Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lords Reform

The fact that Lords reform is the most intractable question in British politics is slightly puzzling. The pre-amble to the Parliament Act 1911, the act which first circumscribed the powers of the House of Lords, affirms “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.” A century later, most Lords sit as a matter of appointment rather than birth; yet, the question of reform still lingers, and nor is it likely to go away until the composition of the House of Lords even begins to reflect the democratic principles that are taken as given in all advanced liberal democracies.

Though electing the House of Lords would unquestionably be in line with our democratic values, the quagmire that is Lords reform highlights an important truth: values and principles do not necessarily make for good government. Currently, the Lords acts as a repository of knowledge and expertise. Though many Peers were appointed based on how much money they donated to the Labour Party, the House of Lords still contains hundreds of people appointed due to eminence in their respective fields. This makes the Lords particularly effective at doing the things that the House of Commons either does not have the technical expertise to carry out, such as the work of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, or work that is not considered especially glamorous, such as scrutiny of EU legislation. How these functions could be retained with an elected chamber is difficult to see. Electioneering requires a different skill set, and attracts a different sort of person than those who currently inhabit the Lords. The likelihood is that an elected second chamber would simply replicate the functions of the Commons.

The trade off between pragmatism and principles is not new; almost every difficult political problem involves something like it. But Lords Reform is special because it is a question that is fundamental to the British constitution – by who and how our laws are made. We tend to think, in these matters at least, that principle should triumph: It is better to be a man of principle than unprincipled, and in the most important matters, principles should be followed.

Schumpeter - Political theorist
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I am not so sure. Any reasonably adult moral outlook, which surely encompasses politics, as well as broader ethical life, cannot be enumerated by a short and pithy set of aphoristic principals. Lords reform does, I think, essentially boil down to a choice between democracy and elitism in our law making. When the people make their own laws they are autonomous, free and have the power to make their own destiny. When elites make the laws, you get better laws. The truth of the matter is that a good polity has great deal of both, which is pretty much what we have now. We already accept that monetary policy is determined by professional economists in the Bank of England, and that the detail of most policy and legislation is worked out by civil servants. It seems appropriate to me that the two houses of our legislature should represent a marriage of popular sovereignty, and elite rule – Government by the people tempered by government for the people.  

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Damien Hirst

In anticipation of going to see the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst exhibition, last week I reposted a review I wrote a few months ago of the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition. The time that has passed between then and sitting down to write this review is a good indication of how misplaced my anticipation was.

I will begin with the good things I have to say. 1000 Years – a partitioned glass box with flies hatching on one side, and a severed cow's head on the other, above which a bug zapper electrocutes scores of insects that have been lured over – comes early in the exhibition, and best represents all of the qualities of Hirst’s work I like. His Showmanship and unsanitized rawness - the stench of the box is perceptible through two vents in the glass if you get close enough. The Tate Modern has most of Hirst’s best works in these respects. The famed shark is on display, though it is less impressive than I expected. As is Mother and Child Divided, and Hirst’s giant ashtray, which gives off a heavy whiff of fag-ends, once more taking on the normally sterile setting that an art gallery presents. Perhaps the best piece of stagecraft is a room full of butterflies that hop from one person wearing brightly coloured clothing to another. This was such a draw that the gallery staff had to usher people along to prevent the butterfly room becoming overcrowded. A notable absence was For the Love of God, Hirst's diamond encrusted Skull. Although, the gift shop has been turned into an odd shrine to it, selling skull T-shirts, skull paperweights, skull notebooks, and so on. I suppose this was inevitable given that the skull touches on themes of capitalism, wealth and excess, but only served to highlight its absence.

Despite the number of works that are well worth seeing, the exhibition is littered with dull and boring twaddle. Infuriatingly this is repeated endlessly. Just when you think one medicine cabinet might have been enough, another appears, and then another. 20! 30! 50!!! Finally an entire Pharmacy is recreated. Then come the medical instruments – Scalpels and scissors by the dozen, replicated over and over. I must say, despite the number of spot paintings and butterfly paintings, they did not wear on me quite so much - some of them were exceptionally beautiful. However, once you have seen one medicine cabinet, you have seen them all. There was just so much of this exhibition that I could have quite happily walked past that it detracts from the good.

Hirst is a something of a contradiction. He has rightly earned a reputation for shock value and excitement by mutilating various animals, but the endless repetition of his works makes some of it monotonous and, quite frankly, boring. Similarly, this exhibition is, overall, a mixed bag. Go if you have an afternoon to kill in London. Otherwise, an emphatic "Meh!"

Friday, 13 July 2012

Lewis Carroll the Philosopher

Few people remember that as well as being a prolific author, Lewis Carroll was also an accomplished philosopher and logician. At the dawn of the 20th century, trying to elucidate the ‘foundations of mathematics’ had become something of a craze amongst mathematicians and philosophers. Simple truths such as 2+2=4 seem obvious and incontrovertible, yet the source of their truth is less concrete. Carroll's What the Tortoise Said to Achilles is one of the most insightful (and amusing) attempts to grapple with this foundational crisis.

In the article a pretentious tortoise challenges Achilles to use logic to force him to accept the conclusion of a logically valid argument:

       A. Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
       B. The two sides of this triangle are equal to the same.

       Z. The two sides of this triangle are equal to each other.

The tortoise claims to accept the first two propositions, but not the third. Achilles takes up the challenge of trying to set the tortoise straight. First, he points out that if somebody accepts A and B, then they must also accept Z. This seems quite sensible to the tortoise, so he adds it to his premises.

       A. Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
       B. The two sides of this triangle are equal to the same.
       C. If somebody accepts A and B, then they must also accept Z.
       Z. The two sides of this triangle are equal to each other.

The tortoise, unconvinced, claims to accept A, B and C, but not Z. Achilles, seeing triumph is in reach, exclaims, “Aha! If A and B and C are true, Z must be true.” Here, the beginnings of an infinite regress are apparent. The tortoise seems to have a point. Though we would normally simply accept the move from A and B to Z, the intermediate steps all seem necessary to license the inference, even though we would not normally state them; indeed, they are the sort of things we would say if we were teaching a child to reason.

Wittgenstein’s response to this paradox was to say that when we follow a rule, such as a rule of inference, it cannot be the case that we require intermediate steps, or interpretations of the rules, such as C, to lead us along. If it were, then we would never get anywhere, as Carroll’s paper shows, for "any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support” (Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, §198). Instead, human beings, being the sort of creatures we are, when we have been given the appropriate training, we see immediately, without interpretation or further premises, that Z follows from A and B. This is what comes naturally to most people after minimal instruction. To somebody like the tortoise, who despite plenty of instructions and illustrations, cannot be brought to see that Z follows from the premises, there is nothing to do but say, “I am sorry, but I cannot make you understand.”

This solution to how it is we are able to go by a rule, which I think is the right one, does not leave us with much less of a sense that mathematics - indeed, any rule based practice - is a precarious affair. There is nothing more underlying the fact that 2+2=4 than the contingencies of human nature; the fact that because of the things most humans share - biology, culture (in a very broad sense), primitive desires, ect., - when it comes to mathematics we mostly find it more natural to go on in one way rather than another.

Given that Carroll foreshadows the most celebrated philosopher of the 20th century, amongst the puzzles his paper raises is - Why is Carroll not regarded as highly in philosophical circles as he is in literary circles?