Of course, we can’t lose sight of how deeply serious the situation is

Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, it’s quite a turn-up for the books to see our local politics, usually so dully parochial, make headlines as far away as Italy, Spain and Australialand. Not altogether surprising, though, since the Robinson affair has all the elements of great literature or drama – sex, power, money and religion – all tied together in a story that a fiction editor would dismiss as hopelessly far-fetched. It’s all too easy to picture Iris as a modern-day analogue of Blanche DuBois or Emma Bovary. I just hope Larry Flynt isn’t planning an adaptation…

I know I’ve been saying we need to follow the money – and the unveiling of Ken Campbell as a DUP donor points to further investigation of the party’s cosy relationship with developers – but I want to take a little time here to muse on the moral aspect. Because that’s what’s propelled the story into the headlines, and what’s continuing to stoke public interest, and there are a few interesting questions worth teasing out on those lines.

There are a number of reactions I’ve been getting from my unscientific soundings of opinion. There’s quite a bit of sympathy for Peter as the wronged party, which is worth mentioning in itself as he isn’t the easiest person to warm to by any means. Did he not have his own ethical questions to answer, it would be extremely easy to cast Iris as the Scarlet Woman, the Eve who gave him the dodgy apple. Meanwhile, opinion amongst older women seems to be evenly divided between those who find Iris’ dalliance with a teenager to be a bit icky, and those who are busy planning their outing to the Lock Keeper’s Inn to catch a glimpse of Kirk.

One of the more intriguing views I’ve heard is that Iris is a misunderstood woman. She is obviously, the argument goes, a strong-willed and spirited woman, and a woman of that temperament who found herself married to somebody like Peter or Gregory or Willie was always going to chafe against what was expected of her. Iris, who is nobody’s idea of a meek hausfrau, had grown up in a fundamentalist culture that very much values the idea of the meek hausfrau. Even Eileen Paisley, who is nobody’s idea of meek either, has never had the brashness that typified Iris – Eileen, while a substantial and much-loved DUP figure in her own right, has always been content to let Ian have the spotlight and reputedly felt Iris’ style to be a bit vulgar and pushy.

Now, let’s turn to the issue of morality, because this is interesting from a leftist point of view. Most people in Britain, if they’ve heard of Iris Robinson before now, would have done so in connection with her views on homosexuality, which is perhaps why the lefty and feminist blogs I’ve read have usually taken the nasty bigoted woman comes a cropper lmao approach. Well, schadenfreude is fair enough, but let’s tease this out a little.

Marxism has never really developed much of a theory of ethics – there is a bit of one centred around labour relations, but it doesn’t work very well for matters that aren’t related to the workplace. Marxists don’t believe in the concept of natural law, nor do they believe in utilitarianism, so that leaves a bit of a gaping hole on moral, ethical or cultural issues. So what you actually get with a lot of Anglophone Marxism is an exploitation theory of labour, which doesn’t explain much outside of a very narrow field, a concept of oppression largely taken from the anti-colonial movement, plus a sort of sixties-style Roy Jenkins permissive liberalism. This is where Peter Hitchens gets things wrong, by treating sixties liberalism as an offshoot of Frankfurt School Marxism and therefore part of the great communist conspiracy; it would be more accurate to say that, to a large extent, Marxism has adopted the ideas of radical liberalism. I don’t say this in a condemnatory way, just as a point worth discussing.

So, what would a leftist say about Iris Robinson, leaving the money out of it and concentrating on the sex? There is a sort of default position, the kind of thing Tony Benn always says in these situations, that people’s sexual behaviour isn’t political, and it’s a distraction from the real issues. Therefore, we shouldn’t really be interested, even though we are. And, from a permissive liberal standpoint, it’s hard to argue that she’s done anything wrong.

A thoroughgoing sexual liberationist, or a particularly bold contrarian, might fancy the idea of Iris as a transgressive, potentially emancipatory figure who has challenged fundamentalist sexual mores. There are two problems with this. The one is that, since Iris is a moral conservative, even reactionary, it’s hard to link her to any sort of sexual liberationist discourse. It’s doubly hard given that she is not boldly staking out her position, but is deeply penitent.

