Recapturing Rationality

September 4, 2012

A rational man is one who aims at goals and takes action to achieve them. This is a definition of rationality currently in vogue in some schools of thought. However, it is a fundamentally uninteresting definition: ‘goals’ are construed as whatever a person was aiming to achieve with an action, and so any action is rational. If every action is rational – because every conscious action must aim at a goal – then there is no such thing as an irrational action, and the very word becomes meaningless. By inference, I can describe the aimless swimming of a goldfish as ‘rational’; I know naught of fishy goals, and it is not for me to say when they are rational and when they are not.

While this is not an incoherent position, we should be wary of any stance which says that a commonly used word is being used incorrectly by the rest of mankind; humility is a useful intellectual virtue. Is there another definition of ‘rationality’ which captures the useful insight that rational action is the preserve of the individual while still retaining the distinction between rational and irrational in a coherent fashion?

Luckily, there is. Regular readers will know of my affection for the work of Fleischacker on liberty, and it provides a useful steer here. The first question we should ask is what we mean when we say ‘action’. The definition above considers ‘action’ to be basic, without considering what it is we do when we act. However, this involves a rather basic conceit: that in the split second of decision-making about whether to, say, kill the fat man, we somehow weigh all the pros and cons of each potential act. Of course we do not; our brains are not hyper light speed quantum counting engines. Rather, we act in accordance with the principles we have accepted and considered in advance, before we were thrust into such a situation. What we do when acting is not to assess every possible outcome, but rather to make a judgement: this context falls under this principle, so this action should be performed.

The creation of these principles is something we do when reflecting, or opting to adhere to a particular moral code. It is in the practice of these principles that they are reinforced, and we become more likely to act in such a way in future. This leads us onto a useful definition of rationality: acting in accordance with our principles.

Our principles are self-determined, even if we are signing up to someone else’s – that remains our decision. As a result, only we can determine whether we have been acting irrationally or not. I can state quite categorically that I am more likely to act irrationally while drunk, for example, which captures the common intuition about the meaning of rationality quite happily.

Moreover, this definition of irrationality – failure to determine the correct principle to apply to a particular context – is something which is only known to the self, and so cannot be a tool for another to step in and remove one’s autonomy, unless one wishes it. This may prove useful to members of that particular school I linked above, who do seem to worry so about such things.

Everyday Arete

August 22, 2012

Did you see the Great British Bake-Off last night? Well, one of the twenty-something lads won, but the bad-teeth fella got kicked out after he got his plaits wrong. I spent much of the episode lusting hungrily after the various bready products portrayed on screen, and largely in incomprehension proportionate to my terrible cooking skills.

But still, it got me thinking: cooking is a skill, and a skill in which a great many people take pleasure. It is simultaneously a chore and an arete; a pain and an excellence. Clearly it is an excellence which our culture celebrates, judging by the number of cooking programmes and celebrity chefs our culture produces. It stands alongside singing and dancing and DIY as an arete which is simultaneously accessible to all and the subject of media offerings which have mass appeal. There is clearly a market in providing the public with examples and illustrations of excellence in a given skill, just so long as that skill is open to everyone to try.

Now hold on, you might say, I’m a keen wood-whittler and there’s no prime-time show showing how best to carve your own oaken squirrel. The only thing you need to whittle wood is some kind of knife and a bit of wood. This is true, but the barrier to involvement in wood-whittling is not its accessibility but the difficulty associated with achieving excellence in it. It is much easier to paint a room well with the minimum of practice than it is to carve a gargoyle made of chestnut. The learning curve is, in this instance, a clear barrier to The Great British Whittle Off being a thing.

Why is this important? There’s a strange inclination in the philosophical world to describe ‘excellences’ and ‘virtues’ as things that pertain to ‘higher’ pursuits; MacIntyre uses the example of chess to illustrate his theory, and of course classical Aristotelian virtues mainly relate to aspects of interpersonal relations and personal conduct. However, in doing so we miss out on a whole set of arete that actually matter to people, and in doing miss out on some important insights into the nature of virtue.

