Author Archives: John Mackinnon

Good (1)

Everything is getting better. Or so the numbers tell us. Such, from quick perusal, seems to be the burden of a number of ‘optimistic’ books that have come out in the last few years by authors like Matt Ridley, Steve Pinker and Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling. And there are some seriously impressive facts optimists can appeal to. Incomes have increased hugely – perhaps by a factor of eight per capita in real terms – over the last two hundred years, and life expectancy at birth has more than doubled. Modern science is a colossal advance on what went before; much modern technology would have been unimaginable until recently; freedom of speech and electoral institutions are more widespread than they were; and there seems to be less physical violence (though the comparison with the simplest human societies is not so clear).

Our age’s zeal for denunciation sometimes seems to be greeted by a corresponding zest for martyrdom. Some optimistic authors like to present themselves as heretics, but the basis of their optimism is the common currency of much of the political and policy establishment and of whole academic disciplines including most mainstream economics and public health. Pessimists may have more prominence in parts of academia, but they have less power (sometimes it seems that’s the way they like it).

When I worked as an economist on poverty reduction, I experienced a number of tensions. One was a nagging sense that the very actions that were effective in reducing poverty might destroy some of what I instinctively liked in the countries I was working in. The modernity we were promoting might come at a cost that was hard to articulate and seemed almost impertinent even to consider given the urgency of people’s material needs. I remember reading D.H Lawrence in Vanuatu, where I was working in the Central Bank, and wondering what he would make of it. Compared with other ‘least developed’ countries, Vanuatu was a relatively fortunate and gentle place, with abundant soil and relatively limited internal conflict, though it did suffer from cyclones and eruptions. But later, working in Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda – in each of which people were suffering from increasing pressure on land, endemic and pandemic disease, and the aftermath or continuation of catastrophic conflict or genocide- these concerns did not altogether leave me.


Ambivalence about progress can take different forms. There may be an anxiety that the goods of modernity are unequally distributed ((true and important) and that the economic systems of modernity, or capitalism in particular, make inequality increase over time (much more complex)). There may be a concern that certain salient populations are doing badly, like much of the bottom half in the US. There is a suspicion that the whole show is going to collapse in due course anyway: a concern currently dominated by global warming, though soil erosion, biodiversity loss and nuclear weapons are also plausible sources of catastrophic risk. And there is a certain instinctive aversion from the optimists’ glibness; maybe the term ‘better’ seems presumptuous in the first place. (Some of these concerns are nicely presented in a recent essay by Jeremy Lenz on Steven Pinker).


My own ambivalence was different. It was that the goods that the modern world delivers are less valuable than we like to think; and that their delivery might come at a greater cost than we had wanted to recognise. It is of some relevance that I have written poetry throughout my life since adolescence: the poet in me could never quite see the world with the same eyes as the economist. Philosophy is for me a way of integration.

One day, after spending some time looking at household expenditure surveys – which are used as the basis for the measurement of poverty in many countries – I found myself drafting a questionnaire which I felt got closer to what I would really like to know about people’s lives, if I was going to be confident that they were getting better. Later, I came to realise that what I was doing was philosophy – a point that initially eluded me despite my undergraduate studies in that discipline. What I was doing, that day when I sketched the questionnaire, was starting to develop an account of the human good.


An account deals with content – what things are good ? A definition deals with meaning – what is it for something to be good ? A definition of a term in ethics fixes a target for the account to aim at. Definitions are not always useful, but in the case of the good they matter a lot, because ‘good’ can mean many different things and this can cause real confusion. So before discussing accounts of the good I need to sketch a definition.

G.E. Moore suggested that ‘good’ could not be defined but that ‘the good’ might be; in my terminology, this amounts to saying that a definition is impossible but an account is possible. Moore’s resistance to definition here depends, I think, on two misconceptions: that a definition needs to take the form of an analysis into simpler concepts: and that such a definition would in practice need to be in terms of ‘naturalistic’ i.e. non-evaluative terms. To serve to identify the target of enquiry, it is not necessary for a definition to be like that. To locate a node in a net by reference to proximate nodes is not to claim differences in status or kind between the identifying and identified nodes.


When we say things are getting better, what do we mean ? Start, perhaps, with the simple exclamation ‘Good !’. We say this when we are glad, or think we should be glad, or want to pretend we are glad, that something has happened. The world, or our friends’ lives, will be better for it. Or start with a simple example: a baby’s smile. Not that we are babies: not that a baby should only ever smile; but that the gladness occasioned by a baby’s smile seems something almost definitive of being human – a basis of values we can share even with people whose convictions and actions appal us. (I discover someone else has used the same exclamation in a different language for different purposes; ‘Good!’, and especially the German’Gut!‘ can also have the meaning that something is settled, and Heidegger suggests this the basis of the meaning of agathos in Plato (Gesamte Ausgabe vol. 34 p.106). Whether or not Heidegger is right about Greek etymology or Plato, that’s not what I have in mind).

To be a little more formal – not, yet, very formal – try this: the good can be roughly defined as what should make us glad that it exists.

Note, here, that I am assuming ‘we’ can observe the world more or less dispassionately. A contemplative stance is woven into this definition: a stance that does not assume any obligation on our part to change the world. For such obligations you need some account of morality, and I don’t want to impose any such account before thinking about the good itself. Some Anglo-Saxon philosophers like to talk about ‘pro attitudes’ in such contexts, a rather ugly coinage better suited to the Ministry of Truth or the management of a football team than to philosophical discussion.

Note also, here, two claims I have not made. I have not claimed to have provided ‘the’ correct definition of the good; what I have offered is merely a rough sketch of one of probably hundreds of concepts that might be developed in the territory staked out by the term ‘good’. All I claim is that it catches something that corresponds with some prevailing usage, that it is worth discussing, and that there is some chance of being more or less right or wrong about it. And I have not claimed to define an evaluative term in non-evaluative terms. Global sceptics about values will be as sceptical about the ‘should’ in my definition as of the ‘good’ I am defining. The work of establishing at least some chance of objectivity – the task of metaethics – lies beyond this essay, though the reference to a baby’s smile may give some clue how I will later seek to address it.


Many philosophers like to distinguish between the moral good and wellbeing, sometimes termed the prudential good. The good, as I have defined it is, not necessarily the same as either of these. One may think that it would be good if people were morally better than they are: or one may think it would be a disaster. (In this case, of course, one may hope that the concept of moral activity falls into disuse or disrepute). One may think that human wellbeing is all that matters: or one may think that it is not as important as most people seem to think.

Colloquial usages differ here. The good of ‘a good person’ is usually moral; that of ‘a good time’ usually prudential’; that of ‘a good life’ depends on context – one can have a good life without living a good life, and vice versa. Confusion here is easy and sometimes acrimonious. The Catholic moral and legal philosopher John Finnis was attacked in a petition for homophobia on the grounds that he had called homosexuality ‘evil’, which suggests a strong attack on the morality of active homosexuals. Now Finnis certainly seems to think (as I do not) that the only good sex is within heterosexual marriage and that all other sex is immoral. But when he uses the term ‘evil’ (in a context where he endorses it) what he does is use it not as an adjective but as a noun, for instance to write about the ‘evil of homosexual conduct’; and this, I think, is a way of saying that homosexual activity is bad for the self or others – and hence to be discouraged, though not prohibited by public policy – rather than that active homosexuals are acting wickedly or are evil people. To describe this as ‘hateful’, as the petition does, seems excessive.

Nor is the good of the exclamation ‘good!’ necessarily attributive, as some philosophers (notably Geach) have thought. We can be pleased about a state of affairs before we know how we would describe or categorise it. Even for something like a work of art, we may think something good primarily not because it satisfies any set of criteria of excellence within its genre but because it changes our sense of what that kind of work can be. ‘Don Quixote’ is not the first European novel; but it is a book which even now can change our sense of what a novel, or even what a book, can be.

