Why don’t i agree with you?

December 21, 2010

Interesting post here on the concept of whether politics is merely ‘applied ethics’ or the interplay of a number of more abrasive factors http://badconscience.com/2010/12/14/emas-and-real-politics/:

By necessity politics is about horse-trading between political actors, and the juggling of competing interests. In particular, “competing interests” will relate both to groups who directly support one’s cause or position (e.g. by voting for, or funding, it), as well as those who oppose it but who nonetheless possess power to be reckoned with now and in the future. Achieving any kind of political decision or action means mediating between competing interest groups, to reach compromises that look nothing like what individual groups would have chosen in an ideal world of directly-applying their preferred outcomes.

What makes things even more difficult is that competing groups will at some level not share the same ethical priorities, commitments or beliefs. After all, if they did share (all) such things, we wouldn’t have any politics in the first place – politics being, by definition, the phenomenon of groups who hold different values attempting to triumph over each other (sometimes by force).

Further, individual political actors by necessity each bring personal histories to the negotiating table (or street rally). As a result, whatever individual actors say and demand is refracted through the prism of their past actions, and judged accordingly by other political agents. For example, if Tony Blair tomorrow called for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, other political actors would not interpret this as a simple application of politically-worked out principle, but as a suspicious u-turn out of step with Blair’s previous commitments and actions.

Given these factors – and more – politics is not, and can never be, the simple application of ethical principles. It is inherently about the struggle of irreconciled values, powers and interests, and then of the search for compromise which (in western democracy at least) stops short of dominating violence.

We all disagree on politics, at least on some level – but what influences these disagreements? Depending on how far someone’s views are from mine I may fall back on caricaturing someone’s argument without giving it enough thought – but I hope i am now past the ‘because their tory bastards’ level of analysis. At least when sober.

Nearly all my friends would I suspect agree with some core principles I share and it’s a wonder why that is. We haven’t shared the same upbringing (although we have shared broadly similar social-economic upbringings – except la de da Robs – which is perhaps the most important thing), we’ve grown up in different parts of the country, had different values taught to us and our parents have a wide array of backgrounds and professions. Obviously this is only a very quick outline of what influences our opinions, beliefs and values. The influence on my future self of spending a certain amount of time quickly drinking Becks in Doncaster’s Yates Wine Lodge can only be guessed at…

How then do irreconciled values develop? What do they grow out of? As the article points out, abolishing the EMA grant, (you can add in a variety of things here like the Future Jobs Fund etc) is done in the name of helping the poor and so called ‘progressivism’. I may agree that there are some negative aspects to these programmes but largely I see them as useful and worthwhile – but do the politicians and their supporters who profess getting rid of them as a ‘good’ thing (maybe they don’t look at in these terms) really believe this is so? They must and that’s what interests me: why we have a mutual incomprehension of other’s beliefs and why that incomprehension arises. But as the article goes onto to say:

“Other principles – including (especially) power-considerations and demands of strategy and positioning – trump ethical principle.”

So ethical principle may only be one consideration when deciding on a particular path and perhaps it is naïve to expect ethical principle to be the primary factor. But morals often dominate political debates – this is fair; that is unfair etc etc – and so the expectation is that this the battleground that debates are fought on. Can those other principles be openly discussed or are those no fly zones for general debates? And ultimately is it the skill of a politician to marshal popular moral and ethical sentiment behind his goals of strategy and power?


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