Monday, February 26, 2007

Private health and education: a proposal

Here's a suggestion for getting politicians and civil servants to focus urgently on what the rest of us really value. We should prohibit all members of all governments and all senior civil servants from sending their children to private schools or themselves and their families from using private health care. Perhaps they should be compelled to live in average state-provided housing too - not the usual grace-and-favour mansions!

Monday, February 19, 2007

A little militant atheism wouldn't come amiss

My wife tells me that this one is going to get me a fatwa from the Archbishop of Canterbury, but here goes anyway.

Religion is absurdly privileged in our society. Just the other day the Catholic primate of England (the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor) claimed that Catholic adoption agencies should be exempted from a law requiring agencies to consider gay couples as adoptive parents. The reason he gave was that “The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning”. This was promptly supported by the primates of the church of England.

Of course, they did not really mean it. Or rather, they did not mean that the rights of conscience in general cannot be made subject to legislation. After all, there are plenty of positions held most conscientiously by other members of society that I suspect that the leaders of the Christian church would indeed want to have subjected to legislation. Or do the leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches think that the beliefs of Nazis, racists and others, which are just as sincerely and conscientiously held as their own, should also be given free rein? How about a Nazi adoption agency that refused to allow Jews or blacks to adopt white children?

In fact what they really meant was that religious beliefs should be privileged. Why this should be so apparently goes without saying. But what special merit is there in religious belief? I cannot think of any, though I can think of many reasons for being deeply suspicious of any belief that announces that it is the will of God.

One of the sillier expressions of pro-religious prejudice is the widespread view that religion is the only basis for morality. The opposite is closer to the truth: morality based on (revealed) religion is quite amoral, as it seems to consist of accepting someone else’s morality (i.e., God’s) regardless of whether one actually believes it oneself.

It would be reassuring if all religious people who came up with the morally repulsive notion that we should obey the will of God merely because it is the will of God really meant that one should analyse what we (supposedly) know of that will and its moral implications, decide whether it did indeed provide a valid moral framework, and only if it did, then adopt it as our own. But then it would be our will, not that of God, and if (as becomes evident when comparing the Old and New Testaments) God changes his mind, we would persist with our own beliefs until shown that they were wrong.

But what do we actually get? A series of beliefs of no obvious moral merit, including some fantastically vicious and bloody threats in the Old Testament. Most of it reminds me of Dr Johnson’s famous (but apparently apocryphal) book review – ‘Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good’. Insofar as it is morally acceptable (or even intelligible), it could have been dreamed up by pretty much anyone, and to the extent that it is not, then it is not, and should be ignored or even actively resisted.

And that is the point. There is no reason society as a whole should privilege a system of ideas whose starting pont is outside the universe, and indeed outside all possible knowledge and experience, and then presumes to pronounce on the world at large, even when it is completely ignorant about most of it. There are plenty of ways of responding to people who think like that. One of the most effective is to increase their dose.

Speaking of bodily functions...

What does it tell us about the English that we have no words for bodily functions that are not either coy, childish, clinical or obscene?

I discussed this with my Spanish brother-in-law some years ago, and he literally could not believe that such a language existed. Certainly there is something repressed about English attitudes to the body, but I would have thought we were not much different from other Europeans in that respect.

It may be an interesting measure of whether we are actually finally getting over this perverse attitude if such words start to enter the language. Certainly it is much easier to talk about sex, defecation and all the rest now than when I was a child, but relatively few of the words seem to have changed their register. Perhaps ‘gay’ is a good counter-example, but I can’t think of many others.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

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Only obeying orders

I wish someone would explain to me the moral difference between ‘I was obeying the will of God’ and ‘I was only obeying orders’.

Let me start by assuming that those who favour the view that the world and human beings were created by a divine force are right. Let me also assume that a defining quality of human beings is our capacity for moral responsibility. A cat can slaughter a rat but it is not an immoral action. It would not even be an immoral action if it slaughtered another cat, or a human being. A human being, by contrast, must consider the moral dimension of all its actions, no matter how trivial, because every action potentially has a moral aspect, and we are morally responsible.

One thing we have discovered in the last half-century (starting with the Nuremburg trials of 1946) is that I cannot absolve myself of my moral responsibilities by simply claiming that I was ordered to do this or that by a higher authority. It is still my action, and the only moral effect of my having been ordered to carry it out by someone else is that they are implicated in it too. But their responsibility in no way lessens my own. This is not a zero-sum game in which the more responsibility they have the less I can be blamed.

And that is, as far as I can see, part of the religious message, at least as far as the ‘revealed’ religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are concerned. Obeying God is justification enough, and disobeying God inherently wicked.

But why should I obey the will of God? Or rather, why should I obey it unless I also agree with it? Conversely, if I do not agree with it, am I not a hypocrite? It doesn’t make any difference that it is the will of God – I am still responsible for my own actions, regardless of who put me up to them. How is this different from ‘only obeying orders’?

Indeed, in what sense is obeying the will of God a moral stance of any kind? How can I just follow anyone’s orders without being guilty of abdicating my responsibility to evaluate their merits? But abdication is simply amoral. In fact I’m not sure it’s even that!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Measuring corporate greenness

Nice to see that Wal-Mart are putting more emphasis on environmental issues. Or at least, it may be nice. Who knows what they are really up to? Like any big company, their primary interest is in profit, and anything that deflects them from that goal needs to be corroborated thoroughly before it can be confidently accepted as a socially or environmentally responsible action.

For example, it is perfectly clear that the great bulk of Wal-Mart’s supposedly green initiatives will actually reduce their costs. Cost-cutting has always played a major part in Wal-Mart’s strategy, and although it may benefit the environment is some ways, in others it does not. For example, reducing packaging is often a good thing, but pressurising suppliers to cut prices is not, in itself, good, either for the environment or for society as a whole. But it is undoubtedly good for Wal-Mart’s bottom line.