Nor, if good does not have to mean ‘good of its kind’, does it have to adopt the point of view of the creature about which it is predicated, as various philosophers including Geach and Korsgaard have argued or asserted. Korsgaard, for instance, uses this property to deny that we can compare the value or importance of people and other animals, since there is no single point of view to be adopted. I am not sure that her usage can do justice to intuitions about the badness of very unequal distributions of wealth (which she discusses here) or the goodness of human diversity. In any case, I prefer to treat such adoption or deference as a substantive (and in my opinion not entirely true) doctrine about the good rather than build it into the definition.


Another distinction here. I have slipped a little too easily from the ‘better’ with which I started to the ‘good’. But the irregular etymological distinctness of the comparative ‘better’ from the absolute ‘good’ in Germanic, Slavic, Latin, Romance and Hellenic languages (I haven’t yet found any parallels outside the Indo-European family), should give us pause. What I’m actually concerned with is mainly the better: and on this there is plenty to say. The absolute good is another matter; praise is essentially less articulate, though no less important, than evaluation. But I shall come back to this in a later essay.


In ‘The sovereignty of good‘, Iris Murdoch came up with a distinction which has been widely used, if rarely attributed to her, in Anglo-Saxon philosophy: a distinction now framed in terms of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ ethical concepts. The meanings of thin ethical concepts are more purely evaluative and float freer of cultural baggage than those of thick ones; they might include ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘just’. Thick concepts, on the other hand, are vividly imbued with description and cultural specificities – ‘chic’, ‘quixotic’, ‘rabid’, ‘unctuous’, ‘decadent’.

It turns out that ‘good’ and similar terms are very tricky; maybe nothing is entirely thin. I heard the French philosopher Catherine Audard, John Rawls’ translator, say (in a talk she gave on Rawls at the Forum for European Philosophy) that when Rawls talks of the priority of the right to the good, she was reduced to writing (in French) of the priority of the just to the good. Ancient Greek agathos is usually translated as ‘good’ and kalos as ‘beautiful’, but no good classicist should be too comfortable with the translation. These days, kalos in modern Greek means ‘good’ and agathos something between ‘good-hearted’ and ‘simple’. One need only imagine the linguistic trajectory that must have been traversed to see that there must have been times when there was no really adequate translation of ‘good’. The Russian for ‘good’ is often khoroshoi, but when one wishes someone a good day one uses dobriy. In Turgenev’s wonderful novel ‘Nest of gentry’, a German composer and music teacher is living in obscure exile. His favourite pupil has betrayed him by showing his work to a male friend who promptly patronises him about it. She asks him, twice, to forgive her. He does so on the second ask, and says ‘Ty – dobraya dyevushka’, for which ‘You are a good girl’ simply won’t do, though goodness knows what does. ‘Kind girl’ or ‘good person’, perhaps, but not quite.


Despite this I am going to claim that every significant ethical thinker has something to say that bears on the content of the good as I have defined it, even though they may not necessarily use the term (or any of its more or less problematic translations), and even though they may oppose the idea of an account.


Aristotle’s ethical enquiry in the Nicomachean Ethics starts out by asking what the overall telos, the point, of human actions is: and, having identified eudaimonia as the most plausible candidate, what eudamionia is. Eudaimonia is often translated ‘happiness’ but recent philosophers have preferred ‘flourishing’, perhaps mistakenly. ‘Happiness’ is wrong in a rather transparent way; ‘flourishing’ has faults that are easier to overlook. Flourishing is something you can do during for a short period, it is something vegetables can do, and as a noun, the word is barely English; its normal use is as a participle or adjective. In Aristotle eudaimonia is a property of a life as a whole which only men who reach adulthood can achieve; and the term is familiar Greek. What it means is that your guardian spirit, your δαιμων (our ‘demon’), is well-disposed. I remember, as a student, being nonplussed by the diversity of candidate answers Aristotle introduces at the start: pleasure (hedone), recognition (time) and excellence (arete). Being used to the Anglo-Saxon distinction of ‘moral’ and ‘prudential’ accounts I had trouble seeing what question Aristotle was asking. And this misunderstanding dogged the whole of early modern philosophy, which turned against Aristotle the philosopher as science turned against Aristotle the scientist. I won’t claim that eudaimonia coincides exactly with my concept of the good; but it is closer than most other philosophers come, and the answers Aristotle comes up are still worth taking seriously. The Aristotelian tradition in ethics loosely encompasses a very wide variety of modern thinkers – among them Marx, Agamben, Ilich, Pieper, Anscombe, Arendt, Nussbaum, Sen,, Brewer, MacIntyre , and Finnis..


Early modern science, which was physical more than biological, largely did away with teleological causation; when this is applied to philosophy, there seems to be no room for such a thing as the telos or point, of a human being. And so the good gets split between happiness and morality. Happiness issues in the utilitarian tradition; morality remains a puzzle in early modern philosophy, and is often treated as obedience to divine fiat, until Smith and Kant (with some help from Hume) developed a more satisfactory characterisation of it (a process traced by Arthur Lovejoy).


Discussions of happiness are extensive in eighteenth-century European and British writing, often in philosophy that is written essayistically or suggestively rather than systematically (and in the French case carefully examined in a little-known book by Robert Mauzi). The most systematic tradition within this world is utilitarianism, which can be traced from Hutcheson and some aspects of Hume through Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick to the axiomatic formalisation of a preferentialist account of wellbeing in neoclassical economics and recent philosophical defences of hedonism by Crisp and Feldman; hedonism of a rather different flavour can be found in Onfray. And the modern discussion of ‘wellbeing’ in Anglo-Saxon philosophy inherits the questions, though not necessarily the answers, of utilitarianism; notable contributors include Griffin, Raz, Darwall, Frankfurt, Haybron (who provides a useful discussion of the terminology), as well as related developments in economics and positive psychology (Seligman, Czikszentmihalyi). Many of these authors deal with wellbeing and either say little about the human good, or identify it with wellbeing, or assume that the human good is some mixture of for instance wellbeing and morality. More importantly, many authors in this tradition seem to me to stop exactly where the questions are getting most interesting; their accounts need to be pushed a little further if they are to illuminate the kinds of dilemma I started with.


When Kant develops his account of morality in ‘Groundwork to the metaphysics of morals’, he starts by saying that only a good will is altogether or unconditionally good (was ohne Einschränkung für gut könnte gehalten werden). However, the good subsequently plays very little part in that book, which is concerned almost entirely with morality. Kant came to see – partly as a result of a challenge posed by a reviewer – that this wasn’t good enough (not enough good, perhaps). In the Critique of Practical Reason he develops the idea that the highest good requires ‘Wohl’, wellbeing as well as morality, although morality takes priority, and suggests that the existence of God may be needed to reconcile the components. This is about as far as Kant as a philosopher is willing to go, because the determinants of Wohl are for Kant an empirical question and hence not the philosopher’s business.

Vestiges of Kant’s view of the good can be found in many authors, but many Kantian philosophers largely ignore his view of the relation of morality to goodness in a broader sense. One who does not is Christine Korsgaard, who sees connections between practical rationality in something like Kant’s sense and the possession of a coherent self, and between ethical self-evaluation and the distinctiveness (not superior value or importance) of humanity. Kant’s view was also explicitly and formally developed as a lexicographic ordering in W.D.Ross’s now unfashionable but interesting ‘The right and the good’.