For example, MacIntyre claims that ‘real’ virtues can only exist in a small community or polis, that in a vast and alienated capitalist society the only ethical theory possible is a bleak emotivism. Cooking demonstrates that this is untrue. The reason The Great British Bake-Off exists is that there is an appetite for the celebration of excellence amongst a public MacIntyre and his followers believe to be only expressing emotive preferences. If the arete identified through the judging process were unpalatable to the viewers, they would switch off, and if arete identification was a mere emotive process in our society there is no reason why one baking practice should be favoured over another. But, given we are now on the third series of this show, this seems unlikely. What it shows is that the great meta-community of baking fans, brought together through this shared experience, is capable of identifying and celebrating virtue through an aggregate of individual preferences. While the show has gurus, they only receive their status as gurus through their excellence being agreed by the community, rather than by the rules and traditions of a Baking Brotherhood. The internal excellences wrought by the practice of baking are ones determined by all participants, no matter their skill. The preference of each participating individual determines the community, not inner rules of the community itself. Virtues are emergent, not wholly defined by a historical context to which a novice must adhere.

Therefore, we can coherently talk about arete in a market economy. Virtue can exist in a capitalist system; we do not need the polis when we have tele-vision.

David Cameron has decided that society is on the verge of a ‘moral collapse‘ following the riots. I find it difficult to envisage what a moral collapse would look like, unless it’s a nun tripping over a dildo; such a term appears to boil down to mere rhetoric. On closer inspection, the thrust of his argument appears to be that Cameron thinks far too few people agree with what he thinks right and wrong to be, and this has caused widespread looting:

“No, [the riots were] about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.”

Harsh words indeed. Revealed in this speech is the subtle difference between liberalism and Cameron’s one-nation Conservatism; to him, like Labour, the State is a moral agent:

“Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander.”

Much of the speech is concerned with his efforts to use the State to reinforce a ‘better’ morality. This is something with which I will have no truck. It is not the job of the State to mandate morality; one’s moral judgements are one’s own, and having them imposed from an external source is tantamount to removing that most fundamental freedom.

However, there is a subtle distinction to be made. The freedom I believe to be the object of politics is the freedom of individual judgement; to make judgements on a sound basis about oneself, one’s work, one’s pleasures and one’s place in society. These judgements, when aggregated, form the way in which you encounter the world, and as such, can be shown to be incorrect. This freedom includes the freedom to be wrong, and to learn from one’s mistakes. It does not include the freedom to be wrong to the extent that you harm other people. It also does not include the freedom to be free from the judgements of others.

If I believe your decisions are wrong for you, I must be free to say so, in order that you may factor that information into your own judgement-making. Indeed, withholding that judgement is almost wrong in itself; in a society founded upon the development of judgement, withholding relevant information from a person is to impair their ability to develop their own decisions.

We can see that the rioters were not evil, but more bloody stupid. Their decisions have locked them into a shallow facsimile of a life, put without the structures of a society that offers so much. For example, I have argued that taking a position of responsibility with regard to one’s children is both fulfilling and economically worthwhile in terms of the skills it allows you to demonstrate. Feckless fathers are simply incorrect in their decisions, and should be told so.

But for someone to be incorrect, you must provide evidence as to why this is the case. Reaching for morality short-circuits this process by creating values based on nothing more than the prescription of particular activities, rather than developed judgement. It is the case that one can tell someone whether their activities are likely to lead to adverse consequences in terms of their own priorities – one can tell someone that they’re being daft. The State can tell its citizens when they’re being stupid. It cannot, however, tell them that they’re bad; morality is always something up to the individual.

So, go forth and tell the person playing their music too loudly on the bus that if they don’t turn it down other people will think they’re annoying. Judge the activities of your fellow citizens, based on what you think they should be doing. They don’t have to listen, but they should be told.

The Enmeshed Self

April 12, 2011

I’ve often thought that the history of continental philosophy since Kant can be thought of as a fight between the Master and his Germanic successors, with occasional interventions from their European cousins. I’ve been reminded of this view after finally finishing Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, which has taken me quite  a while to plough through.

It’s taken so long because I’ve had to read every paragraph twice, once to think to myself, ‘This is nonsense’, and a second time to confirm that it was, indeed, nonsense. Zizek is the intellectual equivalent of those business ‘gurus’ who churn out book after book on the one business idea they’ve ever had; typically, this idea is plausible in its original context but stretches to breaking point when applied elsewhere. This is certainly true of Zizek’s pet theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, which works in a limited number of cases (helpfully, all the ones that Zizek chooses to mention) but when pushed beyond its comfort zone generates the impression of philosophical cogs grinding out of synch in a desperate effort to insert a square peg into a round hole. I’m sure Zizek would have a lot to say about that metaphor, probably involving willies.

