“Are you a priest or a democrat?”
That was the question my English tutor asked me during my very first tutorial at Oxford. Confused, I thought he might be talking about my father, who happened to be a Methodist minister, but instead he was introducing me to a rather useful distinction. It turns out that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe decisions should be made by the best and brightest and those who believe the people should decide for themselves – however misguided they may be – for fear of tyranny or incompetence.
At that stage in my career, with all the arrogance of an ‘Olympian Oxford Man’, I considered myself one of the best and brightest and therefore a ‘priest’, but now, when I think of all the bad decisions made by our politicians, business leaders and others in positions of authority and how powerless I am to influence them, I can’t imagine being anything but a ‘democrat’. It doesn’t stop me moaning, of course, but at least I have the hope that the existing lot might eventually be thrown out and a new lot brought in to clean up the mess.
I used to have many alcohol-fuelled arguments with people about economics, politics and ethics, but I don’t any more. That’s partly because I see the futility of such conversations (and the enormous potential for offence!) and partly because I realise most arguments are caused by a simple difference in values. You can’t prove a ‘should’, as they say, so the chances of convincing people that they’re wrong about what ‘should’ be done are virtually non-existent. My tutor used to say we should be discussing the classical trinity of ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’, but perhaps all three collapse into just one truth. Whether we’re talking about morality, science or aesthetics, we wouldn’t want to say anything that wasn’t true, would we…?!
It’s also a matter of perspective. The classic appeal of the Communist is: “I’ve got nothing. You’ve got something. Let’s share!” He’d be lucky to get half my money, but that doesn’t stop me understanding his point of view. We all have strategies for getting on in life. Some of those are conscious, some unconscious. We are what we are, and a Darwinian would suggest that we’ve reached an equilibrium point with a mixture of angels and devils, heroes and villains, go-getters and scroungers. It’s like the story of the hawks and the doves. Just because hawks are birds of prey and eat doves for breakfast doesn’t mean they’ll dominate the skies, because they need the doves to provide food, and if they ate them all then the hawks would die out, too. That means there’ll always be a balance. The girlfriend of my roommate at Oxford was actually a biological determinist, and she once told me that we didn’t have ‘free will’ at all. It’s just an illusion. How could we possibly make ‘decisions’ when there’s no effect without a cause? We’re simply glorified computers desperately trying to maximise our well-being under an unpredictable bombardment of conflicting drives, both physical and intellectual. As such, our minds can only ever come up with one answer, just as a computer will always ‘decide’ that 2 + 2 = 4. We might get it wrong sometimes, but we’ll always reach what we feel is the ‘best’ conclusion given the information available.
Come to think of it, that worldview makes any discussion of ‘priests’ and ‘democrats’ pointless, because we can’t even choose to be one or the other, but I still believe in freedom – even if it is illusory – and I can still watch from the sidelines, cheering on my fellow democrats!