Utilitarianism, the Aristotelian tradition and Kant provide three of the most organised accounts of the good available in the Anglo-Saxon and European philosophical traditions. In some Anglo-Saxon treatments of the good or more narrowly, of wellbeing, answers are classified under these three heads or even fewer; Crisp’s discussion of wellbeing in the Stanford Encyclopedia gives a reasonable characterisation of the state of Anglo-American academic discussion when he says “It has become standard to distinguish theories of well-being as either hedonist theories, desire theories, or objective list theories”. Since any theory whatsoever might be described as at least partly a list of objectives (though they often have more structure and rationale than the idea of a list suggests), this classification may indeed be comprehensive, but I am not sure it is terribly illuminating even for the idea of wellbeing. In any case, for the good, it is worth compassing a wider range of thinking about the good within Anglo-Saxon and European philosophy as well as outside it.


Plato, for instance, provides a rather messy and detailed exploration of the good (‘αγαθος) in “Philebus” (which, it may or may not be worth noticing, was the subject of Donald Davidson’s doctorate). But anyone inquiring into Plato’s conception of the good can hardly stop there; they need to have a look at least at the accounts of justice in the Republic and love in the Symposium, and they will probably end up reading most of the dialogues. There is a general point here: the fact that I can find the term ‘good’ in any given thinker does not imply that it plays the same role in the structure of their thought as it does in mine, and that role may in come cases have been partially entrusted to other terms (truth in Badiou; creativity in Winnicott; meaning in Wiggins, Wolf and Eagleton; the vie réussie in Luc Ferry).

The work of Iris Murdoch, who was deeply influenced by Plato, sheds some light. Her use of the term ‘good’ seems like an ethical conception in which the goodness of the person comes before, rather than simply being a function of, the rightness of the acts they perform. This is arguably intermediate between my usage and the moral good (and it also suggests ways other than the Kantian by which the ethical may come to feature in an account of the human good).

Nietzsche, as is well known, was concerned to escape the dichotomy between ‘good’, gut and ‘evil’, böse, but he has much more time for that between good and bad, schlecht. In particular, he quite often talks about the ‘natural’ good. But he never settles; even health, he reminds us, may not always be good (Frohliche Wissenschaft 120). Nietzsche’s preference for the epigram was deep and and he would, I think, have resisted any organised account of the good, perhaps even any definition; but he did not think, as I read him, that he could simply do away with, or do without, the concept entirely. In any case, the values scattered through his work provide a variety of starting points for someone who does want to construct an account, and it’s not unreasonable to read his attack on morality as arguing that it is (or is capable of becoming) the enemy of the good. Similar things might be said about a modern Nietzschean like Gilles Deleuze.

Heidegger’s conceptions of ‘resolution’ and ‘authenticity’ are clearly not part of morality (perhaps just as well given the man’s own behaviour). But that is not to say they have nothing to do with the good. It is hard to read Sein und Zeit, if one is interested in accounts of the good, without seeing in these concepts an embryonic potential account of the good or of an aspect of the good. One very simple aspect is that Heidegger suggests, in a way no philosopher in the European tradition had done (though Unamuno had tried) that the good life can only be lived in recognition of one’s mortality: and that the attempt to to evade this recognition is possible but mutilating. And the thinkers who have written in dialogue with Heidegger – Arendt, Sartre, Levinas, Patocka, Karl Rahner and many others – can each be thought of the same way.


Something of the same applies to Buddhist and Chinese traditions. What Buddhism offers is an end to certain kinds of suffering; this privative understanding of the good may well have flowed into the Greek tradition via Pyrrho and Epicurus (as was argued by the German scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, who had a strong European humanist background, and more recently by Beckwith. From my own reading I believe the similarities of the fragments of Pyrrho to Indian texts, combined with the evidence of Diogenes Laertius, is too strong to ignore though I cannot tell whether the links are specifically with Buddhism).

But there is a strong urge within the Buddhist tradition, as with the Chinese Taoist tradition and the synthesis of the two in Zen, to escape evaluation altogether, just as the Mahayana tradition tends to broaden the Theravada tradition’s scepticism about the reality of the self into a broader rejection of absolute conceptual distinctions in general, something seen with particular force in the shattering negatives of the Chinese version of the Heart Sutra:

what appears is no other than void,
void is no other than what appears.
What appears just is void,
void just is what appears.
What is perceived, what is apprehended,
what is willed, what is known:
all just the same.
all method corresponds and is void:
no birth no extinction
no filth no clean
no adding no taking away.
Hence in the void:
not what appears
not what is perceived
not what is apprehended
not what is willed
not what is known
no eye ear nose tongue body mind
no colour sound fragance taste texture method
no border of the eye
no border of the mind either
no unclear mind no end to unclear mind
no age and death either and no end to age and death
no path to extinguish the gathering of distress
no knowing and no getting.

(My translation from the Chinese; for an argument that the Chinese text of this sutra may be the original one see Jan Nattier (PDF link).

Somewhat similarly, in the great Zen master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Zuimonki we find: “To enter into the Buddha Way is to stop discriminating between good and evil and to cast aside the mind that says this is good and that is bad”. (section 2.4, trans. Reiho Masanuga) – though what we have here is not so much radical scepticism about the good as the assertion of its accessibility only through trust in the teachings and practices of a particular tradition.

So one can read Buddhism as both suggesting and subverting aspects of an account of the good. There is in either case every reason for a philosopher of the good to pay attention.


It is possible to read the Jesus of the Gospels as someone obsessed by morality to the exclusion of everything else. Possible, but wrong-headed. His unforgettable response to the protests against extravagance when a woman has tipped a bottle of posh perfume over him , ‘Why trouble ye the woman ? the poor ye have always with you ( Matthew 28 6-13: see also Mark 14 3-9, John 12.1-8)’ might be taken as mere chivalry, but is better seen as an assertion that in some cases love trumps morality. And the emphasis in much understanding of Christianity on compassion – the sharing of suffering – sometimes overlooks that the Gospels also warn against the failure to share joy – ‘We have piped unto you, and you have not danced’ (Matthew 11.17, Luke 7.32).

Christianity, of course, is another matter from the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity and Islam are, I think, distinctive among major religions in the weight they place on a single, eternal divine verdict about the value of a person’s life. And so in Christianity the primacy of salvation, typically through faith, can easily be held to override everything else. It was a major achievement of mediaeval Islamic and Christian thinkers to maintain, sometimes against fierce religious opposition, that thinkers like Aristotle, whose account of the good is at least initially this-worldly, were worth engaging with. And the relation between ‘this-worldly’ evaluation and divine judgment remains something potentially destabilising (both creatively and destructively) in both religions.

Moreover, a thoroughly secular thinker about the good still has to reckon with the theological residue in our everyday concepts. Secular concerns about meaning have some connection with concerns about divine judgment and can also be difficult to assimilate with an account of the good. Attitudes to work in Britain and America, despite Weber’s critics, continue to reflect a Protestant heritage and what may prove to have been a colossal misreading of Genesis (see Ziony Zevit). The centrality of love and joy in the ethical thinking of the Old Testament and its transmission through Christianity continues to influence much of the world. The theoretical and practical work involved in re-shaping such ideas outside a theistic context is substantial.


Conversation about the good, then, has been conducted in many of the most interesting spiritual and philosophical traditions that we have. There is, of course, more to say about whether philosophy should take part in such a conversation at all, whether, if so, it should claim a dominant role, and what distinguishes philosophical contributions from others. But that’s not immediately important here.

One could of course extend the discussion to poetry and psychoanalysis and expand its geographical range; there is philosophical work to be done developing accounts of the good from the traditional values identified in anthropological work throughout the world, whether or not the societies described have themselves developed a philosophical tradition. Thought, after all, is universal, whether or not philosophical disputation is. And it would help my enquiry if I knew more of the evidence – though there are many ways, more or less conscious, in which my views have been shaped by the places I’ve lived in.