Finally, the most consistently used charge is that of hypocrisy – how dare she castigate gays while at the same time being guilty of the sin of adultery? Up to a point, I take it. But there’s a problem here, in that she may indeed be hypocritical, but many of those charging her with hypocrisy are doing so in bad faith. Ian Paisley or Pastor McConnell may fairly charge her with hypocrisy, but if you yourself don’t believe in the sanctity of marriage or the family unit, aren’t you holding her to a standard you don’t believe in?

What I think is worth doing is looking at Iris’ transgression in terms that she, and those around her, would understand. You see, you may not believe in sin, but Iris certainly does – indeed, Pentecostalists are not just about banging tambourines, but have an extremely vivid and dramatic concept of the physical reality of Sin. And if you don’t grasp how these people think, you can’t grasp why they do and say what they do and say. In any case, I take the phenomenalist approach that just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of study.

But, sticking to the sin question, there’s an interesting divergence, theological in origin but filtering through into the culture, between Catholic and Calvinist approaches to sin.[1] Catholic thinking of course holds that there is such a thing as original sin, but one is not permanently in a state of sin. When you’re baptised you become innocent. However, sin being a chronic aspect of the human condition, you’re bound to fall into sin again at regular intervals. The Catholic Church having had nearly two thousand years to turn its hand to socially useful answers to these problems, it’s got the trifecta of confession, penance and absolution.

It’s important to note that this is a social, indeed a public, affair. Theologically speaking, the priest is the intercessor on behalf of God – the honest broker, if you will – but in ecclesiological terms also represents the community of Christ. The process involves confessing your sins to somebody, somebody who can make an assessment of them and respond to you, and it’s theoretically possible – though in practice it’s almost unheard of – for the priest to say no, your sins are so serious that they aren’t forgiven. And penance is important as an outward token of your repentance of your sins.

Calvinism – which is the theoretical framework of Norn Iron fundamentalism – operates a system that is not unlike the Catholic one in its basic concepts though it works out very differently in practice, and again I’d recommend Turgon’s piece for more detail. The departure point is that once you’re saved all your sins are forgiven, but again, you keep falling back into sin and are constantly in need of repenting your sins. But there is no intercessor – the middleman is taken out of the picture in favour of the believer’s personal relationship with God. The Calvinist universe scorns things like the ritual of confession with the same lofty disregard as it scorns incense or icons. If you fall into sin – which can be anything from losing your temper to having an impure thought to committing murder – you have to ask forgiveness directly of God, via the medium of prayer. And, if you sincerely repent, you will be forgiven.

This is the conceptual universe inhabited by Iris Robinson. Having committed the sin of adultery, she has to seek forgiveness of both God and Peter. Since God can see directly into her heart, it’s arguable that Peter would be the tougher proposition. Getting yourself right with the Lord and regaining the trust of those around you are quite different tasks. The fundamentalist’s relationship with God may be a personal one, but that’s not to say there is no social aspect – peer pressure in the fundie community can be both intense and severe, drawing on Calvinism’s steely attitude to sin, and that peer pressure is ultimately the only safeguard against some Jimmy Swaggart type who falls from grace, repents and then falls again six months later.

And this, you see, is where important cultural differences come in. We know of the much-discussed phenomenon of Catholic guilt, and its attendant vices of glibness and hypocrisy. Less discussed is Calvinist guilt, the result of setting yourself an impossibly high moral standard and being directly accountable to the Almighty when you inevitably fail to live up to it, thus leading to an existential crisis. This may explain, and of course I’m generalising wildly here, why the stereotypical Catholic lie is all about evasion and fudging, with at least an attempt at verisimilitude, while the Calvinist lie can be shocking in its blatancy – lying your head off, not least lying to yourself, being a reflex reaction to the existential crisis. That’s why I find it striking that Calvinist ideas, while not irrational in their own terms, and originating in a rationalism critique of baroque Catholicism, can so easily open the door to quite wild irrationalism.

