Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Running For the Hills

Many people feel uneasy when politicians start to talk about morality. There are good reasons for this.

First, there is the general problem of what we might call “moral leadership”. Since the 17th century, we have recognised that there is more than one way to live a good and happy life. This realisation has made it possible for people of different faiths to live side by side if not in harmony then at least without constant warfare. Since a good life for me might not be the same as a good life for you, it is difficult for you to provide me with guidance on how I ought to live my life. It is still possible, if you are sufficiently wise and sufficiently sensitive to the differences between us, but the possibility of error is enormous.

Now, if Oprah (as a moral leader) decides to offer advice, and gets it wrong, it might make some people (those who follow that advice when it isn’t fitted to them) unhappy for a while. But Oprah cannot force people to follow her advice. She can’t fine them, evict them, or throw them into jail if they do not do as she says. And therein lies the key difference between Oprah and our politicians – she can encourage you to do things which will make you unhappy, but David Cameron can punish you if you refuse.

Even if politicians exhibit restraint in this regard – limiting themselves to making pronouncements rather than introducing punitive measures – there is the question of whether these people are in a position to offer any advice at all. We all know a few people who’ve “got it together”, people who are successful not particularly in the sense of money or career but in the sense that they are consistently happy, engaged and enthusiastic about their lives. These are people, we must feel, who know how to live happy lives, people we would do well to emulate, people whose advice about life would be worth having.

Consider the people you know who have this quality. I am sure you will not count any politicians amongst their number. Coming from a very limited social strata, politicians lack a broad experience of life; they are often deceitful, manipulative, and hungry for power. Their actions frequently reveal them to be rather damaged people. Seldom do we look at them and think “oh, yes, that’s someone I want to be like.”

Such people are really in no position to be offering moral advice from their own experience, even if they limit themselves to offering advice as opposed to imposing it. But the third problem is that when politicians make moral pronouncements, they don’t do so by reference to their own experience; they make the pronouncements that will play well with their core constituency.

This means that the moral judgements politicians make don’t come from a place of a real understanding of how to live any sort of happy life, nor even from their personal and arguably damaged perspective, but instead are designed to appeal to the instincts of the crowd. And not just the crowd, but the most judgemental, extrapunitive, interfering, busybody members of the crowd. The sort of people who would like to tell other people how to live their lives because they are so bloody miserable in their own.

It is an enduring characteristic of people who know how to be happy that they don’t feel the need to judge how others live their lives. It is not to them that the politician’s pronouncements appeal; it is not their wisdom that the politician expresses. Rather, it is the narrow and slightly mean-spirited instinct of the unhappy masses. In an era of social media, where people live out their problems in the public sphere, we have become painfully aware how immature, ill-informed and indeed downright delusional many people are; how unhappy, misguided and generally ill-equipped to deal with life. And it is to this nature that politicians must appeal when they make moral judgements. This is nothing to do with providing moral leadership, rather, it is finding political popularity by championing the fears and prejudices of people holding on to life by their fingernails. We are fortunate, in this country, that we are too cynical to take such things too seriously, because once those fears and prejudices really take hold, things can get very dark indeed.

So if things continue as they are, you may not find me here if you happen to need me. I’m likely to be running for the hills.

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Filed under: Politics

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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