Tag Archives | public sphere

Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends. Continue Reading →

✱ Another election: what’s it all for?

Shortly before the last Australian federal election, I wrote an article for the ABC about how disgusting the state of politics in Australia had become. This time I can’t even muster the enthusiasm to be disgusted. I’m far from alone in this of course, which is heartening – since last time we’ve had Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow‘, Laura Tingle’s ‘Great Expectations‘ and a wealth of books, articles and speeches about how pitiful all of it is and why.

Before we embark trepidatiously upon another election year voyage of insipid campaigning, recriminations and broken promises, point scoring and the usual media sideshow, and before they start perpetrating Q&A again every week, I’d just like to get my thoughts on the matter on the record and out of the way.

If, as the polls suggest, voters have already made up their minds long ago, no-one will be listening during the campaign anyway. But we’ll all go through the motions in some sort of ghastly national ritual nonetheless, because what else is there?

No-one will be talking about what any of it is for. That we’re all stuck here together for a while so we’d better talk about how to get along.

Richard Livingstone once said (and it is still true) that if you want a characterisation of our age, it is that of the civilisation of means without ends. Australia is materially one of the richest countries in the world, but we don’t appear to have any idea what to do with it or how to make it last. It’s not that we disagree over questions of freedom, fairness and flourishing, it’s that no-one is asking these questions in the first place.

To take just one example that will occupy much of the campaign but which will have almost no effect on how people eventually vote, consider asylum seekers. We will talk endlessly about the process of what should be done with them and to them, but no-one will ask the question ‘what, if anything, is our obligation to strangers?’ That’s the conversation we should be having.

No-one will ask what education is for. We’ll talk instead about HELP fees and job placements and MySchool rankings and private school funding, if we talk about it at all. No-one will ask what people are actually able to do and to be in their lives. We’ll talk instead about housing prices, interest rates, the level of Newstart, hospital waiting times and parental leave entitlements.

In short, Australian politics is a perpetual proxy for a larger conversation that never happens and that we have forgotten how to have.

But we’ll still be fed up and noisy and looking for someone to blame. And our ‘leaders’ will indulge us, because they never fail to do so. No matter who emerges as the winner of this election, Australia itself will lose.

That is, unless we remember that the purpose of government is to act to secure the opportunity for the flourishing lives of its citizens. Maybe that resonates with you, or maybe you disagree entirely. Either way, let’s have that conversation.

Unhobbling Democracy

Politics is failing. The public square in Australia, like so many other Western countries, is a broken and desolate place. Danu sifts through the wreckage looking for clues, and wonders how committed we really are to democratic citizenship.

It is now de rigueur to make the observation in Australia (and numerous other countries) that faith and trust in politics and especially our political leaders has deteriorated to what must surely be an all-time low. That the only box voters are prepared to tick is the one marked ‘None of the Above’.

This will either resonate with you or it won’t. In any case, plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject elsewhere, especially in diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) its causes and effects and I feel no urge to expend much effort arguing the proposition further here. I actually want to talk about democracy, but it will help to keep this disillusionment in mind.

It is interesting that Australia’s current government in particular should be especially pilloried — the object of a pitch and tenor of grumbling and derision not seen in some time. Whether this is because of the unfamiliar minority governing arrangements, the indelible sense of illegitimacy surrounding how the government came to power, its lack of clear vision, purpose and moral courage, the unpopularity of its policies, the scantily-clad sexism towards its leader or simply its sheer ineffectiveness, is hard to say. There are interesting things to be said about all these claims and in my view they all have some merit, but that is not our subject today.

Rather, I’d like to consider just what it is we want from our political institutions and what exactly we expect them to do. Continue Reading →