And so (putting on the cod-psychological hat) if you have highly emotional people, brought up in a culture that views sin in such vivid colours, finding themselves having committed quite serious sins and then compounding those sins by covering them up over an extended period – that’s the sort of background that could almost be designed to provoke psychotic episodes.

[1] Here I have to enter the usual caveat about Irish Catholicism, which consists in large part of sub-Calvinist Jansenism with a strong admixture of folk religion, and often has quite a loose connection to orthodox Catholic theology.


  1. January 13, 2010 at 1:53 am

    if you yourself don’t believe in the sanctity of marriage or the family unit, aren’t you holding her to a standard you don’t believe in?

    No, I’m holding her to the standard of “not being a hypocrite”, which I do believe in. If – for example – she were a Muslim preacher who regularly called for the rigorous enforcement of Shari’ah while simultaneously getting drunk every night of the week, I’d have the same attitude even though I have no objection at all to booze.

    On the other hand, your comment that Marxism as we know it doesn’t have a code of ethics and morals is an absolutely vital one, which I am continually in the process of teasing out on my own blog. In a sense, one of the root causes of the bullshit you get over and over again in the sectosphere is precisely because of people using “Marxist”-sounding dogma as a substitute for religion, or even for a whole way of life.

    • battersea said,

      January 13, 2010 at 6:06 am

      ….your comment that Marxism as we know it doesn’t have a code of ethics and morals is an absolutely vital one…

      I’m unclear (in a Scientologistic sense too) as to whether you’re advocating the development of said, “code”. I’ll follow your blog more oft’ though because your point about hypocrisy seems perfectly correct.

      On the reaction to Iris’, “waywardness” it seems to me that it is precisely the collective nature of the ‘Gap Analysis’ that’s being conducted (between “code” and, er, practice) that’s heartening.

      When a tradition falls on its arse so badly that even its staunchest defenders draw direct links between its application and psychopathology there has to be space for Marxists to get busy in?

      What about that, “universal class” stuff the old man wrote of? Surely there’s more to it than cobbling exploitative production relations to Roy Hattersley’s ethics? Empathy, solidarity and resisting Iris’s alien culture for starters?

      • January 13, 2010 at 7:59 pm

        I’m pretty sure that you can’t derive the Meaning of Life or anything but a very rough-and-ready code of ethics from Marxism. I’m interested in what ideas and practices can “fill those gaps” between being a socialist revolutionary and living one’s life here-and-now. If you get the distinction.

  2. prianikoff said,

    January 13, 2010 at 7:11 am

    “….from a permissive liberal standpoint, it’s hard to argue that she’s done anything wrong.”

    From a permissive liberal standpoint it’s hard to argue that *anything’s* wrong, as long as it’s pleasurable. Unfortunately certain forms of behaviour are pleasurable, but self-destructive dead ends. In this case, I don’t see how you can disentangle the questions of misuse of public money and hypocritical morality from the pursuit of pleasure.

    • Daphne said,

      January 13, 2010 at 8:00 pm

      I’m a permissive liberal, and I argue that cheating on your partner is wrong – my personal standard of ethics is very high on not deceiving your loved ones. If Peter had known and was giving her the green light, that’s another story, but I can’t imagine that was happening.

  3. Phil said,

    January 13, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I think there are a few stops on the line between upholding the sanctity of marriage and believing that screwing around over a period of years while lying to one’s long-term partner is just a lifestyle choice. The detail of Iris having an affair with the father & subsequently the son – a son she’d known since he was nine – also strikes me as a bit iffy. If I can’t frame those statements in terms of Marxist ethics, then too bad for Marxist ethics.

  4. harry monro said,

    January 13, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I’m afraid I’d argue that non of the major Protestant chuches in Ireland is Calvinistic, because they have abandoned predestination for notions like the possibility of universal salvation. (I’d be interested if one day you return to do a comparison of St Augustine on predestination v Calvin).
    Instead I think your other formulation, refering to most of them as fundementalist (a theology that emerged in the US in the 19th century) is spot on: and with that caveat another interesting post. I think some groups have infinite amounts of forgiveness, look how often Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis (aka the killer) have “strayed” and “returned”. However many of these groups seem to have a distinctly different theology to women, this is often marked by whether they allow female ministers or not.
    Finally though there is secular culture, and the notion of how ridiculous a cuckold is goes deep in traditional socities.

