing missing is a meeting with, say, Queen Elizabeth I or Christopher Columbus.) A surprisingly large chunk of the episode involves the Doctor explaining the concept of Time Travel, as if some people might not know what a time machine is, or might not think the idea was that exciting. This week, time is not a ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff so much as a city made up of all the different moments of your life; or possibly just a strip of movie film made up of thousands of still images. Moffat likes the idea of the simultaneity of time: one of his first contributions to Who, The Girl in the Fireplace, involved a spaceship which contained a number of “time windows” so Rienette’s life seemed to be laid out in a series of frames. Several times in Pilot, the camera appeared to pull back and show us Bill’s life as a grid of frozen moments, which is nothing is not audacious. And several times we get little flash back sequences showing Bill’s life and her relationship with heather in the little non-sequential moments.

In very, very old Who, we are asked to think of the TARDIS as being a bit like a television set; a little box that could potentially contain anything in the universe. Are we now being asked to think of the TARDIS as being a metaphor for memory? What we can all do in our heads — zoom backwards and forwards following interconnections and patterns to find the shape — the Doctor can do in the actual universe? Which is a not uninteresting idea.

The Doctor concludes his lecture about time being like a city by exclaiming “Time and relative dimension in space!” exactly like a vicar desperately hoping you’ll believe his sermon had something to do with his text when it patently didn't.

Look, we don’t know where we are going with this season yet. It might be that after the terminally impenetrable conclusion to Season 9, we have to sort of regress to the norm (Doctor, travelling, companion, banter, Daleks) before we can even consider telling any more stories. It might be that the pictures of Susan and River are just there so fans can stroke their beards and say “Ah, photos of Susan and River…” but it might also be that there is a plot brewing in which Susan turns out to River’s time-sister. There may be something really interesting locked in the vault, or at may turn out to be another monster which wants to destroy the universe for no adequately explored reason.

The idea that the Doctor has gone into semi-retirement and become an academic is really interesting (and not the worse for being a bit like Human Nature and a bit like School Reunion) but it isn’t clear if this is a recurrent sub-plot or a give away line in the first episode. Surely there is a whole season to be got out of the Doctor as a college lecturer? 

As so often, the best thing about the episode was the Doctor himself. How many terrible stories and seasons have we continued watching because Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy were so compelling? There are too many long speeches about how brilliant the universe is and what a wonderful idea time travel is; but Capaldi does a very good job despite the overwritten material. I like the little flashes of Tom Baker when he grins. I like the way he looks at Susan’s photo when he first talks to Bill. I like his macho pride in the TARDIS. The scripts keep telling us that he is magnetic and charismatic and fascinating; but Capaldi manages to make him magnetic and charismatic and fascinating even when there isn’t dramatic music playing in the background. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

damn this country

damn this country’s constitution, where tiny majorities equate to landslide victories

damn this country’s constitution where leaders can have elections whenever the hell they like

damn this country’s constitutions where leaders can have elections whenever the hell they like, after specifically introducing laws which say they can’t

damn the whole archaic idea of monarchy, which allows party leaders to act like queens
even though i quite like the pageantry

damn the whole idea of the established church which lends spurious divine authority to politicians while paying stipends to priests who reject even the most basic christian teachings

damn anyone who cares what easter eggs are called

damn the teachers who belittled us, lied to us, hit us, and stared at us in the showers and the judges who sentenced mentally handicapped teenagers to be hanged and the mad nostalgia merchants who want it all to happen again

damn anyone who thinks that 63360 is a sensible number of centimeters for there to be in a kilometer

damn the hooray henries and public school boys and vicar's daughters and grocer's daughters who think that politics is a series of funny japes

damn the amoral careerists who vow to work every day to undermine their own leader

damn the followers of the middle way who sold their birth right and never even got the pottage.

damn the national anthem, the cenotaph, the donkey jacket and the bacon sandwich

damn everyone who is not a racist themselves but thinks we have to pay attention to the very real racism of the working class


damn the daily mail and all those who have ever read it
we do renounce them

damn the daily express and all those who have ever read it
we do renounce them

damn rupert murdoch and the god-father of his baby
we do renounce them

damn nigel farage who did all this single-handedly.
(although, in a certain light, fair play to the canny bastard as well)

damn tony blair and his dossier
damn neil kinoock and his rally
damn thatcher and her milk
damn thatcher and her war
damn thatcher and her strike
may her grave be licensed for dancing forever 


i sometimes think that the big war the grown ups promised us did come after all and the extra forty years we spent inventing new types of coffee and looking at kittens and pornography was a radiation dream and soon the cloud will pass and we will emerge from our inner refuge into nuclear winter and resume normal activities

we finally really did it.




NOTE: For the benefit of my mother, one of the words in this piece has been changed to a different word. An unexpurgated version is available on request. 


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stand Down



I guess that in the olden days most savings banks and mortgage lending companies were local concerns — you had a Manchester Building Society and a Liverpool Building Society, didn't you. The bank I use must have decided to put its Unique Selling Point in its name: the Nationwide Building Society. But when I get a letter from the bank, I don’t particularly hear the word “nationwide”and think "gosh, that must be happening all over the country" — it’s just what the company is called. Similarly, I don’t hear the sounds of hammers and anvils when I talk to my friend Mr Smith, or feel particularly surprised if Mrs Green is wearing a blue dress today. In fact, it was  actually a little funny when it first occurred to me that my friend Clifford’s name could be understood to mean “a ford by a cliff”.