The book’s ostensible object is to provide a psychoanalytic theory of how ideologies can be understood and how it comes about that they change. ‘Ideology’ in this sense is a explanation of the world with accompanying prescriptive force that coalesces around a particular word, like ‘communism’. Implicit in this approach is the necessity of a person possessing an ideology that allows them to interpret the world, and that such a thing can only be damaged by a traumatic experience. This is so obviously stupid that I wouldn’t blame you for stopping reading now, but thankfully the main point of this piece has nothing to do with this. It is, however, a salutary lesson on trying to learn anything about the human condition from extremes of trauma, equivalent to trying to learn how a car works after it’s been wrapped around a lamppost.

What is interesting, however, is the way in which this ideological approach to human behaviour cashes out. It consists of the system of signifiers that Zizek would claim constitutes an individual’s relationship to society, signifiers which possess a prescriptive force. The best example is money. Money does not contain, as an essence, the value which it bears – a fiver does not contain five pounds in some essential sense, but we act as though it does, when it reality we know it doesn’t. It is part of our relationship to society; one could follow Hegel by saying that you are your money if you wanted to be pointlessly Hegelian about it (cf. Zizek).

We know that money isn’t in reality value – it’s merely its representative, its bearer. Value is something we determine ourselves. Not so, says Zizek: money is a real social relationship, because we act as though it were value itself. We’re back in obviously stupid territory, but the point I wish to bring out is that under this approach any social judgement or decision you make can be cashed out as referring to something real in which one is enmeshed as a consequence of one’s ideology. It is not enough to simply accept that money does not bear value as a real thing; by acting as though it did we remain bourgeois capitalist pigs or something similarly inflammatory.

You are bound to your ideology, regardless of what you think about it. Zizek’s main philosophical move to try to justify this is to claim that Kant’s transcendental self (the collection of categories that determine how we encounter the world) is necessarily historically situated in the midst of a network of social signifiers like ‘money’, and Kant’s discovery of the transcendental categories should be seen from this perspective. The ‘obviously stupid’ continues, with lashings of ‘obviously circular’.

However, Zizek has lots of fans on the left, and I’d like to highlight what this approach would mean for any particular theory of judgements – in other words, how a Zizekian would describe the process of bringing a particular item under the heading of a broader concept or principle, as we do when we’re making decisions. I’d like to distinguish between moral and pragmatic judgements – the latter carrying a prescriptive force not based upon one’s own determination of the best possible outcome of one’s decision-making.

If a judgement is necessarily social – as it would be for the Zizekian, being bound up in a web of social signifiers and having no place for individual action outwith that web – then it is necessarily moral. Acting in accordance with a particular ‘ideology’ implies accepting all of its moral tenets; a ‘liberal bourgeois’ act like, say, appreciating classical art makes you complicit in the exploitation of the proletariat. In contrast, a right-wing libertarian would distinguish between moral and pragmatic judgements; moral judgements are those which relate to the property of other people, while pragmatic judgements concern one’s own property. Acting pragmatically towards the property of others – say, appropriating their property if you judge your need to be greater than theirs – is forbidden.

On the latter viewpoint, the world is divided into people and things; to the Zizekian, there is no such division – everything has implications for people, and so is necessarily concerned with ‘ideology’. It’s worth noting at this point that to the sections of the left that hold this or a similar view, the cuts made by the Coalition Government are necessarily ideological; indeed, they cannot be otherwise. They are undertaken from a particular pattern of signifiers that determines their moral content. Therefore, this objection to the cuts is both accurate and trivial.

Finally, I’d like to sketch out the distinction between the brand of liberalism I advocate and the two positions outlined above. To me, there is no distinction between moral and pragmatic judgements, because all judgements are necessarily pragmatic. Please do not misunderstand this position – there is an implication of callousness in the word ‘pragmatic’ that fails to encapsulate my meaning. Your goals – whether they be to aid or hinder others – are determined by the relationship between your desires and the process of reflecting upon your judgements that leads to concept formation. The achievement of those goals is where the field of pragmatic judgements lies; one must be pragmatic inasmuch as one is deducing the best method for achieving what one considers to be the good.


February 23, 2011

Yesterday, I attended an event ran by the Centre for Sustainable Energy, an organisation intended to expand the use of renewable energy technology. Ostensibly, they’re on the same side as me, that side being Windmills Now! or similar. However, I left the day with something of a bitter and resentful attitude – even more so than normal.

It related to the people I’d met there that day, who all seemed to work in some sort of worthy Government-funded agency revolving around community development, community sustainability, community communising and so on. They were the producers of ‘resources’, of ‘toolkits’, of ‘guidelines’, and other ingenious ways that the Government has found to take the fun out of doing anything for yourself. They were the sorts of folk that are currently dismissing the Big Society as pointless without additional Government funding  -the sorts of folk making the same mistake as Labour.