  5. ejh said,

    January 13, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I don’t think Marxism necessarily needs to have a theory of ethics, unless we’re still in the position of wanting it to try and explain everything, be a totalising theory or what you will. Still, I’m reminded that occasionally I bore people with a story about how I failed to nick a copy of Professor Geras’ Marx and Human Nature when I had the oportunity and I wonder if such a theory can be derived from Marx’s conception of human nature.

    I say so perhaps because my conception of ethics would derive from the idea that we not only have a shared human nature but a shared recognition of that, and that this is what leads us to believe that we have ethical obligations to one another.

  6. January 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    antinomian calvinism (still explicitely practised by some people in wild and remote areas of East Anglia and the Appalachians) provides due to their interpretation of Calvin’s theology another solution: the behaviour of the elected will not endanger their status because they were elected by god at the beginning of time … probably a good solution for the Robinsons

    • ejh said,

      January 13, 2010 at 12:38 pm

      wild and remote areas of East Anglia

      Do you have anywhere in particular in mind?

  7. johng said,

    January 13, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    “we not only have a shared human nature but a shared recognition of that, and that this is what leads us to believe that we have ethical obligations to one another”

    Thats a very bold claim. Surely its the one thing most don’t agree about.

    • ejh said,

      January 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm

      Wy would you say so? We all obviously disagree on the extent of those mutual obligations, but we nearly all agree both on our shared nature as human beings and on the existence of some kinds of mutual obligations derived from that. Moreover, the real point is that we use terms such as “bad”, “good”, selfish”, greedy”, “nice” and so on with some sense that these are meaningful concepts – so that there is, for instance, such a thing as “bad” and that this involves a human being’s treatment of other human beings in a way that deliberately flouts a standard that everybody involved is expected to recognise. Shared humanity creates mutual obligations, and the extent of these is what we discuss when we discuss ethics.

      • battersea said,

        January 13, 2010 at 5:35 pm

        …but we nearly all agree both on our shared nature as human beings and on the existence of some kinds of mutual obligations derived from that…

        I bet Pete wishes that were so!

  8. Dave O said,

    January 13, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Speaking as a product of the Assemblies of God myself, Splintered, I have always been impressed with your grasp of matters theological.

    Might I make so bold as to inquire about what denomination helped you hone those critical faculties?

    • ejh said,

      January 13, 2010 at 4:57 pm

      Whore of Babylon, I imagine

    • NollaigO said,

      January 13, 2010 at 5:36 pm

      Might I make so bold as to inquire about what denomination helped you hone those critical faculties?

      Are you a catholic Marxist or a protestant Marxist?!

  9. moofaeTAE said,

    January 13, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I agree with ejh that marxism isn’t necessarily required to come to any conclusions on morality as it’s not a “theory of everything” as the Soviets wished it to be. I also agree with ejh’s reply to johng. I think the old rule about treating others how you’d like to be treated could at least be a starting point for working such issues out.

    In the case of Iris what I find most appalling was her vicious exploitation of the youth- if indeed the facts we’ve been presented with are factual.

    ‘antinomian calvinism (still explicitely practised by some people in wild and remote areas of East Anglia and the Appalachians) provides due to their interpretation of Calvin’s theology another solution: the behaviour of the elected will not endanger their status because they were elected by god at the beginning of time’

    That’s indeed what I thought Calvinism was all about.

  10. Daphne said,

    January 13, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Can our host or someone else knowledgable please explain what Jansenism is? The Wikipedia article is not helpful.

