Brexiters have something in common with anti-pornography campaigners. That’s the idea that struck me whilst reading Alwyn Turner’s account of the failure to establish public harms that result from porn.
What we have in both cases are failed attempts to translate arguments into consequentialist terms. The best case for Brexit is an intrinsic one – that it’ll give us a sense of independence and sovereignty. When its advocates try to argue that it’ll also make us better off, they make fools of themselves. Similarly, many of those who oppose pornography are motivated by intrinsic considerations – the belief that a society in which pornography looms large is a coarser and uglier one than one in which it doesn’t. When they try to cite public harms of porn, they push their case further than the evidence merits.
The same is true for opponents of immigration. A disquieting sense that immigration is changing society is one thing. It is when this leads to an argument that immigration does economic damage that they go wrong.
Some of you might add that egalitarians often do a similar thing. Rather than make a case for greater equality as an intrinsic good, we often make Spirit Level-type consequentialist arguments.
What’s going on here?
Part of the story is a form of halo effect. We tend to believe that good things go together to a greater extent than is the case, as do bad things: the hero in the films is better looking and a better shot than the villain. We thus overstate the case to which intrinsic goods also have good consequences.
This is exacerbated by the tendency for political arguments to be made by fanatics – people who, in overstating their case, become counter-advocates for their position.
Something else, though, is happening. This urge to express all arguments in consequentialist terms is an admission that liberal technocracy has won. The only acceptable arguments for any policy, it is believed, are consequentialist ones – ideally, along the lines of making us materially better off. And everybody seems to accept Mill’s harm principle, and thus argue for bans on the – often elusive – grounds that the activity in question does indeed impose harms onto others.
Although the country has had enough of experts and there is a backlash against liberal elites, liberal technocratic philosophy has won.
I wonder, though: did it really do so through explicit argument? If so, when and how exactly? Or did it win by default? Maybe Alasdair MacIntyre was right. We’ve lost the ability to make coherent moral arguments and so have retreated into a (pseudo-)scientific managerialism. To his credit, Ben Cobley seems pretty much the only person to see this, and to see that there are alternative forms of argument here.
This retreat, however, does not solve fundamental ethical problems. If we are imposing costs onto others so that others may benefit, the nature of those costs and benefits are second-order. Whether they are financial or the fulfilment or frustration of some preference, all the issues with utilitarianism remain: under what circumstances may we impose hurt upon some to benefit others?
Yes,it could be that people adopt liberal consequentialist arguments for tactical reasons - that these are a means of reaching inter-subjective agreement which other philosophical positions cannot. I'd like to believe so, but the shrillness and partisanship of so much debate makes me suspect this isn't always the case.
What’s more, I’m not sure how important it is that advocates of some of these positions cannot articulate them clearly. If you ask Brexiters why they value sovereignty, or anti-immigrationists what exactly their disquiet is, you often don’t get a very coherent reply/ But so what? Michael Polanyi had a point when he said that tacit knowledge, gut feel and instincts are important too.
Now, in saying all this I’m arguing against my own beliefs. Arguments that we should accept less prosperity in exchange for greater sovereignty or less migration leave me cold. And instinctively, I’m on the side of free movement and freedom to see what you want. I'm glad the liberal technocrats have won.
My perspective, though, is a partial one. My upbringing gave me anti-authoritarian instincts and a belief that prosperity matters – beliefs hardened by my economics education. What surprises me is that these views are, implicitly, so universally shared. And as Mill himself said, it is attitudes that we all share, often without doubt, that we must question.