Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Being Thoughtful: a philosophy of life

[To mark the 300th article to appear on Question the Powerful, our latest essay is devoted to setting out the core philosophy of life that runs through our critical reflections on politics and society.]

By whatever term we call it, each of us has a philosophy of life that shapes our judgement and behaviour. However, attempts to compare or improve on such philosophies are all too often hampered by overused labels which carry divisive connotations. Instead of clarifying what people mean, they convey contrasting ideas to different audiences. A nominal affiliation, a short-hand ‘left’/’right’ reference, or a loose association with certain groups – can all be invoked to declare someone a follower of this or that ‘ism’ and what that must imply.

Let us try to explore one particular philosophy of life without pigeon-holing it into some pre-conceived box. We’ll call it the Philosophy of Being Thoughtful. In essence, it prompts us to be thoughtful about:
[1] what we value, since none of us can ignore how the pursuit of our values can impact on others and vice versa, and we should recognise the mutual responsibility we have for our respective actions and their consequences;
[2] what we believe, since accepting dubious claims and rejecting sound assertions can lead us down erroneous paths, and we should engage in cooperative enquiry to ascertain what does or does not merit our assent;
[3] what we decide, since the implications of our decisions can’t be fully grasped without discovering the relevant views and concerns others may have, and we should ensure citizen participation is the norm in reaching collective decisions.

In practical terms, this means we should always try to be thoughtful empathically, cognitively, and volitionally – seeking information and understanding to appreciate how others may feel, what views should be revised, and which course of action ought to be chosen given the circumstances. It also means we must anticipate when we will have insufficient evidence, resources, or time to think everything through – we should be ready to act on the basis of what is available to us but prepared to revise our position if and when we can access more that is relevant; and just as importantly, we must constantly help expand inter-personal understanding, empirical knowledge, and collaborative arrangements as essential long-term development for our common wellbeing.

And what difference would it make? We can look at a few examples.

First, how do we view others? There are some who regard others as inconsequential when they go about getting what they want. There are some who look down on others just because of their skin tone, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or economic background. But being thoughtful means we regard others as we would want them to regard us; we try to understand what it is like to be in their shoes; and we respect their preferences so long as they respect us and intend us no injury.

Secondly, how do we respond to ignorance? There are those who want to spread misconception and superstition, because they want to deceive others for their own ends, or they are lost in their own delusion. But being thoughtful means we are to learn from experience and experiment; apply objective tests and explorations to assess what deserves to be accepted as credible; and promote education that is grounded on science and critical scholarship.

Thirdly, how do we behave in society? There are those who are content to leave everyone to their own devices even though some will hurt and subjugate others. There are those who simply want to have the power to exploit and dominate others. But being thoughtful means we give our support to inclusive arrangements to give everyone a meaningful say; to collaborative structures for making decisions with wider social implications; and to forms of governance which protect us from harm by individuals, groups, or corporations.

Finally, how do we deal with threats? There are some who want to strike hard at whoever they deem a threat – severe punishment for alleged lawbreakers, torture for anyone accused of being a terrorist, military attacks on any foreign country designated an enemy – and do so regardless of whether or not the accused in question is guilty. But being thoughtful means we are to focus on establishing what poses the real threats; find the most effective and proportionate means of dealing with those who threaten us (deploying diplomacy, offensive action, rehabilitation, and incarceration where it is appropriate); and treat the threat from those who abuse the power to protect us as seriously as the threat they claim to protect us from.

While many will recognise the traits and dispositions characteristic of this philosophy of life, few will agree on a name for it. Elements of it can be found across diverse cultures since ancient times; they feature in the ideas of a number of Renaissance and 17th century thinkers; in the writings of many Enlightenment advocates; and in the advice put forward by numerous cooperative and progressive-minded reformists from the 19th century on. Being Thoughtful is perhaps the closest we can get to capturing the common strand in all of them that reflects what has been outlined here.

A guide to further reading for ‘Being Thoughtful: a philosophy of life’ can be found at:

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

What Makes Better Communities: the communitarian case

There is no shortage of ideas for making communities better. To consider what communitarian thinking may have to offer, we need to retrace what the key formulations of that thinking involves.

