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Origins of the tenets in British Philosophy | Centrist.org.uk
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Origins of the tenets in British Philosophy


The tenets owe their beginnings not just to the philosophy of social science in general, but to British thinking especially.


What are laws for? One of the most satisfactory answers was proposed by the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing around the middle of the 17th century. Hobbes noted that all forms of society share an important characteristic; that citizens form an unspoken agreement with their state. Under this agreement, citizens consent to sacrifice some of their freedom and follow laws laid down by the state in order to increase their own safety. One might lose one’s freedom to kill or harm others, but one gains an increase in safety by reducing the likelihood of being killed or harmed oneself. In a similar way, you might ‘agree’ (under the contract) to lose the right to keep all your money, in return for a paid police force, roads and an army to defend you and your fellow citizens. We never actually sign this ‘social contract’ of course, but that it has been agreed is implicit: if you break the law you face the consequences. If you don’t agree with the terms of the contract, you can move to a country where you find the terms more suitable or try to persuade the state to change the contract; if you could get enough people together, you could replace the current power with one that you think will be more accommodating.

Hobbes’ theory of a social contract is still relevant today, especially over the question of whether the population is giving up too much freedom (ID cards, DNA databases etc.) for too little extra safety, and, more recently, that legally ambiguous UK anti-terrorism laws mean that we don’t actually know what contract we are signing. Moreover, in the intervening years since Hobbes first popularised social contract theory, the ideas surrounding the theory have been considerably expanded. England was in the midst of a civil war at the time Hobbes was writing, and he (not unreasonably) imagined that safety was the populace’s main priority. But members of a state can also agree to a contract based on other things, like considerations of happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing. Hundreds of years on, as instability became less of a concern, it was natural they would ask for contracts that covered broader aspirations. This might be a reason why governments are becoming more technocratic (meaning that legislation is now often guided by scientists, economists and statisticians and the like); the citizens are asking more of their contract, more demands mean a more complex contract, and a more complex contract is difficult to implement. Contracts of a Hobbesian nature are providing (at least in the UK), more than they ever have in the past, from transport to social services, and fiscal regulation to health provision. This makes the merits of the contract difficult for citizens to judge; so in order to make this easier we advocate using four tenets — liberty, egalitarianism, efficiency and custody — which are intended to act as criteria that will maximise the abstract aspirations of happiness, fulfilment and the like. Because such aspirations are so difficult to define, the tenets provide definite criteria that should result in achieving these aspirations.

The first thing needed for happiness and fulfilment is liberty, which owes its place on the list to John Stuart Mill’s hugely influential work On Liberty. Mill argued that the best way for people to obtain the happiness and fulfilment they sought was for them to pursue it in their own way, as people are, by and large, the best judges of how to achieve their own happiness. This naturally led to the view that laws should leave people free to do what they wanted, provided they didn’t impose upon other people’s enjoyment of life (i.e. harm):

[Thus] the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others

(Mill, 1859)

Consequently, the state can interfere with people’s lives under very few conditions: “his own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant” for interference. One such condition is if the individual is a child or mentally disabled, both of whom, arguably, don’t always know what is best for them. And while Mill was clear that the government must not intervene in cases of self-harm (smoking, gambling etc), governments have still tried, arguing that self-harmers are doing harm to others indirectly (by removing resources from those who make healthy life choices in the case of the obese, or — because smokers pay for treatment through tax on cigarettes — by appealing to the scientific evidence that passive smoking harms others), or that these people are in some sense clinically incapable of making the correct decisions, through addiction or self-delusion, thus placing them in the category of the mentally ill.

Our next tenet is egalitarianism, which aims to guarantee every individual in society the equal opportunity to a happy and fulfilling life. This tenet arises from a popular notion in philosophy and political science: that individuals are or should be equal to one another in certain traits, and the laws of a society must reflect or enforce this. The difficulty is trying to work out exactly what traits individuals should be equal in — only with an explicit list of such traits can we form a useful tenet.

Where to get this list from? An elegant solution was suggested by the (American) philosopher John Rawls, writing in the latter half of the twentieth century. It led him to conclude both that ‘each person [should] have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others’, and that ‘positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity’ (Rawls 1971). We examine details of his argument at length in other posts, but his reasoning gives us two explicit traits of equality we can introduce into the egalitarian tenet: (1) that all individuals in society have equal legal rights (meaning that no-one has special privileges under the law) and (2) that all individuals are guaranteed equal opportunity (meaning that society should implement laws that force individuals to have equal opportunity to be happy and fulfilled). While (1) is fundamental to the legal systems of nations around the world, (2) has traditionally been more challenging to implement. Equal opportunity requires a state to enforce equal access to education and other basic services for all individuals, with the explicit aim of ensuring an equal likelihood of having happiness regardless of arbitrary factors such as gender, looks, or parents’ wealth.