They used the word ‘community’ a lot. This is a current vogue-word, like ‘progressive’ inasmuch as it admits of no real interpretation, but rather mutates to fit whatever its current user happens to require. The Coalition uses it extensively, ‘communities’ being the new thing that Government does. I’m all onboard with localism, powers being devolved to the local level being a great thing (although not enough people are talking about pushing responsibilities downwards for my liking). But to immediately follow that rush of powers with a rush of people whose job it is to tell people how to use those powers smacks to me of a misunderstanding of the point of localism.

Setting up local energy projects is both fun and exciting, at least until you encounter the planning system. It’s fun because it’s something that’s yours, something that’s the initiative of you and your fellows. It’s the consequences of your judgements, of your decisions, and of your actions. If you’re successful, then you’ll know it’s the result of your work.

However, if the Government – however well-meaning – decides that people need to be told how to do these things or otherwise they won’t happen, they’ll remove some of that sense of accomplishment, and some of that sense of developing one’s own judgement. They’ll be actively hampering the development of that person or peoples’ well-being. This is not something we want the Government to be doing.

Now, the obvious parallels here are with education, but that’s not quite accurate – education is broadly concerned with the principles underlying much of society – the scientific method, the structure of language, history and so on. Education shouldn’t involve being told precisely how to do something – rather, the general principles should be given to you, and the scope to work it out for yourself is where you have the opportunity to develop judgement. It is the case that in matters outwith energy projects on which the ‘Community’ people I refer to above may be working there may be ‘barriers’ to that working out which need to be surmounted – but I’m willing to bet that the extent to which to those barriers are real is less than the extent to which they have ‘Community’ people working on them.

I am concerned that this ‘Community’ attitude could infect the Big Society project. This remains to be seen, but I would hope that – quite ironically – that the cuts will help kill it.

Today I attended a rather fascinating discussion at the Green Alliance conference on the subject of the Big Society. Paul Twivy, Chief Executive of the Big Society network, laid out in relatively clear terms the shape that the Big Society is intended to take; or at least the policy levers the Government is using to try to implement it.

Broadly, the Big Society is going to be a patchwork of geographical areas known as Square Miles – you’ll  be hearing more about Your Square Mile in the near future. They’re a construct intended to represent the fact that the actual inhabited land area of the UK is around 8,000 square miles – a relatively small proportion of the entire land mass. These will form the basic unit of Big Society initiatives, and will typically be around the size of a couple of council wards in urban areas. To these will be allocated community organisers, whose role will be to enable residents to identify how they wish to shape their area, and to provide them with the tools and expertise they need to do it. On a voluntary basis, of course. They’ll work to identify community ‘anchor’ buildings that can be used as hubs for volunteers who need a space for particular purposes, and build on those anchor buildings to ensure that people are aware of what they can achieve in a given area.

So far, so non-specific. I haven’t really given the discussion justice, but there’s something here that I’d like to elucidate. The aim of this is to develop communities, promote social cohesion and give people a strong sense of responsibility for their local area – and generate happiness on the back of this. You can, from the above, begin to see how this will be achieved – not by asking people to do something for their area, but by asking them to think about how they want their area to be and giving them the tools to achieve for themselves. The obvious example in the short term will be community green space – after cutbacks, if you want nice neighbourhood gardens, you’ll be able to organise a gardening team with your neighbours and sort it out for yourself. It’s not about saying that services have been cut so volunteers should step in to replace them – but rather asking people what they want and getting them to take ownership of that vision themselves.

Of course, this all sounds a bit wanky, but there are important parallels with something I’ve been banging on about for a while now, which I’ll discuss in a moment. It’s something with important political consequences, as it’s becoming rapidly clear that Labour, at least its statist variants, do not understand what the Big Society is about at all. This was brought up by a question from a representative of Oxfam, who argued that our present individualised, atomised society is not suitable for this sort of endeavour, and it would require a society-wide change in our values towards a more collectivised society, a more co-operative society, and a society more focused on the common good in order to achieve it.

The gentleman was correct – the Big Society does require a shift in our values, but not in the way in which he expects. This is because of a hidden assumption I’ve seen evidenced on left-leaning blogs for some time, which is that a common good can only come out from values which prize collective work and the sublimation of the individual  to the group(okay, a slight exaggeration for effect). Broadly, it’s the claim that such public spirit can only come about from us all working together. This is a mistake.