The initial set of formulations appeared around the middle of the 19th century. It related to the ideas and practices of Robert Owen and people who wanted to apply these to the development of cooperative arrangements to facilitate better social and economic relations. ‘Communitarian’ emerged as a common term for describing Owenite efforts to set up new forms of enterprise, work communities, and associations of workers. While a common aspiration was to realise the age-old potential for collaboration and solidarity, the strategies that were tried out pointed, not to a return to some idealised past, but to new rules and structures to deal with the prevailing reality. This was exemplified by the Rochdale Pioneers, formed in 1844, this group of worker-owners pooled their resources to buy goods needed by local people and sell them at a reasonable price with any profit to be shared amongst members of the group. Customers and workers alike could become members and everyone had an equal vote in determining how the group was run.

The next set of formulations of ‘communitarian’ came in the 1980s via the commentary on the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and Charles Taylor, all of whom had penned critiques with a common target – the ideas of John Rawls. The four of them came to be considered as sharing a ‘communitarian’ stance in opposing a form of liberalism that is premised on what they deemed a deeply flawed conception of the self. They argued that a person conceptually stripped of all relational connections with others is not the ‘real’ person with the utmost clarity of thought, but an isolated entity with no sense of belonging, obligations, or concerns, without which there can be no meaningful moral reflections. Significantly, all four of these philosophers’ aversion towards the atomistic self is reflected in their objections to economic individualism and the consequent rise in inequality in society.

The third set of formulations appeared in the 1990s from a number of writers who drew on the cooperative ideals of solidarity and reciprocity in putting forward theories of communitarianism. David Miller argued for a communitarian form of market socialism that could avoid the pitfalls of top-down socialism and laissez faire capitalism. Jonathan Boswell set out a theory of ‘democratic communitarianism’, which explains why neither an over-reliance on the market nor the state can solve the problems facing society, and how mutually supportive human relations sustained by multiple communities at different levels should be cultivated through cooperative institutional practices and public policies. These views were echoed by Robert Bellah in The Good Society; while Charles Derber maintained that combining the Scandinavian model of state-citizen cooperation and the inclusive approaches of cooperative enterprises exemplified by the Mondragon Corporation and others, could hold the key to the development of what he called ‘left communitarianism’. And in her article, ‘A communitarian approach to local governance’, Elinor Ostrom noted that “appropriate institutional arrangements for cooperative housing and neighborhood governance are necessary to facilitate co-productive efforts for monitoring and exercising control over public spaces”.

The fourth set of formulations were put forward by a group of public intellectuals who wanted to use the ‘communitarian’ banner to champion a different approach to public policy development. Amitai Etzioni and William Galston were the main driving force behind the initiative, with Philip Selznick and Thomas Spragens amongst the key contributors to its scholarly exposition. The group launched its Responsive Communitarian Platform to set out its main concerns with the lack of balance between meeting demands for individual rights and promoting responsibility for the common good, and went on to issue policy recommendations on strengthening family support, improving schools in value education, engaging communities in crime reduction, focusing government intervention on where it is most needed, and a wide range of other subjects. Their underlying aim is to bolster liberal politics by empowering communities through moral dialogues, civic education, and policies that pursue public goals as defined by an informed public.

The fifth set of ideas emerged in the synthesis of philosophical and policy considerations I developed in my 1998 book, Communitarianism. In addition to drawing out the three key communitarian principles of cooperative enquiry, mutual responsibility, and citizen participation, it integrated theories and practices from a wide range of countries and sectors. These offered a comprehensive critique of both unrestrained market forces and arbitrary state actions, argued for inclusive community development as opposed to the revival of old dysfunctional community relations, and explained the need for more deliberative and participatory engagement to be advanced in government institutions, business organisations, and voluntary groups.

Taken together, these five sets of formulation of communitarian ideas provide a conceptual DNA profile that can help us trace their development through history, understand their significance in challenging prevailing assumptions, and recognise what they offer in reshaping the theory and practice of community improvement.

You can find out more from The Evolution of Communitarian Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019):

Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship (Palgrave Macmillan, 1998):

Sunday, 16 August 2020

The Home-centric Redevelopment Scheme

Ease or revive lockdown? What are we to do with this Covid-19 pandemic that has mired us in fear and uncertainties? Is there anything we can put in place to deal with this predicament?

There is an approach which can, not only solve many of the immediate problems we face, but also help us achieve a range of critical improvements that have for too long been held back. I call it the Home-centric Redevelopment Scheme. It has three components.

