Crooks, Elitists, and the Progress of Philosophy
Dr. Julian Baggini is an award-winning author, scholar, speaker, and blogger. Best known as the founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of dozens of books and articles, Dr Baggini has spent his career presenting critical philosophical issues to a popular (and very large) audience. He specializes in the philosophy of self-identity, and his TED talk entitled Is There a Real You? has been viewed over 1 million times. In this interview, we discuss the nature of political authenticity, effective rhetoric, economic inequality, philosophical progress, and much more.
This interview was conducted by Daniel Rhodes.
Daniel Rhodes: Thank you for joining me today. I’d like to begin with the rather prescient remark you made in your 2016 book, Edge of Reason: “If you think all politicians are crooks, you vote for the most effective crook.” And again, in an LSE blog post you noted that Brexiters didn’t exactly believe the inaccurate propaganda, as much as they simply stopped caring about accuracy itself. Can you talk a bit about what you believe contributed to the current trend of “alternative facts” and “fake news”?
Julian Baggini: I wrote a book called A Short History of Truth which talks about this a bit more. But, yes, I think that if you look at what’s going on, the idea that people in general don’t care about the truth, and that everyone’s become a kind of extreme postmodernist just doesn’t add up. Try telling a lie about someone which is libelous, and they will really care about that. Donald Trump will really care about that, actually. (He might also care if you say some things that are true about him which he doesn’t want you to know, but that’s another matter.)
In Britain, for example, one of the political issues which has made more people angry than anything else in recent years has been the perception that the British government, and Tony Blair in particular, lied to them about the intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As it happens, I think that “lie” is too strong, but the fact that he was considered a liar was thought to be extremely important. People have no problem distinguishing truth from lies.
So there’s not a sort of global lack of faith that there is such a thing as truth. It’s more to do with a lack of trust in sources of truth. Because, of course, most of the things we take to be true we rely upon other people to tell us about. We can’t go and check everything for ourselves. Pretty much all of sources of truth have become more and more distrusted: media or even science. People now have a very double-edged relationship with science. Sometimes they’re really reassured to think that something is scientific, other times they think, well, scientists have told us so many wrong things in the past. They used to tell us that fat was bad for us and now they’re saying it’s sugar.
So, when people can no longer trust the sources of information, they then have to rely on other, often dirty and crude heuristics to determine what to believe. A lot of the time, that will simply be gut instinct or intuition, which are highly unreliable.
In politics, I think that the toxic part is that people don’t trust anyone they see as being part of the political class. They disbelieve everybody. Given that they disbelieve everybody, on what basis do you vote for anybody? Not being perceived as a member of the political class is a positive, because that means your tendency to lie is at least not guaranteed.
The other thing that non-political candidates leverage is simply giving the messages that resonate with the way the world seems to you. People will expect anyone looking for office to do a great deal of lying. So, knowing that, say, Trump has said many things that aren’t true isn’t enough to put a lot of people off voting for him, just so long as his basic understanding of how the world works chimes with theirs and he basically wants the same things as them. If those two things are the case, it doesn’t matter to many that he makes up certain things along the way or lies about certain things, because everyone does that anyway. The rationale is: at least he’s our liar, not their liar.
DR: Sort of a Catch-22, isn’t it? Only non-politicians are qualified to be politicians?
JB: Absolutely! It’s completely absurd. It ends up with huge double standards. If you’re a politician and you make a mistake, then you’re jumped upon; because, as a politician, you’re supposed to be a good politician and you shouldn’t have made that mistake. As an outsider, you can do the most outrageous things and it’s like, “Yeah, yeah that’s proof of their authenticity. This person is so not part of the political classes that their behavior is all over the place from a strategic point of view. So they say stupid things and they don’t mean everything they say. But that happens. I’d rather have that than some sort of slick performer.” But, you know, the slick performer trips up and then, “Ah! You’re not even a slick performer!”
It’s very dangerous. I don’t approve of this at all. The whole thing about skepticism and truth is just a kind of fatalistic surrender, giving up too soon. People shouldn’t just be saying that politicians are all liars; they should be testing the claims to see who is being more truthful than the other.
What is unfortunate is that the mainstream political classes are often made up of people with very sincere motivations. I think politicians get a very bad rap. But they allow themselves to buy into the kind of ideology that the only way to succeed in politics was to be almost completely obsessed with presentation and to not dare to be honest — not dare to be unvarnished, shall we say. As a result, they’re authors of their own downfall. They’ve created this culture of spin and presentation, which kind of was in a certain way phony. So people turned around and said, “You’re phony,” by which point they’d forgotten how to be anything but phony.