But the good remains suspect. People are often shy of writing about the good without scare quotes. A recent example by the author on technology Adam Greenfield is characteristic: “It isn’t particularly helpful to ask whether this new everyday life is “better” or “worse”; I very much doubt we’d have permitted the smartphone to supplant so many other objects and rituals in our lives if we didn’t, on balance, perceive some concrete advantage in doing so”. The second part of this sentence does not (as the semi-colon suggests) justify the claim in the first; there is something more to the rejection of the terminology of ‘good’. What Greenfield expresses so crisply here is very widely held. For many intellectuals, to say something about the good can seem an embarrassment. Why so ?

Several reasons. People suspect that when an account of the good is offered, what one actually gets is a specification – maybe a guide to a specific way of life, rather than a general account. (Better the Talmud, which owns its own specificity, than a shelf of philosophy spuriously claiming generality). The term ‘good’ may be associated with power: it is the vocabulary the powerful use to keep underlings in order. If statements about cultures are mooted, there is a fear that some cultures might be deemed less good than others and their wholesale elimination or subordination thereby justified. It may be assumed that a philosophical account, like a Popperian scientific hypothesis, must be exactly true or is simply false, so that it can be assassinated by a single counterexample; Bernard Williams’ attack on utilitarianism (a doctrine that has indeed often claimed exactitude) is sometimes thought a salutary deterrent to all future ethical theory. It may be suspected that any account of the good will be too objective, peremptorily overriding the quirks of individual subjectivity. It may be thought that the idea of the good implies that there is a single best kind of life, or that every possible life can be ranked against every other. Or: if there were a truth about the good we would have found it by now. Or: the exercise has excessive scope – the good in general can’t be done even if something can be offered for specific kinds of being.


These doubts may relate to the whole idea of the good as such, or to the idea of providing an account of it. The first, I think, is likely to lead to outright scepticism about almost all values. It is very hard to think seriously about freedom, equality or justice without identifying which dimensions of these things are important; and something like the good will be needed to ground what is important. Even Rawls, whose theory of justice asserts the priority of the right to the good, finds himself listing some basic goods that are needed for the construction of his account of justice. If we cannot, on occasion, say ‘Good’, or ‘Sorry’ in the nice Ugandan-English usage which implies sympathy rather than apology (just as Hebrew, for ‘congratulations’, says ‘good fortune’, ‘mazal tov’, or Italian, for sympathy, says ‘mi dispiace’) we really are all at sea.


The objections to the construction of an account of the good are mostly based, I think, on misapprehensions about what such an account must be like. In later essays I will defend the theses I here state programatically. An account of the good, or the better, need not be tied closely to a theory of moral action: it can incorporate subjectivity more subtly than preferentialist utilitarianism: it can and probably must be approximate: because it is approximate, its value will depend on historical context: the interminability of debate, which even a philosopher as historical as MacIntyre seems to see as pathological, may be the right response to the openness of history; no approximation is likely to dominate another, so we will want different accounts for different purposes and for different kinds of being (I am aiming for an account of the human good, with attention to the articles and the adjective): such accounts may use entirely different vocabularies, so there is no privileged technical vocabulary in which an account must be couched: it is therefore not a technical matter in the sense that there is no requirement to master a particular terminology before getting stuck in: it need not imply that there is a single best life or that every pair of lives can be ranked: it need not be individualistic and should not be entirely so if justice is to be done to the value of diversity; and, by the same token, it need not be used to rank different cultures if it is thought that the co-existence of different cultures is a positive good.


None of this, of course, implies that an account of the good is a useful way to organise and guide one’s thoughts about modernity or anything else. Why, then, do I think it is useful ? First, because any thought about modernity involves global changes in people’s lives across a very wide cultural range. It is easy to posit objections to modernity; it is often harder to see how much they matter. For instance, there are books by Schwartz and Salecl suggesting that the expansion of choices which modernity offers, or is thought to offer, may sometimes be harmful. But it’s not so easy to see whether this is a substantial objection to modernity or a little local difficulty that can be addressed with a little sensible nudging. An account of the good can help – at least it has helped me – to see what might be most central. Moreover, it isn’t as if the optimists – disdainful as they often are of philosophy – weren’t already using an implicit account of the good. Anyone who uses economic data on the real value of consumption over time (fundamental to the measurement of poverty and wellbeing in mainstream economics) is implicitly relying on the preferentialist assumptions built into the construction of consumer price indices. Even if all we have is an alternative approximation, by presenting it one at least widens the range of possibilities that may be considered.


Much anti-capitalist critique thinks it can bypass all this. Ever sine Marx, some thinkers on the left have seen no need to specify an alternative to capitalism or to articulate criteria of justice or goodness by which capitalism is found wanting: partly on the grounds that evaluative language is embedded within the social system. The struggle is then conducted by guerilla raids on the prevailing citadel, rather than by establishing an alternative citadel (though, unless I have missed the point of the Long March, even Mao wanted a base). I think this approach is defeatist and at risk of corruption. Defeatist, because the word “good” does not merely belong to our historical moment (even if, debatably, we accept the description of our social order as ‘capitalist’); prevailing accounts can be articulated and challenged and alternatives offered. And at risk of corruption, because the language of principled dissent within an oppositional movement can easily be foreclosed. The virtue of fidelity to the event, which Badiou eloquently articulates, needs qualification by the duty to warn the movement when it has going wrong and even to abandon it when it has manifestly gone bad. Nor is a high-minded pessimism any better; to say capitalism is terrible but anything else would be just as bad is reactionary whatever one’s left-wing credentials.


Go back to the simple distinction Crisp provides between desire-satisfaction and objective-list theories. Really there are two distinctions lurking here: the extent of subjectivity or objectivity in the account, and the difference of method, which is what concerns me here. Utilitarians and Kantians usually aim at a deductive or other a priori method, ever since Mill’s dubious proof by elimination, “the sole evidence that it is possible to prove that anything is desirable, is that people to actually desire it” (‘Utilitarianism’ ch.4). Many objective lists, in contrast, appear to come simply from intuition. But there is another alternative; to start with a rich description of the human condition; and to see if the description suggests any general ideas about the good.

Two traditions immediately suggest themselves: the phenomenological tradition running from Husserl through Heidegger, Arendt, Levinas, Rahner, Patocka and Sartre: and the Aristotelian tradition. One might say that Aristotle’s ethics is itself based in pheneomenology: a phenomenology centred not on consciousness or being but on activity (an idea often neglected in other traditions,with the notable exception of Joseph Raz).


When I started drafting the questionnaire all those years ago, I found myself very quickly gravitating not to what people consume but to what they do and how they feel about it. I found myself sketching a kind of phenomenology, if this is an acceptably lofty term to give to a high-level description of the human condition – a phenomenology based not on consciousness or being but on activity. On this territory, it was inevitable (though it took a chance encounter with a video at the Kennedy centre of a presidential candidate speaking philosophy to the American public – yes, reader, such things once happened) to find my way back to the Aristotelian tradition; a tradition that has the merits of being found both in mediaeval and contemporary thought (after its eclipse during the Enlightenment), thus spanning some of the changes that interest me; of spanning thinkers on left and right, of providing a space in which contemporary political differences might be articulated; and of deriving from the one philosopher whom Kant, Marx and Nietzsche all took seriously. And the account that I shall be developing in subsequent essays owes a good deal to an intense if selective reading of Aristotle.