[1] Strategic Adaptation to make Home-Working the Norm
Technology has advanced to a point that there can be no excuse for not facilitating home-working in the most effective manner, and making it the norm. Being trusted, empowered, and safe, people will certainly not be any less productive than having to waste time travelling to work. Transport-related pollution is correspondingly reduced. Absenteeism from family life due to work-related time away from home is cut. And contact with colleagues can be made more extensively and rapidly across a computer network than having to go physically to different places. All this requires universal provision of high-quality internet connections, which is something every government should urgently secure.

[2] Conversion of City-centre Offices into Affordable & Sustainable Homes
What about all those empty office blocks, and all the local services that depend on the custom of office workers? The answer is in converting the office buildings that are no longer needed into decent accommodation that can be purchased or rented by people on all income levels. The new homes should meet the highest sustainability standards with low cost energy supplied from renewable sources. Their occupants will be within walking distance to local shops and other facilities, and with masks and other precautions they can keep numerous businesses in the area vibrant.

[3] Establish a Comprehensive Home Delivery Service
Beyond serving customers in their vicinity, businesses will need support in reaching people who live much further away and are disinclined to venture out. To help all businesses get their products to customers in a reliable and cost-effective way, there should be a comprehensive delivery service (e.g., an enhanced nationwide postal service) that enables businesses to send their goods (from furniture to food, clothes to computers) to any home in the country at a fast and economically viable rate. This national service will in turn guarantee its workers an income above the minimum wage, proper sick pay, and reliable health and safety conditions. It will also help many businesses compete with corporations that exploit their own large-scale/low-pay delivery service to dominate the market.

There may remain businesses where direct physical presence is unavoidable. But in parallel with the three components outlined above, it is worth paying much closer attention to how practices in these businesses can be changed as well. As automation increases, worker supervision of machine operation can more and more be done via remote monitoring. Face-to-face consultation and instruction giving can be done on screen. Technology is opening new ways for collaborative working for people who are in fact far apart. We must not, of course, ignore the need to make workplaces safer to carry out what genuinely cannot be done from home. But with the Home-centric Redevelopment Scheme, our safety, sustainability, and economic health can be greatly enhanced.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Reflections on China & PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics)

When I began my undergraduate course in PPE at the Queen’s College in 1978, I did not know that I was to be the first student of Chinese descent to read Philosophy, Politics & Economics at the University of Oxford.

Looking back, it was not that surprising. PPE has always been a subject associated with the development of critical and democratic governance. Prior to the reforms brought in by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, Communist China was unlikely to be sending any of its young people abroad to study PPE. Of the two Chinese-majority states outside the People’s Republic, Taiwan was ruled under martial law until 1987, and Singapore had been controlled by a single party (the PAP – People’s Action Party) since it gained independence in 1965. As for Hong Kong and Macao, they were British and Portuguese colonies respectively, and were governed with little input from the local Chinese population.

Against that backdrop, I was an odd exception who turned away from the common Chinese parental aspiration for their children to become a ‘professional’ (who’d leave politics to others), and headed instead towards a discipline which certainly at the time looked like the preserve of the white establishment. Guess being the odd one out fitted in with the inclination to question the powerful. What I went on to learn from my PPE experience has played an important part in my subsequent academic research, political writing, policy work in government, and collaboration with civic activists.

It therefore saddens me greatly that in 2020, the centenary year of the launch of PPE at Oxford, the prospects for critical and democratic governance in China and the former colonies now under China’s rule, have fallen under a long shadow. Authoritarian control is intensifying, and any expression of critical views is met with threats and punishment. And as relations between the UK and China become increasingly strained, could we be returning to a time when the likelihood of Chinese youths studying PPE is zero? It would be symptomatic of the widening gulf between an education in political criticism and a ruling ethos that cannot tolerate free political thinking.

I had at one time believed that from the 1980s on, the grip of authoritarian rule over most Chinese people’s lives – be it in its Communist, colonial, or military form – would loosen, and be replaced by a more open and democratic culture. But the trajectory is now clearly going in the opposite direction. Instead of ideas, historical lessons, objective analyses relating to the development and governance of society, being more widely shared and studied, opportunities for learning and open discussion of philosophy, politics and economics are fast dwindling.

Authoritarianism thrives on giving the impression that society cannot be governed in any other way. This impression must not be allowed to take hold. Educators, East and West, have a responsibility for opening minds to diverse ways of thinking. It is when each new generation are able to explore new possibilities and discover alternative paths, that they are most likely to herald the changes needed for a better future.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The Scientific v. the Arbitrary

Some people dismiss scientific claims when these conflict with their instinctive views or their religious beliefs. But while instincts can be important and faith can be valuable, when it comes to reliability, what makes ‘scientific thinking’ distinctly dependable is that it is characterised by its approach to reason and evidence. In short, for any claim to be scientific, it must stand up to the on-going tests of rational analysis and evidential examination. To make any claim that fails or ignores such critical tests is to make an arbitrary assertion, which offers nothing to justify its believability.