DR: Is that, then, your political prescription? In order to combat populist gains, politicians should be less spin-obsessed?
JB: Yeah, I think that’s right. People sometimes say that I’m being naive, but I think the thing to notice is that there is a difference between a kind of spin which doesn’t ring true and effective presentation. So, if you go back to Aristotelian rhetoric, it was a combination of pathos, logos, and ethos. Pathos is that you have to have an emotionally resonant message; logos, it has got to be rationally coherent; and ethos, people have got to trust your character. Those three things together are very powerful.
Now, the problem is that what people learned from advertising and so forth, is that the pathos bit was what really got people going and you should really just try to present the right images and so forth. What we’re now learning is that, while yes, that’s true in the short-term, but in the long-term, without logos and ethos underpinning it, people lose trust.
This is not saying that people should have no interest at all in effective communication and presentation. It is saying that it should be possible to have an interest in those things along with honesty and sincerity as well. The problem is that the political classes have become so convinced that that’s a naive view that no one will take the risk. But I think they’re going to have to, because the populists are getting away with too much. Their often faux-authenticity is still coming across as more authentic than what the political classes are offering.
DR: At least in the US, this debate is often construed as a struggle between the so-called elite classes and the “people”. And so, whenever I dismiss the populist position as empty rhetoric, I have to think, well, isn’t that just the thing an elitist would think? Do you believe we have a problem with elitism in the West?
JB: Well, I think there are a few things that are going on here. First of all, one problem we have with elitism is that our democratic ethos has actually in some sense led us to an unrealistic view of the flatness of social hierarchies. To even say that some people are most qualified than others in something like politics or decision making is considered to be deeply undemocratic. But of course it isn’t. We want to go to the most qualified doctors. We want our bridges built by the most qualified engineers. There has to be some sort of recognition that we’re not all of equal ability to lead. But that’s become difficult to say in certain contexts.
One problem is when the very idea that a group of people having more of a say than others has become toxic. To give an example of that, representative democracy really works on the assumption that the majority of people do not have time to sit through and work out what is best for us to do. They recognize that you therefore elect people who are going to make it their full-time job to do that. And you elect them to do that on a broad set of principles. So, I elect someone who wants to take society in the direction I want to take it, and I leave it to them to work out the best way of doing so. That’s a perfectly sensible thing, but because of this wrongheaded form of egalitarianism, that is seen as impossible. What people think democracy means is that there are elected officials doing whatever it is the majority decides is the right thing on any given day. This is why there is more call for referenda and so forth. In a sense, that’s quite obviously wrong when you think about it. That feeds into the suspicion of even the possibility of an elite.
On the other hand, there is a point to the objection to the so-called elites. Elites is the wrong term, but there has been a lot of analysis done which shows it’s pretty indisputable now that the kind of economic system we’ve had in all western democracies in recent decades has disproportionately benefited people who are of higher education. And it has not benefited as much people with lesser education. Some people say that the worst off in society have actually become even worse off. Others would say that they simply haven’t benefited as much as those who are better off. I’m not entirely sure which of those is correct, but I suspect it’s the latter. But, either way, there is this kind of differential benefit of the current system. In that sense, when people turn around and say that the whole structure of society is benefiting all these college educated people at the expense of the rest of us, they do have a point. And that’s a really difficult point which people who don’t want the populists to be making hay with that message need to truly grapple with. They need to find ways of making sure that the people who have not benefited as much from globalization (etc. etc.) begin to benefit a lot more.
DR: But is it truly unfair to reward education? What would you respond to those who’d like to retain the current incentives which encourage people to gain more education?
JB: That’s perfectly fair, but there are two caveats to that. On the one hand, if you believe that not everyone is equally able to take advantage of the opportunities of education, then you are saying that therefore some people, through the accident of birth, just have to accept the fact that they’re going to be less well off.
Secondly, even if you’re right, the question is how big that differential is. I don’t think there are many hard-core communists left who are really believe that people who work and study hard shouldn’t have greater reward than those who don’t. But that has to be proportionate; that’s the real problem. If the gap between those groups becomes too large, then I think it’s unjust. But even if you think it’s not socially unjust, it becomes simply unsustainable when you lose the consent of a large part of the population for the system. Therefore, the system either gets overthrown or the system has to maintain itself by some kind of tyranny.