I contend that this is what has happened with times and seasons and festivals. There is a thing we do in December called Chris Muss. If we stop to think, we can see where the name came from. Douglas Gresham insists on referring to it as “the Christ Mass” which frankly just sounds weird. Most of us. even if we keep up the religious parts of the festival, don't specially hear the "Christ" part. "Chrissmuss" is just what it happens to be called. When a church puts up a poster saying "Christmas begins with Christ" they are making a pun, on a level with "ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME".

Now, fairly obviously, this is what has happened with the Easter festivals. Maybe, just maybe, the druids did have a goddess called Easter who they worshiped in the spring, and maybe, just maybe the Christians came over and said “We’re ‘aving that, we are.” But Estre was probably the goddess of the sunrise or the dawn, and Sunrise or Dawn are perfectly good names for the day of the Resurrection, so Christians might perfectly well have come up with the name independently. But no-one, Christian, atheist or Archbishop of York connects the word Easter with "dawn" or "East" or pagan bunny goddesses. It’s just what the time of year is called.

So, somewhere along the line the Friday before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox got labeled “Good Friday”. The most likely reasons are:

1: It’s a corruption of Gud Friday i.e Holy Friday

2: It’s a corruption of God’s Friday.

3: In a very real sense, things which look very bad to us can look very good to God and the only true goodness is in the badness.

4: We don’t know.

But Guffriday is what the day happens to be called.

So for a supermarket to put out an advertisement for cheap beer, only on sale over the holiday, under the slogan “Good Friday just got better” is another pun. The reaction of most people, including most Christians, is not “OMG Tescos think cheap cider is better than Jesus’s free gift of eternal life made once for all upon the cross”. They are more likely to think "Oh yes. Guffriday, Good Friday, got better. Very good. Very satirical."

No, we don’t mark times and seasons as much as we used to. I myself drank a pint of beer yesterday evening. Yes, I can remember when no shops, and definitely no pubs or off-licenses opened on Guffriday — apart from bakers who were allowed to sell hot cross buns provided they didn’t also sell any bread. (Can anyone tell me why we eat spicy buns on Good Friday if Good Friday is a fast day?) And yes, it is a pity that many people do not realize that Good Friday is a sad an solemn day. But the sight of otherwise sane clergymen queuing up to describe the advert as crass, offensive, insensitive, sacrilegious, ignorant and illogical made me think that someone was jumping, rather late, onto a rather ludicrous egg-shaped bandwagon.


NOTE:

I think that it is an Easter "Egg Hunt", not an "Easter-egg Hunt". I might say to you in September "Will you come to my home for Christmas Dinner" and you would understand that I was inviting you to eat turkey with me on the 25th of December. But I would not necessarily say to my guests while they were drinking their sherry and eating their nuts on the big day "Will you come through to the dining room for Christmas Dinner, and then we can pull a Christmas Cracker and eat some Christmas Cake and have a Christmas Mince Pie" although I grant that the steamed pudding you eat with brandy butter is called Christmas-Pudding and would be called Christmas-pudding even if for some reason you had some in July. So I think that if the parish council were planning its events in January, they might say "And then Mrs Wren will organize the Easter 'Egg Hunt'". But on Easter morning after church, Mrs Wren might say "All children who want to join the Egg Hunt meet me outside". No-one would stand up and ask why Mrs Wren had removed all reference to Christianity from the egg hunt and whether she was going to go and spit on the grave Farine Nestle's. (I looked it up.) She doesn't need to say Easter "Egg Hunt" because everyone already knows it is Easter.

I also don't think that it matters.








Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Sincere But Futile Attempt To Engage With Ayn Rand (2)

Love seeketh not itself to please, 
Nor for itself hath any care, 
But for another gives its ease, 

And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair. 

So sung a little Clod of Clay 
Trodden with the cattle's feet, 
But a Pebble of the brook 

Warbled out these metres meet: 

Love seeketh only self to please, 

To bind another to its delight, 

Joys in another's loss of ease, 

And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite. 

William Blake




We have all heard of people who have spent large sums of money keeping cats and dogs alive long after the vet recommends euthanasia. We might even have said “I am sorry, but by keeping Rover alive when he can no longer bark at postmen, you are being cruel. You ought to have him put to sleep and get a new puppy." There have been tragic cases where doctors and  courts have decided that a desperately sick child ought to be allowed to die, however sad it will make his parents. One might even say the same about a very old person "I am sorry, but another operation would be cruel: you ought to let Grandpa slip away peacefully". The self-interested thing to do is sometimes to keep the suffering creature alive; the altruistic thing to do is to let their life come to its natural end. 