Happiness and well-being, for many people, is partly derived from the possession of material goods, and efficiency is the single most powerful driving force behind the affordability and improvement of such goods. We define efficiency as the ratio of work produced to work undertaken. Economics is the scientific discipline of increasing this ratio. Generations of economists have examined the means by which it can be improved, starting with the Physiocrats1 who first modelled methods of farming in order to study their efficiencies (thus discovering the law of diminishing returns), and later Adam Smith (who noted that certain mathematical trends in efficiency can be attributed to competition between producers). Smith did not prove, condone or even suggest laissez-faire capitalism would be the most efficient way to allocate resources, and economists like John Maynard Keynes have argued that in some situations, it definitely isn’t. This quest for efficiency has resulted in the overall rise in access to basic necessities, and pushed millions out of poverty.

We come finally to our last tenet of custody. Custody is leaving things as good as, or better than, you find them. Some philosophers, such as Thomas Malthus, argued that expediency in the short-term was not sufficient reason to neglect the happiness and fulfilment of future generations. Malthus himself was concerned by population growth and the creation of poverty, and the effect this would have on later generations. Yet his focus on the long term welfare of citizens, present and future, of a state, are echoed in policies designed to protect the environment, culture and arts. This tenet does not always sit well with the others given that it is difficult to conclude how far future needs overrule current requirements.

Of course, more tenets may be added in the future, or rewritten to take account of some unconsidered problem. The tenets are discussed in more detail on the tenets page, but we can address two specific criticisms immediately. To begin with, the tenets can never include the right to be happy or fulfilled explicitly, because no state can guarantee their delivery. In addition, democracy is not a tenet because it is not relevant to the contract. This is because the system of government defines who writes the contract, not what is in it. If an autocratic ruler could be found who could provide a social contract that would suit everyone, then a democratic legislature would not be necessary. This view was taken, for instance, by the Greek philosopher Plato, who argued that a philosopher king might be the best person to draft a suitable contract. Marx, on the other hand, thought the formation of communes under a socialist system would lead to such social cohesion that people wouldn’t want or need a social contract at all. Both these systems are flawed in some way (there is no safe way to choose or train a perfect ruler, and people don’t spontaneously agree with each other if they live in communes), and in practice democracy is the most stable way to install a power that will pass laws that the majority can agree on. Even if this system is less efficient than Plato’s, it is less prone to misappropriation; democracy is arguably the means of contract-writing least open to abuse.

Hobbes and other past thinkers have done society a great service in providing ideas and frameworks for increasing the wellbeing of states. Our last tenet of custody applies not just to protecting the physical environment or the tolerant society we live in, but also those ideas and ideals that have been attained through reasoning, and passed on to us by their originators.

1working during the later half of the 18th century
Sources:
  • ‘…legally ambiguous UK anti-terrorism laws mean that we don’t actually know what contract we are signing’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/12/stop-and-search-ruled-illegal retrieved 13th February 2010
  • “One of these conditions is if the individual is a child or mentally handicapped…” Namely “It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.” Chapter 1. Mill, JS, On Liberty, [first published 1859]
  • First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others” and “[resources] are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society [… and …] offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice [1971].
  • “…from the Physiocrats who first modelled methods of farming in order to study its efficiency” Brewer, Anthony (1987), “Turgot: Founder of Classical Economics”, Economica 54 (216): 417–428.
  • “…who noted that certain mathematical trends in efficiency can be attributed to competition between people…” Smith, A, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [1776]
  • “…such as Thomas Malthus….” An Essay on the Principle of Population, [6th edition was 1826]
  • “…who argued that a philosopher king might be the best person…” Plato, book viii of The Republic [c. 475]
  • “Marx, on the other hand…” More specifically he suggested that a contract wouldn’t be needed at all. Das Capital Vol 1 & De Marco, N. Marxism and Democracy – Apex and Abrogation UCL Jurisprudence Review 2000.
  • “No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise…” Churchill, W. The Official Report, House of Commons (Fifth Series) 11th November 1947. vol 444 CC.206-07