  11. Garibaldy said,

    January 13, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Yes, I have to admit I’m confused by SS’ use of Jansenism. Surely Irish Catholicism is distinguished by its ultra-montane nature? It’s not for nothing that there is a saying that in Italy that when it comes to the church the Italians make the rules, and the Irish follow them. Unless SS is referring to emotionalism and religion, miracles etc?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm

      I would argue it’s both. The Irish were in at the start of Jansenism, what with the big Irish presence in the monastic communities and theological schools of France and Belgium at the time. But there’s an interesting argument made post-V2 by, amongst others, Balthasar and Ratzinger along the lines of Kantianism and Jansenism being two sides of the one coin – the one a humanism without religion, the other a religion without humanism. The pessimistic Jansenist outlook on human nature coming through in a culture where you follow the precepts of the Church not because you perceive something true or good in them, but out of fear of damnation if you don’t.

      On the predestination thing… I think that’s got around by the concept of you being saved by the grace of God, thus election. But how it gets made compatible with free will is obviously too subtle a point for me to grasp.

      • Garibaldy said,

        January 14, 2010 at 12:16 am

        Interesting point about the Irish presence abroad, although I’m not sure there was (or is) much Jansensism being taught at Maynooth. Which is why I was confused, and remain somewhat sceptical.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        January 14, 2010 at 1:02 am

        I see it as more of a cultural background thing than something that’s formally taught as such. And I do factor in the theological level of the Irish clergy being desperately low. By this point, it’s as much a matter of lay attitude than the Maynooth curriculum.

        Though at the current rate of recruitment, before too long there might not be anyone left at Maynooth…

  12. sonofstan said,

    January 13, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    But there’s an interesting argument made post-V2 by, amongst others, Balthasar and Ratzinger along the lines of Kantianism and Jansenism being two sides of the one coin – the one a humanism without religion, the other a religion without humanism.

    To echo a question from earlier – how do you know this stuff?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 13, 2010 at 11:34 pm

      If you once get a good grounding in Dogmatics, it never quite leaves you.

  13. D_D said,

    January 14, 2010 at 1:21 am

    A very interesting and level headed thread you have begun SS.

    Marx and marxists were from the start at pains to stress their differences with the Utopians, that they were not trying to change the world according to some moral scheme or doctrine, but were realistically working for change that is possible and even scientifically based.

    Of course marxism and Marx are steeped in morality and, often, passionately so. Indignation at what is and zeal for what could be. James Connolly might be a particular reference here, in his excoriations of oppression and exposures of hypocrisy (though his sexual morality was relatively conservative). A Marxist ethics has not been systematically elaborated and I’m not sure if it could be. But there have been beginnings, and, as in much else, Trotsky has ventured out into the extra economic/political territory. The title of his discussion ‘Their Morals and Ours’ (http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/morals/morals.htm ) probably also captures the morality of Marx and marxism: which by implication says ‘we have a different view than the prevailing morality about what is right and wrong, and we think that the prevailing morality is inadequate, ambiguous, self-serving and oppressive’. [By the way Marx and Engels had a few unedifying private chuckles between themselves about gays. On the other hand the life of Engels is an interesting study in sexual freedom and commitment.]

    The classical marxist tradition has little enough to say about personal and sexual morality. Yet, again, there have been beginnings, such as the writings of Alexandra Kollantai. Post ’60s feminism opened up a large critique of Marxism, well worth mining, and the latter’s response was often defensive. For some material see http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/index.htm under ‘Liberation Epistemology’.

    There is a long list of essays on Marxism and Ethics at

    Some Marxist-related thinking, such as Sartrean existentialism, was very focused on personal choices and their consequences. Some of this could well provide a basis for personal ethics. (Though the actual behaviour of Sartre and de Beauvoir might be seen in their recent biographies as straying from the libertarian into the Iris territory of dodgy inappropriateness with minors. (Simone de Beauvoir’s moral treatise was, aptly, entitled ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’. See http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/existentialism/debeauvoir/ambiguity.html )

    Eric Fromm is another less-than-orthodox marxist who brought marxism to meet psychoanalysis and personal life. ‘The Art of Loving’ would not be out of place on the self-development and popular psychology shelves. See http://www.apocatastasis.net/OccultLibrary/Art-of-Loving-Erich-Fromm.html and sorry about the roses. Fromm did not go into the esoteric like Reich who trod a similar path for a while.