If we believe in the tao — if we believe in human empathy and think that other people have value and agency — then there can be more than one point of view about what constitutes a good death. People who work in hospices or geriatric wards tell us that some of the very old and the very sick find their last hours and minutes precious and wouldn’t want them taken away. Different individuals might have different feelings about this. Some of us might say “If I am ever so frail that I can’t wipe my own bum then for god sake just let me go”; others might say “If I live to be 103 I damn well want you to wheel me into the cinema for the midnight showing of Star Wars: Episode XXXIII”. 


But on Rand’s view, if the rich man chooses to keep his wife alive (even though she has long since decided it's time to quit) because he couldn’t face the grief of switching her off, he acts in rational self-interest regardless of her feelings. And if he chooses to let her die because he can’t bear to watch her suffer and would rather she was at peace then he acts in rational self-interest even if she want to soldier on for a few more months. Forsooth, if he honestly decides that he would derive more deep private joy from a world cruise, a private jet, or a younger mistress than from a long stay in a cancer ward then he would be quite justified in spending his money how he wants to.


Yes, I think that he ought not to value the jet more than the old lady; or that even if he values the plane more he ought to mortify that pleasure because helping his wife is the right thing to do. But all those oughts came from the tao. They can't be extrapolated from Rand's rational morality. 

But the great lady has one more arrow in her rational quiver. 


Rational morality, she says, tells the man to save his wife's life if, and only if, her continued existence is a necessary part of his happiness. 

"But suppose (the rich man) let (the wife) die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom mean anything to him — as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice. Here the difference between Objectivism and Altruism can be seen most clearly: if sacrifice is the moral principle of action, then that husband should sacrifice his wife for the sake of ten other women. What distinguishes the wife from the ten others? Nothing but her value to the husband who has to make the choice  nothing but the fact that his happiness requires her survival."



I agree that this is a genuine moral dilemma which ever kind of morality you follow. It's a particular problem for utilitarians. You have a million pounds. And only a million pounds, and no way of getting another million pounds. Your wife’s operation will, by coincidence, cost a million pounds. But ten other people need operations each costing, by coincidence, a hundred thousand pounds each. And they have no way of begging or borrowing or earning that hundred thousand and obviously there is no such thing as medical insurance. And the surgeon will not work pro bono. 


Do you save your wife, or all the other wives?


It seems to be pretty clear that Rand, sincerely or as a debating tactic, is conceptualizing conventional morality as a sort of evil dark-side reflection of her own rational selfishness. Since the rational person believes that they should always act in their own interest, she affects to believe that the altruistic person always acts against their own interest — that an action is moral if, and only if, it harms the person doing it. 

But in the real world altruists — people with basic human empathy; people who are not psychopaths — think that in some cases you ought to act not only in you own interest but also in other people’s interests. And this may sometimes mean denying yourself some particular good. Often it means nothing more than sacrificing your desire to have two chocolate biscuits so everyone else can have at least one; occasionally it might mean throwing yourself on the grenade so the rest of your platoon has a fighting chance. Rand falsely concludes that it's not having the biscuit and getting blown up by the grenade which are the point of the exercise. Since her morality consists in asking "what outcome would be best for me?" she imagines that traditional morality must consist in thinking “what outcome would be worst for me?"

It is true that Jesus Christ told his followers that they should aim at being completely self-sacrificial — to give all their stuff away, to act as if they were slaves and everyone else was their boss, to always make for the least prestigious table in the restaurant. But this is a specifically Christian idea: it’s not the tao. Perhaps Rand had imbibed the idea that all morality was Christian morality and concluded that to attack morality meant attacking Christianity?

It is also true that some religions say that self-denial is sometimes good. Particular people should give up particular nice things under particular circumstances or at particular times. You might fast because it is Ramadan, abstain from chocolate because it is Lent, or give up sex because you are a monk. So it is possible that Rand thinks that because altruism and asceticism are both things which Christians approve of, altruism and asceticism must be identical?

I am prepared to bet that at least one person reading this essay has experienced a life-threatening house fire. Perhaps one of you has even been in a boat which got into difficulties and had to call out the coastguard. (There were a hundred and forty two shipwrecks in 2016.)  I do not believe that anyone in this room has ever been in the position of having to choose between their true love's life and the lives of ten strangers. But according to Rand, it is illegitimate — decadent and amoral and lazy and lethargic — to create thought experiments based on rare and unusual events. It doesn't matter if objectivism breaks down when the ship hits a lifeboat and there are three people rushing for the same iceberg, because you are never likely to encounter this situation in real life. So: why is it legitimate for Ayn Rand to invoke the fantastically unlikely circumstance of being faced with the mutually exclusive choice between saving your own spouse and saving ten other spouses in order to prove that objectivism works, but illegitimate for me to imagine myself on S.S Titanic in order prove that it doesn't?

"But Andrew you are avoiding the question."

Very well: I shall answer it directly. 

If you can, with a sufficiently complicated set of trolley cars and levers, generate a circumstance where I have to choose between saving the life of one person I love or the lives of ten people I do not care about, then I ought to save the strangers. I don't say this because I think I would have more rational happy happy joy joy with the grief of having lost a friend than with the guilt of having killed ten innocent persons. I say this because if I was the one tied to the railway line, and it was a choice between saving me and saving the ten kids whose steam train was about to careen off the edge of cliff, I think that I ought to be prepared to lay down my own life. I assume that anyone I loved would feel the same way. I think that if I were the only surgeon in the world capable of operating on ten children who would certainly die without my skill, and if someone rushed into the operating theater and said "Doctor, doctor, you wife has just been shot by a one armed man and you are the only surgeon in the world with the skill to remove the bullet and if you do not come now she will certainly die before the next commercial break" I would say "I am sorry, but I cannot come until I have saved the lives of these ten kids. Because it is the right thing to do." 


Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:19

Rand owns that you should rescue your nearest and dearest from the shipwreck, although she frames this as selfishness rather than generosity.


She concedes that you should rescue friends from the shipwreck, although here she invokes a new value called “integrity” that she hadn’t mentioned before: if I wasn’t prepared to rescue you from the shipwreck then I had no right to call you my friend. 

She even admits that there should be a presumption towards helping strangers, because they might, at some point in the future, become your friends and be a component of your selfish, rational, personal joy and happiness. 


“The generalized respect and good will which one should grant to a human being in the name of the potential value he represents — unless and until he forfeits it….A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and as such a common bond among living being (as against inanimate matter) that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him.” 


This seems to leave us very much where we would have been if we had stuck with the old fashioned moral law. Prof. Lewis’s reading of the tao distinguished between a law of general beneficence and a law of special beneficence.We should help one we have promised to help rather than another, or a benefactor rather than one who has no special claims on us, or a compatriot more than a stranger, or a kinsman rather than a mere compatriot.Be nice to everybody, but be specially nice to people you have a special reason to be specially nice to. Objectivism seems to say very much the same thing. We ought to help our loved ones; we ought to help our friends; we ought to help strangers unless there is a good reason not too. 


But Rand drops in one rather massive qualification:


“For instance a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck should help to save his fellow passengers. … But this does to mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.”


“Suppose one hears that the man next door is ill and penniless….One may bring him food and medicine if one can afford it (and as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may raise a fund among the neighbours to help him out. But this does not mean that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one’s life looking for starving men to help.” 


As usual, I don't know where her rules come from. I don't know how you get from “There is a presumption that we ought to help people in distress” to "We ought to help individuals in distress who we happen to come across, but not distressed persons in general.” The implication would be that the obligation to help someone increases the closer they are to you physically which seems to me to be neither moral nor rational.

It is true that if everybody in the world always helped people who were physically close to them, then everyone who was in trouble would always get help. But that is only useful if we have already agreed that we want to create in a world where everyone who needs help gets helped. Why do we necessarily want to create such a world  apart, obviously, from its being the right thing to do? 

A particular person might get rescued from a shipwreck and decide to change their career and become a coastguard or a lifeboat man. "I was very pleased that there was someone to fish me out of the sea when I was drowning, so I have decided to spend the rest of my life fishing other people out of the sea when they are drowning" is as far as it goes a pretty logical, rational and praiseworthy attitude. But a different person might equally well say "I am personally no sailor and no swimmer, but I was glad that someone was on hand to help me when I needed it, so I would like someone to be on hand to help other people when they need it, so I am going to give some of my money to the lifeboat service each month and go door to door selling those little flags once a year." 

But what about the impoverished neighbor? If it is rational for me to give money to Mr Smith, who is out of work; and even rational for all Mr Smith's neighbors to get together and give money to Mr Smith, why is it irrational for people in general to get together to give money to unemployed people in general? If you find an abandoned infant you should certainly take care of it. You should not necessarily neglect your own child in order to take care of it. I don't think that faced with a zero-sum choice of looking after the foundling or looking after your own child you should necessarily prefer the foundling, or that you should positively seek out abandoned children in order to neglect your own. But it might be that some of the money you might have spent on nice things for your own kids will have to go on keeping the orphan alive. And I think that is true even if the orphan was not dumped on your doorstep, but is in some other part of town or some other country. I think that some kids may have to make do with a bit less cake so that other kids can have some bread.

I don’t think the question about killing one person to save ten arises very often in real life. The one about giving your own kinds a few less sweets and video games so that someone else's kid can have basic nutrition and education comes up literally all the time.

Rand tells me that, if I want to, I can go along the street collecting money to help out Mr Smith at Number 19 who has fallen on hard times. But if I admit that I have any kind of responsibility to impoverished people and sick wives and drowning men and orphaned children who I have never met, I may be tempted to organize a city-wide or nation-wide whip-round to pay for their basic needs. And that, Rand fears, could lead to a system of general taxation, state schools and hospitals, welfare, and from there to collectivism, socialism, communism and the end of civilization as we know it.

This is what I have learned from reading Ayn Rand. 

It is a good thing for individuals to help other individuals, and even for groups of people to get together to help one person in particular. But it is a bad thing for groups of people to try to help people in general. 

Charity good, welfare bad. 

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

So: what does any of this have to do with Spider-Man?





Friday, April 07, 2017

Flake News

A perfectly ordinary member of the Church of England moves from the former United Kingdom to Another Country. I forget whether he had to get out in a hurry because they were threatening to intern Remain votes, or whether he was just looking for work. 