The ambivalence I had about modernity was partly to do with the way that modernity has changed the ways in which people relate to their own activities, not always for the better. The numbers we have tend not to tell us, partly because statisticians have been less interested in activity than in consumption, and partly because the relation of a person to their activity is not so easy to quantify. (Two people’s consumption bundles can usually be ranked by their value, because people can buy what they choose; but someone may happen to be good at a job that most people like, but they hate, and if we then impute the job a hedonic premium -because most people like doing it – we overestimate this person’s welfare). All this, of course, has parallels in the Marxist critique of capitalism, but there is every reason not to assume, or even to be too quick to conclude, that the problem is simply capitalism. There are wage-slaves in public bureaucracies as well.

(A note on references: I have provided links to authors’ works but there may well be cheaper sources available and almost everything can be found in a library somewhere. In some cases these references are merely introductions to a large corpus of work. At the time of writing this website is not monetised; links are provided for readers’ interest alone.)


Philosophers often distinguish several kinds of possibility: physical, logical, metaphysical. One can think of a kind of possibility as a restriction on the set of possible worlds that the speaker is prepared to consider – the physically possible, for instance, is what is found in some possible worlds that observe the existing laws of physics (a space that appears to be radically expanded by the indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics). I am not a realist about possible worlds, but they provide a handy tool to organise one’s ideas.

Conversation often leaves the species of possibility vague. If I can’t come to dinner, it is not aways necessary for me to say exactly why, and it would be oddly pushy for my host to demand a complete specification of the scope of possible worlds I have taken into account in reaching my judgement. Vagueness can be benign.

But not always. Here I want to investigate the boundary between two important but somewhat vague kinds of possibility: technical and political. I want to suggest that a muddle about this boundary has recently contributed to 60,000 or so deaths – and counting – in my country – and has the potential to cripple some important forms of political action.


People seem slowly to be realising just how badly Britain, and particularly England, has done with COVID-19. There were two imperatives: to prevent deaths from the virus, and to avoid wrecking the economy in the process. Some have argued for strongly prioritising one of these imperatives at the expense of the other, and both views can be defended. What can’t be defended is failing on both counts. To judge from press reports, countries as varied as South Korea, New Zealand, China, Uruguay, Ghana and Senegal have been able to do much better than us on both counts South Korea (with a population over 50 million) has so far had less than 300 COVID-19 attributed deaths; Britain, at least 40,000 – 65,000 if the measure used is excess deaths. And, I am told, South Korea didn’t need a lockdown; they have even kept nightclubs open.

Nor can our performance be excused on the grounds that we had too little information or other preparation to act early enough. British intelligence should have realised the seriousness of the situation at the latest when China closed down Wuhan on the 23rd of January; we knew, or should have known, as much as any other country, except possibly China itself. Maybe we had less materials for testing, more already infected people than South Korea, or a population less familiar with epidemics, by mid-January; but it’s very hard to believe that explains a 100-fold difference in deaths. South Korea has simply been better governed during this crisis, and we need to think why.

The possibility of a second wave doesn’t make much difference to this conclusion. It might make the lockdown retrospectively futile, though I doubt this; it cannot justify the combination of economic risk and health calamity. No massaging of the numbers or the initial conditions in the two countries, or any likely trajectory from here on, will change things much; we are living through one of the most obvious and worst failures of public action since 1945.


A simple timeline here. Doctors in Wuhan began seeing an odd pneumonia in late 2019. WHO was informed of the outbreak on the 31st of December 2019 and of the coronavirus causing it on 9 January 2020. A genome was published on the 10th of January. The Chinese government initially played the outbreak down, but then dramatically shut down Wuhan on the 23rd of January. Even at that stage, human-human transmission had not been oficially confirmed, but scientists were already very concerned. The WHO declared an emergency on the 30th of January and a pandemic on the 16th of March. The British government encouraged handwashing, and required people with symptoms, and people coming from some areas of China and Italy, to isolate, but imposed no major mandatory restrictions on the population a a whole until mid-March. Suspected cases were initially tested, but this was abandoned in early March. SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, dramatically changed its advice on the 16th of March. and Britain entered a lockdown on the 23rd of March from which it is now, in mid-June, tentatively emerging. British deaths from the new coronavirus are among the highest, per capita, in the world.


One story people like to tell here is: this government hates experts: they didn’t listen to the science. I think this is dramatically wrong. The politicians did fail to engage with the scientific advice they were getting in the right way. But such engagement does not simply mean listening to and accepting the advice; it involves scrutiny and interrogation of assumptions, discussion rather than deference. If anything, there was too much deference and too little discussion.


Pandemic policy in Britain was elaborated in documents such as the pandemic flu plan. This document (PDF link to apparently the latest version from 2011), contains the following striking sentences:

“Modern mass global transit also affords opportunities for the virus to be rapidly spread across the world, even before it has been identified. The short incubation period of influenza means that within a relatively short period of time a significant number of cases will appear across the globe. It is likely to take at least four to six months after a novel virus has been identified and isolated for an effective pandemic influenza vaccine to become available from manufacturers..

This means that it almost certainly will not be possible to contain or eradicate a new virus in its country of origin or on arrival in the UK. The expectation must be that the virus will inevitably spread and that any local measures taken to disrupt or reduce the spread are likely to have very limited or partial success at a national level and cannot be relied on as a way to ‘buy time’.” (para 2.11-12)

The strategy proceeds to distinguish various stages of response. In the second, termed ‘ assessment’, people are to be tracked and traced. But that’s not going to last a long time.

“These two stages – Detection and Assessment – together form the initial response. This may be relatively short and the phases may be combined depending on the speed with which the virus spreads, or the severity with which individuals and communities are affected. It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so.” (para 3.13)

The death rate projected from the pandemic under consideration is “up to 210,000 – 315,000 additional deaths, possibly over as little as a 15 week period” (box on page 17).

In addition, the strategy is festooned with expressions of scepticism about all manner of possible preventive interventions. The tone of the whole document is a somewhat Olympian fatalism about the deaths of large numbers of people.

Now this very quick abandonment of containment mirrors very closely what the British government did – and what the successful governments didn’t do – in response to Coronavirus. No doubt there were many other influences on the government’s strategy; but the continuity of thinking between the strategy and the actions taken is too strong to be a coincidence.

Policy towards the coronavirus is steered by a committee of ministers, COBRA, which is advised by a technical scientific committee, SAGE. There was some criticism of the presence of government advisers including the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings on this committee. Recenty, the minutes of SAGE up till May have been published. A reading of these minutes confirms what the pandemic flu strategy suggests. The pandemic flu strategy was used as a basis for planning in the initial stages (28 January, confirmed 11 February). The assumption that containment was impossible appears never to be challenged and perhaps never really discussed in the early stages. The number of prospective deaths was not known, but the analogy with flu and the apparently high case fatality rate made it easy to calculate on the back of an envelope that if the disease was not contained six-figure death tolls were a serious possibility. (I remember becoming aware of this from a newspaper story during February (26 February) and thinking: if someone were planning to let off a nuclear weapon that was going to kill that many people, we would treat it as an emergency). The main focus of discussion appears to have been not to save lives but to reduce the burden on the NHS, which was to be consulted to establish what shape of curve woud be least inconvenient. Only on the 13th of March, as far as I can see, did SAGE even start to discuss the possibility of more than temporary containment.


One response to these similarities is: we planned for the wrong illness. Pandemic flu,. it might be argued, can’t be contained, but it turns out COVID-19 can. I don’t buy this. In purely technical terms, flu appears to be easier to contain than coronavirus. All the estimates I have seen suggest higher numbers for the initial replication rate for coronavirus infection, in a given cultural and socio-economic context, than for flu. Admittedly, seasonality complicates the reponse to flu and the virus may evolve faster, but I have found no clear demonstration that it is medically harder to stop a flu epidemic than a COVID one.