    Also under popular philosophy is the masterly, and outrageously titled, ‘The Meaning of Life’ by our very own Terry Eagleton. This deals in meaning in the absence of a given meaning, and therefore also with what we should do. It does what it says on the tin and, I’m going to spoil it by giving the end, comes down to – not 42 – but, dah, dah!!, solidarity or, dare I say it, love.

    Of course sexual politics are not at all unfamiliar to the Irish left, though perhaps even here it’s been a matter of a ‘serious’ battle in cold halls for various legal rights. Several decades have been taken up in the South with the fight for contraception, divorce, gay rights and, still unmet, a woman’s right to choose.

    Radicalism and bohemianism has long explored – often as isolated individuals or groupings – alternatives to marriage, monogamy, the main morality and the nuclear family. Only recently have people, not necessarily left wing, come together in a self conscious ‘movement’ or network calling itself Polyamory. This is opposition to exclusivity and possessiveness, the advocacy of more than one sexual partner, with commitment and love, with the consent of all involved. There is a thriving group and website in Dublin at http://www.meetup.com/Polyamory-Ireland/ . Few on the active left have ever heard of it, or the word ‘polyamory’, and most would probably subscribe to monogamy as the default position. Monogamy is maybe the last taboo, and alternatives to it have longer to go towards social acceptance than gays had before Stonewall.

    Of course exploitation and abuse are by no means confined to conventional relationships. The Iris-Kirk liaison is a case in point. A nasty person from a nasty ideology was doing nasty things. Yet strip away (oops!) the nastiness and there is still a scandal and prurience about aspects of the affair that come from our suburban sharia and popular puritanism: about sex outside marriage, infidelity, a libidinous woman, a libidinous older woman, an older woman with a younger man (rather than the other way round). This story gets its legs (oops!) to a large extent from the aspects that would so easily be considered salacious, tabloid and disgraceful were they to emanate from consenting adults. To that extent Splintered Sunrise has a point about a certain warranted sympathy being absent on the left. But what is sad and sympathetic in the story, including the descent into mental illness and attempted suicide, insofar as, and only insofar as, they are caused by sexual guilt, shame and scapegoating, is unavoidably smothered in the political import of the scandal. It is lost in the consequences of these events for a politically, socially and sexually oppressive social complex. Perhaps even, or especially, the left can in this case be forgiven its gloating glee.

    It sometimes seems odd that there are among the great people on the left some right bollixes, and that there are among the rich and powerful some genuinely nice and decent people. This is just a fact of life, or life as we know it (Captain K!), but it does go to show how the configuration of the world, and the job of changing that, is not all about, or even mainly about, personal behaviour.

    • Daphne said,

      January 14, 2010 at 2:50 am

      Yeah… the thing about polyamory, in my limited but real experience, is the same problem with other small-circle lifestyle options under capitalism like vegetarianism, neo-paganism, punk rock, and revolutionary socialism. Back-stabbing, ego-tripping, internecine feuding, “scene” politics…

  14. prianikoff said,

    January 14, 2010 at 9:43 am

    “…suburban sharia and popular puritanism: about sex outside marriage, infidelity, a libidinous woman, a libidinous older woman, an older woman with a younger man”
    This review of the literature deals with everything apart from the material issues;
    The question of having children – a somewhat important issue when it comes to sexual relationships – and the relationship between sexuality and economics.
    Petit bourgeois academics always try to obscure this, as they’re relatively immune from the economic pressures operating on the working class.

    In this case, had the relationship been long-term, children would have been ruled out for one partner right from the outset.
    Clearly the attraction wasn’t just based on disinterested love.
    So the question of misuse of power and money are inherent to it.

    Most people who claim to be “Polyamorous” tell lies about the extreme emotional conflicts involved in such arrangements.
    Usually it’s one egotistic person making impossible demands on their partner and several other people deeply miserable.
    A woman who’d seen it all once said to me, “it leads to generalised incest”.
    She wasn’t a social theorist, but from a systems point of view, she had a point.

    • Daphne said,

      January 14, 2010 at 8:30 pm

      Your point about incest is an excellent one and one I wish I’d made, but on the other hand you also sound like you’re coming close to naturalising monogamy.