It is important to remember that what validates a claim as scientific is not that some particular person – formally designated a scientist or not – has made that claim. What is crucial is the manner in which that claim has been tested and found to be provisionally sound. It does not have to be declared absolutely, eternally correct. Indeed, any such declaration would cast doubt on the claim being scientific at all. What we are looking for in the testing process is genuine attempts to demonstrate what the claim entails would happen does happen under conditions of objective observation, and that systematic searches for counter-examples or alternative explanations have not produced a case to undermine its credibility.

In medical research, forensic investigation, or electrical engineering, we can see how claims that are put forward from different quarters are subject to vigorous tests, and only upheld if confirmatory findings are obtained and replicable, while no contrary evidence is discovered. And the acceptance of such claims is open to revisions should further challenges and explorations lead us to reconsider what is being put forward.

By contrast, an arbitrary stance reveals itself when one insists on the correctness of a claim regardless of the evidence. This can be seen with people who would reject any questioning of their assertions even though they have no tangible basis for making them. For example, anti-vaxxers dismiss all vaccinations as unacceptably dangerous irrespective of extensive studies of different types of vaccine; climate change deniers maintain whatever substantial climate changes are detected have nothing to do with human activities in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary; cult followers would not rethink any of their leaders’ claims even when they are blatantly false according to every objective assessment; and xenophobic conspiracy theorists attribute blame to foreigners for things with which there are no detectable causal links.

Of course, makers of arbitrary claims can resort to the old ‘science hasn’t got all the answers’ proclamation. But it has no relevance. Science, or more accurately, the totality of scientifically validated claims at any given time, does not have all the answers to every conceivable question. Neither has any other source of information – be they preachers, self-styled clairvoyants, astrologers, or the rumour mill. The difference is that those who work on scientific claims know the limits of the available evidence and are prepared to suspend their judgement, or revise their views, in light of what actual investigation and experiment are able to find.

So long as we remember that ‘pseudo-science’ – the pretence that absolute knowledge is attained in the name of science when it rests on anything but scientific evaluation – is not science, we can safely say that we should let claims be put on a scale that has scientific at one end and arbitrary at the other, and where any individual claim sits would indicate to us what credence we should attach to it.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Skin-Tone Negativity Syndrome (STNS)

There are people who reacts to others’ skin tone, without any coherent justification, with one or more of the following tendencies:
• Fear
• Unease
• Distrust
• Hatred
• Anger
• Rudeness
• Condescension
• Stereotyping

Now we can argue about the extent to which each of these tendencies may qualify as racist, and perhaps different words should be used to differentiate mild/occasional manifestations from intense/frequent ones, but no one would dispute that such these tendencies, prompted purely by skin tone negativity, ought to be corrected. Anyone at the receiving end of any of these tendencies would understandably feel wronged and aggrieved. Why should anyone have to put up with being perceived and/or treated in an unfavourable manner just because of one’s skin tone, irrespective of one’s real character, abilities, and track record in life?

It is notable that many people who exhibit the Skin Tone Negativity Syndrome (STNS) and seek to defend it publicly, seek to focus debates on the meaning of words – should a particular act be called ‘racist’? should an organisation be classified as ‘institutionally racist’? was an expression merely ‘politically incorrect’? And since they prefer to use their own ‘definitions’ of terms which bear little resemblance to those of their critics, the debates can go on and on without any resolution in sight.

By contrast, if the focus is kept on what STNS does in specific cases, on what tendency is manifesting, and what impact it is having on affected people’s lives, then there is no hiding from public scrutiny. Defenders of STNS can, for example, keep spouting the mantra that the way they like to talk about ethnic minorities is not ‘racist’, but just ‘plain speaking’. But if the insulting and injurious behaviour they would not accept for themselves is discovered to have been perpetrated on others, then the case for intervention is made.

The need for intervention often brings up another question in connection with STNS – namely, what is THE cause of it? However, to understand STNS is to see that it does not have a single definitive cause. Some people become susceptible to xenophobic manipulation because they have suffered through socio-economic marginalisation. But deprivation is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for STNS. Some people inherit the casual prejudices from their parents and neighbours. Some people come from privileged families, and their wealth-based status leads them to succumb to a delusionary ‘superiority’ complex that encourages them to look down on others who are visibly different from them. Some may have had personal experiences that diminish their self-esteem to such a level that hating and intimidating others who could be branded as ‘alien’ might be their way of boosting their fragile ego.