Transcendental Liberalism, the thesis that the role of society is to facilitate the development of excellence in judgement by the individual by removing the chance-based barriers to their achieving such, is something I’ve been pushing for quite some time now. It has bearing on this subject, as it identifies that a clear goal of the individual is to develop phronesis, or practical wisdom, as it leads to happiness. This practical wisdom doesn’t simply cover employment, but social interaction and all spheres of life – it is excellence in judgement of the particular borne of self-identified principle. It’s clear that the scope for doing so is diminished in contemporary society –  if your scope to employ your judgement is limited by the fact that your job is repetitive and mindless, then you’ll be less happy. It is the role of the State to ensure that individuals have the space necessary to develop phronesis.

Now, it’s clear that the output of developing excellent judgement is excellent judgements – great decision-making, great endeavours and great art, to name a few. It’s also clear that the individual who works towards this is of benefit to society. If one has scope to practice judgement, one will benefit anyone who engages with instances of that judgement. If, say, one wishes to develop excellence in gardening, anyone who encounters that garden will benefit. We can therefore say that the Big Society provides space for the individual to achieve that – without requiring a commitment to collective action. That’s not to say that collective action cannot be an output from developing good judgement – there will be many cases in which you correctly identify that working with others will achieve a greater excellence than working by yourself. Excellence in social judgements – e.g. sharing the proceeds of work appropriately – will facilitate the achievement of excellence in an appropriate task.

It is this space for individual phronesis (individual virtue one could say, if one wished to take the Aristotelian content of Transcendental Liberalism all the way) that the Big Society will facilitate. Mandated collective action is not necessary, and indeed would be anathema – mandated action removes individual judgement. It is this facilitation of phronesis and the rejection of state control it engenders which will prove telling on a Labour Party unable to handle such a move – indeed, one could argue that it is the whole point.

Such a move is not without risk. The true threat in value terms to the successful implementation of the Big Society (perhaps better labelled as the Phronesis Society) comes from the pusillanimity engendered by decades of excessive state control – people now wait for Government to take the initiative rather than viewing their own development as their responsibility. This is evidenced by phrases like, ‘The Big Society is about Government shirking its responsibility’  – to do what? Tell you how society should look? It’s evidenced by a reluctance to make judgements about others beyond legal guidelines – the insidious nature of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders was evidenced by their name, as they called on the Government to validate individuals’ judgements of others rather than asking the individual to have the confidence of their own position. It is this kind of abrogation of the relationship between the self and others in favour of the State taking responsibility that leads to an atomised society – why deal with others, why co-operate with others, when the State does it for you?

However, it remains a strong theme in British public life – later in the debate, someone genuinely asked how people were supposed to volunteer without a framework being given to them. These were middle-class, well-educated people, and they were afraid to act on their own judgement without guidance. This is the risk attached to the Big Society, and by extension the Coalition’s political project.

Part 32 in a series of posts blogging the experience of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I’ve now finished the book, and this final post and the one preceding summarise my thoughts on the work. You can find the first post in the series here.

In the preceding post I discussed the possibility of Rand intending to subvert the judgement of the individual with regard to morality; to shackle the unskilled to altar of the rich by means of an internalised ethical system. It seems clear to me that regardless of what one believes Rand’s intent to have been, this is a necessary outcome of the non-aggression principle inherent in libertarianism: the shutting down of the one mode of competition available to the unskilled and condemning them to lose for reasons beyond their control. This is the direct counterpart of the shutting down of capitalism advocated by socialism; competition by means of the mind is forbidden in favour of competition for power, through means of political skill, charisma and force.

I reject both; all forms of competition – all freedoms to demonstrate one’s excellence in judgement – must be available to all within a truly free society. The obvious response is that not all freedoms can coexist; the freedom to use force is not consistent with the freedom to utilise one’s property. However, it’s not clear that the use of force in itself is a freedom of judgement; rather, the practical implications of judgements that involve force can be cashed out in ways that do not involve violence. I will explain this later in this post, but first I would like to bring to the fore a notion of judgement very similar to the one that Rand prizes, because her understanding of phronesis, or practical wisdom, is one of the most attractive parts of her philosophy. Needless to say, it’s one of the parts she ripped wholesale from Aristotle.

In order to do so I will draw on the work of Fleischacker, who has advanced a ‘Third Concept of Liberty’ which I have previously discussed. I will be repeating significant chunks of that discussion here, so previous readers can skip ahead to the section ‘A Transcendental Society’.

