Oliver Letwin and Neo-Aristotelian politics

Yesterday I described what I think is the new consensus in philosophy, psychology and public policy: Neo-Aristotelianism. This ideology / view-of-the-world argues:

  • We can know ourselves and change ourselves using our reason
  • We can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting
  • We can build more flourishing lives
  • The search for flourishing is social, communal and political

The Neo-Aristotelians who I described yesterday take this optimistic philosophy off into many different directions, particularly in different economic directions. But the heart of their optimism is a common Socratic belief in the power of human reason to improve the self, and a belief in the malleability, the plasticity, of the self. Because the psyche is plastic, because habits are changeable, they are improvable over time, through intelligence and will. We can become mature, self-actualised, whole beings, and we can achieve this while actively engaged in society, without withdrawing into the monastic seclusion recommended by Plato or Pythagoras.

Through political activity, we can become joined together with our fellow citizens in friendship and a sense of the common good - this is Aristotle at his most idealistic, although he also warns that it will be impossible for a society to agree on ‘the common good’ if it is too economically unequal.

As I said yesterday, one of the leading figures in this Neo-Aristotelian trend in public policy is Oliver Letwin, minister for the Cabinet Office, who wrote a PhD on Aristotelian ethics at Cambridge, which was finished in (I think) 1982. It was re-published by Routledge in 2010 under the title Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self. I want briefly to outline its main ideas and then consider how they could feed into public policy - though of course, this PhD was written 30 years ago so we should be wary of interpreting contemporary British politics through its prism! Nonetheless, I think it’s revealing.

Letwin begins by drawing a dichotomy between two broad traditions in western thought, which he calls philosophical romanticism and philosophical classicism. He defines the former as sharing a belief in the human condition as

permanently and irremediably unsatisfactory...we can never be completely at home in the world because our ‘true selves’ are, in one way or another, compromised by the circumstances of our existence.

Our selves are tragically divided - between our ‘higher’ or ‘true’ selves and our lower selves; between moral and non-moral behaviour; and between our reason and our brute passion. Letwin ascribes his pessimistic view of the human condition to such philosophers as Plato, Kant, Hobbes and Freud (I’d probably add Sir Isaiah Berlin and John Gray to that canon, and I’m not sure Plato is as pessimistic as all that, but we can let that pass).

Philosophical classicism, by contrast, is “calmly optimistic”. The classicists, among whom Letwin includes Aristotle, Hegel and Thomas Aquinas,

deny that there is an inevitable struggle between the self and itself, and do not despair of achieving a fundamental reconciliation between various demands of human existence.

A fairly clear division then - the philosophical romantics are pessimists who believe the self is tragically divided and can never be unified or happy here on Earth. The philosophical classicists, by contrast, are optimists who think it can.

Letwin then explores three ways that the romantics think humans are fatally divided, to show that they’re false divisions. Firstly, he looks at the false division between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ human activities, then he examines the false division between ‘moral’ and ‘non-moral’ activities, and finally he explores the false division between reason and emotion.

Firstly, he attacks the idea that some human activities are inherently higher and better than others - for example the idea that philosophy and poetry are higher than football, that a hierarchy of human activities exist, with intellectuals at the top. This is a very Platonic idea, of course, though I wonder if it’s also Aristotelian - didn’t Aristotle think the highest good was intellectual contemplation?

Anyway, Letwin makes good arguments against this theory. Philosophy and poetry aren’t inherently more worthwhile than football, he says. One could easily be a morally bad poet, or simply a bad poet, while being a wonderful footballer. Philosophy doesn’t necessarily make us immune to fortune, as the Stoics claim. It depends on our higher faculties, which are themselves subject to fortune. And the virtues of courage and fortitude are not dependent on intellectual activity - you could be a very Stoic fireman or soldier, for example (and indeed you'll find many such people in my book).

Letwin insists that the division between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ activities has fatal human consequences. It makes the intellectual pretentious and precious, because they think most of the activities of ordinary life are beneath them. And it makes the non-intellectual ashamed of themselves, quite wrongly. Instead, Letwin takes the Aristotelian position that any human activity can be done well or badly, and can be performed with pride in excellence.

Football is a good example. Take the Champions League final. Some criticised the champions, Chelsea, for playing ‘ugly football’ - there was a recognition there that football is not simply about winning. It’s a practice, which can be done well or badly, with grace or without (Barcelona epitomised the beautiful game). On the other hand, others (including me) couldn’t help but praise Chelsea for their resilience, their ‘never-say-die’ attitude, shown in their ability to come back against the odds against Napoli, Barcelona and then Bayern Munich, after a very shaky start to their season. So you have two competing value judgements about Chelsea, their season, and the virtues and vices of their style of play.

