Filed under: Religion | Tags: hume, j s mill, on liberty, the natural history of religion
A while ago I wrote an entry Nobody believes in God. I don’t think I argued the case particularly well there, but the conclusion was basically correct. I’ve just come across some interesting quotes from Hume and Mill saying more or less the same things.
David Hume, The Natural History of Religion:
We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.
Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2:
To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. … All Christians
believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; … that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds.
Filed under: Politics | Tags: acmd, advisory council on the misuse of drugs, alan johnson, david nutt, drugs policy, evidence based policy making, expert advice, technocracy
The recent sacking of David Nutt – formerly head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – for giving scientific advice that showed the stupidity of the government’s drugs policy, suggests taking a look at the role of expert advice in policy.
The problem is that the government can have an unstated policy of accepting expert advice when it suits them and rejecting it when it doesn’t. Such a policy is ideal for the government, because if the advice fits what they wanted to do anyway, they can claim that they are supported by evidence, and if it contradicts them they can in most cases easily shrug it off by claiming (correctly) that the point of expert advice is not that it should define policy, but that it should be taken into account as part of wider considerations, and that in this case, blah blah… The policy is equivalent in outcome to having no expert advice, but in some cases looks better. Alan Johnson’s statement in his letter to Nutt was extraordinary in tacitly recognising this:
I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD.
It is understandable then that other members of the ACMD are resigning, although it is not entirely clear how principled this stance is when everyone on that council must have known beforehand that they were helping to legitimate highly irrational policies. (I don’t want to be too critical though, maybe the strategy of working within a faulty system can do some good.)
So where does this leave the issue of expert advice? Can it play a useful role and if so, how? One possible way out of the problem above would be for the government to create advisory groups and commit itself to following their advice whatever it might be. There are various problems with this though. Firstly, it is subject to manipulation by selection of the members of the group. Secondly, it’s not clear that it would even work – Tony Blair stated the reason to go to war with Iraq “must be according to the United Nations mandate on Weapons of Mass Destruction”, but changed his mind when that mandate disappeared.
But a third and deeper problem with this and any other similar scheme is that it conceals the true nature of politics, and supports the false idea that government can be a purely technical exercise in doing whatever works. Politics is actually about conflicts of interests of different groups and classes. Portraying political issues as technical ones works to hide these truly political aspects. Governments and opposition parties are very happy to do this because they are both largely supporting the interests of the same classes/groups – typically the wealthier ones. This shouldn’t be surprising because the decision making part of the government and state largely consists of, is staffed by and supported by people in these classes.
I don’t want to suggest that there are not technical considerations in policy making, nor that expertise is irrelevant. In the case of drugs policy, for example, the evidence is overwhelming that tobacco and alcohol are more dangerous than cannabis and many other illegal drugs, making a mockery of government policy. However, I do doubt that an institutional arrangement can be devised which allows for a useful and non-political injection of expert advice into decision making. I would suggest instead that experts should be entirely independent of government. A well informed and scientifically literate press – something that is very far from what we have today – would be hugely preferable to any number of advisory councils selected by and working for the government. This would allow an injection of expertise into an explicitly political process, rather than supporting a fictional non-political one.
Filed under: Uncategorized
I’ve made a minor change to my comments policy for this blog in the light of the growing number of spam comments making it past the spam filters which I have to delete by hand.
Shame about the title though. I think the words “Yes we can” should probably be banned. Anyway, here’s Robin Hahnel on “Change how the world works? Yes we can“:
Until capitalism is replaced, we want the tail to stop wagging the dog. Finance should serve the real economy instead of the other way around. If the financial sector improves the efficiency of the real economy, it is helpful. But if it misdirects investment resources to where they are less productive, it reduces production in the real economy by obstructing the flow of credit altogether. Then it is failing to accomplish its only social purpose. Jobs producing useful goods and services, and investments which help us to produce what we need with less human toil and less strain on the environment, are what count. Increases in the profit rates and stock prices of financial corporations count for nothing when they fail to correspond to real increases in productivity, as has too often been the case.
We have offered several positive alternatives to capital liberalization and to the governing structures and policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, such as capital controls and a Tobin tax to protect smaller economies from volatile speculative flows. We have made suggestions on how national governments can restore competent regulation of their traditional financial sectors, and stressed the urgency of extending regulation to cover new financial institutions which were allowed to grow outside existing regulatory structures.