So how can you tell when a big company is really contributing to improving the environment? From the point of view of individual actions, probably you can’t. Who knows what is in their financial interest, what is done for the sake of marketing their ‘good neighbour’ image, and what is really done for the sake of the environment?

But taking their actions as a whole, I would suggest a sequence of levels of credibility:

  1. They deny either that there is an environmental problem, that they are in any way a cause of that problem, or that they are responsible for doing anything about it.
  2. All those initiatives they are doing ‘for the environment’ are in their own interest anyway, are prioritised according to how much they benefit them financially. In other words, business as usual, re-sprayed green.
  3. Environmental benefits start to appear at the top of their list of initiatives because they are environmental. They are still in the company's own corporate interests, but their environmental impact takes priority over at least short-term financial gain.
  4. They start shouldering the costs of environmental improvement without insisting that this must have a payback for their company. Some things require sacrifice, and this is a sacrifice they are willing to make.
There’s a lot of grey in this sort of approach, but I for one would like to see a simple league table of companies based on something this simple and direct. I would be interested to hear about any company that made it to the highest level without a shareholder revolt and a huge amount of fudging.

If, on the other hand, Wal-Mart and the rest are just trying to build up their green credentials for marketing reasons or to deflect the prospect of regulatory intervention (hardly likely under the current US administration, of course, but who knows what lies around the corner?), then they are not simply manipulating the public. By creating the illusion that the biggest companies in the world – which is also to say, the some of the biggest economic forces – are taking action when they are really nothing but pursue the same agendas that got us where we are today, they are actually making the environmental situation worse.

If, on the other hand, Wal-Mart and the rest are just trying to build up their green credentials for marketing reasons or to deflect the prospect of regulatory intervention (hardly likely under the current US administration, of course, but who knows what lies around the corner?), then they are not simply manipulating the public. By creating the illusion that the biggest companies in the world – which is also to say, the Great Powers of industrial capitalism – are taking action when they are really doing nothing but pursuing the same agendas that got us where we are today, they are actually making the environmental situation worse.

This possibility raises the next question. What should we do about companies that refuse to accept their responsibility for their impact on the environment, for the current environmental crisis and for its remediation? It does not require cynicism to expect that quite a few (most?) companies will be either too laggard or too unable to look beyond their shareholders’ profits to take responsible action.

So what do we do about the socially irresponsible corporation? Exactly the same as we do about the socially irresponsible individual. As with individuals, it would be absurd to expect them to do everything immediately, but those who do nothing – or who actively plan to make the situation worse – invite society’s contempt, anger, and ultimately constraint. If corporations wish to continue to operate within society, they must prove that they are good citizens. If they are not, then that is why we have a political system.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Oil not very slick

Oil companies go out of their way to make themselves seem greedy and irresponsible. Well, maybe not seem greedy and irresponsible - more like prove it.

It’s not as if they are inherently easy to criticise – after all, they may make a lot of mess, but they do it in an industry that a) is inherently messy, and b) makes products (petrol plastics, and so on) we could do without only if we gave up most of the modern world. It’s appalling that Shell’s CO2 emissions exceed those of 150 countries, but it sounds decidedly ‘holier than thou’ to complain about it when there is little evidence that the issue has really been taken to heart by the population as a whole.

So you have to admire their determination to make the worst of a bad job. Here are a few facts reported in today’s Guardian (a leading UK liberal paper):

  • Shell made $25 billion in profits in 2006 – a 21% increase on 2005.
  • They claim “it would be ‘pointless’ to say how much of Shell’s $23 billion capital expenditure is going into renewable energy schemes” (p28-29). CEO Jeroen van der Veer “indicated that the investment in renewables was small, saying it would be ‘throwing money away’ to invest in alternative energy projects that were uncommercial and people could not afford to buy. ‘We have to put more into research and get a value proposition’”
  • Meanwhile, on p.29, a US Government environmental agency has reported that there are still more than 26,ooo gallons of oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster - the worst single pollution incident in history - in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the spillage is shrinking by a neglegible 4% each year. Exxon Mobil's profits last topped $39 billion - the largest of any company, anywhere, ever. According to Exxon Mobil, "there is nothing newsworthy or significant in the report that had not already been addressed... The existence... of oil on two tenths of 1% of the shore of the sound is not a surprise, is not disputed and was fully anticipated". Yes, and the melting of the Greenland icecaps is fully 'anticipated' too, but that doesn't mean you do nothing. I live next to a small town park, and two tenths of 1% of that would be a very big mess indeed. Perhaps the CEO of Exxon Mobil would be happy if someone covered two tenths of 1% of his home with oil. And that's only one Exxon's spills.
  • Meanwhile, the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank) Kenneth P. Green and Stephen F. Hayward “have launched a major project to review and critique the report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be issued in 2007” (AEI Annual Report: 10). The AEI, which has received about $1.6 million from Exxon Mobile, was on the Guardian’s front page for be offering $10,000 to scientists to rubbish the IPPC report, which estimates that it is 90% likely that major climate change is being caused by human actions. Not least the results of oil extraction, refining, distribution and use.

We all need to take action on climate change and the amount of oil we use, and that will almost certainly demand serious sacrifice. But companies that make vast profits out of this process bear an equally vast responsibility. If they want to be left alone, they have to act out that responsibly and invest a great deal more of their almost unimaginably huge profits in research – not just to create “value propositions” but to alter the fundamental balance of human beings and the environment.

Perhaps oil executives everywhere need to be reminded of the words of the American millionaire who said that he did not mind that the American public took 50% of his money in tax, given that he got 100% of his money from them.