Fleischacker aims to demonstrate that there is an understanding of liberty, based on the works of Kant and Adam Smith, which falls between Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between the negative liberty of freedom from interference and the positive liberty of freedom to achieve goals. The former is the type of liberty espoused by right-wing libertarians like Rand and relies upon the simplistic notion of ‘revealed preferences’ as a guide to the choices of individuals. The latter can be understood as the capability of an individual to achieve particular outcomes being the crucial consideration when determining the extent of that individual’s liberty.

Fleischacker argues that the two concepts given above are insufficient to cover the most crucial form of liberty, which constitutes one’s freedom to determine the principles by which one makes judgements. To unpack this notion, allow me to introduce you to a crucial part of Kant’s philosophy.

Kant, unlike his Germanic descendants Hegel and Heidegger, was very much a liberal. His essay ‘What is Enlightenment?‘ remains a classic of liberal thought. The key to understanding his work (and the concept of liberty that flows from it) is to understand the notion of a transcendental argument. An argument is transcendental if it concerns itself with the conditions for the possibility of that which is under discussion. To give an example, the conditions for the possibility of the nice cup of tea sitting on my desk are various and many, including the domestication of cattle, the cultivation of the tea plant and discovery of pottery. The beauty of a transcendental argument is that understanding the conditions for the possibility of thing gives us a deep understanding of its nature. It is the conditions for the possibility of choice, of judgement, with which Fleischacker is concerned, and hence the nature of liberty itself.

What do we do when we make a judgement? What do we do when we decide whether to go to the shops, pursue a burglar or decide who to vote for? The answer is that we particularise a principle or principles; we bring the situation in which we find ourselves under one or more concepts and act accordingly. Our choice of action is determined by the principles we select as appropriate to a situation. It may sound odd to hear that we consult our principles on whether we should go to the shops or not, but here ‘principle’ is used in the broader sense of ‘concept’; the formalisation – the rule-making – of our experiences. When deciding to go to the shops, you select appropriate concepts relevant to the situation that ‘I am hungry’. These concepts will include ‘Food is available at the shops’ and ‘Money is used to purchase goods at shops’ but will not include ‘Elephants are grey’. It is with the proper selection of concepts that judgement is concerned.

How does this proper selection come about? It comes about by the individual’s assessment of those concepts against experience and against their desires, ‘desires’ here to be understood as incorporating what some would call rational desires to e.g. be moral. It is this assessment, this ordering of concepts and principles, which is a condition for the possibility of judgement, and as a consequence it is the free engagement in this exercise that is a condition for the possibility of liberty. You cannot say that you’re free unless you’re free to determine the principles by which you make your decisions for yourself.

This immediately excludes the narrow concept of freedom promulgated by right-wing libertarians; their emphasis on the sanctity of property rights excludes concepts which do not incorporate it. Expressed preferences in themselves do not demonstrate that an individual is free to determine their own principles. It also excludes the ‘positive’ concept of freedom but in a far more subtle fashion.

The development of one’s own set of principles as a guide to action is dependent on testing those principles against the world. If you prevent someone from learning the consequences of the concepts under which they make their judgements, you’re actively preventing them from deciding how they’re going to live their life. A focus on outcomes for individuals seeks to shield individuals from the consequences of their choices, and so removes their freedom to determine their own principles.

Insulation from consequences insulates you from both success and failure. Without these cues, it is impossible to assess whether your concepts are accurate, whether your approach to conversation or to work produces the results you would want. Therefore, this concept of liberty requires us to do something which is currently so far from the political vogue that even raising it may appear scandalous: we need to rehabilitate failure. Failure is currently understood as something that we seemingly can’t allow anyone to suffer, and something that you should feel deeply ashamed to experience. This is wrong. Failure is glorious. Failure is how we determine which principles we should continue to apply and which we should discard. I have failed repeatedly in my life, and I expect to fail many more times in the future. Failure is the key to learning, and the bizarre arguments put forward by the left against, for instance, grammar schools – “We can’t allow children to think of themselves as failures at 11″ – confuse the system with the individual. You don’t fail as a person when you don’t pass an exam, you only fail when you don’t apply that result to your principles.

