Take up thy Kant and walk


Also spricht Normski:

Grayling underestimates the problems of ignorance and prejudice by writing as if it is only religion and totalizing ideologies such as Marxism that close people’s minds against inquiry, experiment, the critical scrutiny of received ideas, and so on. The situation is much worse than this. He must surely have noticed how, right across the political spectrum, and right across the metaphysical spectrum, people can become dogmatically attached to their viewpoints, unwilling to be persuaded by contrary evidence, inflexible in changing their minds, locked in to certain combinations of belief which they share with their peer group.


The virtues of open intellectual inquiry may not be spread evenly across human populations, but the vices of dogmatism and resistance to a change of mind are to be found far and wide. Hardly anyone is altogether free of them.

Maybe this is just my cynicism talking, but I am instantly reminded of the good professor’s recent line of argumentation on Iraq. Which goes roughly like this: “All right, the Iraq war turned out to be a disaster, and in retrospect supporting it might not have been such a great idea. But I still hold that supporting the war made me, Norm, morally superior to those who predicted from the start that it would be a disaster.” Ain’t dialectics brilliant?

Elsewhere, Norm ruminates on whether Holocaust denial should be criminalised. I actually agree with Norm that it shouldn’t, but I’m not dying about his line of argument:

However, by extending the meaning of harm to cover the propagation of ideas, the dissemination of words, they loosen the principle so that it becomes next to impossible to apply in an objective way, despite their own plea to the contrary. Violence against persons, and therefore against groups of people, is obviously a harm; and direct incitement to violence in situations where this clearly helps to bring on its occurrence may be included in the same category as being a proximate cause. But the further back you go from the criminal act of violence, the more difficult it becomes to establish a clear connection between someone’s speech-act in spreading a belief or idea and the violent harm itself.

This isn’t bad so far. A lot of well-meaning attempts to restrict “hate speech” fall down by moving away from the concept of direct incitement to that of restricting speech that may form the mood music for things we don’t like. Norm could have mentioned, but didn’t, New Labour’s attempted crackdown on “glorifying terrorism”, which was justified under the rubric of “indirect incitement”, a deeply dubious concept. Norm could also have mentioned, but didn’t, Denis MacShame’s current campaign to legally restrict criticism of Israel, on the alleged grounds of combating anti-Semitism.


To criminalize putatively harmful beliefs opens the way to such notions as the defamation of religion.

This will not do, Norm. We expect better from you than arguing from consequences – aren’t you supposed to be the first principles maven? I’m also struck by Norm’s oblique reference to defamatory attacks on religion. Generally, Decents will at this point talk grandiosely about the Enlightenment and Voltaire[1], but I can’t help the cynical side of me thinking of something else. Far be it from me to suggest that Ethics Man might have a base motive, but my mind keeps turning to the enthusiasm of many of Norm’s mates for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia gobbledegook, aka The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Islam. Just look at HP Sauce on an average day. One doesn’t accuse, one merely throws out the suggestion.

[1] Given Decents’ fondness for proclaiming themselves the heirs of the Enlightenment, it’s striking that they never reference Voltaire’s thoughts on the Jews. Some of which were so pithy, the Nazis helpfully compiled them into a single volume.


  1. charliemarks said,

    August 18, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Dialectics or Dianetics?

    “inquiry, experiment, the critical scrutiny of received ideas” – also a totalising ideology.

    So it goes.

  2. ejh said,

    August 19, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Is the good professor saying, by the way, that when he was a Marxist his mind was closed against inquiry, experiment, the critical scrutiny of received ideas, and so on? I only arsk.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      August 19, 2009 at 4:35 pm

      It’s sarky questions like that that force Prof Geras to run a blog with no comments. He’s been twitted often enough to know better.

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