Rigorous Ethics (part 2): the conservative Good according to Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s speech includes some pretty controversial concepts: it implies that greed is good, that British imperialism was good and can/should be reaffirmed (without guns), and that we should cherish Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, in search for new inspiration. To people like me it looks outrageous, hardly worth a second though, but in fact I can see its own coherence and want to explore it as far as I can. In the previous post (you’ll find links to the speech video and full transcript there) I’ve summarised the speech, and explained how I intend to analyse it below.

The first step is to see if it’s possible to make a fair guess at what Boris recognises as good: there are two reasons to do so, one is philosophical, the other very practical. As you may know, I’m obsessed with premises: any speculative position can fail in two departments, it may start from shaky grounds, or it may proceed in illogical ways thereafter. In here I will suggest that the conservative discourse proposed by Johnson does proceed logically from premises to conclusions, that its premises can’t be dismissed as a whole, but also that the premises appear to be irredeemably incomplete and narrow-minded.

But let’s proceed with order, Boris gave us a few very practical definitions of good things, these include:
– British Imperial hegemony (now gone), and the current cultural importance of Britain (promising that it will become the “soft power” capital of the world).
– The competitive selective process that allows the best cornflakes (e.g. the smartest individuals) to rise to the top (become successful in terms of wealth and influence).
– Growth: in size, population, power, influence, finance, etc.

I looked more than twice, but could not find any hint of a non-materialistic definition of good. All of the above ordinary goods imply a general overarching good that is strictly material, there isn’t anything that can’t be touched or experienced directly. At first sight, this should suit me well, as it follows my own materialistic and experience-based stance. It seems to me that Boris is picturing an overarching good that is firmly grounded in what is real: to have power is good, to have success (money and fame) is good, to produce more is good, and so on. The direct consequence of this definition is that life can be seen as a race: people will compete for access to material goods, and their success is measured in terms of who is able to grab more. And indeed, Boris suggests solutions that are entirely coherent with this premise: a fair schooling system needs to be competitive, Britain can’t rule the world militarily, but can win the cultural race, and so on. More: greed is good because it uses competition to produce more, accumulate wealth and power, and these two can then be used (through taxation) to take care of the people that can’t raise to the top. In other words, he is describing the world in the light of two essential concepts:

  1. Good is to be measured in material terms.
  2. Life is a competition, between individuals, groups, companies and nations. Luckily, competition can be used to produce more and more good things.

The first is the most basic kind of Universal Good that I could extract from Boris’ words, the second is the method to obtain this good. Because competition is ubiquitous, it is both a necessary and useful tool to obtain the good. The whole thing is wonderfully synthetic, does not rely on any metaphysical consideration and apparently explains a lot of the world around us (especially the ugly things). All in all, it is somewhat surprising that I still find it repulsive. Why do I? Because it is limited, it negates a whole category of goods: whatever happens to be one step above the physical domain (what you can see, touch and smell) is simply ignored. I am trying to build a view of the world that is entirely based on what is material, but this quickly leads to recognise the importance of our mental states, and with them, the significance of our second-order aspirations. If you prefer, I could say that the evidence clearly states that humans are moral creatures, and that we derive pleasure from doing things that we recognise as good.

The materialistic ethical stance that emerges from Johnson’s speech neglects the existence of this higher-order ethical domain, or, if it doesn’t, it tries to flatten it onto the material domain. It does so in an interesting way: if one recognises the primacy of material goods, higher order aspirations may still exist, and they may be fulfilled by pursuing material success; individuals will receive second-order satisfaction when they achieve first order success, but will do so at the expense of those who don’t, because life is a competition. This is distilled in the notion that the top earners pay a disproportionately large amount of tax, and therefore massively contribute to the material needs to the whole citizenship. It’s neat, it does show an unexpected (for me) degree of internal coherence, but still doesn’t convince.

There are two reasons why this whole outlook looks limited to me, and they are both empirical in their own way.
The first consideration is that competition is sub-optimal, and that’s because life is not a zero-sum game: my gain doesn’t need to be your loss, and very rarely is. Commerce is a typical example: at its best, it benefits the middlemen as well as the producer and the final buyer. If the transactions are all honest, every person involved benefits from it.
The second consideration is personal: I find second-order fulfilment inherently more satisfying than material gain. If I do, others might, but a moral structure that relegates this drive to irrelevant afterthoughts is going to suffocate it. And that’s bad: because second-order aspirations are not necessarily competitive, they have more potential and can create collaborative processes where everyone benefits, they should therefore be encouraged.

A few words on the first consideration: are human beings competitive? Of course they are. Are they exclusively competitive? Clearly not. One thing that is clear is that humans are social animals, able to reap the benefits of collaboration in an unprecedented scale. This happens alongside our competitive instincts and happens because collaboration is more efficient than conflict. Somehow, evolution found a way to nudge us into cooperative ways and this allowed us to shape the world around us. This is the reason why we have moral instincts (discussed here): we find joy and fulfilment when we feel useful and appreciated by our peers. One could reduce this obvious reality to a competition, and say that we compete in the moral landscape, trying to be morally better than our peers. That’s fine, this second-order view of competition is dry, but it works, specifically because it’s unbounded by material gains: it should be immediately clear that the moral achievements of a single person do not in any way constrain or subtract from the successes of others. This consideration therefore is grounded on clear evidence: we know from both experience and science that we are collaborative animals, and that collaboration is able to maximise not only material growth, but also second-order satisfaction in one single step (in fact our ability to feel second-order satisfaction exists because it makes us enjoy feeling useful, and this gives the human species its distinctive evolutionary advantage).

The second consideration is in part grounded on the first: our social instincts drive us to collaborate, even when this is apparently against our immediate material interests. This can happen specifically because moral (i.e. pro-social) fulfilment makes us feel especially good. If it didn’t, we would never sacrifice the material sphere, right?
The other supporting evidence comes from the science of motivation, and indirectly confirms the first: it turns out that material incentives are frequently sub-optimal. This is true especially when the qualities that one wants to promote are creative and generative (in other words, second-order qualities), and therefore potentially more useful that strictly material (inventing a new, more efficient way of doing something is better than doing it the old way). A good starting point to explore this second supporting idea is to look at the very enjoyable RSA animation adapted from Daniel H. Pink’s talk at the RSA (the full argument can be found in Pink’s book “Drive“, a very good read).

In conclusion, this kind of materialistic conservative outlook seems to be remarkably good in terms of internal coherence, and spectacularly bad in the premises compartment. It relies on a narrow-minded view of human nature (relegating our cooperative abilities to an afterthought) and the world (assuming that the material gain of one is usually equalised by a loss for someone else). The take home message is: there must be a better vision out there, one that is able to combine both our competitive and collaborative sides.
I will look for this “better” view in the future, but will remain in the conservative camp for the next post. My personal attitude is not conservative, so I need to double-check that my conclusions are not driven by my own bias. To do so, I will analyse some of the practical solutions that Boris suggested, and see if they turn out to be sub-optimal: this is the obvious prediction that one can make if my conclusions are true.

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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Science
3 comments on “Rigorous Ethics (part 2): the conservative Good according to Boris Johnson
  1. […] considerations: competition is universal and can be exploited to improve society. In the previous post I’ve exposed some theoretical weaknesses of this view, it is now time to look at the […]

  2. […] 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 also […]

  3. […] the next post, I will try to extract Boris’ implied definition of what is good, and use the evidence-based […]

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