However, it’s clear that not all failure is the result of bad judgement, and some will be the result of bad luck – which in itself is not useful. Breaking your leg accidentally, or developing a serious illness, are not learning experiences. The US healthcare system, which allows people to go bankrupt through healthcare costs, is clearly inimical to this concept of freedom. Similarly, poverty so extreme that you’re incapable of feeding yourself or affording shelter prevents you from developing judgement; the same applies to mental illness and physical disabilities. It’s also clear that avoiding the possibility of failure by virtue of the good fortune of having rich parents is in itself an impediment to the development of judgement.

We therefore have the outlines of what a state set up under this transcendental notion of liberalism would involve: the conditions for the possibility of the development of good judgement.

A Transcendental Society

Let’s begin with an exploration of how judgement itself is already a powerful force within our society – albeit a force that has strong obstacles in its path. Judgement, in the sense given above, covers nearly every endeavour within our society. A mechanic determining how to fix a car exercises judgement; a footballer exercises judgement when kicking a ball, a scientist uses their judgement when identifying whether experimental evidence satisfies a given hypothesis or not. It can been seen that judgement is both cognitive and non-cognitive, at least in the instance of its application – whether a footballer scores a goal or not is dependent on their understanding of the reaction of the ball to their foot or head, which will have developed over much practice. The concepts that they have which are utilised in the moment of judgement are not the product of chance, but rather of willed development. And there is much pleasure to be had in the successful application of concepts; our language is stuffed to the adverbs with words for it, be it achievement, success, victory, winning, completion, fixing, beating, accomplishment, building, mending, scoring, understanding, and many, many others. We know what successful judgement entails; the satisfaction of our wants and needs by means of the accuracy of our judgements against the world and in the context of social relationships.

It is the latter which helps us illuminate a key difference between a transcendental society and the sort of society advocated by Rand: Rand only applies excellence in judgement to areas of endeavour that can be used to make money, while the transcendental society sees excellence as a goal in any possible field of human endeavour. Excellent friendships, cultivated over many years, are understood as a good thing within a transcendental society inasmuch as they are the result of an individual’s judgement. To develop friendships you must develop an understanding of appropriate actions to be taken in conversation and with regard to your friend, and the concepts which generate those. Not in the least, you must understand the application of which concepts are likely to make them want to punch you.

This reference to violence presents an important point: destruction, in the sense of impeding someone’s ability to make judgements (by, say, rendering them unconscious or crippled) is not necessarily a useful thing in the context of a transcendental society. Nevertheless, as discussed above we need to be able to capture the failure implied by others wanting to commit violence on your person. This, then, can be the role of the justice system: to provide a non-destructive means of indicating the types of failure of judgement on the part of the individual within a given society that may otherwise lead to violent redress. It is clear that this must involve both adequate indication of failure and scope for that individual to develop their concepts based on that failure. One could call that punishment and rehabilitation, if one wished.

Of course, one could argue that this merely leaves the individual to the whim of society; if the rest of society is willing to commit violence against your person for a judgement you have made, then regardless of the excellence of that judgement you will suffer. This is clear; one can be an excellent burglar. But this, again, is to interpret freedom of judgement within the narrow Randian sense: your social judgements are as critical as your economic ones. If you are unable to persuade through the use of good judgement in the social sphere, then you should not be too surprised that your only avenue to pursue freedom of judgement is to make war on the rest of society. This is why Rand’s moral disempowerment of the economically incompetent is important: it prevents them from using their capability of force on the rest of society – in a democracy, this force is implied at the ballot box. Inasmuch as Rand’s non-aggression principle does this, it restricts their freedom to make judgements. If a society, which based on what we have discussed so far we can define as a loose set of agreed principles, attempts to determine an individual’s freedom to agree to those principles themselves, then it likewise attempts to restrict their freedom to make judgements.

This seems like an appropriate point to move onto education. Education is often seen as a great liberal dilemma, inasmuch as public education will necessarily involve the promulgation of a particular viewpoint. However, in a transcendental society this is less of an issue. Public education is still a clear necessity – the loose set of principles that comprise a society have to be understood by those born into it, to give them the scope to decide whether they wish to leave or to seek changes to those principles within the framework of that society. For example, Britain as a society is comprised of an extremely loose set of principles which govern areas as disparate as investigations of the natural world, the election of governments, modes of developing friendships, different types of sexual relationship, and the culinary arts. It’s perhaps best if one thinks of these sets as a Venn diagram; circles within circles, some which interlock, some which do not, some which have multiple instances of rules for a given occasion, and many more besides. The negotiation of this conceptual landscape is the task of an individual’s social and economic judgements; and that individual’s reflection upon which concepts he or she wishes to use is the freedom under discussion.