The problem was not the wrong illness. It was that the pandemic flu plan’s Olympian pessimism about the possibility of stopping a flu epidemic was never a purely technical judgment in the first place; it was in part a cultural and political judgment, and turns out to have been a bad one.


‘It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus’, presented in an official strategy, sounds like a technical scientific judgment, though the rather insistent added comment “and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so” gives a clue that economists may have been somewhere near the discussion.

What do we mean when we say that something is a technical judgement ? Roughly this: it is a statement that claims technical epistemic status; that is, it can only be competently assessed first-hand by people who are expert in the relevant technical discipline. Others have to defer to ther experts. And in order to merit deference, the judgement has to command widespread (not necessarily unanimous) consensus among the relevant experts.

When we say something is technically impossible, as with other species of possibility, we imply a constraint on the range of possible worlds under consideration. Roughly, what seems to be envisaged is the non-existence of possible trajectories from the outbreak to its containment in any possible worlds that observe the laws of science as these are understood in the relevant technical disciplines, given the existing state of technology. To assess this first-hand requires knowledge of these disciplines.

What I want to suggest is that the statements I have quoted from the pandemic flu strategy were never technical statements in this sense. Serious reflection would have shown that a combination of social distancing, controls on mobility and test-contact-trace on all symptomatic cases would have some chance in purely technical terms of containing a pandemic of either flu or cortonavirus. The most generous interpretation I can give the statement is something like this: “a pandemic could only be stopped by a draconian and permanent reduction in mobility, social contact and economic activity so large that no government would contemplate it”. (The word ‘draconian’ is actually used on the 13th of February when SAGE discusses limiting transport, implying value judgements that are obviously political). If this is the fairest interpretation, the technicians, or the civil servants, who drafted the 2011 document were second-guessing the politicians and the population rather than giving the whole range of physically possible options; and SAGE effectively went along with it.

Moreover, the assunmption cannot possibly have been adequately tested given its centrality to the plan. In general, SAGE was extremely careful to find evidence for all its major assertions; indeed some potentially important interventions which had strong theoretical basis, like masks, were not promoted because the evidence was weak. But this fundamental asssumption, on which SAGE was working, could not be exhaustively tested because no modern country had implemented anything like the lockdowns that were to spread across the worlds. It’s only now that the lockdowns are being released that we are beginning to test it; and the signs are that it was false.


One way to represent this interpetation in formal terms is this; the costs of containment would outweigh any plausible estimate of the benefits. You then get an interesting paradox: an increase in transmissibility increases both sides of the inequality and it is therefore possible for a more transmissable disease to be more ‘possible’ to stop than a less transmissable one, because the benefits as well as the costs are increased.


Another reaction might be that the 2011 prediction had become true by 2020 because the government had failed to invest in testing facilities, PPE and contact tracing networks. Even if this were true it can hardly have been what the planners had in mind; it would have become an ironically correct prediction of political failure, not a statement of the situation if the government acted as planned. And in any case it is quite likely that a timely reduction of internal and external mobility, social distancing, and trace and contact and isolation on all symptomatic cases- applied as soon as possible after the Wuhan shutdown – would have contained the epidemic even in the absence of testing. We’ll never know, because we didn’t try.


That the flu pandemic strategy and the assumptions that SAGE worked on involved second-guessing the politicians need not itself have been a problem. But the meaning and justification of their assumption was not transparent and the decisions they were assuming turned out not to be the right ones. What SAGE could and should have done, in retrospect, is to communicate both the gravity of the situtation and the actions that might give some chance of containing the epidemic, even if they thought the probability of success was small or the actions were unlikely to be politically acceptable.

One factor is this. People’s ex ante preferences about a disaster often change when the disaster approaches. Cancer patients facing a bad prognosis sometimes accept treatment with little chance of success when they would ex ante have said it is not worthwhile. When the choice set contracts, the ranking of remaining choices can change; this has been familiar in economics since the discovery of Allais’ paradox. Maybe the sheer otherness of a new coronavirus, compared with the familiarity of flu, made people more responsive. The prospect of hundreds of thousands of deaths, combined with a slim chance of stopping the whole thing by timely action, might have concentrated even Boris Johnson’s mind. The politicians needed to understand they had a choice to make.

What we saw instead was a nervous pass-the-parcel between scientists and politicians; the politicians trying to pre-empt debate by insisting they were following the science, the scientists disclaiming any political pretensions. Both sides carry some responsibility; the scientists for not presenting a wide enough range of options: and the politicians for abdicating their responsibility.

Coming to policy decisions usually involves intellectual, not merely technical work – that is, it requires someone to relate the findings of different disciplines rather than working within one. This is even true of the work of SAGE, which involves achieving some sort of consensus between preactitioners of very different disciplines; and some disciplines, such as epidemology, where the practitioners themselves have diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Even more challenging is the task of of relating economic and health effects; even though a cost-benefit analysis might be illuminating (some heroic attempts can be found online) such analyses are rarely conclusive and are often best understood as stimuli to further thought, partly because they involve inherently controversial views about values. Such discussions happened far too late in this case. (SAGE discussed the focus on lives saved or years saved on the 30th of April, long after its most decisive judgements had been made, and (reasonably) never claimed to be able to predict the economic effects of lockdown which would have to be included in a cost-benefit analysis).


A second ambiguity in the statement ‘It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus’ is: which agent is being referred to ? Is this a restriction on the capacities of a policymaker acting in isolation, or on a population that acts as a whole ? Thinking again in terms of possible worlds: the first interpretation restrict the scope to possible worlds in which people other than the policymaker show predictable behaviour and the policymaker alone is free to choose their actions to minimise the epidemic; in the second, we allow this freedom to the population as a whole.

SAGE certainly takes behavioural science seriously. But behavioural science, like neoclassical economics, tends to take the basic motivation of people’s behaviour as essentially given. The idea of experiement rests on this; the behavioural scientist acts, by setting up the experiment, and then hopes that he can identify predictable patterns of behaviour from his subjects’ response. This may be useful for prediction, but if it is the mindset underlying policy it may tend to underestimate the possibility of collective action – of getting the population to share the responsibility for action. Though the SAGE minutes do talk (25 February) about fostering collectivism, there are a number of cases where policy could have involved the population more.

First, Neil Ferguson’s model of the pandemic, which was used to justify lockdown, assumes compliuance ranging from 75% to 50% with social isolation methods measures. Later reports suggests a 50% compliance was actualy achieved but I suspect these data refer to a different concept (perhaps total rather than partial compliance). These numbers might be a little unambitious; it would have been good to do sensitivity analyses with different values of the parameter; an urgent question might then have been how to get this proportion up. (How quickly such analyses can be produced depends on the complexity of the model; there’s something to be said for keeping the model simple enough to allow quick runs with alternative assumptions).

Secondly, data published on the incidence of COVID has been sparse. For most of the lockdown, it has been easy to find news of new cases at the national and I think at the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish levels, but very hard beneath that (it may be available somewhere but it evaded the Google searches I attempted). Hence it has been impossible for most people to know just how intense the epidemic was in their particular area. This has very recently changed. I suspect it is deliberate; the government did not want people making their own judgements about lockdown.

Thirdly, local government has been substantially excluded from decision-taking and poorly informed for the decisions it has had to take. The local environmental health officers, whose local knowledge might have been central to a ‘trace and contact’ approach, seem to have been ignored. The development of the tracing app has been put in the hands of someone known as the former head of an ISP notorious for bad customer service and security breaches. And the apparent inability of Johnson and Cummings to understand the public fury about Cummings’ journey to Durham and his day trip to the rather Freudian destination of Barney Castle is revealing; even if Cummings has more substantial reasons for the Durham journey than has has wanted to say in public, these don’t mitigate the harm to the lockdown.