DR: For a philosopher, you’re surprisingly ready to comment on contemporary socio-political issues. I’d say that, in contrast to their American counterparts, European philosophers in general seem far more willing to engage in oftentimes heated public discourse. What do you think accounts for this discrepancy? Are there any particular thinkers from whom you’ve personally gained inspiration?
JB: Well, that’s an interesting point, because from the other side of the Atlantic, Europe is a continent and Great Britain is a part of it. From Great Britain’s point of view, however, Europe is actually almost considered separate (much to my dismay, as a half-Italian).
For Continental Europe, particularly France and Germany, philosophy is more political, through and through. There are lots of people who can barely understand the idea of philosophy which is not in some sense political. And so, for that whole kind of tradition — Frankfurt School and the Existentialists, etc — philosophy was always connected to politics and social life. And so, it’s much more part of the culture.
In Britain, it’s actually been different and, for a long time, we didn’t have those engaged philosophers, or not very many of them. And we’ve been becoming more European in that way.
In terms of those who’ve inspired me, I think there have been a lot of very good people. For example, Mary Warnock — now, Baroness Warnock — did tremendous work with government inquiries, bringing her philosophical training to really help develop issues of public policy around quite contentious and important ethical and bioethical issues. She’s a very modest woman who saw herself as only a second-rate philosopher, but she was absolutely able to bring the subject to the public domain. And, more recently, Onora O’Neill at Cambridge, a very highly rated Kantian scholar and philosopher who has done a lot of work on trust in public life and the public sphere.
I think what is so admirable about those two is that they were able to bring their philosophical skills and knowledge into the public realm; but in a way in which you hardly even notice the joints. The philosophy is there, but it’s not worn too heavily. They aren’t coming in like gurus saying, “As a philosopher, I can tell you this.” They’re coming in as people of great philosophical training, fully participating in these public debates and listening as much as they are talking.
I think that, to be honest, is what I’d like to see much, much more of. People often say that philosophy has a lot to offer, and I think it’s true. But it has a lot to offer only if it’s participating alongside other people who have a lot to offer; listening as much as talking.
DR: In modern universities, philosophy is most often associated with the humanities. And yet, you’re suggesting that philosophy must invest in stronger dialogue with the empirical sciences. As society transitions into a technological world, is this perhaps a strategy for ensuring philosophy’s relevance for issues like AI and climate change?
JB: In all those issues, if philosophy would like to have an impact, it has to participate. As I said before, it has to engage. So, for example, if you have someone like Luciano Floridi in Britain, who does quite a lot on ethics of information and philosophy of information, he’s actually doing quite a lot with these big companies. He really understands the technical ins and outs of it as much as he does the philosophy of it.
With climate change, my successor at The Philosophers’ Magazine, James Garvey, has been very involved in that. He’s written an academic/public book on it and has actually been involved in some of the inter-governmental discussions and review panels on climate change.
So, I think that’s always going to be the key. Philosophy can’t afford to see itself as kind of sitting above other disciplines, as the queen of the sciences — the self-image it’s had in the past. It’s got to recognize the fact that if it’s going to contribute, it’s got to get down to the ground level and get its hands dirty. And, if it does so, it’s certainly got unique things to contribute.
DR: This leads us to an adjacent problem; philosophy’s seeming lack of progress. Do you think philosophy is making progress? What are your hopes for philosophy’s future?
JB: The question of progress in philosophy is always one which hampers us. I think there are various answers to that. First of all, a lot of the progress is hidden; a lot of things that started off as philosophy have ended up becoming other things. They’ve found their own methods and so have kind of left the home.
I also think that there’s certainly progress in the sense that you can take virtually any issue and we have a much richer understanding of what is at stake; the entailments of taking different positions and so forth. There is progress in simply having a richer understanding of the complexities of the debate, even if there aren’t solutions.
I think, though, that the hope that the so-far elusive progress could come in the future is, in some areas, not right. Take ethics, for example, I really don’t believe that given enough time, everyone is going to converge on the same kind of philosophical theory; that we’ll all turn into either deontologists, utilitarians, or whatever it may be. I think there are certain issues like that where the questions that have remained philosophical rather than becoming scientific are of the nature which resist definitive solution. That’s not pessimistic, because you can nevertheless get a lot more clarity and a lot of the disagreement in practice doesn’t necessarily matter as much as it might matter when we’re trying to be intellectually rigorous in a seminar room.
