27 Feb

Letters of mass deception

The sending of letters guaranteeing immunity against prosecution to more than 180 known IRA terrorists was not, as David Cameron claimed, “a blunder of monumental proportions.” It was deliberate government policy. It was begun under Blair and it has continued under Brown and Cameron, and it was no less than a deal done with the IRA, an act of appeasement. “Sell-out” and “betrayal” are some of the shameful phrases which come to mind.

Radio Four’s PM Programme interviewed Peter Hain – of all people – on the subject. Among his other accomplishments, Hain is a type of utilitarian philosopher: that is one who does not believe in the difference between good and bad or indeed that there are moral absolutes of any sort. Though, sickeningly, he began by expressing his sympathy to the victims of IRA terrorism, he went on to say that the letters guaranteeing immunity – and now we hear even of official pardons – were justified in order to to enact the Northern Ireland Agreement, to set up the “peace process” and to provide for the cessation of terrorism and the creation of power sharing, He said more than once that the letters caused him to feel uncomfortable and he reiterated his sympathy for those who had suffered and are still suffering from the results of terrorism. But he said the policy was justified by its results.

This is the standard utilitarian approach: the ends always justify the means. Nothing is ever done because it is right in itself, but always so that a greater good might be produced. The problem with this sort of moral philosophy is precisely in its claim to aim for this greater good while refusing to give the word good any rational content. Thus utilitarianism is contradictory and incoherent. Specifically in this case it involves the assumption that peace – a questionable peace anyhow – is preferable to war. Peace at any price. But in genuine ethical reasoning there must always first be some definition of a specific and absolute good. Morality in the utilitarian philosophy becomes a mere plaything, infinitely malleable, in which human beings (and all that happens to them as a result of utilitarian policies) are regarded as means to an end – and that end never being properly identified. True ethics – deontological ethics, Kantian ethics – teaches the truth that human beings – people – must never be treated as means to any end but as ends in themselves. Moreover, that we should never do evil in the hope that good will come of it.

Utilitarianism pretends to be the embodiment of rationality and kindness, moral virtue itself. But in reality it is frightening. I have sat through the debates in moral philosophy and heard the champions of John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism. And scarily, I have heard the teachings of Mill’s admirers and intellectual descendants such as A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson. Ayer declared plainly in chapter six of his book Language,, Truth and Logic (1936) that all ethical terms are in every case “meaningless.” Stevenson in The Emotive meaning of Ethical Terms (1937) agreed with Ayer and then went further saying that, insofar as ethical terms have any use at all, it is only to persuade. Pressed by theists, Christians, Jews and various other deontologists, Stevenson conceded that – since ethical terms have no linguistic or syntactic meaning – they achieve their ends in much the same way as a club or any other weapon achieves its ends.

This then is the emotive meaning of ethical terms. It is the secular gospel of utilitarianism, the blunt instrument of the bully and the demagogue. It is no coincidence that Ayer and Stevenson – the 20th century’s most notable utilitarian philosophers – produced their work at the same time as Hitler and Stalin were living out the profound similarities between persuasion and the club.

The horror of it is that these things are not just academic but the very substance and ground of our political life and public policy. Specifically the utilitarian philosopher and his political disciples say: The word “good” is meaningless; moreover what I am doing I am doing for a greater good

It was Milton who described hell as “confusion worse confounded.”