Letwin’s point is well made - any activity can be done well or badly, with grace or without, according to the internal standards of the community. With that sort of attitude, we need no longer divide life into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ activities:  “the whole range of life is something to be lived, rather than merely borne”. Even the ‘lower’ activities of eating, sleeping and sex can be done well, can be raised to a civilised art, as in the Kama Sutra. We can become a ‘virtuoso in living well’, as one philosopher described the Aristotelian ideal.

Then Letwin takes aim at the division of human life into ‘moral’ and ‘non-moral’ activities. He takes particular aim at Kantian ethics, which makes just this distinction: either acts are virtuous and in accordance with a universal moral law, or they are non-moral and beside the point. The same is true of Stoic ethics. This sort of rule-based ethics is too abstract and universalist, Letwin argues. It fails to take account of the particularity of human circumstances. For example, a great writer might consider themselves justified in foregoing some traditionally moral activities - such as spending time with their aging parents - in order to pursue the creative goal of finishing a great book. That is not a moral goal, in a Kantian sense. But it might nonetheless be considered a legitimate way to spend their time - if they genuinely are a great writer. Letwin calls this a ‘subjunctive’ claim, and compares it to the Kantian imperative. It is less universalist, less inflexible, and more alive to the particular circumstances of our life and the claims that other areas of our life legitimately make on us. It does not rule out a lot of the good things in life - the arts, friendship - as non-moral and therefore indifferent.

He likewise finds utilitarianism too inflexible and rule-based. It only asks that we discover what a person wants and then satisfy their wants, without considering that a person might want the wrong thing. He writes, sounding very Tory, that ‘a hippy may give his girlfriend heroin’, because that is what she says she wants. But it might not be what she genuinely needs. A schoolteacher who punishes a pupil, by contrast, is not giving the child what they want (their iPhone to play with, for example) but what they need (a proper education).

Fine - but doesn’t that re-introduce the idea of the ‘higher’ self or the ‘real’ self which Letwin condemns as romantic? If the state should give us not what we want but what we genuinely need, that seems to be suggesting that some desires are higher or better than others, doesn’t it?

Against Kantian and utilitarian rule-based morality, Letwin puts forward an Aristotelian ethics of good character. Each thing has its function - a chair, a human - and is 'good' when it performs that function well. Humans can be said to be flourishing when they develop their characters so as to perform humanness well in all its many facets. This was originally a teleological ethics, based on the idea that we are designed by God and achieve flourishing when we fulfill that heavenly design (hence the phrase ‘a fulfilled life’). But Letwin, along with most other contemporary virtue ethicists, think we can detach Aristotelian ethics from a divine teleology, and instead base our ethics on a “fundamental belief that a person should engage in intelligent, purposive activity, and should promote such standards in others”.

This is not far from what Positive Psychology argues: the meaning of life is to have meaning in your life. But what meaning? How do we adjudicate between various possible purposes we could embrace? Is being a Jihadi terrorist a good meaning? You can, after all, be a very intelligent and purposive Jihadi terrorist. Not at all, says Letwin, because then you are harming others, and not promoting intelligent, purposive activity in them. Well..a terrorist might argue they are harming a few others, but doing far more to promote intelligent, purposive activity in humanity through that small sacrifice of a few thousand lives. If think your society is deeply sick, self-destructive and heading for disaster, then you might argue it is rational, intelligent and pro-social to try and oppose it or even destroy it - like Oedipus or Antigone opposing the corrupt city of Thebes. But Aristotle, the calm optimist, never writes about such a possibility - even though he himself was exiled from Athens.

The Aristotelian response to this ‘Machiavellian problem’ would be ‘use your practical wisdom to decide if it's worth violently opposing the state’. In any moral quandary, 'use your practical wisdom'. But I wonder if that’s not just devolving the problem. I mean, yes, in practice one does use one’s practical wisdom and try to choose a good purpose to devote your life to. But it's not such an easy process to find a good purpose, one you care about, which improves your society, which you are good at and from which you can make a living. That’s the Holy Grail, really, isn’t it? Do Aristotelians think we can all find such a purpose?

Anyway, the final false division Letwin takes aim at is the division between reason and emotion. This is a false division, Letwin insists, because emotions are really cognitive judgements about the world and how it should be. Those judgements might be ingrained as habits, which feel involuntary and automatic, so that if we have social anxiety for example, we automatically feel anxious when we enter a social situation. But we can use our reason to bring our habits into consciousness, consider their wisdom, and change them. Our selves are malleable and plastic - we can create new habits, better selves. This is what Aristotle and the Stoics insisted, and its what modern philosophers of emotion like Martha Nussbaum have argued. It’s also what cognitive psychology argues and has to some extent proven.

Because our emotions are cognitive judgements about how the world should be, our emotions are controllable and changeable. We can use our reason as a sculptor (a nice image that Letwin takes from Hegel), “slowly fashioning a life”. Letwin writes: “one can (as Aristotle suggests) gradually turn oneself into the sort of person who has certain emotions and makes certain judgements”. This means we don’t have to be the angst-ridden, chronically divided and unhappy souls that the romantics suggest, torn between our higher selves and our Mr Hyde-esque doubles. We can become a “harmonious, Aristotelian whole, without struggle or conflict”, following a life “neither too hot nor too cold” - more like the calmly optimistic and practical heroines of Jane Austen than the passion-swept maniacs of the Bronte sisters, as Letwin puts it.