Anyway, he’s been there about six months, when his neighbor says “Would you like to come to dinner tomorrow. It’s a big holiday in this country. Bound up with one of our Holy Religious Festivals, of course, but tomorrow night is just a family get together, followed by a silly treasure hunt where the kids win Turkish Delight.”

Well, the Perfectly Ordinary Fellow thinks this is very kind, and he goes, and has a nice time, and come December asks his neighbors round for mulled wine and mince pies and crackers. He stays in Another Country for the rest of his life, treats it as his home, and has kids who just sort of take it for granted that the second Wednesday after the first snowfall of February is Turkish Delight Day. (In fact, he hears that some people in the Old Country are taking up the tradition as well, because it’s fun.) 

But then the Maharajah of Another Country makes a speech. 

“We must all start eating Turkish Delight in February, like we did in the old days,” she says. 

“It is shameful the way Turkish Delight has been banned to appease Anglicans” she continues. 

“Turkish Delight is a very important Holy Religious Festival which shows we believe in the One God (which, by the way, I don’t, but my Dad did) and are definitely not like these crazy Anglicans who think there are Three.” 

Well, I don’t know if the Perfectly Ordinary Anglican buys his kids Turkish Delight (which you can get in all the shops, despite it being banned) that February; but he feels much less comfortable accepting his friend's dinner invitation that year. We can still be friends, he thinks, but as an Anglican I clearly shouldn’t be part of one of these people’s Holy Religious Festivals. Holy Religious Festivals remind me that I can never really be part of this country however long I stay here. I guess that’s the point of them. 

That night, hardly anyone goes to the Temple of the Definitely Only One God, but everyone eats far too much Turkish Delight and gets sick. 

A few years later, one of the Perfectly Ordinary Anglican's kids is beaten up by a group of thugs shouting "Another Country Above All The Other Countries!" and the Perfectly Ordinary Anglican, fearing he has no home in this world any more, jumps off a bridge. 

“How do such terrible things ever happen?”says the Maharajah. And they all live happily ever after.



Ce n'est pas un oeuf de Pâques

If we can believe the Guardian, and I am increasingly unsure if we can, the National Trust has “axed Easter”, “omitted the word Easter from its annual children’s egg hunt” “airbrushed Christianity out of its annual chocolate egg hunt” “scrapped any mention of the Christian festival” and (again) “omitted Easter from the egg hunt.”


The Prime Minister — the actual Prime Minister — was reportedly Very Angry about this. “Easter is very important. It is a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world. So I think what the National Trust is doing is frankly just ridiculous.” The reliably nutty Archbishop of York did his best to diffuse the situation, saying that the decision to not use the word Easter was “tantamount to spitting on the grave of John Cadbury.” (*)

Interesting choice of words, I should say. "Axing" implies premature cancellation, as when a TV station cancels a show because of poor ratings. "Axing an Easter Egg hunt" I could understand — it would mean that the event used to happen but wasn't happening any more. "Axing the word Easter” not so much. The same goes for “scrapping”: you can scrap a Royal Yacht or a library, but not usually a piece of vocabulary. Even “omitting the word Easter from it's egg hunt" I have a problem with. I don't think children ever did scramble around Leigh Woods chanting "Easter, Easter, Easter, Easter." And “airbrushing” is incredibly loaded. “Airbrushing” means “changing or ignoring an historical fact” — like never mentioning that there were black soldiers in the first world war, or saying that Stan Lee created Spider-Man.  It's a word, significantly, which is most often used in the context of communist Russia.

The allegation is not really that the the National Trust has axed, scrapped, omitted, removed, banned, airbrushed or abolished Easter, the Easter bunny, Easter Egg hunts or the Christian religion. The allegation is simply that they have removed the word "Easter" from the advertising and branding of this year's Egg hunt.

And it's just not true.

It a brilliant publicity stunt on the part of Cadbury and the National Trust, actually. I was vaguely aware of Easter Egg hunts as one of those mostly American things that has taken off here a little bit: people with big enough gardens hiding little chocolate eggs for the kids to find. Maybe some churches and schools do it too. I am quite sure that somewhere in the Derbyshire, in between the village which does the Pancake Race and a the village which does the Black Pudding Two Hundred Meter Hurdles you can find a village where an ancient tradition of beating the parish bounds with hard boiled eggs painted with colours of the Duke of Argyle is still observed. But did you know that the National Trust ran official hunts for Cadbury’s chocolate eggs on their properties, and have done so for some years? I certainly didn’t.

Last week's egg story was a little bit more nuanced. Most eggs don’t have the word “Easter” on them, but then, they never did; most eggs are halal, but then they always were. But this weeks is complete fiction. You can prove this by a simple experiment: go to the Cadbury's National Trust website at  www.easter.cadbury.co.uk.

I will say that again: www.easter.cadbury.co.uk.

The first thing you will see is a headline saying "Enjoy Easter fun at the National Trust..." You will also see links to “Easter Range” and “Easter Events”. The first takes you to a Cadbury's chocolate catalog, which tells you that "Our eggstensive (ho-ho) range is packed with treats for the Easter period..." including "The Cadbury Easter bundle..." and  "Our Easter favourites...."

If you follow the link to "Easter Events" your will find the dates and times at which the “Easter Egg Hunt" takes place (from 10 -3 on Good Friday and again from 10 - 3 on Easter Saturday.)