It is therefore clear that public education should be aimed at giving an individual the tools they require to navigate this landscape and reflect upon the conjunction of it and their own desires. Public education would be unnecessary if society did not already exist when that individual was born, but given that it does in order to engender the possibility of reflective judgement within it education is necessary. Therefore, in our transcendental state, an individual should be given the opportunity to learn as a minimum the aggregation of judgements that led to the present society (i.e. history & literature), the forms of acquisition of knowledge present within that society (i.e science and the humanities), and the conceptual tools necessary to unpack and reject it all if appropriate (i.e. philosophy).

This must be given to all, as it constitutes the conditions for the possibility of an individual developing their own judgement. However, the choice as to whether to accept this education as useful knowledge remains that of the individual; the first lesson to be taught is to not blindly accept anything taught unless one judges that source of knowledge to be effective. It is this criteria which places the power of judgement with the individual, and overcomes the liberal worry of the State imposing a particular viewpoint on its citizens. The State gives the individual the tools that enable him or her to reject it if they judge appropriately.

I have just outlined two requirements for the transcendental state, both of which involve public expenditure. There are others, including of course defence and health. Who funds this expenditure? It will, of course, be the members of that society. At this point, I’m sure, Randroids will be up in arms complaining about the removal of property rights being antithetical to freedom. However, this again reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of judgement by right-wing libertarians: property rights are the product of force, not of judgement.

If you decree that you have a right to your property, then unless others agree with your decree your right only extends to your ability to prevent other people from taking your property away from you. Certainly, you can hire protection for your property, but that means that property rights are conditional on being able to afford them in the first instance: you require property in order to secure property. Rand – and other right-wing libertarians – attempt to get around this by purporting a kind of naturalistic property right, based on adding value to a given piece of land or other type of property. However, in order for this to work, you need access to property to add value to. Again, we come to the circularity problem: you can only acquire property if you have property already. Rand attempts to avoid this by decreeing that your body is your property, but the existence of slavery (and multiple philosophical thought experiments around personal identity) demonstrates that you do not necessarily control your body if you are in possession of insufficient force. As such, it’s not something you can base an absolute on. Property rights are the accrued judgements of individuals, both living and dead, within your society. In this sense, your ability to convince other people to leave your property alone determines the extent of your property rights in the modern age. It is the rejection of this form of competition that, in my view, is Rand’s crucial attack on freedom of judgement.

It is therefore up to the individuals within that society to compete over different principles of payment for public services. I would argue that taxes on wealth and externalities are far preferable to taxes on consumption and income; the former penalise inactive possession and unpaid-for consequence, the latter penalise employing judgement. In this sense, the television licence is an almost perfect tax: a tax on possession of an object for which the proceeds go towards useful educational material. This has somewhat been subverted by the BBC’s expansion into other areas, but that is a matter for another day.


A constant complaint of the left is that today’s society is too materially-focused; concentrating on acquiring property rather than any real good. What they have failed to recognise is that the only way of shifting society’s focus from property is to shift the goal of judgements away from property alone and towards excellence itself. Judgement, as mentioned above, is a prime driver of society, and its goal defines that society’s shape. The abrogation of one’s judgement to the State will not make you happy; surrendering your most fundamental freedom will inevitably lead to a stultified society. However, aiming one’s judgement purely at material goods removes so much scope for employing it that it will necessarily do the same in time. Expanding the scope of judgement to every imaginable type of excellence, by freeing individuals to do so, will produce a society in which everyone, regardless of income, has the opportunity to achieve what Aristotle called Eudaimonia purely by the development of excellence in their own lives – in their friendships, in their hobbies, and in their families. I have only given a brief sketch as to how this can be achieved, but the key is to reject both materialism as the single goal of judgement, while simultaneously rejecting the decisions of any authority as a guide to one’s own life. The transcendental society is one in which excellence is open to everyone in all forms – commerce, society and the arts, for example – but in which none of those excellences are prescribed.

Nevertheless, one must pay for oneself – and in contemporary society the scope of judgement can be limited by the sheer size of one’s employer, wherein many decisions are made at a level above the employee, reducing their scope for judgement. It is therefore clear that to leave open the possibility of advancing in commerce, our State must provide the possibility of excellence in other areas of endeavour. With this in mind, I leave you with one clear policy recommendation: FE colleges, sources as they are of courses in areas as disparate as languages, plumbing and artistry, must be expanded and free passes given to not just the least well-off, but those on middling incomes too. Access to the possibility of excellence should be how we judge our society, because everything else flows from it.