  15. prianikoff said,

    January 15, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    re “…naturalising monogamy”

    Monogamy for life is definitely a practical way to organise society.
    Whether it’s “natural” (or desirable) are seperate questions.

    But “polyamory” without limitations just can’t work, for various reasons;
    For one thing the polyamrous group has to be restricted in order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
    (Hands up anyone prepared to join an unlimited one)

    Secondly, incest avoidance requires some control over the paternity of children and social mechanisms to prevent related children inbreeding.
    Our close relatives in the animal kingdom may have biological mechanisms for doing this.

    But humans improved on these with the development of clan, taboos and prohibited relationships (which require knowledge of genetic relationships within the group)

    I suppose it’s possible that it could all be done using DNA testing and selective contraception these days, but it sounds a little Brave New World to me.

    So while the patriarchal monogamous family may be related to the development of private property, the argument that polyamory or “free love” is the alternative is not the corollary.

    My woman friend came from a small Island where the family had been smashed by slavery. She may have had more wisdom and experience in her view than more privileged people do.

  16. ejh said,

    January 17, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Talking of ethics, I am given to understand that the Venerable Terry Eagleton has a book out on this very topic. Is this so?

    • D_D said,

      January 17, 2010 at 11:35 pm

      Since ‘The Meaning of Life’ Terry Eagleton has published ‘Trouble With Strangers; A Study of Ethics’ (Blackwell, 2008) and ‘Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate’ (Terry Lectures? 2009). ‘The Meaning of Life’ was republished in paperback in 2008 in the A Very Short Introduction series.

  17. johng said,

    January 18, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Sorry ejh just came back to this. I only meant that there seems to be considerable controversy about precisely what our shared human nature consists in (ranging from social darwinism through to communitarian theories. I happen to think some kind of theory of the kind of animal we are is neccessary for ethical thought, but I just thought it was a tall claim to suggest that we have a shared theory of that is a bit of a tall claim. There seem to be as many theories of what human nature is as there are ethical theories.

    • ejh said,

      January 18, 2010 at 7:42 am

      Ah – I got lost about the time you wrote “tall claim” for the second time. Could you have another go?

      (Note – I am not of course saying that people agree on how much our shared human nature matters, merely that we clearly do feel that such a thing exists and that if we did not, ethics would have no basis. Outside, I suppose, the realm of Hobbes, and that’s not ethics as such.)

      • Phil said,

        January 18, 2010 at 7:57 am

        Outside, I suppose, the realm of Hobbes, and that’s not ethics as such.

        Now that‘s a tall claim. In any case, I think Hobbes was working on the basis of a shared human nature – he just had rather more pessimistic ideas about what that meant than socialists tend to have. (Schmitt’s imperialist reading of Hobbes, discussed by Rob here, clearly doesn’t assume a universal human nature – but then, Schmitt was a Nazi.)

      • ejh said,

        January 18, 2010 at 9:33 am

        Not sure what’s so tall about it. Hobbes doesn’t say we should be good to one another because we share our humanity, he says very much the opposite. It’s not about ethics, it’s about not dying early and horribly.

        (By the way, is there some misreading of what I’m saying here, whereby people think I’m saying “people are good”?)

  18. Phil said,

    January 18, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    ejh – not at all (to the last question). I’m saying that Hobbes does ground what he’s saying in beliefs about a shared human nature – it’s just that they’re very pessimistic beliefs.

    • ejh said,

      January 18, 2010 at 7:14 pm

      Yes. but I think Hobbes (Leviathan ,as it happens, is one of the very few books of political theory I’ve actually read cover to cover) isn’t really interpreting human nature in terms of ethics. The question “how should we behave toward one another?” is framed and answered as an exercise in pragmatics, I think – “how can we avoid being killed?” – not in terms of “what, if anything, do we owe to one another?”. Obviously there’s an issue of definitions, but I think Hobbes places himself a little outside, and perhaps in opposition to, what I’d think of as “ethics”.

      Or to compare it with terms of another example with which I’m familiar, think of Plato’s discussion with Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus doesn’t think that ethics exists as a meaningful field at all, and although his reaction to that is different to Hobbes’, I think they’d agree on that.