It is true that there is a logo that says "Join the Cadbury Egg Hunt". But that seems a small thing to make a moral panic about.  

“But what have chocolate eggs got to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus in the first place?" you are probably going to ask me. Well, some people say that there was a pagan goddess called Easter who rode around Narnia on a sledge pulled by magic egg-laying rabbits. Others point to a suppressed gnostic gospel in which Jesus hatched out of a giant crocodile egg like Isis. Rather desperate clergymen say that when the Very Early Christians wanted something to remind them of the stone that was laid in front of Jesus' tomb, what naturally occurred to them was an egg (as opposed to, say, a stone). The story that is most likely to be true is the most boring one: Christians give up rich food and treats after Pancake Day and start eating them again after taking Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. So naturally, Easter afternoon involves chocolate, eggs, cakes, bonnets, and Morris dancing.

The period of abstinence is called Lent; it is supposed to remind us of Jesus forty day fast in the wilderness. The last and holiest days of Lent are Good Friday (the day Jesus was killed) and Easter Saturday (the day he lay in the tomb). 

I don’t want to come across as very pious here. This Good Friday I shall probably go to Bristol Cathedral in morning and Bristol Folk House in the evening and one of Bristol's many fine coffee shops in the afternoon and I haven't give up anything at all. But you really can't have it both ways. You can't claim that chocolate eggs are mainly a symbol of resurrection and new life and then start eating them on Good Friday. You can't claim that eating chocolate eggs is mainly part of the Christian feast of Easter and then recommend that people do it on one of the fast days.

A lot of people are seeing this story as a bit of a joke; as our Prime Minister focusing on chocolate eggs when she should be concentrating on starting a war with Spain. I think it is much more sinister than that.

The story that Theresa May has put on all the front pages is not that, (interestingly enough), the word Easter is being used less and less nowadays. The story that Theresa May has put on all the front pages is that THEY have stopped YOU from celebrating, sorry, saying the word, Easter -- where "they" ARE commies, Europeans and, especially Muslims. Making up stories about how the National Trust have banned Easter, Birmingham has banned Christmas, London is a caliphate and Tescos have straightened all their bananas is a tactic which the racist right uses to radicalize white people. The more we can pretend that Easter and Christmas and Valentines and Bonfire night and the Eurovision Song Contest are Christian events, the less Muslims and Sikhs and Jews and Richard Dawkins can participate in our local culture.

I think there may be an even nastier side to it.

I think that the banning of Easter and Christmas and the Sharia regime in Birmingham are objects of faith for the very far right. Winston Smith had not only to say that two plus two equaled five, but actually believe that it did. I think that when someone -- a Prime Minister or a Bishop -- looks steadily and full on at an Easter Egg and says "There is no Easter Egg here" they are signalling very clearly which side they are on.




(*) John Cadbury was a Quaker and would probably not have celebrated Easter in the first place. Quakers don’t really keep holy days, because they think that all days are holy, in the same way that they don’t celebrate the sacraments because they think that everything is sacramental. In the past, they preferred to say First Day, Second Day, Third Day, so "Easter Monday" is unlikely to have been a big thing. Chocolate eggs were invented by Bristol's Joseph Fry in 1873 but John Cadbury had started making them within a couple of years. A price list from John Cadbury’s lifetime is headed “Easter Eggs”, although the individual products are just called “eggs”. (Some of them seem to have been ordinary chocolates in elaborate egg-shaped packaging, incidentally.)  But a flier from a few years after John Cadbury himself died is already calling them “chocolate eggs” (for the milk chocolate ones) and “Bournville eggs” (for the more expensive dark chocolate ones). They are decorated with secular spring flowers made of icing sugar and marzipan. Quakers are sometimes thought of as puritans, but I don’t think Cadbury would have had any objection to children’s treasure hunts. He clearly didn't have any objection to chocolate! He would have had a very simple grave, but I don't think he would be turning in it over what people called his eggs. 



Monday, April 03, 2017

A Sincere But Futile Attempt To Engage With Ayn Rand (1)

If I am going to talk about Steve Ditko, I suppose am going to have to try and talk about Ayn Rand. 

I know that this is a bad idea. My left wing friends are already telling me that even thinking about Rand gives her a spurious credibility. My Objectivist friends, of whom I have none, will soon be telling me that this is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect liberals to say, which proves their point...

This is not a response to the whole of Ayn Rand’s, or indeed Steve Ditko’s world view: it couldn’t possibly be. It’s really just an attempt to show how the first few chapters of The Virtue of Selfishness — particularly the essay entitled The Ethics of Emergencies — strike me. Think of it as an atheist reading through St Mark’s Gospel or a Tory reading The Communist Manifesto.

*

“I’m thru getting pushed around — by anyone. From now on I just look out for number one — that means — me!”
        Amazing Fantasy #15


I swear by swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine
        Atlas Shrugged

Rand claims to have devised or discovered a rational system of ethics. Since it is an objective fact that all human beings are alive, their first moral obligation is to stay alive. Since it is an objective fact that all human beings are conscious, their second moral obligation is to be happy. But they should only be concerned with their own life and their own happiness. I have no duty to help anyone else; no-one else has a duty to help me.

“Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others — and therefore the man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.”

I grok that, if I don’t believe in conventional morality, or religion, or mysticism, or some great big idea like Communism or the Singularity, then all I have left to believe in is me. And I think I can also see the romantic appeal of the great objectivist man, whether it's Rorschach never compromising, even in the face of Armageddon, or Del-Boy Trotter taking nothing from the government and giving nothing to the government. I owe no man anything and no man owes anything to me. Hurrah!

What I don’t know is how you get logically or rationally from “human beings are alive” to “human beings ought to try to stay alive.” I agree that human beings do on the whole mostly try to stay alive, but I don't know how you get logically or rationally from that to "Human beings should always try to stay alive." And if, by some alchemy, “I am alive” implies “I ought to try to stay alive” I still do not understand why “You are alive” does not equally imply “I ought to try to keep you alive” — why "We are all alive" doesn't imply "We all ought to try to keep each other alive."

Even if me being alive and you being alive were mutually exclusive alternatives — say, if Titanic had just struck an iceberg and there were only one spare seat on the lifeboat — I don’t know why I ought to prefer my life to yours. I don't know why Rand's morality (I ought to preserve my own life at the cost of yours) is more rational than everyone else's morality (I ought to preserve your life at the cost of my own).

I would certainly prefer it if you decided to stop being alive and allowed me to carry on, but I don’t know how I can rationally infer, from the fact that we are both alive, that pushing you out of the lifeboat is the moral thing to do. It’s equally true that I can’t rationally demonstrate that I ought to give my place on the lifeboat to you. Without some premises to work from, I can't rationally or logically demonstrate why I ought to do anything at all. I don't know how to get from any kind of "is" to any kind of "ought".

I understand that David Hume didn't, either.

I might decide to let you have the spare place on the lifeboat for all sorts of reasons — because you have dependent kids and I don’t; or because I want history to remember me as a good guy and not a bad guy; or because it wouldn’t be British to push to the front of a queue. But that's because I have a totally irrational belief that not depriving kids of their father, achieving posthumous honour and displaying good manners are more important that mere longevity. 

I doubt that such a things as rational ethics exists, in the same way that I doubt that such a thing as vegan beef casserole exists. Why should you give the other guy your place on the life boat? Because it is the right thing to do. Why should  we refuse to drop bombs on civilians in wars? Because it is the right thing to do. Why did Valjean admit that he was the escaped convict and Champmathieu was innocent? Because it was the right thing to do. Why should you stop a burglar who runs past you in a TV studio, even if no-one is paying you? Because it is the right thing to do. 

As you are presumably aware, Prof. C.S. Lewis (who Rand, rather pleasingly, abominated) thought that "doing the right thing" meant acting in accordance with the tao. By the tao he simply meant everything which human beings have always thought are the right things to do. He wasn't interested in Chinese philosophy: he just wanted to avoid specifically Christian terms. Christians don't have the monopoly on doing the right thing.

To say that something is the right thing to do because it is part of the tao is to admit that I can't say why it is the right thing to do: it just is.  Rand will only convince me that she has come up with a rational basis for ethics if she can teach me how I ought to behave without ever appealing to the tao. And that includes explaining what she means by what that pesky little word ought.

*

All I can tell you is that when it came to the point whether I would take my own neck out of the noose and put another man's into it, I could not do it.
                                 Shaw, "The Devils Disciple"

It is a fact that, in an extreme situation like a shipwreck, some people act unselfishly. They allow someone else to take their place in the lifeboat or swim into dangerous waters to prevent someone else from drowning. And some people act selfishly — save their own lives without a thought for who else perishes. And some people make a dash for the lifeboat but feel guilty about it afterwards: lots of us know what the right thing to do would be, but don't actually do it. How do we decide which group are doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing? If we ought to do unto others as we would like other to do unto us, then the group who allowed others to live did the right thing. ("Do unto others" is the whole basis of the tao.) But if morality is the same as self-interest we have to say that the person who forced his way into the boat did the right thing. Indeed, we have to say that those who sacrificed or risked their own lives acted wickedly. Billy Zane is the hero and Leo DiCapprio is the bad guy.

Rand appears to agree that this would be absurd. She argues:

1: That the question is illegitimate, and the very fact that we are asking it proves the superiority of objectivists to altruists.

2: That the rational way of behaving in a shipwreck is in any case very much like that dictated by the tao: the rational man will rescue his friends, loved-ones, and possibly even strangers.

3: But this doesn’t make any difference because emergencies are special cases where special rules apply.

Turning the argument round and attacking the moral character of the people making it is not necessarily the hallmark of a serious philosophical essay. It smacks of "Weak case: insult opposing lawyer." What bad people these altruists must be to test a new theory by examining edge-cases! Lack of self-esteem, lack of respect for others, nightmare view of existence…

“A lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality—since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.”

On no possible view could it be true to say that altruists have no moral principals. Even by Rand’s own arguments, they have lots of moral principals — just the wrong ones. But that aside: how do you get from “altruists point to extreme cases" to “altruists have no moral principals whatsoever.”