Now one shouldn’t have expected a Conservative government to be altogether good at understanding popular collective action, which is, after all, much more intimidating to the conservative cause than any virus. But I have found myelf using the word ‘Olympian’ more than once in this piece. Both the Prime Minister and his main adviser have a classical background. It is possible to read the classiccs from top-down, as providing the canonic ideological justification of hierarchy and imperialism, in which those in power are able to identify with the Homeric deities (I am reminded that the house prefects in ‘Another country’ are known as ‘gods’, though I don’t know whether any school actually used this piece of argot). But, at the very start of the Iliad, Homer tells us that when Agamemnon misbhaves the consequence is a plague in which ‘the people died’ , “’ολέκοντο δε’ λαοί” (Iliad 1.10 with typographical constraints). The consequence of Agamemnon’s response is the first strike in Greek literature. Agamemnon, admittedly, can’t match the shamelessness of our leaders; he does, eventually, sort of, apologise. It is possible to read the classics from bottom up.


The semantics of possibility are complicated further by uncertainty. Return to the two grand formulations of pessimism in the flu pandemic strategy: “It almost certainly will not be possible to contain or eradicate a new virus in its country of origin or on arrival in the UK. …..It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so”. Note how the later, and less technical formulation, dispenses with the tedious qualifiers ‘almost certainly’ and ‘expectation’. Such a shift within the same document is a sign of some sort of internal strain.

Interpreting ‘it will almost certainly not be possible’ in terms of possible worlds is actually quite tricky. Try this: what it means is that within the set of possible worlds where a flu pandemic has got started, it is likely that there is no possible world which leads as a result of public action to its containment; however, it also concedes (as the later more brisk formulation does not) that one can’t be absolutely sure ex ante; such a trajectory might exist in some possible world.

What the pandemic flu strategy recommended, and SAGE followed, was to act as if the possibiilty of containment could be dismissed. The possibility is barely discussed in the SAGE minutes until the 13th of March where they say; “SAGE was unanimous that measures sseeking to completely suppress spread of COVID-19 will cause a second peak. SAGE advises that it is a near certainty that countries such as China, where heavy suppression is underway, will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed”. In effect this judgement reiterates the stance SAGE had taken throughout January and February and was about to abandon; the explicit formulation, and the exceptional mention of unanimity, is a sign that SAGE was by now aware of external criticism. But the judgement is sloppy. South Korea, as noted above, achieved containment without lockdown; and it matters a great deal how large the ‘second peak’ is assumed to be. It may well be near-impossible to prevent some subsequent outbreaks, but the signs are that such outbreaks may be locally containable without a return to massive lockdown, if good systems of test, trace and contact are in place. (The disowned idea of herd immunity also seems to be lurking in the verb ’cause’).

We have already seen that the judgement was wrong and less purely technical than it looked. But the further problem was that it involved a very odd and defeatist treatment of risk. What the planners should have recognised is the enormous benefit to achieving containment by a successful trace and contact approach in the early stages; so large that it might be – and in the event was – worth trying to achieve such an outcome even if the odds were (particularly in the absence of stocks of testing materials) stacked against its success.

The idea of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ is variously attributed to Rolland and Gramsci. Gramsci’s formulation relates to his long incarceration and is worth quoting both for its dignity and its Hegelian trope; “it seems to me that in such conditions, prolonged for years, with such psychological experiences, one should have achieved the maximum degreee of Stoic serenity, and have acquired such a deep conviction that man has in himself the source of his own moral forces, that everything depends on him, on his energy, on his will, on the iron coherence of the ends he set himself and the means that he develops to realise them – on never despairing again, on never fallling back into those vulgar and banal states of mind called optimism and pessimism. My state of mind synthesises these two feelings and overcomes them; I am pessimist with the intelligence, but optimist by the will. I think, in every circumstance, about the worse hypothesis, in order to put all the resources of will in movement, and to be up to overcoming the obstacle. I have never made illusions for myself and I have no delusions. I have always particularly armed myself with a limitless patience – not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance”. (Lettere del Carcere, letter of 19 December 1929 to Carlo, probably his brother; my, rather literal, translation).

What SAGE embodied was the pessimism of the intellect untempered by optimism of the will. SAGE spent much time trying to identify a reasonable worst case; it never seriously asked what best case, even if unlikely, might be achievable. What looked like sober realism was lethally costly. And this applies not only to the grand decision not to attempt containment but a whole host of micro-inactions, since such things as face masks and and stopping large gatherings were assumed to be useless unless hard evidence was available that they would work – evidence which, in view of the speed of the epidemic and the number of other factors involved, was always going to be very difficult to produce. (Drugs, of course, are another matter, being more dangerous and easier to test; SAGE was clearly trying to get medical trials up and running as fast as possible). The risk of doing too much, or going too early, was for some reason much more salient in SAGE’s deliberations than the risk of doing too little too late.


Giving advice is difficult and a skill that tends to be learned, or not learned, on the job. The errors I am identifying in SAGE’s conduct are errors that I have seen and may well have made when I worked as an economic consultant; what is unusual is not the errors, but the drastic visibility of their consequences. SAGE’s members are distinguished and industrious people and the references to pastoral support in the SAGE minutes suggest they have been under intense strain. What went wrong is something structural.

SAGE exists, according to its website, to ‘ensure that coordinated, timely scientific and/or technical advice is made availabe to decision makers to suppoirt the cross-govenrment decisions in COBR”. There are two problems lurking here. First, the need for ‘coordination’ can easily encourage groupthink. The fatalism that characterised SAGE’s advice was not universally shared even in Britain, where John Ashton’s angry public denunciations of the the neglect of basic public health practices were one example among many; and it did not reflect the views of WHO or of the East Asian policymakers who knew a bit about coronaviruses. Similarly, Neill Ferguson’s modelling may be very good and has been unfairly attacked, but it isn’t the only view on offer. SAGE is in principle meant to say whether their advice reflects a general technical consensus; but expecting time-stressed advisors facing political resistance to articulate this may be unrealistic. Secondly, ‘advice’ can take very different forms. It might mean recommendations for action given objectives explicitly prescribed by the politicians; it might mean recommendations for action based on SAGE’s own view of the objectives or SAGE’s best guess of the politicians’ priorities; or it might mean the provision of a set of options, with estimates of the likely consequence of each one. Given that many politicians’ priorities may be internally inconsistent, unpredictable, or implicit rather than explciit, the scope for confusion is considerable. And the different approaches would have different implications for the involvement of policymakers or other advisers in SAGE’s deliberations.

Perhaps the greater failure lies on the side of the politicians. The COVID pandmic is inter-sectoral; it needed leadership from the a strong Prime Minister or a strong deputy. Such a person was needed to mediate between the MOH and the Treasury, and also between the technical advice and the formulation of policy. In relation to SAGE, they might have done three things: ask how many people are likely to die (something that had already been very approximately guessed before Neil Fertguson’s full model): ask how the horrifying prospect of a six figure total could be avoided; and – the hardest thing – refused to accept that containment was impossible without seeing the underlying reasoning; reasoning which I have suggested was partly political and might not have survived scrutiny. That takes a politician with brains (which Boris Johnson has), intellectuality and application. Judging from his absence from COBRA duiring the crucial period, Johnson wasn’t interested.


Back to philosophy. Two major lessons emerge. First, the work of relating different disciplines and using technical evidence to formulate strategy requires intellectuals, not merely technicians. Our problem in Britain is that we understand, or think we understand, ‘experts’ such as scholars or technicians – and are willing enough to defer to their expertise – but we have no well-developed concept of the intellectual, who works between discplines and does not claim expertise. I shall have more to say about this in further essays on this blog. Many expert disciplines have much internal dissent; and even when there appears to be internal consensus, it can be wrong, and its status and scope needs illumination by the light cast from outside by intellectuals.