Instead of looking for a one definitive cause, we should trace its manifestations to the different conditions that give rise to them, and formulate preventative and corrective measures as appropriate. These would include civic education to nurture moral awareness; public scrutiny and curtailment of egregious communication that is designed to deceive, incite, or hurt people; exposure and removal of symbolism that serves to normalise, or even glorify, wrongful deeds; child protection that ensures families are not left to abuse or corrupt their young; support for people whose personal circumstances render them vulnerable to the embrace of blind suspicion and arbitrary hate; and mechanisms for reporting incidents to be investigated at all levels of society for early intervention to commence whenever necessary.

STNS is harmful because it generates negative impact on people on the wholly arbitrary basis of their skin tone. We should not let those who revel in its spread deflect us with rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Wherever it is detected, it must counteracted with swift and effective action.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Left Without Words

What is the difference between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’? The terms arose from the seating arrangement in the National Assembly convened in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution. Those who wanted to press for greater liberty, equality, and fraternity, and bring in policies that would secure the necessary changes sat to the left of the assembly’s president. Those who sought to defend the position of the monarch, aristocratic privileges, and the hierarchical structures of the status quo sat to his right.

Two centuries on, Left is still in essence the label for those who challenge oppression, inequalities, and discriminatory exclusion, while Right embodies the mindset of those who desire the preservation of concentrated power, rigid divisions, and unquestionable customs.

On the surface, the Left ought to be the natural rallying point for everyone who suffers from the iniquities perpetuated by champions of the Right, and should readily appeal to the unfairly disadvantaged and the critics of prejudice and exploitation. But for decades, the Left appears to have forgotten that they need to remind people what they stand for, and that to do so effectively requires the deployment of key words.

One of the most critical errors of the Left is to let go of any term which has been hijacked by the Right. Just consider the following:

• Community: the Right obsesses about communities that are controlled by tight hierarchies and deferential to the powerful, but the Left should support the development of positive community life by enabling people to act cooperatively and deliberatively as democratic citizens.
• Customs: there are customs that are positive in uniting people and celebrating positive memories, but there are also customs that are outmoded and harmful. The Right wants to preserve prejudices and discrimination as integral parts of selected customs, but they should be exposed, while valuable customs and historical symbols ought to be embraced by the Left.
• Faith: There is no single spokesperson for God and there is no religious sect that can condemn all other faiths and beliefs as wrong. The Right has no compunction in claiming it is the standard bearer of ‘true faith’ when that is simply whatever they pick to suit their rhetoric. The Left welcomes faith that promotes love and harmony, but opposes false prophets who preach hatred and spread lies.
• Family: why let the Right pretend only they care about family values? They actually want to retain patriarchal family structures and attack all other forms of loving family relations as unacceptable. The Left should promote real family values.
• Freedom: the Right’s ‘freedom’ is about the freedom of the powerful to oppress others, the freedom to act irresponsibly, and the freedom to deceive and intimidate. The Left’s role is to defend everyone’s freedom from the oppressive, irresponsible, and unjust acts of others.
• Law and Order: the Right wants to be associated with ‘law and order’ but they are quite ready to undermine legal due process or incite riots if that would help them win/keep power. The Left wants law and order for all irrespective of their connections or bank balance.
• Patriotism: the Right is ever ready to dress up their xenophobia and aggressive stance against other countries as patriotism, but true patriotism is about doing what is in the real best interest of one’s country, and that is at the heart of the Left’s dedication to enhance the wellbeing of the country’s people.
• Prosperity: the Left has allowed the Right to caricature it as wanting fairer shares of a shrinking pie. In reality, the Right wants the privileged few to have more and more at everyone else’s expense, while the Left wants prosperity for all with renewable resources helping to enrich everyone’s life-chances.
• Security: the Right sees security as protection for themselves whenever they take ownership of property or control of government, but they are not concerned about the lack of security for the poor and vulnerable, or about public institutions if they were not in power. The Left stands for security, in all forms, for all citizens and all institutions.

If the Left keeps dissociating itself from any word that the Right has tried to claim as its own, it will end up with nothing to signify what it stands for. It’s time for the Left to rebuild its vocabulary.