I suppose you would have to construct an argument along these lines:

1: Altruists point to extreme cases like fires and shipwrecks to refute the idea that we have no duty to help anyone else.

2: Therefore, extreme cases like fires and shipwrecks must be the only exceptions to the general rule that we have no duty to help anyone else.

3: It is intrinsically unlikely that any individual will ever experience a shipwreck or earthquake.

4: Principals drawn from improbable circumstances have no application to probable ones.

5: Therefore any attempt to infer the correct behavior in probably circumstance from the correct behavior in an improbably one is necessarily false.

6: Therefore people who argue from extreme cases have no basis for their conclusions.

7: Since people who believe in altruism argue from extreme cases, altruists have no basis for their belief in altruism.

8: Since people who believe in altruism have no basis for their belief in altruism, they have no basis for any of their other beliefs either. 

But this doesn’t work at all. Point 1 is not necessarily true. Because I raise one example, it doesn't mean there aren't any others I could have raised. You can believe something for more than one reason. Point 4 begs the question: it might be that the same rules apply in the exceptional case as in the normal one, or it might not. And point 8 is obviously nonsense: it doesn't follow at all that if I have one false belief, all my other beliefs are false as well. 

If we accepted Rand's position, we would have to say that any argument involving a hypothetical or a thought experiment is automatically invalid: that you can only make moral judgement about specific, concrete events. (I believe that some anarchists are reluctant to state general principals for this reason: because there are no general cases, only an infinite number of unique ones.) But extreme and unlikely cases are frequently useful because they help us to visualize a question. Conscientious objectors were always asked “What would you do if a German officer were raping your grandmother?”— not because there was much chance of the German army molesting that particular pacifist’s elderly relative, but because the proposition “I will not join the army because killing is wrong under all possible circumstances” is refuted if you can come up with even one circumstance where it might be right. When asked what he understood courage to mean, Socrates asked “Well, suppose you were a passenger at sea in a terrible storm….?” Would a rational man have replied “But I am not in a terrible storm, so obviously you have to live your life without any understand of courage whatsoever. See where this 'philosophy' stuff gets you!”

But this is a distraction, because it turns out that if a group of Randian objectivists really were on a sinking ship they would be just as likely to pull each other out of the water, give up their places in lifeboats, and generally act in accordance with the tao as anybody else.

In the first place, says Rand, this rule that you should look out for yourself and not for others doesn’t apply to friends and lovers. But this isn't really an exception: when you do a good turn for someone you love, you are acting selfishly, because:  

“It is one’s own personal selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.”

Ah, so: objectivists are cynical people, choosing their friends and wives in anticipation of some tangible return — money, social status, career advancement, someone to look after the kids, invitations to the best parties, sex etc? Not a bit of it. What you get out of a loved one is “a profoundly personal, private joy” and “personal, selfish happiness”. So when you help someone else, you are really acting to preserve that “private joy” and “personal happiness”. If a rich man spends a fortune to save his wife’s life, he is not acting altruistically, but selfishly. He wants her to live because he derives happiness from her; he doesn’t want her to die because he would then be less happy than he would be if she were still alive:

"In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice." 

But all this does is re-frame altruistic actions as selfish ones: instead of saying “I will save your life because I don’t want you to die” we have to say “I will save your life because I don’t want to be sad". It might be possible, and it might also be interesting, to re-frame all moral choices in that way. You say "I donate money to feed a starving child because it is the right thing to do": I say "You donate money to feed a starving child because you selfishly dislike the sensations of guilt you experience when imagining the child starving to death." But that hasn't told us anything new about how we ought to behave. Either way, the wife gets the surgery and the child gets a bowl of rice. 

We assume that the man who pays for his wife’s operation honestly loves his wife, and will truly have less happiness and less joy if she dies than if she stays alive. But supposing he does not have those feelings? Supposing he he actually sick to death of the crabby old ratbag, is quite sure he'd be happier as a widower, but stomps up the money because it’s the right thing to do. Do we have to say that he's acted immorally? Or suppose he’s with us on that sinking ship and says “I will save my baby rather than my wife, because I honestly think that the baby is more important to my personal happiness than the woman”? Does his wife get a say? Supposing he says “I will save my mistress rather than my wife” or even “I will save my puppy rather than my baby”? Assuming that his dog really was important to his personal private joy and happiness and the baby wasn't, do we have to say that he acted in rational self-interest and therefore morally?

Or are we allowed to say “Maybe you did love your dog more than your child, but you ought not to have done”?

If we take the first line, then what set out to be rational theory of ethics turns out to mean “be guided by your emotions: do whatever will make you happy”. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, without even the qualification about harming none. This is exactly what Prof. Lewis warned us would happen. There is a certain irony about how much of our rational ethic comes down to emotions like love, joy and happiness. 

But if you take the second line — that the sensible, rational, selfish thing to do is indeed to save the lives of the people who you love but if, and only if, you love the people you ought to love and do not love the people you ought not to love — then Rand hasn’t said anything very new. Ethics is about arranging your values in the correct order — loving the most important things most; the second most important things second most; the least important things least; and the unimportant things not at all. Isn't this exactly what Aristotle told us all those months ago?


[to be continued]