But if our thoughts and emotions are our responsibility (as the Stoics and Aristotle insist), then “one may legitimately be blamed for having become - having allowed oneself to become - the sort of person who makes the wrong sort of judgements.” Indeed, while the classicist frees himself from angst, “he also understands himself to be responsible for all aspects of his own life...any incoherence is man-made, a failure on the part of the individual. In this sense, philosophical classicism imposes on us more responsibility, indeed a complete responsibility, for what we do and are: its optimism has a price”.

An interesting book. I want to make two quick points about its philosophy, and what it implies for public policy. Very briefly, as this post is already far too long and I am very probably talking to myself at this point.

Firstly, Sir Isaiah Berlin would worry that its optimism could lead to authoritarianism. Letwin’s version of Aristotelianism seems pleasingly pluralistic and democratic - it appears to resist the division of human life into higher and lower, and to accept the plurality of worthy aims in life. But it also believes in standards - in doing a thing well or badly, whether that be philosophy or football. It’s a pedagogic model of life, in which a teacher teaches us how to do something well, and punishes us if we do it badly. The teacher (or the state) guides our character towards excellence, albeit excellence in various different fields. I think it is quite hierarchical, ultimately - it believes you can grade excellence, even quantify it, and measure to what extent a person has achieved it. That means some people are deemed virtuosos, others as mediocre failures. I'm not sure life is as easy to mark as a schoolboy's essay.

And the metaphor of reason as the sculptor of the beautiful self is insidious, as Sir Karl Popper pointed out in his critique of Plato’s Republic. If the self can be sculpted into a harmonious whole, then can society as well? Can we all be fused together in one somewhat mystic sense of the common good? I think Aristotle believed that, on occasion, but I wonder if Letwin did or does.

Certainly, it’s a problem for Neo-Aristotelianism - it has a rather idealistic idea that given sufficient education and freedom,  citizens will all muck in together and work together to build a glorious eudaimonic future. Policy makers might try to achieve that through central planning like philosophy in schools or the National Citizen Service, or through de-centralised initiatives like the Big Society. Either way, there’s a faith that our various social and political goals are ultimately compatible and we can all join together in seeking eudaimonia. I’m not so sure. Even Aristotle, in his less idealistic moments, recognised that this politics of the common good wouldn’t work if society becomes too unequal - and contemporary Anglo-Saxon societies are far more unequal than Athens in Aristotle’s day (partly because our societies abolished the slave system, and gave workers freedom and voter rights).

Secondly, Stoic and Aristotelian ethics do, as Letwin says, make heavy demands of us. They demand we take full responsibility for our beliefs, emotions and acts, and can be blamed if we think, feel or behave inappropriately. That could lead to a pretty severe penal policy. But we should remember that Aristotle thought the good life was only possible for a handful of wealthy aristocrats. Only they would have the leisure, support, wealth and ‘mental equipment’ to turn themselves into the ‘great-souled man’ as Aristotle put it.

I don’t think you can hold everyone to the same account or high standard. It’s much easier to develop a good character in the sort of nurturing, privileged and elite environment in which Letwin grew up. It’s much harder in an inner city environment where much of the external conditioning instills bad habits, and you have to be a truly resilient and heroic character to resist that conditioning. Most people do not create themselves - they are created by their environment and simply go along with it unquestioningly. That’s as true for rich people as for poor people. It’s just rich people have an easier environment to go along with - and when they go wrong, society usually shrugs and lets them off.

How do you create good characters with limited resources for education? That's a question I asked Letwin's former colleague, James O'Shaughnessy, who recently left Number 10's policy unit to set up a chain of academies - I'll post the interview tomorrow.

Anyway, Letwin doesn’t seem entirely the old school sort of ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ Tory. I notice he made a speech back in 2003 recommending the ‘neighbourly society’ and saying some people needed the support of their community to have “good virtues” instilled in them. He said: “Each one of us has a choice, but for some, the help needed to acquire virtuous habits is less present”. It’s a sort of community / Big Society form of virtue politics.

Personally, I’ve come round to a more Aquinian version of Aristotle, which respects the role of reason in making us strong, autonomous and responsible beings, but also accepts that we’re flawed, vulnerable, dependent creatures who get sick, old, who make mistakes, and who need each other - including needing each other’s forgiveness. I think without that more Christian sense of human imperfection, Aristotelianism becomes a little annoying and elitist, always banging on about becoming a ‘virtuoso in living’, like the philosophical equivalent of a Financial Times weekend supplement.

Did anyone get to the end of this? Anybody there? You win a prize if so.