Secondly, statements about possibility are easily misunderstood and often poorly backed by evidence. But they are too important simply to be avoided. Practical ethics arguably gains by categorically ruling out certain actions as unthinkable. Many textbook problens in physics are solved by imposing constraints such as the conservation of energy and momentum on the movement of particles; the development of special relativity depended on Einstein’s gift for seeing which restrictions might most productively be imposed on the the behaviour of bodies moving at very high speeds. It is not that statements of impossibility can be avoided: it is that one needs to be clear about what one is doing in making, or using, them. What is their epistemic status ? – matters of logical proof, like Gödel’s and Arrow’s theorems – basic organising postulates, like the conservation of energy, or contestable and refutable hypotheses within a discipine ? What is the scope of possible worlds the statement quantifies over ? Who is the implied agent ? And: what is the practical cost, in any given situation, of simply assuming their truth rather than trying to prove their falsehood ?

I think that this applies also to political projects. Take a project designed to promote worker ownership. There are several reasons why such a project might be impossible. Its assumptions might violate accounting identities; in this case there is a basic incoherence. It might involve flows of commodities or changes in stocks that can only be sustained for a time; here too there is a problem (see Sraffa for an approach to economics that tries to use just this constraitn but leave behaviour free). It might involve changes in the motivation of the relevant agents. Neoclassical economics tends to encourage the idea that this can’t be done; but a more general and productive use of economic theory might be to make explicit the changes in motivation that would have to happen to make the project succeed, and see them as part of the project. (Somwhere, the great development eonomist Albert Hirschman suggested that the most interesting achievements of development projects often consist of removing the constraints that were impeding their intended objectives). Or it might be consistent with current individual behaviour, but obstructed by politics. It is not that anything is possible; it is that there are different kinds of possibility and you need to be clear about which you mean; and in many cases you will never really know unless you try.

Lexicon: an introduction

When we talk about politics, or life, or art, we have to use words. But two people never use words in quite the same way. Words play games with us; they are too vague, or too precise; they claim technical status without warrant, or abuse well-established technical terms; they make us mistake verbal differences for real ones, and vice versa; they hide metaphors that seduce us into unconscious inferences. Language takes our meaning and deposits it in anunintended place, as if a department store had entrusted the design of its escalators to Escher. (Maybe they have). These confusions can cripple action and destroy friendships. It was ever thus, but each age generates its own misprisions.

On this page I am planning to publish a series of essays on language and values. Most of these essays will be about a single word; how we use it, what problems there are, and how we might use it better. Of course, I have to use other words to write the essay. As the Austrian thinker and reformer Otto Neurath said, one is always repairing the boat when already afloat. Other essays may take a phrase or a general theme in the workings of language. I aim to publish at least one a fortnight.

One name for what I am doing here is ‘philosophy’. This is not a discipline that you need a qualification or training in to practice, though the concepts and patterns that have been developed in various philosophical traditions can help. Languge is intrinsically communist; it belongs to us all and we all make it together. If we remake our language reflectively, in awareness of the traditions of thought that have gone before, we are doing one (not the only) kind of philosophy.

My general take on language: words of the kind I’m going to write about here do not usually denote a single concept, but a field of meaning. No-one has absolute ownership of a bit of language, though sometimes it makes sense to obey the rules of a particular technical discipline. How we should use a word is an ethical question: clarity and precision may matter; etymology and intellectual tradition may help; and it will above all depend on what we want to use the word for. I shall sometimes write about words outside English. Translation, I think, is always a compromise: words in different languages belong to different webs and differ physically even if they denote the same thing.

In some cases, it’s helpful to develop a single concept rather formally and pin a single name to it, as Anglo-Saxon philosophers like to do. I shall sometimes distinguish between (1) foundations – what makes a statement about X true or false ? (2) definitions – what does (or should, or might) the term X mean ? – (3) accounts – what sorts of thing generally are X ? and (4) specifications – what sorts of thing are X here and now ? When I write about the good, I take care to distinguish these, because I have a particular definition and account to defend; but it’s not always useful to be so formal.

My perspective on values might be called liberal, leftist and poetic. Liberal, in that I take ‘negative’ or ‘objective’ freedoms like freedom of speech seriously; leftist, in that I think the world we have is wildly unjust and that the hierarchical structure of capitalism may not be the best bet for the future of humanity; and poetic, in that my belief in the play of language and concepts prevents me subscribing absolutely to any fixed point in language, and that I take the evocative and physical properties of words seriously. Poetry’s physical embodiment is as much an escape from the tyranny of meaning as the expression of meanings.

Intellectual sources include Greek, European and Anglo-Saxon philosophy; Buddhism; psychology and psychoanalysis; economics (which is my professional background); chess; and poetry in a number of languages. At the heart of my approach is a conception of the human good which owes a good deal to Aristotle and will be discussed in the essay (or essays) on ‘good’. Other terms of value (freedom, equality, happiness, …) gain much of their credibility from the light they shed on the good and the ways in which their intelligent use can contribute to its promotion. If freedom and equality are good things it is at least partly because they tend to make life better.

Among the trickiest words in our whole culture is the term ‘expert’. This blog is neither exclusively for specialists nor a work of popularisation; it tries to offer some new ideas, it draws unapologetically on a wide range of traditions, and it is written for the general intellectual. Reader, that means you.

A reading at Waterloo on the 15th of June

I have, for some years, been a member of the Southwark Poetry Stanza, one of a network of local groups under the general umbrella of the Poetry Society. We have run a number of events in the last few years, many of which straddle the arts of poetry and theatre; not always easy, since the voice of many poems is not itself theatrical, but interesting in what it teaches one about the relation between the two arts.

Our current venture is a third successive appearance at the Waterloo festival based at St John’s Church Waterloo. The theme for this year’s festival is Transforming Minds, and we have decided to shape our reading around the theme of music and its relation with poetry. We have, in particular, taken the figure of Ethel Smyth, composer, writer and feminist, and are interspersing a narrative of her life and words with our own poems (and a couple of musical performances). The framework is designed to provide narrative momentum while allowing a very disparate set of poems space to be themselves. One advantage is that the peculiar intensity needed for listening to verse is only demanded of the audience intermittently; I think many people find it very hard to retain concentration when listening to a long uninterrupted stream of poems written for the page, because of the particular density of this kind of writing. In our reading the poems become like arias surrounded by recitative, and I hope emerge stronger for this.

I knew very little about Ethel Smyth until recently and have still heard rather little of her music (though a splendid performance of a piano prelude can be found here), but found myself absorbed by her prose. She didn’t start publishing prose until deafness had made composition difficult for her, and she was a less conscious artist as a prose writer than as a composer, but one of her early teachers thought her literary gifts were greater than her musical ones. Her story takes us through the highbrow intensity of nineteenth-century musical Leipzig (via the most splendidly malicious portrait of Brahms, whom she admired as an artist but not as a man), through an intense involvement with the suffragettes and a connection with the refinement of expatriate Florence, to a very intense late friendship with Virgina Woolf. Ethel was born in 1858, a contemporary of Elgar, and her trajectory is among other things the encounter of a late Victorian with modernism. She was also, despite her Leipziger training, a writer of operas, and hence an appropriate figure to use to think about the relation between poetry, music and theatre.

The event takes place at St John’s Church Waterloo at 7 pm on June 15th and is part of an evening where our performance is followed by a buffet supper and then by a performance of Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil by the excellent Gary Crosby quintet. Tickets are available for the evening as a whole here; we are hoping they will also be available for the reading on its own. The Waterloo festival website is here.

More information about poetry stanzas can be found at the Poetry Society website here; Southwark is listed under London south of the river.