I think that other problems will possibly not-so-much be solved as dissolved. I hesitate to say anything about the problem of consciousness, because it’s such a big one and people have various views on it, but I think that’s one that’s going to go. In a way, there are going to be things that we’ll never quite understand, but then I know people who’ve done hard sciences who say that there’s a sense in which we don’t really understand very basic things in science. We simply have the laws and we know the regularities, so we say we understand them. But if you want to go deeper and say, “Why does electricity behave the way it does?” all you can do is explain that in terms of other regularities in nature. Why does nature have these regularities at all? Why does it have the properties it does? You can’t answer those.
So, there might be unanswerable questions which philosophy can’t do. But maybe when we get to better understand how the mind works, those questions will begin to dissolve.
DR: You’ve pointed out that “[t]he academic traffic between theism and atheism is virtually non-existent.” You use this as evidence of the limits of philosophy and the Socratic method. In light of this, what do you think is the point of philosophy?
JB: There isn’t a point, actually, but I do think that philosophy has various roles. One role is clarification; seeing things more clearly, understanding them more clearly. It is, also, about the testing and justification of beliefs. For sure.
Another [role] is to help us to live better. For a while, that was rather unfashionable. People didn’t like the idea that philosophy was as practical as that. They thought that was a bit airy-fairy. But, fundamentally, I think that philosophy is about trying to understand and make better and more truthful sense of the world.
Now, the point is that that’s a lovely image, and most people have it. Recognizing that, in fact, people don’t often change their minds about their greatest commitments is not a reason to be completely skeptical about the value of the whole enterprise, but it is important to clip the wings a bit of the philosophers who believe that if you just do your philosophy correctly, you’ll be led to wherever the argument leads you and nothing else about character, history, temperament, etc. is going to get in the way. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to both accept the fact that there’s a lot more going on when we reach our conclusion than the simple following of logic. But that doesn’t mean that we’re just kidding ourselves when we argue. The traffic is almost non-existent, but it isn’t completely non-existent.
DR: As we near the end, the end of today’s interview, that is —
JB: It feels like we’re sometimes nearing the end, under the current regime. It has to be said!
DR: Indeed, that makes the following question all the more pressing! Can you please talk a bit about your current or upcoming work? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
JB: In the autumn, I have a book coming out and it’s going to be called How The World Thinks. What I’ve done is, as a kind of philosophical journalist, I’ve tried to speak to people who are experts in some of the global philosophical traditions; classical ones and also some more oral traditions of philosophy. We’re talking about Chinese, Japanese, Indian philosophy, philosophy of the Islamic world, but also African philosophy, philosophy of aboriginal Australians and of New Zealand Maōri.
The idea is not to provide a comprehensive introduction or overview, which I think is both impossible and possibly uninteresting, but to try and identify some of the key ideas which allow us to see how distinctive traditions have thought differently, but also critically how those differences reflect aspects of culture which are still relevant today. I had an idea which I tested by asking people who knew both the philosophy associated with a certain culture and that culture itself — for example, Chinese philosophers who have lived in China. And, without exception, everyone agreed that to understand the philosophical tradition of the culture was helpful in understanding that culture today.
So, it’s not just that there is a huge set of interesting intellectual resources to be found in global philosophical traditions, it actually also helps us to understand society today. I have loved doing this project, I’m very excited about it! I’m not shy about being evangelical about it because what I discovered (talking to people who know so much more than me) has been so interesting that quite frankly, even if I’ve done a very poor job of writing this up, there’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff that has found its way in. And hopefully, I haven’t done a very poor job writing it up, either!
DR: Well I know one reader who can’t wait to get his hands on a copy! But finally, Dr. Baggini, why did you become a philosopher?
JB: I suppose there are various key stages. I became interested in philosophy because i was interested in big questions. I wanted to understand how to live, what the meaning of life was, etc. etc. That got me into philosophy, but once you get into academic philosophy at a university level, you discover that a lot of it is not like that.
I’ve stayed in philosophy because, towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I found it just really beginning to get interesting. In particular, I wanted to go further into the issue of personal identity. So I got hooked by a very particular problem in philosophy. It’s really that; a fundamental interest in trying to make sense of essentially what I am, what I’m doing here, and in some ways philosophy has helped me with that. Definitely. It hasn’t provided a neat, pat answer. That’s no bad thing.
DR: Dr. Baggini, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you today! Thank you!
JB: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.