Rigorous Ethics (part 1): looking at the conservative attitude as defined by Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson gave a speech. That’s old news now: thanks to some diligent preparation he was able to make a point, explain his reasoning and tell us all what he believes is good and why. Meanwhile, I’ve been busy writing about how ethical reasoning can be carried out in a rigorous way, how observing and interpreting reality can indeed help us to derive “ought” from “is”. I have also spent a little time explaining why this effort can only bring us so far, and showed its intrinsic limitations.

It is time to see how all this abstract thinking can be applied to the here and now. While doing so, I will also show that, despite the limitations, empirical ethics (the second science of morality that I’ve defined here) can and should be quite powerful indeed. To see how, let’s look at the details: I’ve already stated that it is theoretically impossible to rigorously predict all consequences of an action, so that all ethical evaluations are somewhat limited, and can never lead to absolute conclusions such as “this is definitely the best possible course of action”. What is possible (following the already seen patter explored for competing models) is to compare two alternatives, and provide tentative conclusions such as “based on the available evidence, action A seems better than action B”. Furthermore, one can also hope to be able to say “action A looks pretty bad, it seems wise to try to identify better alternatives”. Finally, it is also possible to look at different moral systems and evaluate them in the light of what science tells us: we are discovering what does support our welfare (material and not) and the direct application of this knowledge allows us to give a fresh look at different ideologies. This approach resonates with the strategy advocated by Nassim Taleb in “Antifragile“, the “less is better” or Via Negativa: it doesn’t tell us what is right, but it does allow to spot and evaluate what’s wrong. I will discuss Antifragility in a separate upcoming post, for now, it is sufficient to note that my stance here is neither novel nor widely discredited.

But let’s get back on the case: a lot has been said about Boris’ speech (transcript is here), but what I find striking, and widely given for granted, is that it looks like an up-to-date conservative manifesto, a pretty comprehensive summary of what inspires conservative thought and peppered with practical consequences for policy. In other words, it stems directly from a definition of “The Conservative Good” and follows up with some implications for contemporary Britain; I guess it’s fair to say that it even goes a little further, and tries to move the Tory outlook into a post-communist, post clash-of-civilisations stage. For me, it seems like a perfect subject to apply the method I’ve been exploring. The plan is to do the same for conservative, liberal and progressive outlooks, ending up with what is likely to be a fairly long series of posts. In this first instalment I will begin with a summary of Johnson’s speech, then analyse its foundations (The Conservative Good that is implied) and finish up by evaluating some practical consequences.

A summary of the speech

Boris’ speech started with an account of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, largely a Captatio Benevolentiae as well as the foundation of his own elaboration. Mrs Thatcher was great, had the right view of the world, re-established the proper British Greatness and we should turn to her for inspiration. More: we should stop bashing her legacy, something that apparently is done relentlessly in British schools and the BBC (I don’t know about the schools, but the reality of BBC political inclinations is very different, the evidence tells us that Boris is likely to be very wrong. See this report: “Hard Evidence: how biased is the BBC?“).
While explaining how great the Iron Lady was, he managed to tell us that:

Of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or at least invaded 171 – that is 90 per cent.

This is not intended to say something like: “we were the bullies of the world, killed, maimed, and oppressed innocent people around the whole world and had a high opinion of ourselves because of that. Then we learned something, and are now ashamed of our unsavoury past.” No, the sentence above is there to remind us of British greatness, and how Mrs Thatcher managed to re-establish it. This may look profoundly unethical, but in fact it seems to me as a clear indication of an ethical stance that can’t be dismissed only because we don’t like where it leads. I will discuss this extensively later on, but I wanted to point out that the quote above is important to understand what kind of assumptions Boris is making.

The speech then pointed out that we should be grateful also because Mrs Thatcher managed to re-ignite London’s demographic growth. OK, being the Mayor I can understand that Boris needs to see this as a good thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that thinks that London’s growth should be stopped, for everyone’s good. Never mind, according to Boris, this growth was and is fuelled by the financial sector, inhabited by greedy fellows, but we shouldn’t despise them because they bring plenty of money.

And thus we reach the main point: greed is a motivator, it brings progress, initiative, economic growth and so forth. And according to Boris, it is a good thing, if and when the inequality that greed generates, amplifies and maintains, is balanced by a fair playing field, where the best cornflakes (the nonsense about the IQ appeared here) can always manage to raise to the top. Plus,

the top one per cent contributes almost 30 per cent of income tax; and indeed the top 0.1 per cent – just 29,000 people – contribute fully 14 per cent of all taxation

(e.g. we should be grateful). We should also welcome foreign money, and forget about house cost inflation: foreign tycoons only buy properties in a few posh areas so they can’t really have a knock on effect, can they? And then the interesting part:

To get back to my cornflake packet, I worry that there are too many cornflakes who aren’t being given a good enough chance to rustle and hustle their way to the top.

This is the key, because the only way to make the whole concept sufficiently sound is to address this point: greed is good because it motivates people, therefore we should not discourage it, provided that we live in a meritocratic society that allows the best people to emerge, regardless to their initial family conditions. How can we make sure this is the case? [Note that Boris did acknowledge that social mobility is decreasing.] Of course the solution is in the education system: should it be fair, meritocratic, and ensure that who has the ability has a better chance than who is dumb but rich? Well, maybe, because Boris believes that the real solution is to make school more competitive, and to let competition start earlier.

He then reiterated that we should look at Maggie for inspiration, and explained what it means for London, General taxation, the third London airport, HS2, Europe, immigration and so on. He also added:

I hope that she would remember the municipal Conservatism of Joe Chamberlain and indeed Alderman Roberts and give those cities more powers to raise locally the taxes they spend locally

[I think this is one of the few things that do make sense, see my comment on Robin Ince’s blog]

He finished up forecasting “by 2050 Britain will be the second biggest country in the EU”, and will be the cultural capital of the World. His second to last sentence is worth a full citation:

We may not have many gunboats any more, but we hardly need them, because we are already fulfilling our destiny as the soft power capital of the world

First conclusion

There is no doubt that all this implies a very strong ethical drive: we ought to pursue British hegemony (thankfully with pop songs instead of cannons, this time), to do so we need to nurture greed as the main motor, and balance it with a more competitive schooling system so to allow the smartest to succeed. This presupposes that hegemony is good, that wealth is good in itself and that competition is an almost universal answer, even for five-year old children. How come? It looks outrageous, but in fact is relatively coherent, if one accepts the necessary premises.

In the next post, I will try to extract Boris’ implied definition of what is good, and use the evidence-based moral reasoning I’ve outlined so far in an effort to find out if it makes sense and/or where it seems to fail.

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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Science
4 comments on “Rigorous Ethics (part 1): looking at the conservative attitude as defined by Boris Johnson
  1. […] the previous posts in this series I’ve explored the ethical stance that underlines Boris Johnson’s political world-view. […]

  2. […] is a long rant against the narrow-minded ethics that underlines the position of Boris Johnson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4). I stand by my words, but have now to admit that this series of posts […]

  3. […] of exploring ethics in a strictly empirical way. To show how this may be done, I’ve looked at the ethical stance that is typical of certain British conservatism, as exemplified by Boris […]

  4. […] of exploring ethics in a strictly empirical way. To show how this may be done, I’ve looked at the ethical stance that is typical of certain British conservatism, as exemplified by Boris […]

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