      I’m saying, I think, that unless we have some concept of altruism and, and a basis for it – some degree of empathy – that’s not entirely composed of blunt self-interest or of fear, then I don’t think we have “ethics” at all, although we might have something called anti-ethics. In which, in their different ways, I’d be inclined to put Thrasymachus, Hobbes and the libertarians.

      • ejh said,

        January 19, 2010 at 1:54 pm

        Incidentally I should really have referred to Socrates’ discussion with Thrasymachus in Plato.

  19. johng said,

    January 19, 2010 at 2:19 am

    Well first of all I was struck by the claim of a shared conception of human nature as opposed to claims about human nature as such. I don’t think we live in a culture where there is such a shared conception (and I don’t believe simply describing those with whom we disagree as lacking a conception of ethics really helps square the circle). Whatever Hobbes position on technical discussions of ethics his radical individualism was to heavily inform subsequent discussion about the problems confronting any modern ethical theory (allied with a tendency to displace the idea of rooting ethics in human nature with rooting ethics in ‘reason’) Discussions of ethics in our culture seem to me to be charecterised by radical disagreement about what it is precisely that we share. Importantly this does’nt mean that I don’t believe there is such a thing as human nature or that any ethical theory ought not to be grounded in it. I just don’t think its possible to charecterise our culture as one where such agreement exists. Thats what I thought was a tall claim (particularly given the endless disputes both about our natures and the apparently irresolvable arguments about ethics which largely constitute it as a discipline).

  20. belle le triste said,

    January 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Surely what EJH is saying is that what we largely all accept or recognise is that there is such a thing as shared human nature: that even though there is unending disgreement over what this consists of, we tacitly agree that we are disagreeing about the nature of something that does exist and will one day be discovered/agreed upon… What we do share is the notion that there is something we share — even though we don’t at all agree what, beyond this, there is to share.

    This doesn’t seem to be at all an odd thing to be claiming! Not least because it’s hard to imagine what conversations would be like with people who really really don’t believe it. (And if EJH is saying this, nothing that johng has posted even slightly counters it..)

    • ejh said,

      January 19, 2010 at 1:59 pm

      Essentially, yes. No-one’s talked of “agreement” as to what out shared human nature is – the point is just that such a thing is the basis of one’s position on ethics (whatever that may be) and even one’s acceptance that something called “ethics” can be spoken of.

      Obviously it’s possible to have a wider definition of ethics which would ask simply “how should we behave?” whch question could of course be answered purely on pragmatic grounds. But I think that ethics seeks to get a better answer than that. Or at least, it asks: is there a better answer, and if so, why?

  21. johng said,

    January 19, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Well if thats all EJH was saying I withdraw the point (although his actual formulation seemed stronger then this). In terms of debates in Ethics though its very unclear (to me at least) that modern discussions proceed with explicit reference to human nature. One reason being prejudices about is/ought and the related naturalistic fallacy (sticks widely used to beat Aristotle’s teleological model). Reason has often stood in for nature in modern debates (think of the veil of ignorence, and similar devices in modern thinking about ethics). As I think I’ve alluded elsewhere I’m a pretty big fan of Macintyre and so perhaps come at these questions in what, from the mainstream, appears a confusing position. His latest Dependent Rational Creatures, seems to me a pretty good discussion about both human nature and what we share with other animals, interesting amongst other things for the potential bridges it builds between potential Marxian arguments and Green ones (even if he is himself an Aristotelian Thomist). There is a very nice lecture he gave in Dublin a few years back which I think is helpful for those contemplating modern arguments in Ethics. Just scroll down for the vid:

  22. johng said,

    January 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Actually the discussion of chess in After Virtue is not only a brilliant exposition of internal and external goods, the relationship of the virtues to practices, and the fraught relationship between practices and the institutions which sustain them in capitalist society, its also one of the best accounts of what society might be otherwise. Perhaps playing chess as you do makes you a candidate for being immensely virtuous and sort of socialist. Or is this a crude misreading?

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